Over 100 years of history surrounds the pavilion.

Pavilion Historical Facts

In a letter, dated September 20, 1905, the War Department in Washington granted Newport Bay Investment Company permission to construct and maintain a building for purposes of a “boat-house, bath-house, and pavilion” with 210 feet of water frontage.

The Pavilion was built by a group of promoters. The promoters recognized Balboa’s potential as a seaside and bay recreational area. They formed “Newport Bay Investment Company” in the early 1900s “to formalize their vision.”

The Balboa Pavilion was constructed by contractor, Chris McNeil. Just five years before, McNeil had built the red sandstone courthouse in Santa Ana. The Balboa Pavilion is recognized for its long sloping roof line and ornate Victorian cupola at its crown.

During construction, the Pavilion could only be reached by boat or, with great difficulty, on a sandy road. However, construction of this wooden Victorian design building was fully completed on July 1, 1906 to coincide with the completion of the Pacific Electric Red Car Line which began at or near Pasadena, wound down through Los Angeles and Long Beach and ended in central Balboa. Further, the nearby Balboa ocean pier was concurrently constructed as a sister project to the Pavilion to attract land buyers. Lastly, the Balboa Hotel was rapidly built in just ten days to coincide with the opening of the red line.

When the rail line opened on July 4, 1906, nearly one thousand beach-goers took the one-hour train ride on the red cars from Los Angeles to enjoy the beach, Pavilion and pier.

Suddenly, the empty, barren sand spit previously designated as “swamp and overflow” land (today called the Balboa Peninsula), became an accessible destination for summer holidays. People from more congested areas on the coast began to flock Newport. People began to purchase property in the area. Rows of flimsy beach cottages sprang up nearby. The Newport Investment Company’s plan, which included their $15,000 investment in the Pavilion, had worked. According to one source, they recouped their investment by selling lots within the first year of opening the Pavilion.

Later that year, the Balboa ferry service commenced which connected the Balboa peninsula with Corona del Mar.

All of the above helped secure the future of the Pavilion.

The original building consisted of a large 8,000 square foot meeting room on the second story and a simple bathhouse on the first floor where people could change from street attire into outfits called “Bathing Suits.”

Sometime between 1910 and 1920, for a period of five years, the post office operated from the Pavilion. Further, there was a barber shop which employed an infamous barber called “Lucky Tiger Jack.” He was so named by the locals because he was always drinking his Lucky Tiger hair tonic.

Regarding the post office, according to Phil Tozer, the only way to get from Newport Beach to Corona del Mar by car was on a dirt road that went around the back bay, practically into Santa Ana. Therefore, the Pavilion served as a mail station for mail that left there by ferryboat for Corona del Mar.

Shortly thereafter, yearly Fourth of July bathing beauty parades brought large gatherings of people to Balboa. The contestants would parade around Balboa and return in front of the Pavilion for contest judging.

In the early 1920’s, bathing suit rentals were a thriving business. Also popular were boat rentals and sight-seeing excursions. The Pavilion continues to offer these same two activities today.

In 1923, the Pavilion underwent remodeling making it more suitable for dancing.

By 1928, sport fishing boats began operating out of the Pavilion.

The 1930's ushered in the Big Band era. On weekends at the Pavilion, you could listen to Count Basie, Benny Goodman, and the Dorseys. Phil Harris and his band played regularly on weekdays. The dance step called the "Balboa," with variations sometimes knicknamed the “Balboa Hop” and/or the “Balboa Shuffle” originated at the Balboa Pavilion and swept across the United States. According to Bette Tozer, it was more of a hop than a shuffle. “You go ‘bong, bong, bong,’ hop. It’s the beat.” According to dance expert and instructor, Joel Plys, "the dance of Balboa [had] numerous forms. The ‘hoppier’ version is similar to Collegiate Shag. There was a very smooth/shuffly style that was very popular back then and today."

Maxi Dorf in 1942 / 17-year-old Maxie Dorf

Photographs - Courtesy of Joel Plys

Admission to the dances was free, but couples who used the roped off dance floor had to pay for the privilege to dance. Ticket hoppers posted at several locations sold nickel tickets. Each time a dancing couple stepped on the dance floor, they would give up a ticket. After the completion of each music number, the dance floor was quickly cleared by opening up the ropes. Then the ropes were put back, and dancers would again have to use another ticket to dance. Due to the structural weakness in the building back in those days, the “jitterbug” was prohibited.

