The Santa Monica Civic Auditorium is in jeopardy. Our landmarked performing arts center will be shut down and mothballed on June 30, 2013, because the City of Santa Monica can no longer afford the $2 million subsidy to its operating costs every year. The Coalition to Save the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium needs your help. Our goal is to inspire the City of Santa Monica to allow the iconic, International-style venue to be redefined by finding a visionary operator or operators to bring the iconic venue back to life. Please stay informed by checking in with us often. Be a knowledgeable participant in the process and share our posts with your friends!
THE GLORY DAYS
The Santa Monica Civic Auditorium was constructed in 1958 as part of the Santa Monica Civic Center. It was the third in a suite of three major 20th century Civic structures, which include City Hall – 1938 art deco, the Courthouse – 1951 Bauhaus, and the International style Civic Auditorium.
The 3,000-seat auditorium is the only example of the work of master architect Welton Becket in Santa Monica. Becket designed several structures that stand as unique icons in Los Angeles including the Capitol Records Building, the old Music Center, Bullock’s Pasadena, the Beverly Hilton and Century City. All these are buildings that helped form the architectural identity of the City of Los Angeles in the Mid-Century era.
The Civic Auditorium’s mid-century styling only tells part of the story of Becket’s achievement. The Civic is renowned for its unique engineering and landmark use of hydraulic technology that could adapt an assembly space to accommodate avast variety of stage performances, athletic events, and exhibitions. Giant pistons under the main floor allow it to be converted from a raked seating area for stage performances, into a flat surface suitable for trade shows and conferences with the flip of a switch. It has been cited as a forerunner to the retractable domes and flexible seating of contemporary stadiums. The May 1959 issue of “Progressive Architecture” described the acoustical design by UCLA Chancellor Vern O. Knutsen, as “the most perfect and… (deserving of)…a rating higher than that of the Royal Festival Hall in London.”
Performers adored the Civic for it acoustics, intimate size and spectacular location. Artists that appeared at the Civic include Bruce Springsteen, Billy Joel, Beck, Bob Dylan, Andre Previn, Dave Brubeck, the Ramones, Pete Seeger, Ella Fitzgerald,Tony Bennett, Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, Bill Cosby, Bob Hope, Beatnik poet Allen Ginsburg, Elton John, Ray Charles, Arlo Guthrie, the Beach Boys, the Carpenters, Motley Crue, White Zombie, Lenny Kravitz, David Bowie …not to mention several Academy Award presentations and the T.A.M.I. Show – a 1964 concert film featuring performances by numerous popular rock and roll and R&B musicians from the United States and England.
Over time, the Civic could no longer attract the top drawer acts of its glory days because of rising operating costs due to city management practices that were not in line with entertainment industry norms. Instead, it functioned as a full-service rental facility hosting a range of events including concerts, community events, film shoots and award shows, but the majority of the bookings were consumer shows. In fiscal year 2011-12, the Civic hosted 101 events for atotal of 210 use days including days required for set-up and tear down. Of the total, 54 were contracted eventsand 47 were City events, which took place primarily in the East Wing. Under City management, the Civic was staffed with 20 permanent management and event employees and six as-needed employees for specific events. The City believed that this level of staffing was needed due to the predominance of consumer and trade shows that require a great deal of staff time for set up and tear down.
The City of Santa Monica has recently made a number of major investments to the area around the Civic Auditorium, including the large, multi-million dollar Tongva Park across the street, a pedestrian esplanade on nearby Colorado Avenue and the construction of a long-awaited light rail line terminating on Fourth Street, just a couple of blocks away. But the Civic is still in vintage condition, state-of-the-art 1958. With antiquated systems and performance technology, seismic safety concerns, a reliance on unprofitable consumer shows, and a large full-time staff, the Civic Auditorium has been operating at a deficit of $2 million a year.
With the financial downturn of 2008, looking to trim fat from their budget, the City Council turned its attention to the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium. Change was in the wind.
HOW IT CAME TO THIS
Exploring ways to reposition the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium as the cultural heart of the Civic Center area and eliminate the annual $2 million budget line, in March 2009, City Council issued a Request for Qualifications (RFQ), a formal process that sought to identify parties interested in participating in a public/private partnership for the cultural use and programming of the Civic. Ultimately, the City entered into negotiations with the Nederlander Organization. Nederlander runs other storied performance spaces in the Los Angeles area, including the Pantages Theatre and the Greek Theatre. In March 2011 a preliminary agreement was reached. The 3,000-seat Civic Auditorium would be renovated by the City at a cost of $53 million, and given over to the Nederlander organization for booking.
But, the future of the facility was again thrown into question after Santa Monica’s Redevelopment Agency — the source of all the money to fund the rehabilitation — was dissolved in February 2012. The Nederlander deal was suspended. In October 2012, City Council determined that the staff should be reassigned or let go and that the Civic Auditorium would be shut down and mothballed as of June 30, 2013.
There has been strong community and City Council support for the renovation of the Civic, but a lack of capital improvement funds is stalling progress. Sound, lighting and other technical systems within the Civic are outdated, but some believe that with a lean, professional management approach, exciting events can once again be staged there with varying degrees of investment.
On November 30, 2012, a group of concerned citizens met in the coffee shop across Pico Boulevard from the Civic and decided to form an advocacy group that would encourage the city to keep a process moving that would bring the Civic Auditorium back to life. The group is now on Facebook as Save the Santa Monica Civic, and will use that forum to share information about public meetings and studies that will lead to the next steps taken to revitalize the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium.