California

Santa Monica Civic Auditorium to close after 55 years as cultural mecca

Santa Monica Civic Auditorium to close after 55 years as cultural mecca
The Santa Monica Civic Auditorium was the site of the Academy Awards in 1962. Many notable musicians performed there, including Bob Dylan, Prince and Dave Brubeck.
(Los Angeles Times, Los Angeles Times)

In the summer of 1958, Santa Monica inaugurated its dazzling concrete, glass and steel Civic Auditorium, an emblem of the mid-century modern International Style then popular throughout the world.

Two blocks from the ocean, the Civic played host to the Academy Awards through much of the 1960s. Comedians Bill Cosby and Bob Hope performed there, and the exiled Dalai Lama led a “Wheel of Time” initiation ceremony for thousands of Buddhists in 1989.

The 3,000-seat venue became a musical mecca for artists as varied as Eric Clapton, Frank Sinatra, the Village People, Dave Brubeck, Laura Nyro, Ella Fitzgerald, Prince and Bob Dylan. And it was the scene of the mythic 1964 Teenage Awards Music International concert, which showcased a fiery James Brown, Chuck Berry, the Beach Boys, the Supremes, Marvin Gaye and the Rolling Stones, all immortalized in a legendary film spotlighting screaming fans and exuberant go-go dancers.

PHOTOS: Santa Monica Civic Auditorium

“Pretty much everybody saw their first rock concert there,” said Jessica Cusick, the city’s cultural affairs manager.

Over the years, larger, better-equipped facilities opened in Southern California, and the city-owned Civic lost its luster, fell into disrepair and began losing money. On Sunday, 55 years after it its showy debut, the auditorium will go dark. Its future is uncertain, but preservation-minded residents have made it clear that they want the venue to have one.

When it opened, the $2.9-million Civic Auditorium was hailed in The Times as “the last word in modern convention hall construction.”

Designed by Welton Becket, the celebrated architect behind the distinctive Capitol Records tower, the building was made of reinforced concrete and combined the finest elements of a theater, concert hall, and trade show and convention auditorium. Parabolic pylons supported the exterior grand cantilevered canopy fronting a glass curtain wall and brise-soleil, a patterned wall that reduced the effects of the sun’s glare.

The most widely touted innovation was the auditorium’s main floor, which in a matter of seconds could be tilted or lowered by a hydraulic mechanism to form raked seating for theatrical productions or a flat surface for dancing or exhibits. The main hall also featured metal acoustical panels and wall sconces, attributed to Vern O. Knudsen, an authority on architectural acoustics who also served, briefly, as chancellor of UCLA.

In the 1980s and ‘90s, punk artists such as Bad Religion and Buzzcocks packed the Civic.

The city designated the building a landmark in 2001. By then, big-name acts had begun favoring arenas such as Staples Center. In recent years, other performers gravitated to Santa Monica’s Broad Stage, among other venues. Musical bookings all but ceased.

Lately, the Civic has been devoted to craft and antiques fairs, photo and fashion expos, and trade shows. The Santa Monica Symphony in May played a Tchaikovsky concert to bid farewell to the venue.

The auditorium’s systems and performance technologies are antiquated, and the building needs seismic upgrades, according to a staff report prepared for the City Council. It also has been operating at an annual deficit of as much as $2 million, which the city has had to cover.

Santa Monica began years ago to plan for a $51.9-million renovation using redevelopment funds and negotiated with the Nederlander Organization to book events. That effort was suspended after Gov. Jerry Brown dissolved community redevelopment agencies.

For a time, there was talk of razing the building and putting in soccer fields and other amenities, but preservationists mustered support for saving it as a cultural facility.

“I don’t think anybody wants to knock it down,” said Nina Fresco, a landmarks commissioner who heads Save the Santa Monica Civic, a group that promotes the formation of an expert task force to chart the Civic’s course.

Cusick is in firm agreement. “I think the city has made it clear it sees a future for this building,” she said, “and the community has said they want that to be a cultural future.” Cusick said she expected that the working group, once assembled, would take 18 months to two years to develop a plan. Among uses suggested so far are film screenings or film festivals, live theater productions and concerts, and restaurants. Cusick said any plan would probably require a combination of funding sources for renovations and programming.

“I think all of those things are on the table,” Mayor Pam O’Connor said. “But that can be done within the wonderful exterior of the mid-century modern Civic.”

In the meantime, the facility will be available for rent for filming and sound-stage work or for community meetings.

The Civic, on Main Street at the southwestern edge of the city’s Civic Center, has lost its oomph just as the city is poised for big changes in the auditorium’s frontyard. The long-planned redevelopment of the Civic Center area is underway. The new multi-acre Tongva Park is nearing completion, as are shops and more than 300 condos and rental apartments at a $350-million development. In 2015, the Expo Line light rail will roll into town.

Other familiar sites are facing similar threats. Preservation activists are rallying to save the Works Progress Administration-era Post Office on 5th Street, which the federal government plans to sell, and the anti-nuclear-war “Chain Reaction” sculpture by Paul Conrad, which has stood near the Civic Auditorium since 1991 but is in need of repair and maintenance that the city has said it cannot afford.

For Cusick, such community issues have become part of the landscape. “To quote Bob Dylan,” she said, “the times they are a-changin’.”

martha.groves@latimes.com