By Marty Liboff
After Abbot Kinney opened his amazing Venice of America in 1905 with beautiful Italian Renaissance style buildings and miles of canals, he dreamed of bringing fine culture to L.A. He built an auditorium on his new pier at Windward Ave. and planned fine arts with opera, classical music and Shakespeare. He managed to get the lady once called the greatest actress of all time, Sarah Bernhardt, to come in 1906 to play Tosca and parts from other plays. She parked her private rail car on the pier and every night had dinner with Abbot. It was rumored that the sometimes cross dressing Sarah had an affair with the married Abbot Kinney!
Although her engagement was a success, it soon became quite apparent that the idea of fine culture for most people in L.A. was bars, gambling, amusement park rides, bathing beauties, and dance halls. Kinney then built a giant dance hall near the auditorium. In the next few years, several dance halls were built in Venice and Ocean Park. Venice had the Venice Ballroom and the Sunset Ballroom. On the Ocean Park pier, that started in Venice at Navy street, there came to be several dance halls or ballrooms. On the Santa Monica pier the great La Monica Ballroom was later built.
It is hard to imagine today, but before TV, computers and iphones, many people would go ballroom dancing for entertainment. Visitors would come down here to the beach to gamble, swim, dance and go to several huge bath houses. Across from the Ocean Park pier was the grand Palace Dance Hall. On the Ocean Park pier was the Casino Gardens Ballroom where the jazz great Tommy Dorsey played. There was also the amazing Egyptian Ballroom with ancient Egyptian statues and paintings. On the south side of the pier at Navy street in Venice was the Bon Ton Ballroom. This ballroom had several names during its day, and was the last of the great old ballrooms on our Ocean Front to close. The Bon Ton, or Aragon Ballroom, is the one I remember.
The Bon Ton Ballroom was opened in 1922 on the south side of the Ocean Park pier in Venice. The south side of the pier in Venice was sometimes called the Lick Pier. In 1924, a massive fire consumed the entire pier. The pier was quickly rebuilt with a new Bon Ton Ballroom. In 1942 it was renamed the Aragon Ballroom after a famous club back east. Many great old jazz bands played at the Aragon Ballroom on the pier in Venice. In the 1940s, Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey with Frank Sinatra, and Harry James and his band played at the Aragon. During World War Two, the ballrooms were filled all the time by workers from Douglas Aircraft and locals who needed a break from the war. The Douglas Aircraft Company was next to the Santa Monica Airport on Ocean Park Blvd. In 1950, Kirk Douglas shot part of his movie”Young Man With A Horn” in the Aragon Ballroom.
After the war, business was down on the piers. In 1946 the city of L.A. decided they didn’t want the Venice pier anymore and they ended the lease. Sadly, in 1947 the wonderful Venice pier was demolished with its dance halls, auditorium, rides and the Venice movie theater. The Ocean Park pier didn’t have the competition anymore and did better.
In the mid 1940s, the self named King of Country Swing Music, Spade Cooley played at the Venice Ballroom, and for a time at the Aragon. In the late 1940s he moved to the large La Monica Ballroom on the Santa Monica pier. He became a giant sensation when he went on TV. When I was a child we’d always tune in on TV and watch Spade play his country fiddle, or “fidoodlin”. He was a big star until, while drunk, he horribly beat and killed his wife Ella Mae. He called her “the purtiest little filly in California!”. He wrote a love song to her called,”Spadella”. In one of his drunken rages, he imagined she was having an affair with the famous movie star, the King of the Cowboys, Roy Rogers! Spade was convicted in a sensational trial. It was as big news at the time as the O.J. Simpson trial was! One of Spade’s big hit songs was, “Shame On You!”.
In 1951, Lawrence Welk and his “Champagne Music Orchestra” took over at the Aragon Ballroom. He also went on TV and became a great success. Ballroom dancers packed the dance floor as Lawrence played polka and pop hits on his accordion and led his big band with a, “anda one, anda two…”. He had a bubble machine blowing bubbles like champagne. Many musicians and singers became famous on his show. When I was a kid, I was in love with the lovely young Lennon Sisters who sang on the show. They became huge stars. Welk’s son discovered them while attending Venice High School with the older sisters. A couple of the Lennon brothers also played music later in the local rock band called ‘Venice’.
Occasionally the Aragon Ballroom had special events. In the early 1960s with the anti-communist madness going on in America, there were anti-commie rallies held there.
In 1958 the Ocean Park Pier was transformed into a fantastic ocean themed amusement pier called Pacific Ocean Park (P.O.P.). Lawrence Welk continued with his orchestra on TV in the Aragon Ballroom at P.O.P. until he moved to Hollywood in 1961. For a short time the big band leader Freddy Martin took over at the Aragon. However, the days of the old big bands was coming to a close. Pacific Ocean Park already had success with that crazy new music called rock & roll. The Aragon Ballroom would soon rise again, reincarnated into one of the greatest rock and roll clubs of all time… I’ll tell you about it next month…
(For more history read: Venice California: ‘Coney Island of the Pacific’ by Jeffrey Stanton and Pacific Ocean Park by Christopher Merritt and Domenic Priore).