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HISTORY OF THE BALBOA PAVILION (Est. 1906)

               Click photos to enlarge:
1906 Balboa Pavilion
1906.  Pavilion stands out in the largely undeveloped Balboa Peninsula.

Balboa Pavillion 1950s

1950s. Technicolor photo of the Pavilion and Main Street.



Balboa Pavillion

Balboa Pavilion in modern times.


1. Short Summary:

Newport Beach’s most famous landmark, the historic Balboa Pavilion, is one of California's last surviving examples of the great waterfront recreational pavilions from the turn of the century.

Established 100 years ago in 1906 by the Newport Bay Investment Company, the Pavilion played a prominent role in the development of Newport Beach as a seaside recreation area.

In 1906, it became the southern terminus for the Pacific Electric Railway connecting the beach with downtown Los Angeles

The Pavilion has since then housed approximately twenty-eight types of activities. Notable examples include a post office, art museum, bowling alley, gambling establishment, speed boat rides and a host of other marine recreational activities.


Balboa Pavilion 1908
1908.  Balboa Pavilion and Pacific Electric Red Car.

Balboa Pavilion 1935

Pavilion advertising dancing.
Courtesy www.talesofbalboa.com
Balboa Pavilion 1940s

1940s.  Pavilion advertising bowling .

The Pavilion has been in nearly continuous operation since its opening on July 1, 1906.

Today, the Balboa Pavilion continues to serve as Newport Beach’s most prominent landmark.

Balboa Pavilion at Night

Photo courtesy of www.talesofbalboa.com

2. 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.

1905 War Department gives permission to build Pavilion

War Department document authorizing

construction of the Balboa Pavilion.

War Department document page 2

 

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.


Balboa Pavilion and Red Car
Balboa Pavilion and Pacific Electric Red Car.


Balboa Pavilion 1911

1911.  Busy Main Street
view of the Pavilion.

Hotel Balboa
Hotel Balboa

Balboa Pavilion Military
Balboa Pavilion - Military Parade

 

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.

\

Beauty parade in 1925 at Balboa Beach, CA


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 1930s 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."


Dancing in Balboa

Maxi Dorf in 1942

The Balboa

17-year-old Maxie Dorf

Later known as the "King" of the Balboa

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.

 

Balboa Dancing

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 in Background

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.

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.


Davey's Locker


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.


Bowling at the Balboa Pavilion

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.


Balboa Pavilion 1950s

Balboa Pavilion - 1950s

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.”


Balboa Pavilion 1960s

 Balboa Pavilion 1960s


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.


Pavilion at Night

In 1965, Davey’s Locker Sportfishing began to lease the Balboa Pavilion from Docommun Realty Company to support its fishing fleet.


Davey's Locker Fishermen

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.


Balboa Pavilion Historical Landmark

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.


Balboa Pavilion and Red Car

Balboa Pavilion 1960s
Balboa Pavilion 1906 Balboa Pavilion


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.”

 

3. Pavilion Presently:

 

Currently, the Pavilion is used as a marine recreation facility, with sport fishing boats, a giant passenger catamaran to Catalina Island, harbor sightseeing cruises, boat (skiff) rentals, whale watching, and the new Harborside Restaurant and Grand Ballroom.



Catalina Flyer
"Catalina Flyer" (High speed to Catalina Island)






Freelance at Daveys Locker Sportfishing
Sport Fishing at Davey's Locker.
Grand Ballroom at Balboa Pavilion

Harborside "Grand Ballroom"

Boat (Skiff) Rentals - Halibut Catch

Skiff (Boat) Rentals. 





Balboa Pavilion at Night

Harborside Restaurant (downstairs) and
Grandball Room (upstairs)





Waterfront Dining at the Harborside Restaurant

Waterfront Dining at the Harborside Restaurant.



Balboa Pavilion in December

4th of July - Balboa Pavilion



Balboa Pavilion

Balboa Pavilion at Christmas / Holiday time.


April 2005 Dance Gathering


2005 -
"The Balboa Rendezvous" at the Pavilion Ballroom. Photo - Courtesy of Joel Plys

Balboa Pavilion at Christmas

Pavilion at Christmas - Photo courtesy of
www.talesofbalboa.com


4. Other Nearby Historic Sights:

A. The Balboa Fun Zone (1936 to present).  The Balboa Fun Zone was built on Abbott's Landing where Mr. Abbott brought soil from the mainland and planted the Balboa Peninsula's first trees. At one time, the Fun Zone, a miniature amusement park, covered the entire block between Palm Street and Washington Street on the Bay Front. The Ferris wheel and the merry-go-round remain, nostalgic memories from an era which provided pleasure to generations of visitors to Balboa.  Presently the Fun Zone consists of an arcade and amusement park with shops, restaurants and rides close to the Pavilion between Palm Ave and Main St, East of Balboa Blvd.

Balboa Pavilion and Fun Zone 1944

1944.  Balboa Pavilion and Fun Zone.
Balboa Fun Zone

Fun Zone - Today - Photograph Courtesy
of Tales of Balboa.com

B. The Balboa Car Ferry (1919 to present):   Transporting vehicles between Balboa Island and the Balboa Peninsula for nearly a century, and just one block from the Pavilion, the Balboa Car Ferry began as a skiff called "The Ark" and powered by an outboard motor.  It carried oars just in case of engine failure.  Later, the ferry graduated to a cumbersome craft, "The Fat Ferry", which could carry only one car. Founded by a Balboa Island pioneer, Joe Beek, the ferry, running between the Balboa peninsula and Balboa Island, remains in the Beek family. The sleek modern craft crossing the bay today has come a long way and, they each carry three autos as well as passengers.

Balboa Ferry

Balboa Ferry -  Early 1900s


Balboa Ferry

Balboa Ferry - 1950s

Photo Courtesy of talesofbalboa.com





Balboa Ferry, Balboa Beach

Balboa Ferry Today
(Photo Courtesy of talesofbalboa.com)



C. Balboa Pier (1906 to present): Located on Main Street as is the Pavilion.  The Balboa Pier was a sister attraction to the Balboa Pavilion. Both were built in 1906 and both were designed to attract land buyers to the area. The pavilion would serve as terminus for the famous electric Red Car line of Huntington Riders, if they were so inclined, could get off the rail cars and proceed directly down Main Street to the pier.  Today, the Balboa Pier is used by fishermen, tourists, and, at the end of the pier is a Ruby’s Diner.

Balboa Pier

Balboa Pier from yesteryear.  Courtesy of talesofbalboa.com.

Balboa Pier
Balboa Pier Today.
Photo Courtesy of Frank Eak

www.balboapavilion.com

 

© 2005 Balboa Pavilion Co. Inc.