To Know Me Is To Know My Family: Mom and her Santa Monica Days (#5)

One of Lucille, my Mom’s, favorite places to hang out was in Santa Monica at theLooff’s Pier where the monumental Hippodrome building, which housed vintage merry-go-rounds, Wurlitzer organs, the Blue Streak Racer wooden roller coaster, the Whip and Aerospace thrill rides and a funhouse.

Amusement piers became enormously popular in the first decades of the 20th century. The extensive Pacific Electric Railroad, Big Red Cars, easily transported Mom to the beaches from Gardena.

A fortune teller made her home inside the old Hippodrome, alongside the pier’s carousel. This would be when my Mom would first get acquainted with psychics. Later she would develop her own abilities. She would read for friends and soldiers using playing cards, tea leaves and palms.  

She especially would talk about the Blue Streak Racer wooden roller coaster. Mom loved the wild ride. She would talk about how there was no seatbelts or safety bars to hold the rider in place. It spanned over the ocean and more than once she saw people fall out of the cars and into the water. Young people were dare devils she would tell me, most that fell would stand up in the cars. The wood structure would creak as the cars went around the track.

La Monica Ballroom opened in 1924 on the Santa Monica Pier. It was capable of holding 10,000 dancers in its over 15,000 square foot area. La Monica hosted many national radio and television broadcasts in the early days of networks. Mom would go dancing there every chance she got. She spoke of how beautiful it was and how the flood lights would light up the sky. The building’s Spanish stucco exterior was crowned with a dozen towering minarets that were lit up at night. Unfortunately, she was unable to attend the opening night. The Outlook reported, “It sounds as if La Monica ballroom was quite the sight on opening night. Last night, as forecast, the dreams of the directors were realized. They saw La Monica ballroom, with its brilliantly lighted minarets, pretty as the castles of fairyland; its lavish interiors suffused with enchanting kaleidoscopic color; and uncounted dancers keeping tune with the harmony of Don Clark’s matchless orchestra.” Going to the ballroom was some of her favorite times. She would dance into the wee hours of the night.

In the 1930s corruption infected Santa Monica (along with neighboring Los Angeles). Beginning in 1928, gambling ships started anchoring in Santa Monica Bay just beyond the 3-mile limit. Mom took the Water taxis that ferried patrons from Santa Monica once or twice. She felt unsafe there so she stopped going.

Here’s a little history on the gambling ships. The largest such ship, the S.S. Rex launched in 1938, was capable of holding up to 3,000 gamblers at a time. The Gambling ships were short lived my Mom told us. The Rex was a red flag to anti-gambling interests. After state Attorney General Earl Warren got a court order to shut the ships down as a nuisance, the crew of the Rex initially fought off police by using water cannons and brandishing submachine guns. The engine-less ship surrendered after nine days in what newspapers called The Battle of Santa Monica Bay. Its owner, Tony Cornero, went on to build the Stardust casino in Las Vegas, Nevada.

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