Photo - Courtesy of Joel Plys

The popularity of dancing at the Pavilion lead to the building of the much larger Rendezvous Ballroom a few blocks away. With the opening the the larger, nearby, waterfront Rendezvous Ballroom which attracted the big name bands and larger dance crowds, the Pavilion’s dance era declined. Nevertheless, the Pavilion owners still staged walkathons and dance marathons to attract Depression era crowds. During this same time frame, gambling was legal. The Pavilion had several upstairs and downstairs card rooms were patrons could play blackjack, penny roulette and other card games.

Until the late 1930s, speedboat rides, which defied all sensible boating rules, thrilled inlanders with roaring trips up the bay, out into the Pacific Ocean and back. At that time, there was no speed limit in the bay (Today the speed limit is 5 miles per hour). Two speedy 35-foot boats, the “Queen” and the “Miss California,” each carried eight to ten passengers. They would take off full speed from underneath the Balboa Pavilion with sirens blaring and race out of the bay and into the Pacific Ocean.

White speed boats behind the canoes.

Also, during the 1930s, a 45-foot boat called the “Magic Isle” provided sightseeing trips. At night, this same boat would leave the Pavilion with a huge, blazing searchlight and cruise the coast. Frequently, flying fish could be seen with the searchlight jumping out of the water.

Right after World War II, Newport Harbor was the center of sportfishing activity in southern California. At that time, over a hundred sportfishing boats operated out of nine landings.

Fishermen on the Valencia in 1935

Today, only two sport fishing landings with less than ten boats survived, one of which is Davey’s Locker which, since 1965, has been operating out of the Balboa Pavilion.

Nastolgic photograph of Davey's Locker Sportfishing boat.

In 1942, the Pavilion's owners leased the upstairs of the building to a gentleman who built and operated a ten lane bowling alley! Pinsetters hand set the pins. Pinsetters were paid ten cents per game. He also operated an archery range and had five pool tables.

1940s - Bowling at the Balboa Pavilion.

Because the Pavilion is anchored on a narrow strip of sandy waterfront, most of the building was supported on wooden pilings which extend over the bay. In 1947, the wooden pilings deteriorated to the dangerous point and the building began to collapse into the bay.

In 1947 or 1948, the Gronsky family purchased the Balboa Pavilion primarily to operate a sport fishing landing and to continue leasing the upstairs.

However, rumors circulated that the Pavilion, which was run down and in disrepair, would be leveled and transformed into a boat yard. But according to Art Gronsky, “We assured everybody we would keep the Pavilion and make it better. When we reopened it in 1949, it was quite an event for Balboa.”

Because the building was in such poor condition, the Gronsky’s obtained the building at a very low price. To rectify the deteriorating twenty-six original wooden pilings, eight large, concrete pilings were installed, a Hurculean task. Workers pushed wheel-barrels full of concrete across scaffoldings to install new concrete pilings. The result was a newly fortified, element-resistant city landmark. Additionally, the lower walls of the building were also rebuilt to be structurally sound.

In 1949, the Gronsky reopened the building.

At first, the Gronskys did not own their own fishing boats. But they allowed other boat owners to run their boats out of the Pavilion on a percentage basis. The Gronskys converted the Pavilion’s only boat, the “Crescent,” into a bait carrier and hauled bait the Pavilion fishing boats and the other eight fishing landings in the bay.

But the private boats had to obtain their bait from bait tanks at the Pavilion, the only harbor bait provider at that time. During the height of the Albacore season, boats lined up a quarter of a mile, clear back to Bay Island, to purchase bait. Later, competition emerged when other boats sold bait at the end of the Jetty, ending the bait monopoly.

The Gronsky’s continued speed boat rides. Their boat was the “Leading Lady.” However, a speed limit was imposed in the bay. Therefore, the “speed” part of the ride had to wait until they exited the bay and entered the ocean.

According to Art Gronsky, the bowling alley, archery, and pool table continued but, due to suspiciously low monthly percentage checks amounting to less than $20.00, the Gronskys switched to a fixed rate rental. This caused the business owner not to renegotiate the lease. According to Gronsky, the owner chopped each bowling lane into three pieces, slide them out of the side of the building and into a truck and, he heard, reinstalled them somewhere in Arizona.

