Photo via KCRW
Photo via KCRW

The following is a review of “Save the Pier,” a one-hour play recounting the grassroots fight in the early 1970s to stop the demolition of the Santa Monica Pier.

Let me be blunt – I love the Santa Monica Pier. Much of my life has been spent working on matters related to the Pier. And many of my friends have done much more than me in fighting to both save and protect this landmark, as you will see here. So, I start this review with a bias – a bias I am proud of – a bias that has given me hours of joy, life long friendships and fantastic memories of a place that many, many people enjoy – the Pier.

If you don’t mind, I ask that before you read this piece that you go down to the Santa Monica Pier and sit on a bench and just enjoy. Do that for about ten minutes. Watch the ocean, watch folks fish from the Pier, watch sea gulls dive and listen to kids of every age having fun. Then walk over the arcade and put a few quarters into the Pac-Man machine and play a game or two. Next, go over to the giant Ferris wheel and go for a ride and as you get to the top look west – you can see Japan! I promise, you can see Japan (if you don’t have an imagination then stop reading now!). Get off of the Ferris wheel and pick up a hot dog on a stick and get back to that park bench and continue to smile, think, relax wonder and be happy as you watch a sea gull dive into the Pacific, stunning sunset in the background, the aroma of cotton candy faintly mixed with ocean air.

Now, let’s get started.

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“Save the Pier” reminds us that all of this is possible. It is possible for a city and its caring citizens to maintain, preserve and enhance a place where you can watch a sea gull dive toward the ocean as you munch on cotton candy.
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fundamental truth about what you just experienced on the Santa Monica Pier. Jack, Maynard, Sheila, Larry, Joan, Stephen, Gary, and a bunch of surfers, a bunch of citizens, a merchant or two and many local leaders and lovers of the Pier saved this stunning, wonderful, funky landmark for you and everybody else. You are there because of those people and the victory they created to save the Pier back in the early 1970’s.

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And that effort to save the Pier is chronicled and performed in a nice little one-hour play that was just staged at the end of the Pier this past weekend.

Some background is in order. In the 1950s and 1960s the city of Santa Monica was run by real estate interests, a local conservative newspaper (The Evening Outlook) and business interests that viewed the coast line as a money maker as opposed to a public resource maintained for the enjoyment of the people of Santa Monica and all of California. And city leaders and business interests wanted to change Santa Monica and get rid of the poor. To get started they systematically wiped out a low-income neighborhood in the Pico neighborhood. Hundreds of low-income residents were kicked out. Next, they targeted the Ocean Park neighborhood right across the street from the beach. In that case they removed hundreds of low-income residents as well. They used the power of redevelopment and other governmental powers to change a diverse coastal community (“Oshkosh by the Sea” some called it) with the idea of converting Santa Monica into a replica of Marina Del Rey.

Next, city leaders aimed at the Pier. They called the Pier unsafe, too damned expensive to take care of, crime infested, and a relic not to be saved. They voted to tear the Pier down as they proposed that an island be built right in the bay. The island was to be built up with high-end shops, restaurants and other tourist locations suited to the wealthy. Some plans included a highway, yes, a highway, going out over the water from the new island reaching north. And, they had other ideas all geared toward making more money and changing who got to use the coast from a place available to all to one that served well-heeled rich folks. As indicated above, this plan meant tearing down the entire Santa Monica Pier, which, the City Council under the leadership of the City Manager, voted to do.

Said lightly, the people responded. What took place was a huge and wonderful movement to save the Pier and to save the Pier forever. And it was different than what we see today. The people who fought city hall to save the Pier, unlike what we sometimes see today, were not a group of NIMBY’s saying “stay out” or “I’ve got mine, you stay away.” Instead, it was an assemblage of generous-hearted folks who loved this landmark and wanted others, many others, to continue to enjoy it. The “Save the Pier” movement was about protecting what we all love – not what selfishly belongs to just me. The play shows a group of great folks organizing, working, and strategizing to built the momentum to stop the tearing down of the Pier.

The spiritual and planning center of this grassroots effort was a small café on the Pier called “Al’s Kitchen.” Owned by Joan Crowne, who ultimately mortgaged her home to pay for the fight, Al’s was the launching pad for the Save the Pier campaign. The manager of this beloved greasy spoon was Jack Sikking. Jack had spent much of his life in Hollywood managing and working small comedy and jazz joints. He knew some of the early greats of that period – Phyllis Diller and Lenny Bruce to name just two. It turned out that Jack was more than a café manager – once he figured out what was at stake it was obvious that Jack had political instincts and strategic savvy almost beyond measure. He thought through the tactics, the power dynamics and the moves that caused the City Council to ultimately see the dumbness of their decisions. Jack was almost mysterious in his ways. He was loved, sometimes feared, but all the time full of ideas and plans and if he was your friend you knew it in the best of ways. And, in regards to saving the Pier, he was the foundation of the effort.

