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In an evolving city, pier is a salty sentinel

The Santa Monica landmark has always had a certain flair, and those who visited and worked there refused to see it torn down. As the pier's centennial approaches, there is much to celebrate.

September 08, 2009|Martha Groves

Screen legend Robert Redford has next to nothing in common with bait shop owner John "Yosh" Volaski.

But it's possible they brushed past each other decades ago as they whiled away youthful hours at a place that beguiled them both: the Santa Monica Pier.

On Sept. 9, 1909, crowds swarmed for the first time onto the 1,600-foot-long structure to enjoy band concerts and swimming and boating races, as a flotilla of naval vessels floated offshore. On Wednesday, the pier turns 100, a milestone that will be marked with ceremonies, performances and the first major fireworks show in Santa Monica Bay in more than 18 years.

The celebration has given Redford and Volaski, contemporaries with wildly different life experiences, a chance to reflect on the pier's legacy.

"This pier was magical," said Redford, 73, a Santa Monica native who came full circle when, in his late 30s, he trod the pier's planks with Paul Newman while filming "The Sting."

For Volaski, 69, an avid fisherman, the pier has meant recreation and income.

"This pier has been my life," he said.

Volaski tends shop for 10 or 11 hours a day at Santa Monica Pier Bait & Tackle, the dinky shop under the stairs leading to the Harbor Patrol station. For 20 years, he has dispensed frozen anchovies, squid and mussels to fishermen and postcards, key chains and sodas to tourists at the end of the pier.

Volaski, who sports a bristly gray mustache and a baseball cap, operates the shop with his stepson, Mannie Mendelson, who once won a new pickup truck and a trip to Mexico for reeling in a nearly 45-pound halibut off Marina del Rey.

On the walls above racks of stickers and patches, the shopkeepers display their treasures -- a blowfish, the bill from a sawfish Volaski caught in Costa Rica, tiger shark jaws. Tacked to the slanted ceiling are dozens of currencies, gifts from customers who have journeyed from China, Japan, England, Venezuela, Iceland, Thailand and South Korea.

When he was 5, Volaski said, his mother took him to the pier, put him on the merry-go-round and walked him to the edge, where "guys were pulling all these fish in." After that, the pier was like a magnet. From his home in Venice, he would follow the Red Car tracks to the end and commune with such pier denizens as Buttercup, a woman who used to give him dimes for the trolley.

Volaski dropped out after a semester at Venice High School, preferring to work as a dishwasher at the pier's Port Hole restaurant or for the man who rented rowboats. "I learned more on my own than going to school," he said.

Over the years, Volaski has basked in the sheen of celebrities. In the late 1950s, he watched Lloyd Bridges plunge into the surf for the TV series "Sea Hunt." John Wayne once tipped him $5 after a ride in a shore boat. Pierce Brosnan asked for directions to the aquarium. And he saw Redford in his pin-striped suit playing Johnny Hooker in "The Sting."

Volaski worked for the city for 14 years, doing maintenance on the pier. After the 1983 El Nino storms washed away a third of the structure, he said, he helped rip out and replace every timber in the parking lot.

Watching waves and wind batter the pier "tore my heart out," he said. "To this day I wish it was back to the way it was."

He's lucky it's there at all. By 1973, the pier -- where fishing boat operator Olaf Olsen helped inspire the "Popeye" comic strip and country-swing legend Spade Cooley broadcast live in 1948 from the La Monica Ballroom -- was in severe disrepair. Santa Monica's city manager proposed tearing it down and building an island with a resort hotel.

The making of "The Sting" coincided with "this pivotal moment," as Redford described it in the foreword to historian James Harris' "Santa Monica Pier: A Century on the Last Great Pleasure Pier."

"As we used the inherent historic qualities of the carousel to recreate 1930s Chicago for the movie, we became acutely aware of the importance of the effort to preserve the pier's actual history," Redford wrote. When pier business owners and supporters launched a save-the-pier crusade, Redford proudly signed their petition.

The campaign won over the City Council. But in 1983, before repairs could begin, storms destroyed the western end. The city then formed the Santa Monica Pier Restoration Corp. to oversee redevelopment. Since then, the community has spent more than $60 million to restore and upgrade the property, on top of big investments from the private sector and tenants.

Redford said he now views the pier with a mix of nostalgia and regret.

"The regret has to do with things like the pier that marked Los Angeles as being unique," he said. "Those trademark places, historic places, are being wiped out for questionable development."

The centennial celebration, he added, "signifies that somebody had the power and strength to do the right thing against the tide of development."

--

martha.groves@latimes.com

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