Santa Monica’s very own landmark, the Santa Monica Pier, may not be subtle or obscure, but for me it holds great sentimentality and wonder within the base attractions and human traffic. Although the cattle market of tourist troops may pollute the pier boardwalk during high season, a glimmer of archaic wonder and sense of personal attachment will always prevail.
Santa Monica Pier is a site of of personal landmarks and small joys; of life-shaping realisations, childlike pleasures, first kisses and the administration of cotton candy as a dubious (yet effective) jet lag cure.
I hugged the pier’s Route 66 sign when I touched down for my first writers gig in California; a trip which not only symbolised a formative sense of self-empowerment and will, but also marked my ongoing transatlantic – and specifically SoCal – love affair. When I returned the following year to interview bands at Coachella, I took the same preparatory, head-clearing walk once more, happily returning to my contiguous digs at Shutters on the Beach before making the pilgrimage to Palm Springs. And now each visit to Santa Monica Pier has become a personal pilgrimage in itself.
The pier’s Pacific Park ferris wheel ride supplies a glorious bird’s-eye view of Santa Monica, Venice, and the coastline beyond. At night the view is ethereal, spooky when marred by fog, and from the summit one literally feels all at sea. And it is glorious.
I like places that serve little purpose other than to provide a naive semblance of joy. I enjoy the mix of ages on the pier; children and families are generally a rare species in the largely Millennial populated WeHo wilds in which I reside. Such places encourage you to look at things differently, innocently, and take pleasure in simply being silly.
Needless to say, I have a penchant for kitsch piers and fare ground rides. A whole childhood summer was coloured by the gaudy attractions at New York’s Coney Island, unfettered by the lesser distractions such as, say, the Guggenheim. Given that now, West Coast is the best coast, it is fitting that Charles Looff, the craftsman entrepreneur responsible for Coney Island’s first carousel, also furnished Santa Monica with its first very own wooden carousel in 1916. And on a lesser note, was responsible for building the whole thing.
As is the case with much of Los Angeles, the ghosts of iconic pop culture and celluloid history shimmer through the concrete of present day reality. Elzie C. Segar created Popeye based upon legendary pier fisherman Olay C. Olsen, and aside from the pier’s ample filmography (including, ominously, Titanic) a tangible ode to Forrest Gump – his suitcase and shoes – resides on the pier boardwalk beside Bubba Gump Shrimp Company restaurant, synergistically owned by the company that produced the movie. A perfectly American equation. The celluloid Capitalist dream.
A few seasoned tips for the dubious and discerning visitor: avoid the Santa Monica Pier during high season (a given) and go late at night, preferably an unseasonably cold one, to ensure minimal population and thus have the fairground rides pretty much to yourselves (hip flask optional. Irish coffee, preferential.)
Obligatory trashy pier snacks aside (you can’t go within a mile radius of fairground rides without funnel cake, that’s just the law), save your dollar for a proper meal afterwards or prior at One Pico (Shutters on the Beach) or The Penthouse (at The Huntley). That said, the sundaes at Soda Jerks are rather marvellous, and any establishment with the tagline ‘Life is Uncertain So Eat Dessert First’ is generally guaranteed my patronage.
A sugar high masked in salty sea air and a resignation to the naffness of arcade attractions and lo-fi fairground rides – isn’t that so quintessentially…British? No, it is different. For it is California, where everything is bigger and better, and the view from the Santa Monica ferris wheel is just one of many expansive perspectives in this glorious metropolis we call Los Angeles. Enjoy the ride.