The Santa Monica Pier is one of the most popular tourist destinations in Southern California, and when visitors first cross Ocean Avenue onto the pier, they’re greeted with the tinkling sounds of carousel music.
This Sunday, June 12 there’ll be a celebration to mark 100 years since the opening of the Merry-Go-Round Building, officially named the Looff Hippodrome. DnA caught up with Jim Harris, a historian and long-time employee at the pier.
“In 1989 I took a job as a bartender at the old Boathouse Restaurant on the pier. And I have been here ever since,” Harris told us. “Back then we saw maybe two million visitors per year coming to the pier. And the bulk of that was was people who were using the pier to get to the beach. There wasn’t much to see on the pier. It had been torn down by storms. There were a couple of restaurants and an arcade. And today we have about seven million visitors per year. And I have been here to see all of that change and be a part of it. It’s just been a wonderful, wonderful way to spend half my life now.”
DnA spoke to Harris in his office, which is on the second floor of the Looff Hippodrome.
Jim Harris: It’s named after the man who built it. Charles I.D. Looff. Charles Looff was the man who carved the first two carousels at Coney Island and then became an amusement park entrepreneur. And this was the last amusement park that he built was here on the Santa Monica Pier back in 1916 and ’17.
DnA: Tell us some of the features if you will. What are its distinctive characteristics?
JH: Well, the building has a very unique look to it. It has a little bit of Byzantine, a little bit of Moorish, little bit of California style to it. It’s actually very typical of the place and the day. Along the coast, here along the Santa Monica Bay, there were a lot of buildings that combined styles like that. And it gave the area a very festive and yet distinct look. And this is the last building that really represents that in the Santa Monica Bay.
DnA: Take us back to the year this opened. Who would have been coming to the pier?
JH: Well, they say that when they opened up all the doors and they turned on the band organ, which was very loud, people could hear it in downtown Santa Monica and it immediately drew people from downtown Santa Monica, knowing that the carousel was finally open on June 12th, 1916. When the machine stopped running you could go sit on a horse and then the person would come around with a change belt and collect your nickel to ride it… The beach life in general on the weekends was a very popular place for everyone, all of the Los Angeles area, to go to the beach because it is Los Angeles’s beach, and Santa Monica was the most accessible and because the train was coming right here, which is a reason that Charles Looff chose to build his amusement park here anyway, because the Red Line ended right here where the Santa Monica Pier is today. There was also a shuttle going up and down the beach. It was a very accessible and very very popular place at the time.
DnA: So that brings us to right now and we’ve just had the opening of the Expo Line extension and the Esplanade, the Colorado Esplanade, also just opened. Are we coming full circle in a way?
JH: It seems like it, doesn’t it. And how appropriate for a merry go around which is always going on in a circle, correct?
DnA: Yes, indeed. Now let’s go back to a different era of this building which was the 1960s, 1970s, when, let’s just say it had a colorful interior life.
JH: Well it certainly did, both downstairs and upstairs, and I think that you’re probably alluding to the apartment life upstairs. And there was a rumor that Joan Baez was living here. She didn’t but she crashed here a lot. She was visiting one of her best friends who was a women’s activist and they tell these rich stories of the parties that were always thrown in that particular apartment. Also Tom Runyon, who was a writer and a cowboy actor, he lived here for a while. Paul Sand, Tony Award-winning actor, lived here for a year during that time. This was not a high rent district but it was certainly a very interesting place to live with very unique and colorful people. W.C. Fields would come down a lot to visit a friend of his that lived here. Charles Bukowski actually wrote a few poems about the pier and one in particular called “Save the Pier.” It was about a party here in the Merry-Go-Round Building. Jane Fonda, she and Tom Hayden were around, they were a big part of the Save the Pier movement.
Turns out Jim Harris wrote a play about the 1973 movement to save the pier. The public rallied together after the City Council voted to tear it down with plans to build an island with a luxury hotel. The pier was saved. That same year it was used as a location in the hit movie The Sting.
The building filled in for a carousel building in Depression-era Chicago. And not only was the carousel used in the exterior of the building but the apartments upstairs, in fact in the room next to us is where they actually hatched the whole scheme for The Sting to get back at the gambler that they had targeted in that movie. And they’re playing cards and Robert Redford standing on the side and they’re all coming up with ideas of how they’re going to exact their revenge.
Dennis Hopper’s first starring role was in a movie called Night Tide. And probably a third of that movie was shot here on the pier. It’s very interesting, it’s a late film noir film, not many people have really seen it. It was filmed in 1960. Prior to that he had smaller roles in like James Dean films, so this was a big deal for him. And he plays a sailor who falls in love with a woman that believes she’s a mermaid. And she lives in one of the apartments upstairs, so another one that they used all parts of the building for that. Also in that movie is great footage of the Venice canals and Pacific Ocean Park. It’s well worth seeing just for all the locations from that era.
DnA: So what about celebrity stories then? Give us one of the more colorful.
We get people calling every once in awhile about whether the building is haunted. And there’s somebody out there who really believes that Marilyn Monroe’s ghost lives in the building. I’m not so sure about that, but Marilyn Monroe does have a connection to the building. And it turns out that in the 1960s, not long before she passed, she would come into the building to watch the horses go around. It was the way that she found solace and of course there are photographs from the same time of her out on Santa Monica beach. She was around here a lot. And so everybody knew she was Marilyn Monroe, she had to come in disguise ,of course. So she had a silk scarf over her head and sunglasses on, and a coat so that she wasn’t recognized. And she would just sit on a bench and watch the horses go around. And one day the operator of the machine walked up to her and said, ‘you know, you’re young, why do you come here every day? Why don’t you go out and get a job?’ At which point she pulls off the scarf and the sunglasses and she says, ‘I do have a job silly, I’m Marilyn Monroe.’
DnA: That’s an amazing story. So we think that is true, it’s not an urban myth.
I completely believe it.
DnA: Your office is above the carousel and you can hear it as we’re talking. It’s playing constantly in the background. Does it ever drive you crazy?
You know our favorite answer to that is, what music? You know, because you would think that we’d have tuned it out by now. But I can hear it loud and clear right now. Another favorite saying of ours is, you know, the building goes dark on Tuesdays for maintenance, they do maintenance on the machine, and we get a lot of work done on Tuesdays.
Jim Harris is Deputy Director of the Santa Monica Pier Restoration Corporation and author of “Santa Monica Pier: A Century on the Last Great Pleasure Pier.” The 100th birthday party for the Looff Hippodrome is on Sunday, June 12. The staff — including Jim Harris — will be dressed in 1916 attire. There’ll be carousel rides for a nickel and other fun events. More details here.