It’s been seven years since Domenic Priore’s last dip into the waves with his excellent “Riot on Sunset Strip” opus (2007) so it’s a pleasure to report he’s now back and has joined forces with Christopher Merritt to produce “Pacific Ocean Park ~ an intricately researched and lavishly illustrated account of the Rise and Fall of Los Angeles’ Space-Age Nautical Pleasure Pier.
Capitol Records provided a series of photographs of The Beach Boys promoting All Summer Long at Pacific Ocean Park in 1964, and that Dick Dale, Donna Loren and Annette Funicello from the Beach Party movies are also featured in the book
The book is a rollercoaster of a ride in itself, careening from the heady ambition, optimism and resilience of the early fifties, to the dark undertow and grim realities of the late seventies ~ it is written in an endearing but tough no-nonsense style, beautifully and copiously embellished with period artefacts from Venice, California.
As we dip into the slipstream of counter culture lore and Los Angeles social history, familiar faces grace the page: Wallace Berman, Sarah Bernhardt, Sam Cooke, Buster Keaton, Dean Martin, Debbie Reynolds (holding on to her baby girl Carrie Fisher, then age 2) ~ even Syd Barrett (not for the first time, seen against the backdrop of a haunted pier).
There is much attention to detail here and much to enjoy. The Mystery Island Banana Train is brought vividly to life before our very eyes. Rosie’s (of Rosie and the Originals’ “Angel Baby” single) faux pas on live TV is a moment to treasure, as are Rob Roy and Tonga, the in-house chimpanzees, escaping their cages and making merry with $2,300 worth of expensive “My Sin” perfume (65% proof) ~ hic.
Darker times come to the fore during the dogtown days at the attraction’s end (as the sea boils and the wine turns sour) and our pier vacillates between a temporary shelter for the dispossessed and an uber-atmospheric backdrop for existential sixties’ TV drama episodes such as “The Fugitive” and “Route 66”…
And with a foreword by one Brian Wilson (“Pacific Ocean Park” being referenced, by acronym, in the Beach Boys’ track “Amusement Parks USA”) and prospective buyers also being able to download audio files from the Pier’s own archives ~ this is a fine quality addition to any self-respecting bohemian bookshelf.
We decided to ask Domenic Priore a few questions while he was on a promotional tour in New York:
1/ What was the original spark and motivation in writing the book?
Actually, I’d been shopping at “Poo-Bah Records” in Pasadena since 1974 (one of the first funky alternatives to the big chains in L.A.), and one of their employees, Gary Nissley, had worked at an audio place, where he found the tapes of the rides, way back then. Gary and I had many talks about how rightafter Disneyland succeeded in 1955, L.A. was flooded with colourful new amusement parks for about 15 years… “Enchanted Village,” “Jungleland”, and many more dear, but forgotten, places.
We agreed that Pacific Ocean Park was the most surreal, and coolest. So the audio… I tried finding a home for it once I got involved with labels making CDs, but then it hit me… the audio might be better served if it came with a book. So I started searching around for pictures and very quickly ran into Christopher Merritt, who was basically, the king. And we got along, first conversation, much in the way Gary Nissley and I did. He’d collected the material, and also wanted to do a book, so he gave me his ideas, I gave him my ideas, and most of them were… well, we’d thought many of the same things already.
2/ How long did it take you to assemble the extensive collection of decorative images and memorabilia used?
My only part in this was knowing the early history of Venice and Ocean Park, and how those evolved by the ’50s to become a home for both the Beat Generation, and Pacific Ocean Park. To me, Abbott Kinney was as imaginative from 1895 to 1920 as Walt Disney was later on.
Then there was the music, television and film stuff shot out there… I went out and cultivated a few of the key things in the book, but also knew what was in the hands of collectors, which could be assembled in an engaging way. Christopher was in touch with all of the Pacific Ocean Park collectors, and they came through in what you might want to call a “community effort” for the book, because the loss of P.O.P. was sad enough, but the place being totally forgotten was something no collector of Pacific Ocean Park memorabilia wanted to see.
3/ With all the evidence in front of you, financial or otherwise, what would you say was the pivotal moment of the Pacific Ocean Park’s fall from grace?
Personally, I think the death of creator Charles “Doc” Strub just before the park was ready to open doomed the park before it began. He had a way of making things successful, everything he touched seemed to take off… he is still revered in Los Angeles because of Santa Anita Racetrack, which was most recently used in a beautiful way for the movie “Seabiscuit”.
Once Strub passed away, someone from his staff at the race track takes over, and CBS nudges that person out of the driver’s seat, and all of a sudden you get bad corporate decisions, such as Strub’s right hand men, the team of Bill Jaynes and Ben O’Dorisio… CBS broke up that team.
