The Santa Monica Pier is famous the world over for its historic neon “Yacht Harbor” sign and solar-powered Ferris wheel, but to local residents on the West side of Los Angeles, the Pier is most revered as the venue for the Twilight Concerts. This storied, West side tradition happened every summer for 35 years and brought world-renowned musicians and musical acts to a stage by the Pacific. In the later years, thousands of music lovers flocked to the expansive sandy beaches surrounding the Pier every Thursday night to enjoy the evening air and distant sounds of the bands playing on the Pier deck. Over the decades, the Twilight Concerts were called many things, and saw many changes as the Pier evolved from a humble fishing outpost to one of the world’s most visited entertainment destinations as is summarized by Pier Historian James Harris in his book, Santa Monica Pier: A Century on the Last Great Pleasure Pier:
“The Twilight Dance Series
The success of 1983’s Save the Pier Week caused an eye-popping realization: the Santa Monica Pier is a great concert venue. Katharine King, the woman responsible for the entertainment during Save the Pier Week, recognized the potential immediately. Not since the glory days of the La Monica Ballroom had the pier hosted regular concerts, and King decided to regenerate the excitement of those days with current, unique entertainers. The next year, King assembled another free concert series, this one running for four weeks in the middle of summer. The City took notice of the series’ popularity, and in 1985 the Santa Monica Arts Commission budgeted seven thousand dollars for King to produce a free event that would allow dancing on the pier. What she created was a concert/dance series that ran for seven weeks throughout the summer.
King determined that the shows should be scheduled during its most magnificent time of day—sunset. She considered Thursday nights to be ideal because they were “almost the weekend,” increasing the likelihood that the public would come to enjoy a weeknight out with only one more work day ahead. Upon assembling it all, she named the series the “First Annual Santa Monica Twilight Dance Series.” A summertime tradition was born.
For the first four years King managed to provide exceptional shows on a minimal budget. An established producer/promoter before the inception of the series, King was able to rely on professional friendships, bringing in quality acts such as Poncho Sanchez and the Rhythm Kings, acts a limited budget wouldn’t otherwise afford. In 1989, corporate sponsorships helped fund the series, enabling King to afford acts such as Bo Diddley and Los Lobos. The series quickly developed a reputation for mixing lesser-known international acts with classics in the musical world. Such an eclectic mix helped the series grow into the premier event in Santa Monica as well as one of the longest lasting, free concert series in Southern California.”
In 2012, the Santa Monica Pier Restoration Corporation, who manages free programing on the Pier, renamed the summer shows The Twilight Concert Series and began to seek more national acts and regional draws. By the summer of 2017, tens-of-thousands of concert goers commuted to the western reaches of Los Angeles just to pitch a beach towel on the sand by the Pier to enjoy the free performances. The popularity of the concerts culminated on June 22nd of that summer when Khalid, an up-and-coming hip-hop sensation, drew an estimated 30,000 fans to the beach-side enclave of Santa Monica.
Concerned the City’s infrastructure could not continue to support ongoing free summer programming of this magnitude, City leaders directed the Santa Monica Pier Corporation to rethink the series. In 2018, Twilight on the Pier was announced. This re-imagined Twilight was an art and cultural celebration featuring performances from emerging local and international musical acts, art installations, and standup comedy.
Twilight is just one aspect to the Pier’s cultural and artistic importance in the City of Los Angeles. Based on the success of Twilight, the Santa Monica Pier Restoration Corporation expanded their free public programing to include an annual outdoor movie series called the “Santa Monica Drive-in at the Pier” that later became “Front Porch Cinema”, a Saturday morning concert series called “Wake Up with the Waves” for local youths, and “Opera at the Beach”, a live simulcast of operatic performances from the LA Opera.
To learn more about the Twilight Dance Series and the history of the Santa Monica Pier, check out Santa Monica Pier: A Century on the Last Great Pleasure Pier by James Harris, available from Angel City Press.