How the Epitome of Californians' Hopes and Dreams in the '50s Literally Crashed into the Sea
A new book about an old seaside amusement park, gone for a half a century, set me thinking about a favorite subject, the boom-and-bust quality of California, a place of constant invention and reinvention, of dreams shattered or attained.
Impermanence and restlessness shape the place. Right now, a rich Silicon Valley venture capitalist, a beneficiary of the boom, is using his money to finance a ballot measure that would divide California into six states. Imagine six Californias. That’s why much of America doesn’t take the Golden State seriously.
The cover of the book, “Pacific Ocean Park: The Rise and Fall of Los Angeles’ Space-Age Nautical Pleasure Pier,” is a gaudy picture of the future as it was imagined in the 1950s. The back cover is desolate, showing what eventually happened to the amusement park as it was abandoned and collapsed into Santa Monica Bay. Authors Christopher Merritt and Domenic Priore have written an interesting, blow-by-blow story of the success and failure of the park, with a foreword, appropriately, by Beach Boy Brian Wilson, filled with images taken from the turn of the 20th century to Pacific Ocean Park’s demise in the 1960s. It’s published by Process Media, headed by Adam Parfrey, who happens to be my former son-in-law.
One of the boom-and-bust characters rescued from obscurity by Merritt and Priore was Charles H. (Doc) Strub, a dentist who created Santa Anita racetrack, east of Los Angeles. Strub was, Merritt and Priore wrote in their book, known as “the dentist with the golden drill” who “had a long history of finding opportunities where none seemingly existed.”
He saw a Southern California with many people who had come there seeking something better, the mythical California dream. Some were newly rich movie people wanting “class,” as they called it in those days, and Strub got them to invest in the track. He built a venue that still looks elegant. The non-rich came too. “Strub knew what the old-time movie moguls knew—if you made the surroundings as plush as a pasha’s palace, the public would come, if only to get away from their humdrum existence,” wrote the late Jim Murray, the Los Angeles Times sports columnist.
That was the idea behind Pacific Ocean Park too. And for several years, run by Strub’s Santa Anita and CBS, it worked, with attractions such as “Deepest Dive” and “The Flight to Mars from Pacific Ocean Park,” along with bands ranging from teenage idols to Lawrence Welk.
Another dreamer who understood the need to relieve the humdrum was Abbot Kinney, from the wealthy family that made Sweet Caporal cigarettes, who came to California early in the 20th century. Where others saw marshes along the Santa Monica Bay shore, Kinney saw Venice. He dug canals east of the beach, with small homes beside them, plus an auditorium for concerts and other attractions. But the poorly engineered canals caved in and clogged up, and Kinney’s Venice became a home for the poor, some of them the Beat Generation’s greatest writers and artists. A rebuilt, truncated canal system, with million dollar homes, exists today and all that is remembered of Abbot Kinney is a street that bears his name, with expensive restaurants and shops.
California’s restlessness also influenced the culture and politics of the state. The ferment of the San Francisco Bay Area, home years before of socialist writer Jack London, produced a bitter general strike in the 1930s, the radical, reformist International Longshoremen’s and Warehouse Union, the powerful protests against the House Un-American Activities Committee hearings in 1960, protests against racial discrimination and the Vietnam War later in the decade, and the Free Speech Movement.
People hungered not only for the escape offered by Doc Strub and Abbot Kinney, but for action against the dominant white business class that, with the help of compliant police, put down the protests against racism and injustice.
Strub’s racetrack was closed during World War II and for two years served as an “assembly center” for Southern California Japanese-Americans being shipped off to prison camps. That experience, of course, lingered and memories of it are ingrained in many of the children and grandchildren of the internees, a force in Asian-American—and California—politics.
Liberal politics seethed in Los Angeles during the Depression, World War II and afterward, despite McCarthyism and a McCarthy-loving mainstream media. These liberal coalitions were composed of poorer people who had come here for a better life, and while not all of them found it, they organized in groups such as civil rights organizations, liberal labor unions, the Communist Party and other organizations that channeled their energy into political and social action, despite media scorn and police spying. They were dreamers too, like Strub and Kinney.
When I arrived in Los Angeles in 1970, Pacific Ocean Park was gone. My daughters and I would sometimes stop by to see the ruins when I took them to the beach. The book by Merritt and Priore recalls the park’s boom days. The park reflected the tastes of some of the movie studios’ greatest designers who conceived buildings of the Googie architectural style, gaudy and futuristic, reflecting the space age and its aspirations. Pages of pictures tell of attractions like the replica of the USS Nautilus, the world’s first nuclear sub. The book is a great look back at a time when everyone had high hopes for nuclear power and people believed they might really one day take a trip to Mars.