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Photos: A Look Back At The Last 100 Years Of The Santa Monica Hippodrome

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The Santa Monica Looff Hippodrome will turn 100 years old this weekend, and with that comes a day-long celebration. From nickel rides to incognito celebrities and a suspicious arson, it's been a colorful century for a beloved attraction.

A hippodrome, in ancient Greece, was a stadium used for horse or chariot racing. In Santa Monica, the horses are carved and painted and only go round in a circle, but you're welcome to pretend whatever you like. That is, perhaps, the point of a carnival.

It was June 12, 1916 when the Santa Monica Looff Hippodrome opened its doors. Charles Looff was a carousel carver who had previously worked on the first two carousels at Coney Island. Jim Harris, Santa Monica Pier historian and author of Santa Monica Pier: A Century on the Last Great Pleasure Pier, tells LAist that Looff had expanded beyond carousels and into building whole amusement parks across the country. The Santa Monica Looff Pleasure Pier, now simply the Santa Monica Pier, would be Looff's last park before he died in 1918.

"When the Santa Monica Municipal Pier was built—the long part that goes over the ocean—the citizens of the northern part of the Santa Monica wanted an amusement park built next to it. And so, seeing the opportunity and realizing that the Red Cars stopped right at this location and that there was an electric tram running up and down the beach, Looff thought it would be an excellent location."

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Only three months after the carousel opened, Looff added a fourth row of horses to accommodate additional riders at the popular attraction. Back then, it cost five cents for a ride. Today, it's $2 for adults and $1 for children.

The Looff family sold the amusement pier and the Hipppdrome to a group of local relators in 1924, and the Security First National Bank took the over both in 1939. In 1943, Walter Newcomb leased the pier and the Hippodrome, hiring the Gordon family to manage it in 1955. The Gordon family took ownership in 1956. In 1974, the City of Santa Monica bought the pier and Hippodrome. However, that year also saw the attraction close for several months due to an arson that damaged the building. In 1975, the Hippodrome became a city landmark. The carousel underwent renovations in the early 80s, and the Hippodrome was inducted into the National Registry of Historic Places in 1987.

In the 100 years it's been open, the Hippodrome has hosted three separate carousels: the Looff Carousel from 1916 to 1939; the 1916 C.W. Parker Carousel #316 from 1939 to 1947; and the 1922 Philadelphia Toboggan Company Carousel PTC #62 from 1947 to today. The latter was already 25 years old when it arrived at the pier, as each horse had been hand-carved in 1922 by a competitor of Looff's.

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(Photo by Alex Thamer via the LAist Featured Photos pool on Flickr)
In the 60s, the building had a very famous visitor, though many who encountered her were probably oblivious.

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"Towards the end of her life, Marilyn Monroe was living in Brentwood and hung out at the Santa Monica Beach a lot," Harris says, noting that many of the iconic photos George Barris took of the actress were shot here.

Harris continues:

She would come to the Hippodrome to find solace. She'd sit on a bench and watch the horses go round and round. Being sensitive to who she was, she would come in disguise wearing a scarf and overcoat and sunglasses. One day, the gentleman who was operating the carousel walked up to her and said something along the lines of, 'Why do you come here every day? You're young and you should get a job.' She then revealed [her identity] and said, 'I do have a job, I'm Marilyn Monroe.'

On the second floor of the building, you'll currently find office spaces, including the office where Harris works. However, in the 60s and 70s, the second floor contained apartments. Author William Saroyan and musician Jimmy Henderson used one of the units to work, while actor Paul Sand and his then-girlfriend Joan Roan lived in another. Perhaps the most interesting person to live there was an outspoken activist named Colleen Creedon.

"[Creedon] was a prominent women's activist," Harris says. "She would protest the Vietnam War, she held fundraisers for Cesar Chavez and Daniel Ellsberg."

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She was also close friends with musician Joan Baez, who often crashed at Creedon's place. In 1974, two young men lit the trash cans outside of Creedon's apartment ablaze. The flames licked up the side of the building to Creedon's unit. Creedon managed to escape the fire, but long believed that the arson was more calculated than two wayward youths causing trouble. She told Harris herself that she believed she was targeted because of her beliefs.

"Until the day she died, she insisted that the fire was set deliberately to shut her up," Harris said. "And, she might not be far off with that reasoning."

Creedon, who passed away a few years ago, long claimed that two other women activists in the area were also victims of arson. Whatever the cause, the fire permanently disrupted residential life above the carousel. The building was condemned and everyone was evicted. The upper floor would remain vacant until 1983, at which point it became office space.

You can still get a glimpse of what the second floor looked like in those days by watching The Sting. It's Creedon's apartment where the poker game occurs.

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That same apartment also appeared in Melvin Van Peebles' Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song, and another unit is seen in the 1961 film Night Tide, starring Dennis Hopper.

Today, the building houses the carousel and a small gift shop where visitors can find various historical artifacts from the pier's past. There's also Soda Jerk, an old fashioned stand where the employees don 1940s attire and serve up made-from-scratch desserts.

On June 12 from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m., guests are invited to come help the Hippodrome celebrate its centennial. Rides will cost a nickel, just as much as they did on opening day. There will also be exclusive tours of the grounds and former apartments on the second floor, galleries of historic photos and lithographs, a 1920s photo booth and a special dessert from Soda Jerk. The Brass Ring Sundae, created by Soda Jerk owner Kevin McCafferty, consists of a scoop of salted caramel ice cream drizzled with caramel sauce, a scoop of vanilla ice cream drizzled with chocolate sauce, crushed potato chips and a single potato chip on top—the brass ring, if you will. This is not a historically accurate old-timey dessert, but a nod to two very different slices of history.

"People said the pier used to smell like homemade potato chips," Harris explains. "There was a restaurant where they made them, and so people coming down the bridge and entering the pier smelled those being made. It didn't smell like fish or salt water."

So, event organizers asked Soda Jerk to create a savory-sweet treat involving potato chips. The 'brass ring' comes from an old merry-go-round tradition where riders were invited to snatch a ring from a dispenser as they rode past. While most of the rings were steel or lead, some would be brass. Those who managed to swipe a brass ring would win a free ride.

Harris said a few former residents of the apartments will be on site on Sunday, which may allow for some interesting conversations about pier history.

"One-hundred is a magical number in Los Angeles," Harris says. "Much of the L.A. area has been constantly changing, and even the Pier has seen a lot of change over the years. So, when you have something that turns 100, I think it stands out because of the culture of change that has defined Los Angeles for so long."

Wish the Hippodrome a happy birthday on June 12 from 11 a.m to 7 p.m. The Hippodrome is located at 200 Santa Monica Pier in Santa Monica. More info here, or on Facebook here.