Third Street Promenade Before the Gap Even Existed

What’s changed—and what hasn’t—about Santa Monica’s outdoor mall

L.A. History Comments

It’s hardly recognizable (No Starbucks? No Gap?) but this is Third Street Promenade in the ’60s. In fact, the Santa Monica mall looked this way until its facelift in the late ‘80s.

The Music Box. Photograph by Julie Wilson.

This modernist outdoor space was once home to Sears and Woolworth’s ($11.98 for a pair of Wallaby’s!) plus dozens of mom-and-pop shops, which made it unique. The list of smaller businesses included Kress’, Lerners, Hartman’s, Bartons Candy Store, The Smuggler,  The Silver Cup Diner, Nana’s, Texas Records, the Music Box, Apollo Electronics, Out of The Past, Muskrat, The Midnight Bookstore, Bay Music (which sold musical instruments) and Ralph’s market, which later became “Europa,” where my mother purchased the most beautiful lace curtains.

Screen grab from Pee Wee’s Big Adventure

The mall is well preserved on celluloid in the Tim Burton film Pee Wee’s Big Adventure. The bicycle store featured in the movie was actually a real shop called Chuck’s Bike O Rama. Some of you may also remember seeing this real record store in John Hugh’s 1986 film, Pretty In Pink. The Music Box is where John Cryer does his best impersonation of Otis Redding in the flick.

During the ’80s the mall fell on hard times and rapidly became a row of struggling shops and vacant storefronts, something the popularity of Westwood Village may have had something to do with. But since the mall’s massive make over late in that decade, it’s completely turned around. Today as many as 15,000 visitors squeeze every weekend into each block of the narrow strip that stretches from Broadway to Wilshire. Meanwhile, Westwood Village is in need of a comeback itself. (That would be a magical, since most of the original structures are still there.)

Some of the stores on the Promenade today occupy Art Deco structures from back in the day. Banana Republic, for example, was once J.C. Penny.

Photograph courtesy Los Angeles Public Library

And here’s a photo of the Criterion Theatre in 1949! During the 1940s and ’50s, cars could actually drive through.

Photograph courtesy Vintage Los Angeles

Why am I writing about Third Street Promenade now? Because the outdoor mall has such a dear place in my heart. My favorite childhood treat was an Orange Julius and a burger from Magoos. My mother took me to this J.C. Penny for my back-to-school shopping at Thom McAnn for shoes and Contempo Casuals for the latest trends. When I became older, I was all about the 3 2 1 Club. It’s the end of summer now, and that makes me miss those good old—very fashionable, if I don’t say so myself—days.

Alison Martino is a writer, television producer and personality, and L.A. pop culture historian. She founded the Facebook page Vintage Los Angeles in 2010. In addition to CityThink and VLA, Martino muses on L.A’s. past and present on Twitter and Instagram.


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  • donnumber

    My first job, in 1975, was at Leeds Shoe Store. The street address was known as 1318 Santa Monica Mall back then. Third Street Promenade officially “opened” in September 1989. As visitors will notice, it was designed for use as a roadway and for a short time, vehicles could drive up and down 3rd Street during times of low pedestrian foot traffic. The idea was to maintain a constant sense of kinetic movement, and on weekends and evenings, when visitor numbers increased, the bollards were raised to block vehicular access on 3rd Street. That lasted a short time and the bollards are up permanently except for maintenance vehicles.

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  • garyhelsinger

    Another great article! Keep them coming Alison! Runyon? Pan-Pacific Auditorium/Gilmore Stadium? Greystone Mansion?!