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Pier Pressure : The Ash Grove Tries for a Comeback in Santa Monica

The question is: Can small make it in a world of big going on Big and BIGGER?

Here at the foot of Colorado Avenue, where a roller blade skater mindlessly shuttles from car bumper to car bumper, is the Santa Monica Pier and one Ed Pearl, trying to make it back, trying to make it small scale.

If Santa Monica were Long Beach, the folks there might be talking about a Port Disney. If it were San Francisco, they might be talking a Pier 39. If Santa Monica were San Diego, they’d be talking a Mission Bay.

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Instead, some Santa Monica Pier officials are talking comeback. Small and modest, of course, with a strong dose of show business, games, food, sunshine and the eternal, looping landscape of that majestic bay.

Ed Pearl also thinks small. Maybe that’s why this L.A. resident blends in so well with Santa Monica. He’s the once-upon-a-time UCLA dropout who, in the late ‘50s through the early ‘70s, ran the Ash Grove, Los Angeles’ shrine to folk music and the 12-string steel guitar. Now he’s trying to revive the club on the pier at Santa Monica.

The Ash Grove opened the eyes, ears and minds of a whole generation of Los Angeles kids to folk and ethnic music, “world music.” The Ash Grove was a jumping-off point for the barefoot wanna-bes of their time--Linda Ronstadt, an acoustic Bob Dylan, Phil Ochs.

But a fire ended the original effort on Melrose Avenue and the Wall Street plunge of 1988 frightened off Pearl’s supporters for a new club.

Despite his losses, Pearl continued to produce benefit shows for the political and social issues that were close to him. Last year a Pete Seeger concert he staged at a junior high school brought in close to $30,000 for Sunset Hall, a retirement home for radicals of another era.

“We could have sold out the Santa Monica Civic that night,” Pearl said.

That night generated equal enthusiasm from two directors of the Sunset Hall: a new Ash Grove headed by Pearl, one that would reflect the changing diversities of L.A. culture. This time, the effort would have most of the undertrappings of the Establishment: a formal investment offering, legal advice, consultants, a board of directors. A proper title: Ash Grove Enterprises Inc.

It was about this time that Pearl and the Pacific met.

The 83-year-old Santa Monica Pier also has had its share of natural and man-made difficulties. Eight years ago, half of it was lost to a major storm and high tides. Over the years, summer visitors began to drift off increasingly to such cultural beacons as Disneyland and Universal City.

City officials fell back and regrouped, however, quickly setting up the Santa Monica Pier Restoration Corp., a not-for-profit urban renewal program. Now headed by John E. Gilchrist as executive director, the restoration board hopes to refashion what nature and the neighborhood couldn’t demolish. But small and modest, of course.

Almost $12 million has been spent in developing and restoring the pier, new areas for amusements, games, recreation and entertainment. Its 10 free Thursday-night pop-music concerts during the summer carry a $110,000 budget. To maintain open space, only one-fourth of the pier’s nine acres will ever be developed or redeveloped. Private operators also have spent large sums on upgrading projects.

“We have a sense of pierness here,” says Gilchrist.

Eventually the pier will have upgraded restaurants, a dance club, a dinner theater. Possibly an open-air theater. All plans are in place, except the future of one building.

It’s the greenish, 75-year-old, two-story building at the start of the pier, next to the restored carousel. It’s called the Billiard Building for no better reason than the game was once played there. It’s here that some city officials hope a new Ash Grove might be located, another effort by the city to lure entertainment interests to their shores. The city now claims several new museums, movie complexes, 40 art galleries and numerous restaurants.

For most of this year, Pearl and his advisers have been trying to meet the city’s requirements for building improvements and developments. Other people equally interested in the building have studied the project and moved on. Pearl’s group says it’s raised almost $300,000 of the $525,000 required by the restoration board for interior improvements. Pearl thinks he’ll have it all by an end-of-the-month deadline. That’s why he’s put together a staff, has had plans made to double the space in the building with a second floor, and has a commitment from a well-known restaurateur.

When Pearl visits the Billiard Building he talks enthusiastically of “real music,” “real people,” “honest music,” morning children’s shows and afternoon sundowners, day programs and late-night music: jazz, blues, folk, country, ethnic, Afro, Caribbean. And for the second generation of Ash Grove followers, an infant crying room upstairs.

“When some Santa Monica people first encouraged me to come here,” Pearl says, “they tried to get me to go to the Third Street Promenade. It was too commercial for me. Then I saw the pier. As soon as I walked on it and saw all those different faces, it struck me as the right place.”

Most of the money raised so far for the Ash Grove project has come from friends and people who remember the musical traditions of the original club. Pearl has been disappointed, however, with the lack of support from the music industry. But with a new board member, Paul A. Rothchild, a 31-year veteran record producer and music producer for Oliver Stone’s movie “The Doors,” he thinks that can change.

“Many of today’s music executives got their early successes with folk music and folk artists,” Rothchild says. “They could help out.”

For this summer season, reconstruction work on the pier has shut down. But deadlines aren’t on hiatus. On June 23, the board will ask for bids on exterior work on the Billiard Building. In late July, the bids will be processed and in October the physical work will begin.

By the summer of 1993 the pier’s restoration will be completed: 40% of the space for entertainment and amusements, another 40% for restaurants, the rest for “retail, education and water oriented.”

But long before that date, Pearl and the restoration board hope to answer the question: Can small make it in a world of big?


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