By Cal Porter
I loved that pier, with its Giant Dipper roller coaster, fun house, games of chance, flying circus, salt water taffy and hot dog stands. This was the 1930’s and there were all kinds of ways for a kid to have fun or get into trouble out there. In addition, my buddies and I dove for the pennies, nickels and sometimes dimes that the tourists would throw into the ocean for us off the end of the pier.
The water was crystal clear in those days and you could make enough money for a sugary snow cone in half an hour. And then the rock breakwater visible just beyond the end of the pier was always good for a few lobsters when we searched the rocky bottom wearing our primitive water goggles that Santa Monica Lifeguard Bill O’Connor made for us out of fire hose and glass.
The tourists on the pier would sometimes pay up to twenty-five cents for one of the tasty crustaceans. However, Fat Frank, a real character who lived under the end of the pier over the rough water in primordial accommodations and had lobster traps strung out all along the rocks was not too fond of us, but lobsters were plentiful in those days.
O’Connor’s goggles were a great improvement over the Japanese swimming goggles we had that distorted your vision under water. Later the diving became much easier when home made face plates were invented and we got our first ones around 1939 or ‘40, about the same time Owen Churchill invented his black, vulcanized rubber swim fins.
The pier also helped create some nice board and body surfing waves for us in those uncrowded days. Then in 1939, for thirty-five cents an hour, I landed a job as a lifeguard in the Venice Salt Water Plunge, the building on the sand just north of the pier in where today the skateboard park stands.
A couple of years passed and I was old enough to be a Los Angeles City Beach Lifeguard starting at seventy-five cents an hour and working out of the headquarters at the base of the Sunset Pier, the first pier in the photo above, with the Lick Pier, Ocean Park Pier, Crystal Pier, and Santa Monica Pier in the distance. Today the modern County Lifeguard Headquarters building is on the sandy site where the base of the Sunset Pier once stood and where Venice Boulevard meets the beach.
“Between the Piers” was the title of our home beach, with the Sunset and Venice Piers on either side. “See you tomorrow between the piers” was the usual so long from your Venice High School pals or perhaps a girl you were hoping to spend some time with on the beach.
Our hangout on the sand was right about where the paddle tennis courts are on the beach today. In the photo above you can see the attraction for surfers and bodysurfers with the waves peeling off the sandbar buildup from the two piers. The photo shows a big day with waves forming in deep water beyond the end of the very long pier. In an earlier story I recounted the rough and stormy day of the biggest surf I had ever seen in my young life when we sneaked past the police and the safety barricade that had been erected to keep people off the endangered pier. Fortunately fins had been invented by then when my pal and I jumped off the end of the damaged pier and swam another fifty yards or more out to sea to the very deep water where the storm waves were cresting and beginning their march shoreward, one of which carried me through the passage between the piers and all the way to the beach, the biggest wave and longest bodysurfing ride of my life before or after.
The end of the shorter Sunset Pier to the south was a bodysurfing, jumping off place, too, for some really fine, left breaking shoulders. We would watch and wait for a good set of waves while sitting in the hot sun behind the glass windbreak next to the empty bandstand at the end of the pier and then climb the wall for the long drop into the water and a fast ride to the beach only to run back to the end of the pier and do it all over again, and again. Waiting during lulls in the surf action out there we would play a bit of handball or practice our hand balancing stunts on the empty bandstand stage in order to show off later to anyone we could get to watch, maybe even girls.
Toward the late 1930’s board surfing became popular enough between the piers that the lifeguards decided for safety’s sake to designate a surfing only zone and set out a lifeline separating swimmers from the surfers for the first time on any beach in the U.S. and probably in the world. The lifeline is visible below in the photo of my two buddies with me in the middle ripping on a challenging one foot wave.
A sad day for many of us occurred a few years later at midnight on April 20, 1946, when the Venice Pier was ordered to be closed down and demolished. An amusement pier had been on that site, in one reincarnation or another, since 1905. The City of Los Angeles refused to renew the lease on the historic but run down, gritty old amusement pier, thinking the beach town would be better off without the old relic of better days. Dismantling the rides and concessions and taking down the pier was to begin immediately. This was going to be dangerous work on the rickety old pier, with heavy trucking involved and the possibility of injury or someone falling into the ocean. City lifeguards were sent to the pier by Captain Myron Cox to be on the scene in case of a mishap of some sort. Bill Pruitt and I were assigned the duty there together occasionally and had some interesting experiences for another story. Bill later became a captain with the L.A. City Lifeguards. After the Venice Pier came down the Sunset Pier with its lifeguard headquarters was soon to follow.
The pier is gone now and at low tide you can walk on the sand all the way to the breakwater where the ocean was once twenty feet deep. The Sunset Pier where the groin is in the photo is gone also, along with all the other amusement piers from here to Santa Monica. But of course it’s very nice now with the wide, white sandy, unobstructed beach that runs for miles and the concessions all along the boardwalk but somehow it’s just not the same. I take a nostalgia walk out there to the breakwater from time to time where Fat Frank lived under the pier, where we dived for pennies and the lobsters were plentiful, and I stop at the lifeguard tower to tell the young guard that long ago his tower would be under the roller coaster and in ten feet of water, and that just over there where the skateboard park is stood the largest indoor salt water plunge in the world where I was a lifeguard. And when I get that look that says, “Where did this old guy escape from?” I know it’s time to move on.
By Cal Porter