Each of the main players is featured in the play and what the audience sees is the creation of a movement that successfully fought back and stopped the city from destroying this beloved landmark. We saw the planning, the ideas, the goof ups and the passion.

We watched Larry Barber who was a cook and a waiter at Al’s. Handsome, smooth, hopeful and always friendly, he was the lead spokesperson. Maynard Ostrow owned the games and the bumper cars ride on the Pier. He quietly and effortlessly supported the effort with his hopeful and optimistic manner while providing many of the resources needed from start to finish. Sheila Ostrow, married to Maynard, spent hours organizing friends, supporters and family in every element of the campaign. The entire Ostrow family was very much “there” for the Pier.

Other activists were part of the story and what you saw were citizens living out the democratic principles they teach us in school as this group seized the moment and built citizen power.

The “Save the Pier” play showed it all. It also gave us the villain in providing a very nasty City Manager, Perry Scott, who was the mastermind of the idea of tearing down the Pier and building an island. It showed the City Council – a bumbling group of boosters who had no sense of what they caused or what would happen to their narrow and not very intelligent plans for the Pier and the Coast.

In the one hour of watching the play we saw the building of an act of love. One rarely can say that in politics – and believe me, this was politics as ultimately three Council members lost an election and the City Manager was fired.

What was so remarkable was that every one of the activists you saw in this play did it out of love for the Pier. They fought this fight to bring people together to save this cherished landmark.

They fought this fight as citizens seeing the unfairness of it all. They fought this fight either by instinct or knowledge and they knew that the Pier was the heart of what Santa Monica is about – a place that honors openness and access and as protectors of a coast and a Pier that belongs to us all, no matter where one lives and no matter what one’s economic standing happens to be.

I am so close to this because I knew many of the players so well. I arrived in Santa Monica in late 1973, hired as an organizer at the Church in Ocean Park about six months after the most important phases of the Pier fight ended. The Church in Ocean Park is a Methodist Church that welcomed everyone. Meaningful and helpful to the community due to the creative social change vision of its minister, Rev. Jim Conn, the Church was a place where issues of great concern to the community were a key element in its mission.

As I did my job at the Church, I got to know the activists engaged in the Pier effort. I worked with and became personally very close with Jack, with Maynard and Sheila and Larry and others. In time they became like family to me. I grew to love them for their efforts, their commitment and their spirit.

I got to know Jack really well. I spent entire days with him in the patio section of Als Kitchen. We plotted, planned, swapped and built ideas that added to the transformation of Santa Monica is some pretty cool ways.

I became very close to Maynard and Sheila as well – no one supported me as friends more than they did in those years, my early 20s going into my 30s. They were there for me in many, many ways. The Ostrow family is like a family to me.

Larry and his wonderful wife Carolyn are still close to me. Many other friendships came out of those days. Stephen Randall who wrote for a local paper as an alternative to the fabrications of the Evening Outlook in those days is someone I still know and see on occasion. And, Jim Conn and I are still close.

I am happy to say that the “Save the Pier” play does what we would want it to do. Watching these young, enthused, fired up actors and actresses take us back to a period of joy, struggle and profound justice. Further, the play is fun as well instructive.

Telling this hopeful story does not close the loop if you say to yourself that saving the Pier is, in fact, an effort that still merits attention. Instead, it inspires us – no political fight is ever really over. Because, when you win you must protect the gains accomplished.

“Save the Pier” reminds us that all of this is possible. It is possible for a city and its caring citizens to maintain, preserve and enhance a place where you can watch a sea gull dive toward the ocean as you munch on cotton candy. Said, simply, it is possible to save a place owned and beloved by all. Our cities give us places to work, to go to school, to live and to interact as neighbors and friends. This play shows a time in Santa Monica where good people wanted to keep a great place, a place of fun, beauty and affordability. Just being at the Pier is a stunning experience of beauty and wonder as it sits along a coastline that belongs to all of us. The people noted here and portrayed in the play saved it for everyone.

Thank you to the actors, the author and those that made this little one-hour gift possible. And, thank you to those heroes that fought this honorable and loving fight to protect this beautiful place — The Santa Monica Pier — a place for us all.

Now, go back to the Pier, ride the Merry-Go-Round and watch a sunset. It is there for you. It is there for all of us.

Ernie Powell is a political consultant living in Los Angeles. He was a resident of Santa Monica from 1973 to 1999. When the Pier was damaged by a major coastal storm in the early 1980’s Ernie was appointed by the City Council to the Pier Restoration and Development Task Force in 1981. Later, the City formed the Pier Restoration Corporation and Ernie was one of the first appointees.