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L.A. THEN AND NOW

Santa Monica's pier and carousel: a long and circular tale

The Looff Hippodrome and its merry-go-round on the city's pleasure pier have been popular since they opened in 1916.

July 26, 2009|Veronique de Turenne

At the city's outer edge, on the rough-hewn pier that sways with the swell and gives up the bitter tang of creosote on a hot summer's day, sits the Santa Monica carousel.

It's a horse race without end. Forty-four hand-carved animals rise and fall and whirl around to the sound of an automated band organ. Moms hold babies. Lovers hold hands. Grandparents watch from the floor.

It's been that way since June 1916, when the Looff Hippodrome first opened its doors to rave reviews during what historians agree was the golden age of carousels.

"It was instantly popular and became an important part of the city," said Jim Harris, historian for the Santa Monica Pier Restoration Corp.

"In those days, there was none of this," he said, speaking louder as traffic and a hovering helicopter drowned his words. "In those days, the sound of the band organ could be heard all the way in downtown Santa Monica."

In many ways, the story of the carousel and the Santa Monica Pier is the story of the city.

In 1909, when Santa Monica was growing, a municipal pier was built to send treated sewage into the ocean, beyond the bathing beaches. In 1916, a pleasure pier, one of at least six along the Southern California coast, was built.

Charles Looff, an amusement park entrepreneur of national renown, had bought the property from a pair of Santa Monica landowners in 1915. He decided to build the pleasure pier and soon persuaded the city to connect it to the municipal structure, forever tying the two together.

On one side, fishermen tended to their boats and unloaded their catches. On the other, the general public strolled and dined and danced and lined up for the thrill of rides like the roller coaster.

"In many ways, it was the heart of the city," said Harris, whose book "Santa Monica Pier: A Century of the Last Great Pleasure Pier" (Angel City Press, 2009) details the structure's history.

For countless visitors, the heart of the pier has been the carousel building. Built in a melange of styles -- a Byzantine arch here, a Moorish window there, Spanish Colonial turrets at the corners -- the Looff Hippodrome housed the carousel on the ground floor. On the second floor, built around the central atrium, a series of apartments were available for rent.

"It was its own neighborhood above the ocean," Harris said.

While pleasure seekers rode the intricately carved and richly painted ponies below, artists and actors and assorted characters lived above. Colleen Creedon, a longtime political activist who rented an apartment above the pier during the 1950s and again in the 1970s, recalled a relaxed and Bohemian lifestyle.

"There was always something to see, always something to do," Creedon said. "We would have to sneak our friends past the landlord, and we'd throw fundraisers at the carousel."

Neighbors included actor Paul Sand, who lived in an apartment across the way, and writer William Saroyan, who rented a small office. Guests and honorees included activists Cesar Chavez and Daniel Ellsberg.

Creedon's good friend Joan Baez spent so much time in the apartment that she often told friends she felt as though she lived there.

Hollywood found its way to the carousel early and often. Numerous movies and TV shows were filmed in the iconic building, and celebrities visited often.

It's been the site of Stevie Wonder's granddaughter's birthday parties and Don Cheadle's morning walks.

For a stretch of weeks in the early 1960s, a young woman swathed in an overcoat and wearing dark glasses would sit for hours and watch the horses spin around. Jockey Stevens, the carousel operator, reportedly approached the woman and suggested she was young enough to find a good job. The woman swept aside her dark wig and dark glasses and revealed the face of Marilyn Monroe, effectively ending that discussion.

Perhaps the best-known film shot at the carousel is "The Sting" in 1973. Actors Robert Redford and Paul Newman fell in love with the place. Later in the decade, when the pier fell on hard times and was slated for destruction, the stars joined an impassioned group of preservationists in fighting City Hall.

Council members who voted in favor of destroying the pier found themselves ousted from office. Soon, the city of Santa Monica was in the business of restoring the pier.

Today, despite a series of storms during the devastating El Nino of 1983 that washed away a portion of the structure, the Santa Monica Pier -- and the carousel above it -- are safe.

The hippodrome has been on the National Register of Historic Places since 1987. The 1922 carousel housed within it -- the third installed on the site -- is itself a museum piece.

"People love the carousel," said Adriana Roth, who, with her husband, Ed, restores and repairs the carousel. "They have their favorite horses and places to sit."

The Roths, who build and maintain wooden facades for Disney and other clients, have added a "guest animal" to the carousel. Recently it was a rabbit. Next comes a dinosaur, a triceratops. Though a newly constructed, unpainted horse is part of the circling herd, it's there as a learning tool, to show visitors how the carousel animals are carved. Out of respect to the original horses, a new equine will never be added.

"Every day you'll see someone bringing a child here and see them telling the story of when they first rode the carousel," Roth said. "It's a rite of passage."

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Veronique de Turenne can be reached at hereinmalibu @gmail.com.

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