4/ In your opinion, was the Pier’s fate inescapable?
Not really. The rust issue with the advanced rides they had was a problem, so maintaining P.O.P. was more expensive than planned. But there were other issues prior to the park opening, like workers stealing equipment, and other loose ends financially that should have been better controlled from the start. Because of this, the projected attendance they needed to cover everything was a bit beyond reasonable, especially in a town that had just lost its rail transit during the mid-’50s.
Abbott Kinney did not expand Ocean Park or build Venice of America until he had bargained during the 1890s for rail transit — from two different directions — to reach Ocean Park and Venice of America. That was the key to their success, but P.O.P. did not have the benefit of said rail transit. Sixty years later, here in 2014, finally, they’ve built rail transit to the Venice/Santa Monica area. P.O.P. could have used that. But I’m sitting here, telling you this from New York City, where such problems do not exist. Like my mother (a New Yorker) used to say, Los Angeles is as big a city as New York, but the politicians treat the infrastructure as if it were a small town. Abbott Kinney knew better…
5/ Or, in retrospect, could things have worked out differently?
Certainly, but the story as is, is kind of okay with me, because the late ’70s and 1980s took most if not all of the cool cultural elements away from places like Disneyland and Knotts Berry Farm anyway. Could Pacific Ocean Park have maintained its cool? Or would the uncool popular culture of the late ’70s and ’80s have turned The Cheetah into a disco? Or even worse, an ’80s hair metal joint? I mean, The Santa Monica Civic, where The T.A.M.I. Show was shot, is mothballed at the moment; and it was a Mid-Century Modern venue that held onto its cool longer than most.
To survive as cool, P.O.P. would have had to embrace alternative culture, and oppose the mainstream rubbish of those times. Very few corporate operations know how to do that. The Cheetah opening in 1967 shows that P.O.P. did have a chance to maintain its cool in the way we speak of… they had Syd Barrett and James Brown playing at P.O.P. in a time when The Edwin Hawkins Singers of “Oh Happy Day” fame were not allowed to walk around Disneyland as a group before their performance…
6/ What advice would you offer any would-be entrepreneurs undertaking a major Pleasure Pier these days?
Take a look at Coney Island, for one. That place could have died a hell of a long time ago, but it was revived by the East Village artist community going out to Brooklyn, and creating things like The Mermaid Parade, starting up again the old Side Shows and booking in vintage Burlesque, old school rock ‘n’ roll, jazz or alternative music presentations. All that ends up elevating culture (instead of cashing in on crummy trends), just as the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair did, or the creation of Central Park in New York, or Golden Gate Park in San Francisco did. That 1893 World’s Fair, in fact, was the inspiration for both Venice of America and Coney Island. Corporations today, instead of elevating culture, simply try to exploit what people already know, and that’s a big part of the problem. Now that Brooklyn’s indie culture has expanded (tremendously), unemployment in the area has gone way down. They’ve cleaned up the old rides, got some new ones in, put a minor league baseball park right next to Coney, and the borough (which used to be an independent city) is also trying to get a major league baseball team back in Brooklyn, to finally replace the Dodgers (who left after 1957). So large public entertainment spaces, like a baseball team in town, or someplace as legendary as Coney Island, help to build a strong community (I know this from working at Dodger Stadium in L.A. for eleven years). If it’s not all about the corporation and control, the entity works with people in the community, and expands an area’s vitality. Now, if Brooklyn could only bring back Alan Freed’s late ’50s rock ‘n’ roll shows at the Paramount Theater, and save Junior’s across the street… then, we’d have World Peace.
Coney Island, in its own way, has been re-built over a 30 year period and is going to stick around.. that came from alternative, city culture, not trying to appeal to the lowest common denominator. Theme or Amusement parks don’t have to be square, and they definitely were not during the ’50s and ’60s.
7/ Dom, were any of those live Cheetah shows (Arthur Lee & Love, The Mothers) recorded for posterity?
So far I have not found a recording from The Cheetah, however, there is a live Cheetah album from the original New York Cheetah club, with a few oftheir 1966 house bands. The Pink Floyd also played The New York Cheetah in 1967, so there was a distinct connection, the New York club opening in 1966, and the P.O.P. version opening in early 1967.
8/ What’s the main difference between growing up in the ’50s and now?
Kids do not have the freedom they did when I was growing up (and just before). If you look at the P.O.P. book, near the end, there are a couple of shots where young boys are walking around and looking at the decaying rides and buildings at P.O.P. I can’t imagine parents allowing their kids to run around a place like that now. If you think about it, many of the rock ‘n’ roll bands of those days, and their audience… they were all teenagers. Arthur Lee of Love, Carl Wilson of The Beach Boys, for example, did their most important lead vocals for those groups before they were 20. Today, kids don’t have the independence to form a groovy underground band like Love, until they’re off to college.
