“The soul of the pier is founded upon memories. . . the memories of those who enjoyed it before us, and the memories that are still being created today,” Jim Harris quoted the words from a painting of a sunset at the Santa Monica Pier, at his talk to the Palisades Rotary Club at Modo Mio last month.
Harris is the executive director of the Santa Monica Pier Corporation, a position he stepped into in 2021. He has been on the pier in some capacity ever since the Colorado resident had dinner with an old family friend 1989 – and ended up staying.
He has worked as a bartender (Boat House), a restaurant manager, street performer monitor, events manager and now administrator.
In a June 2021 SMDP story (“’New’ Pier executive Director Has Been on the Job for 32 Years”) Harris said, “It’s confusing because the city has their responsibilities here on the Pier, the Pier Corporation has a role and the tenants have certainly had a lot of concerns and want a bigger voice, and understandably so.”
Although Santa Monica City owns the pier, the Santa Monica Pier Corporation, a 501(c)3, founded in 1983 is supposed to assist the City in rehabilitation, reservation development, operation, and management of the Pier, which includes the leases.
Harris said he could imagine the Pier governance transitioning to something like a Business Improvement District that had a strong central figure with authority to oversee the differing aspects of Pier culture. In 2021, the Pier had its budget slashed by more than two-thirds and all Pier-sponsored programs were eliminated.
Perhaps nothing defines Santa Monica City as much as its pier and amusement park. In 1989, there were about two million visitors a year, and that number has now grown to about 14 million a year. There was a lull during the Covid pandemic, but numbers have gradually been increasing again, reaching pre-pandemic levels.
Harris’ enthusiasm for the pier and his job was obvious as he discussed the history.
The original 1,600-foot-long concrete pier was built in 1909 as “a way to move sewage out to sea,” Harris said, noting it was the first concrete pier on the U.S. West Coast. (The practice of dumping sewage was discontinued in the 1920s.)
At one time, the pier was known as the best fishing spot in the Santa Monica Bay, and the giant Black Sea Bass was fished to near extinction.
“Do we want to be known as a sewage pier?” Harris said was the question that people in SM were asking in the early 1900s. When they looked south, they could see the “grand” Venice boardwalk and amusement park.
With help from Charles Looff, a famous carousel carver, who had built the first carousel at Coney Island in 1876, a new wider pier was constructed on the south side of the municipal pier to allow an amusement park.
In 1916, the doors of the Hippodrome opened, and people could ride the carousel—the first amusement ride on the Looff Pleasure Pier. More attractions were added including the Blue Streak Racer roller coaster, a bowling and billiards building and a fun house.
In 1919, the concrete pier dropped two feet because of rust. Over the next two years, the City replaced the concrete piles with creosote-treated wooden piles.
Charles Looff died in 1918 and his son Arthur sold the SM Amusement company in 1924.
About that time, the new La Monica Ballroom “a castle floating over the ocean” was constructed. At its opening in July 1924, more than 50,000 people attended.
When the country fell into a depression in the 1930s, the dances ended and the building became first a convention center, then lifeguard headquarters and for a short period, the city jail.
By the end of World War II the ballroom was revitalized and musical acts such as Desi Arnaz and Spade Cooley played the venue. On August 5, 1948, the television station KTLA broadcast its first live variety show from that location.
The carousel was replaced in 1943, when Venice banker Walter Newcomb purchased the SM Amusement Company’s lease. When the Venice Pier closed, he moved his carousel into the Looff Hippodrome. He died a year later, but his wife Enid ran it for the 26 years.
In the late 1960s, the pier was showing its age and “getting rundown,” Harris said, and “In 1972, City Manager Perry Scott went to the City Council with a plan to replace the Pier with a bridge to a proposed manmade resort island.” That plan was defeated.
But “the City Council voted to get rid of the Pier,” Harris said. “The community fought it and tried to get the City Council to change its vote.
“Three city council members were up for re-election that spring,” Harris said, noting that residents vowed they would not be reelected. Even though the City Council rescinded their decision, those three were voted out.
“Not a single person who voted to get rid of the Pier ever got reelected,” Harris said, noting that in 1975 voters passed Proposition 1, an initiative which preserves the Pier forever.
In 1987, the Hippodrome was named a National Historic Landmark. Two years later the building was restored and the Carousel was rebuilt inside it. In 1996, Pacific Park opened as a full-scale family amusement park.
Harris has also written “Santa Monica Pier: A Century on the Last Great Pleasure Pier,” “An Illegal Start” the first-ever theater in the merry-go-round, a stage play “Save the Pier!” which will be produced October 20-23 and a children’s book “Stella Rose and the Sea Dragon” with his daughter
The pier is open daily from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. with the historic merry-go-round open Monday and Thursday through Sunday from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Fishing is allowed on the Santa Monica Pier. The Heal the Bay Aquarium is open Thursday through Sunday from noon to 4 p.m.
The 2nd Annual Santa Monica Classic Car Show on the Santa Monica Pier will be held on September 10 from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. The event is free and will features more than 200 classic cars, some dating back to the 1930’s.