Pacific Ocean Park profiles the former Venice Beach theme park that, for a time in the early-to-mid-'60s, rivaled Disneyland in innovation, if not appeal.
Pacific Ocean Park (P.O.P.) closed in 1968 and was razed into the sea by 1975. But in its heyday, acts like Sam Cooke, Johnny Cash, Ritchie Valens, The Doors and The Byrds all played the pier's legendary Cheetah Club.
“P.O.P.,” says Domenic Priore, who wrote the book along with Chris Merritt, “was the final gestation of an original idea that goes back to the 1890s renaissance in public space, which gave us Central Park, Golden Gate Park, the Chicago World's Fair, Coney Island and Venice of America.”
The author views P.O.P. — with its cross-arched Garden of Neptune, suspended orb ride and tiki-lava railroad — as the kind of whimsical modernism that too often gets overlooked by preservationists and historians of serious mid-century architecture. That may be changing, however.
The new photo-laden book — whose full title is Pacific Ocean Park: The Rise and Fall of Los Angeles' Space-Age Nautical Pleasure Pier and which boasts an unpublished poster from a show that Pink Floyd (with Syd Barrett) played at the pier in 1967 — leaves no salient detail out, including the once-vibrant park's final state of decay.
It follows in a tradition of Los Angeles-focused books decrying the wrecking ball.
In 1959, as the last Victorian mansions of downtown's Bunker Hill were being flattened, an illustrator named Leo Politi drew each edifice for a self-published book he titled simply, Bunker Hill. Politi, who made his mark as the author of over thirty children's books, called it “a book of protest.” Where this type of literature was once rare, in recent decades preservation has become something of a cottage industry. Of note, Googie: Fifties Coffee Shop Architecture by Alan Hess and The Book of Tiki by Sven Kiersten delighted in the kitsch of the period before they later birthed a movement.
In similar fashion, songwriter Gabriel Kahane's recent album The Ambassador is a pop music travelogue through L.A.'s more lyrical modernist architecture. Kahane's enthusiasm for such structures (evoked in lyrics like, “a cantilevered beach house with clerestory windows”) is tempered by the ache of the lives lived inside them. Anchoring each song to an address — “Bradbury (304 Broadway),” “Griffith Park (2800 E. Observatory Ave.)” — he exposes the hidden ghosts that abide beneath a city best known for its surfaces.
Kahane — who grew up in Venice and whose father was director of the L.A. Chamber Orchestra — lives in Brooklyn these days. He points to the razing of the Ambassador Hotel in 2006 as the moment his sensitivity for the city returned. “It was,” claims the songwriter, “the first widely publicized battle where it seemed like a huge swath of Angelenos had a sense of their own history.”
In that way, The Ambassador recalls other recent location-based song cycles such as the High Llamas' acerbic Hawaii (1996), Sufjan Stevens' two folk-epics, Michigan (2003) and Illinoise (2005), and Ry Cooder's soulful Chavez Ravine (also '05). In each, the line between the political, the material and the ineffable blurs.
For Kahane's title song “The Ambassador (3400 Wilshire Blvd),” the old hotel where Robert Kennedy was assassinated in 1968 is viewed from the perspective of its loyal doorman, who sticks around through the structure's final days, capturing dim and dull impressions that shine only later in the memory's cave. The irony is that both city and city-dweller stumble upon an identity in places like P.O.P., the Ambassador and Bunker Hill only after they've disappeared. They live on today as literary constructions, activated in their newest form as works of protest.