By 1949, a gift shop and the “Sportsman Wharf” restaurant replaced the amusement center. Further, the upstairs was rented to a “Skil-O-Quiz” bingo parlor. As many as 500 participants at a time played bingo. The prizes were merchandise, not money. However, a nearby place would trade the merchandise for cash. In 1952, the bingo was deemed too wicked, was outlawed, and the sheriff closed the establishment down.

In 1954, Gronsky instituted a shell museum upstairs. Gronsky purchased one of the world’s most extensive private shell collections from the estate of Fred Aldrich, who had lived on Bay Island (an exclusive private island on the bay which allows no vehicles). The museum displayed over 2.5 million shells. Later, Gronsky added shell fish store. Eventually, due to vandalism problems, the shell fish collection was donated to Bowers Museum in Santa Ana.

1950s - Balboa Pavilion

In 1961 the Gronskys sold the Balboa Pavilion to Ducommun Realty Company of Los Angeles. Edmond G. “Alan” Ducommun, who enjoyed the Balboa area as a child. His “mission” was to restore the building. Ducommun generously invested an estimated one million dollars into the property. He remodeled and restored the exterior of the building, including the blue shingled roof, gray paneled walls, and distinctive cupola. This helped restore the building to its original 1906 look.

According to Bill Ficker, an architect who worked on the year long renovation, “They did it because they loved the Pavilion and they thought it was a landmark worth being preserved.”

1960s - Balboa Pavilion

From 1962 through 1970, the upstairs of the Pavilion housed the Newport Harbor Art Museum. Thirteen audacious ladies who started the Newport Harbor Art Museum asked Mr. Ducommun if they could use the 8,000 square foot upstairs -- for free! Mr. Ducoomun kindly agreed. According to Betty Winckler, the founding force behind the museum, in a magazine article:

“I called Mr. Ducommon at his home in Portuguese Bend at 7’oclock in the morning and I guess he couldn’t believe what he heard – some women he didn’t know wanted to use his building for their art museum, for free.." "The building was in pretty flaky condition,” according to Ms. Winckler.
We agreed to make a few improvements on the second floor – a heater for winter, vents for summer, and restrooms. “Finally, the big day came, and on October 15, 1962, I proudly turned on the switch lighting the Pavilion Art Museum for our first show. Artist Miller Sheets was the guest lecturer…”

In 1963, Ducommun added 1500 lights to the buildings exterior at the suggestion of a former restaurant lessee. Even today, the Pavilion continues to light up the night with its 1500 glowing light bulbs. These lights, along with the Cupula on top of the building, incidentally serve as a navigation beacon for night boat travelers.

In 1968, the Pavilion was named a California State Historic Landmark. The Pavilion is also listed in the National Register of Historic Places, which is the highest honor a historic building can receive.

The Balboa Pavillion is state historical landmark #959 and national historic landmark #84000914.

From Left to Right - Evelyn Hart, Phil Tozer, Marion Bergeson, James Shafer

Alan Ducommun admits: “I think when I bought it, I was leading with my heart instead of my business head.” After ten years of ownership but not financial success, he was ready to sell the Pavilion.

In 1969, Davey’s Locker Inc., a sport fishing operation, under the business leadership of its president, Phil Tozer, purchased the Balboa Pavilion to provide a permanent terminal for the expansion of its Catalina Island passenger service. Tozer undertook to refurbish the building’s interior to reflect the turn of the century architecture. With no interior architectural plans and very limited photographs to refer to, Tozer, nevertheless, sought to create an authentic 1905 interior. He searched out a lot of old Victorian homes and bought what they call “architectural debris” (old parts of Victorian homes that were saved and reused). Notable additions included the beautiful, monumental oak staircase, six authentic oak doors, oak chairs sitting on antique rugs, ornate tin ceiling, leaded glass mirrors, antique furnishings, hall trees, twinkling chandeliers, charming photographs, an authentic waterfront saloon with a solid oak back bar as well as many others. Phil Tozer further invisioned and created a multiuse marine recreation facility.

On May 20, 1980, the Balboa Pavilion Company branched off from Davey’s Locker and took over ownership of the Pavilion.

In 1981, the Balboa Pavilion was designated as a California Point of Historic Interest.

In short, a long succession of owners have sought to preserve its basic structure, retain the Pavilion’s beautiful Victorian lines as well as its authenticity.

The Pavilion is a classic example of the turn-of-the-century waterfront pavilions and continues to be the center of Newport Beach activity.

The Balboa Pavilion “is the city landmark,” according to Ficker. “Every painter has painted it and every photographer has photographed it. It is the grand dame of focal points.”