When the Hippodrome Was Hip: The Looff Carousel and the Era of Seaside Amusement

It is a strange structure, with its wooden turrets and multiple windows. Over 90 years of exposure to sea salt and smog seems to have settled a permanent coat of sticky dust over the Santa Monica Hippodromes walls. The interior is dark and often deserted, save a drunk local or a misplaced tourist.

But then the carousel, the Philadelphia Toboggan Company #62 carousel, still magnificently hand carved, if now grimy from little hands, lurches to a start and the original Wurlitzer organ plays its cheerful tunes. And out of the semi-darkness enchanted children laugh and squeal -- and the Hippodrome is filled with happiness once again.

From the runoff

In 1907, the 21-year old city of Santa Monica faced a problem. In boomtown California, living was billed as easy, but it was a deceptive ease. The massive growth rate of modern, urban settlers who expected more than a patch of land and sunshine meant that cities often found themselves devising innovative and cut-corner ways to meet infrastructure demands, sometimes with disastrous results (like the St. Francis Dam debacle).

When Santa Monica found itself with a sewage problem, its solution was as old as ancient Rome. The city voted to construct a 1,600 foot concrete pier which would pipe the waste out into the ocean, far enough out so that it went into the sea and not onto unsuspecting bathers.

On September 9, 1909, the simple municipal pier opened to much fanfare, and quickly became a popular spot for fisherman and strollers alike. On the East Coast, seaside entertainment had become all the rage, and this spectacle of carousels, roller coasters, and games was an ideal model for the expansive and temperate beaches of Southern California.

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In 1910, after a series of explorative trips, a man named Charles I.D. Looff moved his family (and his factory the following year) from Rhode Island to Long Beach, and helped fan the frenzy that turned the pristine coast of Los Angeles County into a labyrinth of cotton candy and steel, which would quickly spread from Santa Monica to Venice Beach.

Santa Monica Pier in 1902, before being rebuilt in concrete | Courtesy of the Los Angeles Public Library

Coney Outdone

"I expect to make the Looff Santa Monica Pier the most successful of the entertainment enterprises I own throughout the United States." -- Charles Looff, "Why I chose Santa Monica"1

Charles I.D. Looff | Long Beach Public LibraryCharles I.D. Looff was a true American success story, seemingly borne out of a Fitzgerald novel. Born in Denmark in 1852, Looff trained as a wood cutter before immigrating to Brooklyn in 1870. He specialized in carving intricate wooden carousel animals, using scraps of wood he found at his day job as a furniture maker.

The Carousel, from the Italian "garosello" meaning "little war," was a European transplant as well. It evolved from a device used by ancient middle-eastern equestrians for combat training and was brought to Europe during the Crusades. This tradition continued in Europe, and eventually merged with the large "horse ballets" of the royal courts to form the first of the modern carousels of the early 1700s. With the creation of the first steam powered carousel in 1861, and the rise of an industrial working class looking for cheap amusements, the carousel soon became a popular form of entertainment.

Looff was at the forefront of the trend. By 1876 he had completed and installed the first carousel, a 27- piece wonder, at Coney Island. He opened a factory -- which he soon moved to Rhode Island -- filled with other master carvers, and quickly became the king of entertainment rides, building not only merry-go-rounds but also roller coasters, novelty games, and buildings. But Looff's first love was always carving. His carousel figures were known for their real horse hair tails and colorful glass jewels, and considered the cream of crop in the explosion of carousels in America. It is estimated that at their peak popularity there were over 10,000 operating in the U.S. alone.

L.A. Times, July 2, 1916

Looff quickly became a prolific builder in the area, developing the waterfront Pike Amusement Park in Long Beach and installing a carousel at Venice Pier. It is important to note that several pleasure piers were already open in Southern California, including the Kinney Pier in Venice and Pike Pier in Long Beach, as were thrill rides such as the futuristic Scenic Railway and the Dragon Gorge roller coaster.

But as yet all Santa Monica had was the thin municipal pier. In early 1916 Looff bought 247 feet of Santa Monica oceanfront for $250 per foot, and requested permission to link a new 1055 foot amusement pier to the city's municipal pier. His son Arthur was to oversee all construction and son William would be in charge of electric wiring, lending credence to the L.A. Times' belief that Looff parks were "clean and wholesome resorts" that were all managed within the family.

However, the construction met with some opposition. In April Looff sought to secure a 20-year franchise from the city of Santa Monica to use 900 feet of city land for the pier, a right which real estate man Carl Schrader, who owned property directly next to Looffs, thought was unfair. He countered, offering the city $5,000 a year for the franchise, which the council had been prepared to give to Looff for much less. Looff won negotiations in the end, but not without losing a tussle with local preachers, resulting in a strict anti-liquor policy for the entire pier.

