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The Santa Monica Pier: Still Hip at 100

If you live in the Los Angeles area or will be visiting this week, there's a big shindig in Santa Monica on Wednesday evening, September 9, 2009 to celebrate the 100th birthday of the Santa Monica Pier.
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Santa Monica Pier 1949
Photo courtesy of the Santa Monica Pier Restoration Corporation

If you live in the Los Angeles area or will be visiting this week, there's a big shindig in Santa Monica on Wednesday evening, September 9, 2009 to celebrate the 100th birthday of the Santa Monica Pier. Most centenarians begin slowing down in their 90's, but not the Santa Monica Pier. She stays young by both preserving and making history. Heck, she even Tweets. Her Twitter handle is @SantaMonicaPier.

Photo courtesy of the Santa Monica Pier Restoration Corporation

Movie stars Buster Crabbe and Johnny Weissmuller became trained lifeguards at the Pier, and Weissmuller made headlines twice for performing rescues from the Pier.

The Santa Monica Pier harkens back to the past with her historic wooden carousel while embracing the future with Pacific Park's solar-powered Ferris wheel and Heal the Bay's eco-friendly Pier Aquarium. She's one of the few remaining pleasure piers that once dotted the California coastline. The old girl has a rollicking roller coaster and an arcade, and has more film credits than many local actors.

After 16 months of construction, when the Pier opened on September 9, 1919, thousands of people swarmed onto the 1,600-foot-long concrete pier for a day of band concerts and swimming races. In 2009, when a new laptop or cell phone is born every minute, it seems hard to imagine that, in 1919, the biggest novelty of the Santa Monica Pier was simply the experience of walking above the waters of the Pacific Ocean.

The Pier in 1919
Photo courtesy of the Santa Monica Pier Restoration Corporation

The Carousel
Photo by Terry Gardner

Charles Looff, one of the original designers of the Pier, designed and built the Hippodrome in 1916. Created to house the Carousel, the building is a blend of Moorish, Byzantine and California architecture. The City of Santa Monica bought the Hippodrome and Carousel for $100,000 in 1977 and in the 1980's began to restore it. In 1987, the Carousel Building became the City's first National Historic landmark.

The Hippodrome's second floor was originally residential, and the Looffs lived there during the building's construction. Over the years, Hippodrome tenants included artists, poets, activists and actor/comic Paul Sand. He found it quite difficult to sleep late on Saturday mornings once the carousel's Wurlitzer organ began blasting him from slumber with its merry tunes. When environmental and political activist Colleen Creedon lived there in the late '60s and early '70s, it wasn't unusual to see celebrities such as Herb Alpert and Joan Baez climbing the stairs to pay Creedon a visit. After the building was damaged by arson in 1974, residential life above the horses ended. Today, the music of the circling ponies drowns out telephones and keyboards of Santa Monica's Environmental Programs Department and the Pier Restoration Corporation.

The Carousel is one of fewer than 70 merry-go-rounds of its kind that are still operating worldwide, and each horse on the carousel was dismantled, repainted, and restored back in 1980, while its machinery was replaced in 2006.


Photo by Terry Gardner

Many films and TV shows have shot scenes on the Pier and inside the Hippodrome. In 1973, the Carousel became a backdrop for 1930s Chicago in The Sting. During the filming, former Santa Monica resident, Robert Redford, learned the City had slated the Pier for demolition so a high rise resort hotel could be built. The residents of Santa Monica had launched a "Save the Pier" campaign, and Redford signed their Petition to save the Pier.

In the early 1960s, a woman cloaked in an overcoat, sunglasses and a dark wig frequently came to watch the merry-go-round horses, but she never climbed on. One day, carousel operator Jockey Stevens' curiosity got the best of him, and he approached the mysterious stranger to ask why she never rode the horses. When she removed her sunglasses and flashed her pearly whites at him, Stevens realized the horse fan was Marilyn Monroe.

The World's Only Solar-Powered Ferris Wheel

Photo courtesy of the Santa Monica Pier Restoration Corporation

Last year, Pacific Park replaced the World's only solar-powered Ferris wheel with a more energy-efficient 1.5 million dollar wheel.