9/ Any chance of a themed tie-in compilation album from the “P.O.P.” period?
That is something Poo-Bah Records is working to coordinate with us at the moment.
10/ Fantastic. Any plans for another book collaboration in the future?
Christopher did a definitive book on Knott’s Berry Farm, so that’s covered. When I was a kid, I got to go to Palisades Amusement Park in New Jersey, and “Freedomland” in the Bronx. Even though I was from California, when we came back to New York to see family, we could not miss seeing those. They’re both long gone.
There are sufficient books about the New York World’s Fairs in ’39/’40 and ’64/’65, and for ye olde Coney Island (some of the best stuff about vintage Coney resides in well-done books on Brooklyn), but there are some interesting American theme parks that came out of that post-Disneyland era, like “Astroland” in Houston and this weird and wild thing in Atlanta called “The World of Sid and Marty Krofft” that happened in the wake of their success with psychedelic early-’70s kids shows like “H.R. Pufnstuf” and “Lidsville”.
I’d like to see more of that kind of thing, myself, in a compilation perhaps. Of course, “Enchanted Village” and other more obscure ones in L.A. would have to be a part of that. We really had some kooks out in California, I mean, when movie stars of the ’30s turned a building in the shape of a hat into their hangout (“The Brown Derby”), you knew something groovy was in the environment…
And here is Christopher’s Interview:
What was the original spark and motivation in writing the book?
For me, it goes back to childhood. When I was growing up in the 1970s, my mother had saved a collection of souvenir guidebooks from Southern California theme parks – and the only one Pacific Ocean Park ever issued was among those. I remember being fascinated by the visuals – and asking if we could go there. Sadly, by the time I was old enough to verbalize this, it had been demolished. So, I think partially due to the fact that I couldn’t ever visit it, I became very interested in finding out everything I could about it – and it became a bit of an obsession to try and figure out what the various attractions were like. That led me to hunting down and interviewing people who worked on the park, accumulating concept art, photos, blueprints – whatever I could get my hands on to help peel back the mystery of what it once was. It wasn’t easy – Pacific Ocean Park was only in business for nine years, so it’s not like Knott’s Berry Farm or Disneyland, where there have been tourists taking photographs for 60 years or more…
How long did it take you to assemble the extensive collection of decorative images and memorabilia used?
Well, my first interview was in 1999, so roughy 15 years. But I’d say the last four were the most concentrated and intense. Once Domenic and I got the publishing deal, I knew I had to really step up my game in terms of reaching out to people. I know a good deal of collectors of theme park memorabilia, and a lot of them have been very generous with their collections. Social media, specifically Facebook played a big role as well – many former employees and children of people who worked on the park (and had saved photos and other ephemera) reached out to me when they found out I was doing this. I purchased a fair amount of photographs from various archives and colleges – that ended up being very expensive, but there were some key images that Domenic and I felt strongly about including. And the few people I found that had been designers at P.O.P. that were still living (at the time anyway – many of them have passed away since I interviewed them) would invariably have old drawings, photographs, models, etc. that they were kind enough to share. There’s a lot of imagery in the book that I think hasn’t been seen before.
With all the evidence in front of you, financial or otherwise, what would you say was the pivotal moment of the Pacific Ocean Park’s fall from grace?
Boy – that’s a tough one. Everyone seems to want a simple answer to this question (possibly looking for a scapegoat in the scenario) – but I feel that it was a myriad of things that killed P.O.P. A kind of perfect storm of bad decisions combined with bad luck took place simultaneously and combined to make it impossible for Pacific Ocean Park to pull out of a death spiral. Dom pointed out that the death of “Doc” Strub played a big part, and I agree with that – it gave CBS leverage to put key members on the board at Santa Anita and kind of take over. But if it had been the financial hit they had all hoped it would be, it probably would still be here today. They borrowed way more money than they should have in building the park, so the business plan wasn’t really sound form the get go. They had a convoluted agreement and payment system set up with concessionaires – many of whom were long-time “Carnies” who had worked on the pier since the 1940s – and they knew how to turn things to their financial advantage. Then there is the turnover of ownership from Santa Anita, to CBS, to a real estate developer (whose specialty was flipping properties) – finally ending with one of the aforementioned “Carnies.” After the first few years of operation, the park stopped adding new themed attractions – which is death in the theme park business. The only new rides were “hard iron” – the kind of carnival-type rides that could be found at any state fair. With this came less attendance, which in turn gave them less money to spend on maintenance and upkeep, which in turn made things look more shoddy, which in turn kept more people away… Additionally the Santa Monica Redevelopment Association went out of their way to tear up streets that provided access – people would call P.O.P. saying that they could see the park in the distance, but couldn’t figure out how to get there. It was a mess!