Massive construction proceeded at a breakneck pace. In the midst of the building of the actual pier, a picnic/concert area, the blue streak roller coaster, the giant areoscope ride, and countless games and rides, the Hippodrome was rushed into construction.

The two-story Hippodrome (the ancient Greek name for stadiums featuring horse and chariot racing) was built in the confused middle-eastern/oriental style of the time that can also be seen in the clothing of Pirot and the continuing popularity of "One Thousand and One Arabian Nights." A custom Looff carousel was installed, and on June 12, 1916 the Hippodrome was opened for a weekend to give customers a taste of delights to come.

On August 4 the pier itself opened, with the Looff family in attendance. The pier's instant popularity only swelled the civic pride, almost already obnoxiously bursting in SoCal boosters hearts. The same month the Hippodrome opened the L.A. Times reported on one "worldly woman" from England who had come away from a one day trip to Los Angeles in an "ecstatic state" over what she found.

Man standing on the pier is looking of the direction of the carousel, ca. 1930s | Courtesy of the Los Angeles Public Library

1930 beach party, with Santa Monica Pier in the background | Courtesy of the Los Angeles Public Library

Heyday and Twilight

"Happiness is a ride on the merry go round." -- Hippodrome Marquee

During the heyday of the Hippodrome, it was not only children who swarmed the carousel. Adults also clambered for the brass rings that were given out for free rides. The carousel's popularity was so great that 24 more animals were installed, as were rocking chairs where spectators could listen to the organ's music and keep an eye on the riders. After all, carousels were a place where a man could grab a woman's waist or hold her hand with seemingly chivalrous intent. On the second floor were perhaps the coolest series of apartments in Los Angeles, where many bohemian types and stoic carousel operator Jockey Stevens made their home.

After Looff's death in 1918, his son Arthur took over the management of the pier. Focused increasingly on other projects, he sold the pier to the Santa Monica Amusement Company in 1923, retaining the franchise and ownership of the Hippordome. The LaMonica ballroom opened next to the Hippodrome in 1924, and featured many of the big bands of the era. A yacht harbor and dock was added in 1934, hence the iconic "Yacht Harbor" sign at the entrance of the pier.

After the Looff's franchise expired, the Looff carousel was removed from the Hippodrome, and a Parker was put in its place. The original carousel was moved to another park before being sold off in pieces to collectors. Walter Newcomb bought the pier in 1943. In 1948 the current Philadelphia Toboggan Company carousel was installed in the Hippodrome.

The seaside amusement industry slowly declined with the advent of cars and inland parks like Disneyland. Almost all of the piers and parks were leveled to make way for high-end housing and hotels. By the '70s many of the Santa Monica pier's attractions, including the LaMonica Ballroom, had been torn down. The city was set to demolish the Hippodrome, along with the rest of the pier, until a large groundswell of local activists, including Robert Redford and Paul Newman (stars of the 1973 film "The Sting," which magically transported the Hippodrome to Chicago) fought to keep it alive.

Enjoying the merry-go-round in 1950 | Shades of L.A. Collection, Courtesy of the Los Angeles Public Library

The Hippodrome in 1966 | Photo by William Reagh, Courtesy of the Los Angeles Public Library

Families in bathing and leisure attire picnic on the grass with the Hippodrome in the background, March 3, 1975 | Herald-Examiner Collection, Courtesy of the Los Angeles Public Library

The Pier Today

So now almost 100 years later, the games have changed. A solar-powered Ferris Wheel was installed on the pier in 1996, only to be replaced by an updated LED-illuminated wheel in 2008. The concrete foundation has been covered with modern wooden decks, with plans to reconstruct portions of the pier in 2013, including the removal of the space-hogging parking spaces on the pier itself.

But the Hippodrome, though perpetually renovated and repainted, remains as it was -- reminding us all of a time when a fun fair covered the SoCal coast, and escape was just a carousel ride away.

The current Merry-Go-Round is not the original, but a 1990 reconstruction of a 1922 carousel, which was installed in 1948 | Photo by Yosuke Kitazawa

The Hippodrome still stands, welcome visitors to the Pier | Photo by Yosuke Kitazawa


1 From a newspaper clipping reproduced in James Harris' The Santa Monica Pier, Angel City Press, 2009

Hadley Meares is a writer, actress and singer who traded one Southland (her home state of North Carolina) for another. She favors the underbelly, the unexplored and the untamed. Naturally she is a regular at the Dresden, where she sings syrupy ballads as often as she can.

Top: Looff Hippodrome today. Photo by Yosuke Kitazawa

About the Author

Hadley Meares is a writer, historian, and singer who traded one Southland (her home state of North Carolina) for another. She is a frequent contributor to Curbed and Atlas Obscura, and leads historical tours all around Los Angeles for Obscura Society LA.
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