The 122,000-pound wheel was auctioned off on eBay for $132,400. Half the proceeds were donated to the Special Olympics of Southern California. Grant Humphreys, the 32 year-old real estate developer who bought it plans to incorporate the old Ferris wheel into a mixed use commercial/residential development called "The Waterfront" that Humphreys is developing along the Oklahoma River in Tulsa, Oklahoma.

At nine stories high, the new Pacific Wheel lifts riders more than 130 feet above the Pacific Ocean and lights up the sky with 160,000 energy-efficient LED lights that generate more than 71,000-kilowatt hours of renewable photovoltaic power from sunlight. The wheel's 6,000 plus multi-colored bulbs and 16 special effects combine at night to create a truly spectacular show against the backdrop of the California coastline.


Photo courtesy of the Santa Monica Pier Restoration Corporation

Heal the Bay Santa Monica Pier Aquarium

Photo by Natalie Burdick for Heal the Bay

The Aquarium, located at 1600 Ocean Front Walk (beach level, directly beneath the Santa Monica Pier, just below the Carousel), has been an Aquarium since 1996, when UCLA opened it as the Ocean Discovery Center. In the winter of 2003, UCLA turned it over to Heal the Bay, and it re-opened in June 2003 as Heal the Bay's Santa Monica Pier Aquarium, a marine educational facility. Its mission is to teach people how we can all help conserve, preserve and protect marine life in our oceans, with particular attention to the unique critters in and around the Santa Monica Bay.

Just as the Pier looks to the future, so does the Santa Monica Pier Aquarium, which had an eco makeover in September 2008, to become a certified green business. Its eco-lift included installing more energy efficient, low-mercury fluorescent bulbs and improving the energy efficiency of the animal life support system. The new sandy colored aquarium exhibit bases are comprised of 100% recycled post consumer plastic (like milk jugs and margarine tubs). Featuring plant and animal life from the Santa Monica Bay, popular exhibits include three touch tanks, a shark exhibit and a kelp forest exhibit.

Photo by Terry Gardner

The Aquarium learned the hard way that eco-friendly cork is not the ideal flooring for a saltwater aquarium housing a strong and curious little two spotted octopus. On February 26, 2009, the staff arrived and discovered a one pound two-spotted octopus in the Kid's Corner had flooded the visitor gallery and staff offices with at least 200 gallons of saltwater.

Photo by Heal the Bay

The eco-friendly cork flooring had to be replaced with new flooring of which 50% is recycled material - but no cork. And the little one pound cephalopod (octopus) raised awareness about the Aquarium and the power of a curious critter, even if she only weighs one pound.

Photo by Heal the Bay

The Aquarium is open to the general public and attracts more than 356,000 visitors per year ( Since Heal the Bay began operating the Aquarium, more than 300,000 visitors have been visited during public hours and approximately 92,300 students have been educated during in-house education programs ( Admission is free for children under 13 when accompanied by an adult; for all others admission is $2, with a suggested $5 donation.

The Aquarium is closed most of September including the Pier's birthday on September 9th. But Heal the Bay's Santa Monica Pier Aquarium will be open from 12:30 to 5:00 p.m. on Saturday, September 19, 2009, during Coastal Cleanup Day.

Coastal Cleanup Day (CCD) is an international event in which people from more than 60 countries around the world help clean up beaches. From 9:00 a.m. till noon, over 12,000 volunteers from all over Los Angeles at 70 different locations will help rid our beaches and inland waterways of unsightly and harmful debris. They provide the garbage bags, plastic gloves, etc., you provide the human power. To sign up, visit:

Readers outside Los Angeles can visit: to find a beach or river to help clean up in their town.

The Pier has a long history of environmentalism. Many consider her Popeye's Mom, because the famous cartoon Sailor man was modeled after a retired Norwegian sailor Captain Olaf Olsen, a Pier fishing boat operator. The pipe smoking Olsen was an early environmentalist who led the first campaign to protect marine life in Santa Monica Bay in 1928.

TOMORROW: The Pier Birthday Event Schedule

Photo by Pedro Szekely