The Santa Monica Civic Auditorium opened in the summer of 1958 as a combined theater, concert hall, and trade show and convention auditorium. At that time, it was the second largest auditorium in the Los Angeles area.
Boasting a Modernist style architecture designed by the notable architect Welton Becket who designed the Capitol Records tower, the Theme Building at LAX, and the Mark Taper Forum, the Civic's versatile hydraulic floor could accommodate dance performances, concerts and sporting events. At the time, it was the largest such floor in the country. Superior acoustics were designed by a UCLA physics professor who was the leading authority on architectural sound design.
The Civic Auditorium was home to the Academy Awards from 1961 to 1967. It hosted the first broadcast of the Academy Awards in color in 1966.
Some celebrated milestones for people of color happened at the Civic, including the first protest of Black actors who picketed in response to mistreatment by the film industry during the award show. The Civic was also where Sidney Poitier won his Best Actor award (1963) and Rita Moreno won her Oscar for Best Supporting Actress (1961).
The Civic became an acclaimed music venue featuring an array of well-known artists: Marvin Gaye, David Bowie, Eric Clapton, Frank Sinatra, Dave Brubeck, Ella Fitzgerald, Traffic, Bruce Springsteen, Elton John, Prince, Santana, Jackson Browne, The Grateful Dead, Bob Dylan, the Eagles, Dan Fogelberg, Pete Seeger, and Bad Religion, to name a few.
The Dalai Lama led an initiation ceremony for thousands of Buddhists there in 1989. Former President John F. Kennedy spoke there, as did the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr.
Over time, larger, better-equipped facilities opened nearby and the Civic Auditorium slowly fell into disrepair. During this time, the music events were sparse, with the exception of an occasional concert, performances by the Santa Monica Symphony Orchestra, and Stairway of the Stars which was performed entirely by students in the Santa Monica Malibu Unified School District music department.
In 1986 the Santa Monica City Council began discussions to revitalize and seismically upgrade the space. By the 2000s, the Auditorium was operating an annual deficit of as much as $2 million. An extensive plan began for a nearly $52 million renovation using redevelopment funds made available by the State of California, but the Community Redevelopment Funds reverted back to the State during a fiscal crisis, thus nixing that possibility.
In 2002 the building and some of its character-defining interior features were designated as a City Landmark, recognizing its importance in the community and the need to try and protect it from demolition.
Sadly, the Auditorium was shuttered in 2013 until such time as funding could be made available to rehabilitate it.
In 2014, A Civic Auditorium Working Group was appointed by Council to consider viable alternatives. The City did not move forward with the holistic plan the Working Group proposed.
The Auditorium continued to be neglected and at the end of 2022 the City Council, motivated in part by having to pay a multi-million dollar lawsuit, looked for ways to raise money. City Council decided to sell the Civic and designated it as “surplus” land which required that it be offered first for housing, schools, or parkland.
In 2023 Community Corp attempted to negotiate the sale for affordable housing coupled with an entertainment center. The City, in closed session decided not pursue the Community Corp offer for unknown reasons.
The City is now proceeding in closed session negotiations with the Santa Monica Malibu Unified School District who are proposing the Auditorium be converted primarily into a second gymnasium for the Santa Monica High School. The funding needed to purchase and rehabilitate the Civic would require a general bond that the voters of Santa Monica would have to approve.
Save the Civic opposes the SMMUSD proposal on many grounds. The School District is under no obligation to preserve the building and could demolish it whenever it wishes, or even sell it to another buyer that could demolish it and use the land for something else. A gym would also not serve the needs of our larger community, and financing it would burden residents with hundreds of millions of dollars in bond payments for a building they already own.
We believe The Civic can be restored to its former glory and reopened as a public venue for public use. All it will take is residents and a City Council with the determination and vision to make it happen!