A Step Back in Time at the Santa Monica Pier

I stand in a jungle of technical gizmos and high-tech gadgets.

The arcade room at the Santa Monica Municipal Pier on a July 4th afternoon is packed with teen-agers. They crowd around the air-hockey tables, video games and prize booth. Outside, the pier is just as busy. Families wait in long lines to order funnel-cake, ice-cream and coffee. Beyond all of this, the Pacific Ocean is mysteriously clouded with fog. There are rumors that the holiday’s fireworks are cancelled for the evening.

I walk through the pier’s carnival area where girls giggle as their boyfriends compete at rifle-shots, basketball hoops and other games to win stuffed animals and, for sure, a kiss. High in the sky, a group of Ferris wheel riders quietly enjoy the view.

It’s my first time here at the famous pier, the last hurrah and dead end of Route 66.

Nearly a century ago in September, the Santa Monica pier opened its doors to thousands of people who enjoyed a day of band concerts, swimming races and leisurely strolls on the wide wood planks above the ocean.

Where are those days now? I wonder this as the holiday afternoon hoopla carries on around me and hip-hop music blares through the loud speakers. But then something else filters through all the modern-day noise. It’s old time carnival music, the kind of music that reminds you of Grandma’s wind-up jewelry box and fairy-tale dreams, and I follow it to a nearby Byzantine-Moorish style building.

This is the Hippodrome and inside is one of America’s last remaining vintage seaside carousels. Both the Hippodrome and the carousel are National Historic Landmarks. Tickets are only $1 for adults and 50 cents for children. I’m met with the warm glow of light bulbs both overhead and on the ride. The light reflects off the large windows and hardwood floors and makes the whole structure glow in the late afternoon.

A small display informs me that it was Charles Looff who built this place. Looff also constructed Coney Island’s first carousel in Brooklyn, New York. He built the Hippodrome in 1916 and made it home to various merry-go-rounds and Wurlitzer organs.

The building’s current carousel was built by the Philadelphia Toboggan Company in 1922 and was moved from Nashville, Tennessee to Venice pier before World War II. In 1947, the carousel was moved from Venice to Santa Monica. Unlike most merry-go-rounds, this carousel is suspended in perfect balance from its center pole. There are no wheels beneath its platform to help move it.

I watch the ride spin laughing children and their parents. I’m mesmerized by the whirl of smiles, mirrors and painted horses. No wonder this attraction has for decades dazzled motion picture directors, painters and fashion photographers.

Night has come and I overhear a man talking to his wife. He confirms that there will be no fireworks tonight. I could careless; I’ve found my thrill here, in front of the carousel where a batch of riders is stepping off and I’m just about to step on.

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