In your opinion, was the Pier’s fate inescapable?
I do, for all the reasons stated above – and for the fact that to operate a theme park with high-end attractions like P.O.P. had, it was likely financially untenable on a pier. Maintenance, upkeep and the addition of new attractions (which is what keeps guests coming) is extremely expensive, even in the mildest of environs. The kind of weather that hit the Mystery Island Banana Train out at the end of the pier – well, I’m surprised it lasted as long as it did. Santa Monica Pier currently has a small collection of ticketed rides – but you’ll notice those are are hard, iron rides – nothing themed or fantastic like P.O.P. had. Those sort of attractions need a large corporation with deep monetary resources ,and an ongoing commitment to quality in order to keep them looking like they did upon opening day. P.O.P. never had that kind of support in the long term.
Or, in retrospect, could things have worked out differently?
Possibly – if the park had made more money for the first few years of operation, and if they didn’t have a constant turnover of ownership. If Santa Anita had stayed on as owner/operator, and committed to adding new, themed attractions, I’d imagine it could have at least lasted several years longer than it did. From where I sit, creating those new, themed attractions would have kept families coming, which is the demographic that will traditionally spend more. Only adding iron rides to the park turned that demographic from families to teenagers, and from a financial standpoint, that’s not where the money is.
What advice would you offer any would-be entrepreneurs undertaking a major Pleasure Pier these days?
I’d say don’t do it! Not unless you have deep pockets and a long-term plan that includes riding out the “lean years” until you build a dedicated base of local patrons. You only build that by keeping things at a constant level of quality – giving the perception that the amount of money a guest is spending is exceeded by their experience. Walt Disney was a genius at this. Everyone wants that “indefinable sense of magic” – and globally, people continue to be starved for entertainment, despite the fact that we’ve never had so much right at our fingertips. You have to give people an experience that exceeds sitting at home and playing video games or seeing a film at the local IMAX theatre, and that’s not easy (or cheap) to pull off! But theme parks have many factors automatically going for them that those things can’t compete with – the social interaction you get from visiting a park with family or friends, the dimensional environment that surrounds you and is real, the smells and sounds. P.O.P. had that visceral experience to offer – and being on a pier can be a magical experience, especially when the sun goes down. So, you have that going for you immediately in that scenario. But if people feel their experience is cheap, or that they’ve been let down or ripped off in some way, it starts to kill that magic. People stop coming. And that’s one of the things that happened at P.O.P. When maintenance stopped, they’d just hang a sign on a ride saying “Closed” – and that was after you had paid to enter the park! People felt a sense of disappointment at the end – so, even though it is horrifically expensive, keeping those attractions and environs up to guests expectations is key. I’d say if you don’t have the stomach to commit to that, then you shouldn’t even venture into those waters…
Dom, were any of those live Cheetah shows (Arthur Lee & Love, The Mothers) recorded for posterity?
I’d say no – but if anyone can find it, Domenic can! He found unseen images of Ritchie Valens and Jim Morrison performing at P.O.P. That still flabbergasts me!
What’s the main difference between growing up in the ’50s and now?
Well, from a theme park perspective (I’m a theme park designer by trade) it was very mannered. Very conservative. You dressed up as you would to go out to a nice dinner. 1950s photographs of guests at Disneyland, Knott’s Berry Farm and P.O.P. show men wearing suits and ladies wearing nice dresses with white gloves. What is interesting to me, is that by the mid-1960s that all goes out the window at P.O.P. and people are either dressed down and more casual, or in full “Mod” or “Hippie” regalia. You didn’t see that at Disneyland or Knott’s. So, Pacific Ocean Park paralleled what was going on in American culture and consciousness at that time.
Any chance of a themed tie-in compilation album from the “P.O.P.” period?
Yes, as Dom said, we are working on that right now – stay tuned!
Fantastic. Any plans for another book collaboration in the future?
Not as such yet – but never say never… I have a few ideas for future books in mind – but I’m also working in Shanghai on a new theme park which will keep me very busy in China over the next two years. Juggling the book writing while working overseas has been daunting to be sure. I also promised my wife I’d take a break for a bit after this one! That said, there are some ideas I have that I’d love to see in print someday. There’s also an amazing book on Coney Island waiting to be published by our friend Jeffrey Stanton – from the things he’s shown me, it would likely be the definitive tome on the subject, and it would be massive. So far, he hasn’t had any bites from publishers, but I’d personally love to see that in print.
© Michael Kemp 2014