RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
On this Labor Day, the traditional end of summer, we're going to take you on a trip to the Santa Monica Pier. Its Ferris Wheel hovering over the ocean is the vision one has as Route 66 ends and the California coast comes into view. This week, the Pier is celebrating its 100th birthday. Stroll down and you'll find much unchanged from its earliest day. It still abounds in characters, kids are having too much fun to stop and talk, fishermen are throwing up their lines, and there are tourists from around the world.
Mr. PAUL SPARKS: I just came along to see what Santa Monica was like. I used to live in Brighton in England, where there's a very famous old pier. So I'm kind always quite drawn to piers, just feel some urge to walk along to the end of them rather like mountains that you feel you ought to get to the top of.
MONTAGNE: We found Paul Sparks taking in the scene around him on the wooden planks of the pier.
Mr. SPARKS: It's quite similar to British ones actually. I mean it's got most of the same ingredients a little fun fair and a lot of kiosks. I have found there is a gypsy fortune teller yet, but there probably is one somewhere.
MONTAGNE: In fact there is. A most life like fortune teller inside an old-fashioned glass case holding in her hands a glowing crystal ball, offering to predict your future life if you just drop in a quarter.
(Soundbite of noise)
MONTAGNE: Of the many choices, I can be an actress, heiress, seamstress, rag picker, nudist or rich widow. Okay, here it goes.
(Soundbite of music)
MONTAGNE: Rich widow. Gee, I just missed being a nudist.
MONTAGNE: These fortune tellers sits inside the old Hippodrome, which contains the carousel, the pride of the pier, hand-painted wooden horses have been spinning around since 1916 and still have a magical power over the children who dash in to ride them.
You're waiting to ride the carousel. Are you going to spot the perfect horse?
Unidentified Child: Yeah.
MONTAGNE: Do you have any idea, from looking at them now, which one you like the best?
Unidentified Child: That one.
MONTAGNE: The white one with the kind of blue and green saddle, where that women - mother is with her little girl in her arm
Unidentified Child: Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah
Unidentified Woman #2: Looks like she's getting it.
(Soundbite of laughter)
MONTAGNE: People actually used to live here in the Hippodrome, upstairs in apartments that encircle the carousel. These days they're offices and the pier's historian James Harris has one.
MONTAGNE: So, when you're working here, you really know you're on the pier though.
Mr. JAMES HARRIS (Historian; Author, Santa Monica Pier: A Century on the Last Great Pleasure Pier): Oh, yes. At 11 o'clock it starts, at 11 o'clock sharp everyday. Everyday except Tuesday, Tuesday it's closed for maintenance and we're trying to get as much done on Tuesday as we can.
(Soundbite of laughter)
MONTAGNE: James Harris is the perfect person for a guided tour. He's just written a history of the Santa Monica Pier, subtitled, A Century on the Last Great Pleasure Pier. Along the way, we pass the arcade where the teenagers hang out and the roller coaster
(Soundbite of roller coaster)
MONTAGNE: and arrived at the end where generations of local fishermen have been hoping for a big catch. There, Harris introduces us to a real old timer.
Mr. HARRIS We are at Santa Monica Pier Bait & Tackle shop, and the gentleman who owns and runs it has spent more time on the pier than anyone I know. He's
MONTAGNE: Before we can shake hands, he's called out to the end of the pier with his large net to help one lucky fisherman.
(Soundbite of clapping)
Mr. JOHN VOLASKI (Co-owner, Pier Bait & Tackle Shop): He just caught a Halibut.
MONTAGNE: John Volaski is co-owner of the Bait & Tackle shop, a tiny outpost with a ceiling papered in foreign currency from all the tourists who've passed through since he took over nearly 20 years ago.
(Soundbite of noise)
Mr. VOLASKI: One dollar nine cents.
MONTAGNE: But his life on the pier began many years earlier.
Mr. VOLASKI: I've been here since - I can go back to about 1945. I was a five-year-old kid when I started coming down here. My parents made a big mistake. My mom took me down here and that was it. When I was little I couldn't find my way down just by walking down here, because I was afraid, I get lost. So, I come up with the big idea of following up railroad track. And I've just followed on railroad track and I have just come right here at the top of the pier. So, here I am.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. VOLASKI: I'm still coming down here.
MONTAGNE: Turns out there are many people who spend their days here, right outside the Bait & Tackle shop is Daniel Farmer(ph).
Mr. DANIEL FARMER: I've been fishing on this pier since 1969 when I got back to Vietnam and we've caught a lot of fish off this pier.
MONTAGNE: Halibut, mackerel, queen fish. James Harris says some think one of those connected with fishing on the pier back in the 1920s and 30s, led to a character out of the comic pages - spinach-loving sailorman by the name of Popeye, created by E.C. Segar.
Mr. JAMES HARRIS: The artist who drew Popeye - he and his assistant would come down to the pier everyday and rent a skiff, a little rowboat, which they would take off the end of pier and they would discuss story ideas. Now, everyday that they walked to the end of the pier, they encountered one of the fishing boat captains. His name was Olaf Olsen. He was a retired sailor and he had a very distinct look and it turned out that his look became the physical model of the cartoon character Popeye.
MONTAGNE: By the way you can judge for yourself, there's a photo at npr.org. And it's not just cartoons. The Santa Monica Pier is also showed up in the movies. Among its cameos, Forrest Gump made a stop here. The pier was where Paul Newman and Robert Redford cooked up the big con and what was supposed to be depression-era Chicago.
(Soundbite of movie, The Sting)
Mr. ROBERT REDFORD (Actor): (As Johnny Hooker) Listen Gondorff, am I gonna learn to play the big con or not?
Mr. PAUL NEWMAN (Actor): (As Henry Gondorff) What's your hurry?
Mr. REDFORD: (As Johnny Hooker) I want to play for Lonnegan.
MONTAGNE: And long before that movie, as a little boy growing up in the 1930s, not far from the pier, Robert Redford experienced a most cinematic moment here.
Mr. REDFORD: It's funny how, as you get older and you look back on your life, there's just a series of moments that flash before your eyes. And one of them that's been with me my whole life, is that being walked along the boardwalk, and suddenly there's this kid in front of me with a sailor cap on. A kind of tough kid - a lot of the kids around there were tough - and him looking at me and saying: yeah, well, I'm five, so I'm older than you. So, he must've asked me how old I was. I must have said four. But what I remember was the pier behind him, and the carousel. And the carousel going around and around, hearing that discordant sound, you know, when a sound travels through space, it gets distorted like a Good Humor truck going down the neighborhood street.
I remember that discordant sound and seeing the spinning wheel. And that was an imprint in my head that I never lost.
(Soundbite of sea wave)
MONTAGNE: E.B. White once wrote, I see nothing in space as promising as the view from a Ferris wheel. So, why not end our visit high above the Santa Monica Pier, swaying in an ocean breeze.
MONTAGNE: Sitting up here on the Ferris wheel it's like being in the clouds. Plus, we're in this little bucket which is quite nice. It makes you feel like you're floating above the sea, like you could fall and it would still be okay.
MONTAGNE: Ending the summer on the edge of the California coast, celebrating the 100th anniversary at the Santa Monica Pier; this is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.