Santa Monica Pier: 100 years of California dreams

Traveling westward along California's Route 66, the Santa Monica Pier rises just as the highway ends and the Pacific coast begins, its marquee Ferris wheel hovering majestically over the ocean.

One-hundred years old this week, the pier remains much unchanged from its earliest days. Its wooden planks still attract an abundance of characters: kids having too much fun to stop and talk; fishermen throwing out their lines; and tourists from around the world taking in the scene.

British tourist Paul Sparks came to Santa Monica to see the pier.

"I used to live in Brighton in England, where there's a rather famous old pier," he says. "So I'm always kind of quite drawn to piers. [I] just feel some urge to walk along to the end of them — rather like mountains that you feel you ought to get to the top of."

Sparks says the Santa Monica Pier is similar to the piers he has seen at home in Britain: "It's got most of the same ingredients — a little fun fair and a lot of kiosks."

There's even a gypsy fortune teller, who sits inside an old-fashioned glass case and holds a glowing crystal ball in her hands. For a quarter, she'll predict your future — everything from "rich widow" to "nudist."

The fortune teller makes her home inside the old Hippodrome, alongside the pier's noted carousel, where hand-painted wooden horses have been spinning around since 1916.

People actually used to live upstairs in the Hippodrome, in apartments that encircle the carousel. The apartments have since been replaced with offices, which serve, among others, pier historian James Harris.

It's an unusual place for an office; Harris says the carousel (and its organ music) starts up at 11 o'clock in the morning. "On Tuesdays it's closed for maintenance, and we try to get as much done on Tuesday as we can," he says.

Harris, author of Santa Monica Pier: A Century on the Last Great Pleasure Pier, offers us a guided tour, which takes us past the arcade and the roller coaster and into the section where local fishermen congregate.

The Santa Monica Pier Bait & Tackle shop is always ready with a new net to help fishermen bring in a big catch. Co-owned by John Volaski, it's a tiny outpost with a ceiling papered in foreign currency from all the tourists who've passed through. Volaski has owned the store for 20 years, but his life on the pier began decades earlier, in 1945.

"I was a 5-year-old kid when I started coming down here," he says. "My parents made a big mistake — my mom brought me down here, and that was it. ... Here I am — I'm still coming down here."

Fishermen have been flocking to the pier's edge since its early days. Olaf Olsen, a retired sailor who visited the pier in the 1920s and 1930s, may even have inspired E.C. Segar's spinach-loving comic book character.

"The artist who drew Popeye, he and his assistant would come down to the pier every day, and every day they would rent a skiff, which they would take off the end of the pier, and they would discuss story ideas," Harris says. "Every day they walked to the end of the pier, they encountered [Olsen], one of the fishing boat captains. ... It turned out that [Olsen's look] became the physical model for the cartoon character."

It's not just cartoons: The Santa Monica Pier has also been in movies, like Forrest Gump and The Sting. And long before Robert Redford visited the pier with Paul Newman in The Sting, he says, he remembers visiting it as a child:

"It's funny how when you get older and you look back on your life, there's just a series of moments that flash before your eyes," Redford says. "One of them [has] been with me my whole life. ... I was being walked along the boardwalk. And suddenly there's this kid in front of me with a sailor cap on. But what I remember was the full image, which was the pier behind him and the carousel. And the carousel going around and around, and hearing that discordant sound. And that was an imprint in my head that I never lost."

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