RIP Santa Monica Civic Auditorium: Former Punk Haven Finished Holding Concerts

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For the last 55 years, the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium has had all types of boring conventions, cat shows and craft fairs. But it’s also held some amazing concerts; truth be told, its importance to the local rock and punk music scenes cannot be overstated.

Due to a combination of obsolescence and budget cuts, the landmark venue — located at Pico and Main — is finished hosting concerts, though the auditorium will still have some city events.

This news has gone largely under the radar. But that’s a shame, because artists like Iggy Pop, David Bowie, and Queen performed classic shows there in the ’70s, and in the following decades the spot helped propel the national punk movement, hosting acts like X, The Misfits, The Cramps, Bad Religion, and Black Flag.

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Built in 1958 as the third piece of the Santa Monica Civic Center — following the City Hall and the courthouse — the Civic Auditorium was designed by celebrated Los Angeles architect Welton Becket, whose design played a vital role in bringing the talent and audiences of Hollywood and downtown L.A. seaside.

As one of the fathers of mid-twentieth century International Modernism, Becket specialized in impressive buildings with sleek exteriors and geometric patterns. The Civic Auditorium’s 3,000-seat venue had a futuristic façade and immediately attracted a youthful audience.

It became the permanent home of the Santa Monica Symphony Orchestra, not to mention the home of the Academy Awards from 1961-1968. But it also attracted a rabble surfing lot in those years; auditorium employees would complain about the amount of sand brought in for surf fairs and screenings of documentary surf films featuring local long boarders.

The events came complete with skateboard competitions in the parking lot, and performances by SoCal surf bands like the Beach Boys and Chad and Jeremy. Bruce Brown’s groundbreaking film The Endless Summer (1966) premiered at the auditorium — selling out the state-of-the-art, multi-purpose venue for an entire week.

While the auditorium’s first years were filled with classic acts like Liberace, the Dave Brubeck Quartet and the Rat Pack, in 1964 they ran the T.A.M.I. Show (Teenage Awards Music International), a promotional concert film featuring The Rolling Stones, James Brown, The Supremes, Chuck Berry and more. High school students converged, and bookers were encouraged to skew to a younger demographic. Acts like David Bowie, Van Morrison, Iggy Pop, Queen and Lou Reed became venue regulars in the ’70s, visiting the coastal music Mecca a couple times every year.

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When arena rock came into vogue, the venue’s more lucrative bookings began playing elsewhere. That’s when the punk scene took over the Civic Auditorium. In the ’80s and ’90s it was often packed for groups like X, the Misfits, the Cramps, Bad Religion, Buzzcocks and Black Flag. Even The Clash played there, taking advantage of the spot’s retractable seats and open floor plan, which accommodated rowdy crowds. The era, and promoter Goldenvoice’s strong role in fostering it, were celebrated a year and half ago with GV30, a three-day anniversary celebration.

The Santa Monica Civic Auditorium fell out of favor with fans and promoters by the turn of the century, due to its inability to compete with newer state-of-the-art venues like Staples Center and Santa Monica’s Broad Stage. While the last few years have seen acts like My Bloody Valentine, Avicii and Rilo Kiley perform at the Civic Auditorium, most weekends featured crafts fairs, photo and fashion expos and trade shows. The only musical event at the Civic Auditorium in 2013 was the Santa Monica Symphony’s farewell concert to the venue last month, a program of Tchaikovsky.

The city had made plans for a full renovation and earthquake-proofing through a public-private partnership, but the fate of the auditorium fell into limbo last summer, when $50 million in state funding fell through due to budget cuts. Already scheduled to close for the planned restoration at the end of June, its shuttering was announced.

But this might not be its last gasp. In the meantime, the Santa Monica’s City Council has voted to assemble an advisory committee and create an interim plan to save the auditorium through renting out the main hall to film crews and continuing to use the seismically-safe east wing for city wide events.

And while there’s no telling if they’ll be able to fund the multi-million dollar renovation — private funding or a voter-approved bond may be necessary — there’s a chance that the it could reopen as a fully functioning concert venue in five years or so. Here’s to hoping that Santa Monica can turn up the volume again around 2018.

 

Taken from LA Weekly’s music blog: West Coast Sound. Published June 17, 2013

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