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Pan Pacific Auditorium and the Flourishing of L.A.'s Leisure Class

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I have been to Pan Pacific Park and Recreation Center several times over the past ten years. In my non-writing life, I work on TV crews. I have worked on productions there and strolled the shaded paths across the street, all without ever really noticing what the park was called. I naively told an Angelino co-worker that I was researching the long gone Pan Pacific Auditorium. "I think it was somewhere on Beverly, but I don't know where." "Hadley, we shot there last year!" he laughed, "at Pan Pacific Park? Right next to the Grove and Farmers Market?" "Oh, I've been there!" I exclaimed. He just shook his head. It was not my finest hour.

I went to the park again recently on a weekday afternoon. When the Pan Pacific Auditorium opened in 1935, it was essentially L.A.'s first convention center. It was famous for its streamline modern façade, especially its distinctive flagpole pylons curved like the fin of a fish. Today, the land it stood on is a purposeful, efficient city park and a flood control district featuring an empty pool, a baseball diamond and a soccer field. The sprawling park teems with diverse people. Children scamper about the clusters of shiny, safe playground equipment. Hasidic women in long skirts push strollers and chat, and young Latinos play basketball. A group of elderly African American men play board games near the park's senior center. There are numerous homeless folk, asleep under the Haym Salomon statue, or eating in the covered picnic areas. Most moving of all is the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust, an excellent free resource that was eerily silent and almost empty when I visited.

There are very few signs of the old Auditorium complex, which burned down in 1989. The Recreation Center facing Beverly Blvd. features a 45-foot spire that pays homage to the auditorium's iconic sea green pylons. There are other markings that may or may not be pieces of the old complex. At odd intervals around the perimeter of the park are mysterious sandy enclosures framed by short wooden fences (perhaps something to do with flood control?). Next to the soccer field, there is a graffiti-covered, sea green structure, reminiscent of a miniature Coit Tower. Soccer players now use it as a place to throw jerseys and lock up their bikes during a game. As I watch a friendly soccer match begin, I smile. This has always been a place of entertainment and fun.

Pan Pacific's current architecture pays tribute to original building. Photo: Hadley Meares.
Pan Pacific's current architecture pays tribute to original building. Photo: Hadley Meares.
Pan Pacific Park.  Photo by Hadley Meares.
Pan Pacific Park. Photo by Hadley Meares.

Southern California Marches On

It was 1935 in Los Angeles. Across the country, the housing and building industry had been ravaged by the Great Depression. Nowhere was this truer than in Los Angeles, where construction had fallen to an "all time low" 2 after the reckless building spree of the 1920s. Formed in 1934, after the passage of the National Housing Act, the Federal Housing Administration sought to make home ownership more affordable for all Americans. It was hoped this would both promote stability and revive various industries. Housing expositions were held throughout the country under the watchful eye of Henry G. Guthrie, national chief of the exhibition section of the FHA. In Los Angeles, FHA agents encouraged the formation of a citizens committee to stage "the most ambitious" housing exposition in the country. A $100,000 cash guarantee fund was raised by the committee. Brothers Clifford and Phillip Henderson took control of the project and secured funding and a 12 ½ acre piece of land near the La Brea Tar Pits.

The exposition, scheduled to open May 18th, 1935, was planned at breakneck speed. The famed L.A. firm of Plummer, Wurderman and Becket was chosen to design the mammoth structure that would house the exposition. They designed what was essentially a 110,000 square foot wooden barn, perfect for housing large scale events. What made the building exceptional was its of-the-moment streamline modern façade, which featured colors and architectural features reminiscent of a sleek and sophisticated ocean liner moving towards the future. The upcoming exposition, billed as a "mini-world's fair" 3 was the subject of a massive media campaign. Pretty starlets were photographed atop scaffolds at the construction site, and 100,000 promotional windshield stickers were distributed across the city. The auditorium was dedicated a scant 56 days after ground was first broken. On May 14th, the L.A. Times reported:

The grounds also included "numerous other demonstration buildings, a midway, Little Theater of the Stars, a model village, children amusement zone and numerous other features."5 Inside "the west's largest exhibition hall,"6 every department store, contractor, etc, in Los Angeles seemed to have their own novel display, while the FHA itself had a booth where inspired visitors could apply for construction loans on the spot. Modern marvels like safe, smokeless stoves and indoor refrigerators were displayed. There were also oddities, like a kitchen door opened by a lighted sensor and a giant "Robot Miss" who extolled the values of natural gas.

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At 8pm on May 18th, the National Housing Expo was dedicated and opened in a grandiose ceremony attended by thousands of Angelinos, including "civic and industrial leaders, public officials and motion picture stars." 7The 500 person-strong Olympiad Chorus, together for the first time since the 1932 Olympics, provided the music. There was a historic pageant, which told the story of "housing through the ages," staged at the Little Theater of the Stars. A model of the Hoover Dam was unveiled in the auditorium. The "Fountain of Fabrics," in the center of the auditorium, was designed by Ken Weber. This 40-foot tall display featured 10,000 yards of the finest drapery the Southland had to offer.

Exterior of the Pan Pacific Auditorium, ca 1930s | Photo: Herman J. Schultheis Collection, Los Angeles Public Library
Exterior of the Pan Pacific Auditorium, ca 1930s | Photo: Herman J. Schultheis Collection, Los Angeles Public Library

The exhibition proved to be a massive success. Visitors loved watching the attractive Miss Kirby conducting daily chores with the latest products in her glass house, while boy scouts were invited to spend a thrilling night on the massive grounds after closing time. On June 2nd, the L.A. Times reported the show would be extended for another week.

After the show closed, it was credited with jumpstarting the construction business in Los Angeles and for helping to bring Depression weary Angelinos a little hope:

Basketball, Big Boats and Begonias

For the next four decades, the highly versatile Pan Pacific Auditorium was the primary showplace for many of L.A.'s biggest industries and dreams. Starting in 1935, the L.A. International Auto Show was held there almost every year. The hugely popular 1936 Air and Boat show, staged "to stimulate interest in aviation and boats," 10 helped cement L.A. as a leader in the aviation business. The show featured a huge Douglas Sleeper plane, a plane owned by Amelia Earhart, and daily performances by a popular big band. When a committee brought the famed Philadelphia Symphony Orchestra, led by Leopold Stokowski, to L.A. for two performances that same year, a special theater seating 13,500 was constructed.

There were also poultry shows featuring prize chickens, and a gala where the auditorium was transformed into the canals of Venice. Loyola Marymount University and UCLA basketball teams both played seasons on the basketball court constructed in the auditorium. In 1938, a mammoth ice skating rink was also added:

Ice skaters standing in the middle of ice skating rink at Pan Pacific Auditorium in Januaty 1939 | Photo: Security Pacific National Bank Collection, Los Angeles Public Library
Ice skaters standing in the middle of ice skating rink at Pan Pacific Auditorium in Januaty 1939 | Photo: Security Pacific National Bank Collection, Los Angeles Public Library

 

The rough and tumble Hollywood Wolves ice hockey team was part of the short lived Southern California Hockey League (later the Pacific Coast Hockey League). The team was made up mostly of former USC players who called the ice rink home during the 1940s. The hugely popular Ice Capades and other ice skating shows were also staged on the rink. The "Pan Pac" also continued to host annual home and garden shows, which further transformed the space:

Post-war California experienced a boom in prosperity that few could have imagined in the dark days of 1935. During the 1950s and 1960s, the Pan Pac was bustling with leisure activity- you could watch the Harlem Globetrotters play the hapless Washington Generals, see Elvis performing at the height of his notoriety or catch a speech given by Eisenhower a month before he became president. There were live broadcasts of the popular show "Queen for a Day." There were annual home shows, sporting shows, car shows and the popular "do-it-yourself" show. In 1955, a small "do-it-yourself" prefab plane made an unusual landing onto the grounds of the Pan Pac as a publicity stunt to publicize the show:

Full of Pigeons and Leaks
Of course, the golden times could not last forever. With the opening of the mammoth L.A. Convention Center in 1971, the dated Pan Pac was rendered obsolete. It closed in 1972. It quickly became a hulking, decaying wasteland, essentially abandoned by the estate of auto manufacturer El Cord, who had bought the Auditorium in 1947. Graffiti covered the auditorium and its surrounding structures, which included a bowling alley and the outdoor theater. Derelicts and drug users snuck into the auditorium frequently, accidently setting small fires that brought out local authorities. In 1978, the auditorium was listed on the National Register of Historic Places. In 1979, after years of back and forth, the state, county and city bought the auditorium and surrounding land (a total of 28 acres) for $10.45 million. It became a cult icon in the early '80s, when it was used as a location in the camp classic Xanadu.

However, this did not change the Pan Pac's sorry state. While some of the land was converted into a flood control plane and public park, the auditorium languished. Neighbors complained the park was overrun with the same undesirables who continued to call the auditorium home. In 1985, a much touted 22 million dollar plan for a complex featuring an American Cinematheque film center, hotel and retail center was announced by Councilman Ed Edelman, who worked tirelessly for years to rehabilitate the Pan Pac.

However, this plan fell apart. Other plans in the works were rendered obsolete on the evening of May 24, 1989:

A homeless man was suspected of starting the blaze, but this theory was never proven. Ironically, the same week the Pan Pac was destroyed, a model of the iconic façade was unveiled as the entrance of the new Disney/MGM Studios Theme Park in Orlando, Florida. So the design lives on, with thousands of excited people streaming under its green and white pylons daily. It seems a fitting tribute.


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1 "Greater strides in home construction," LA Times, May 16, 1935
2 "How the pan pac came about," LA Times, April 16, 1978
3 "Fair Hands Speed Building" LA Times, April 28, 1935
4 "Prize home wins" LA Times, May 14, 1935
5 "Housing show gains impetus" LA Times, May 5, 1935
6 "House show on tonight" LA Times, May 18, 1935
7 "House show on tonight" LA Times May 18, 1935
8 "Home show extended" LA Times, June 2, 1935
9 "Home show extended" LA Times, June 2, 1935
10 "Air and sea show opens" LA Times Feb 2, 1936
11 "Tone welcomes conductor" LA Times, April 28, 1936
12 "Huge ice rink planned for Pan Pacific Auditorium" LA Times, May 24, 1938
13 "Flowers form dream garden at Pan Pacific Auditorium" LA Times, June 8, 1941
14 "PIC blonde helps land plane" LA Times, July 19, 1955
15 "Fire destroys Pan Pacific Auditorium" LA Times, May 25, 1989

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