Third Street Promenade Before the Gap Even Existed

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

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 Wallabees!) and 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 Special 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 Hughes’s 1986 film, Pretty In Pink. The Music Box is where Jon 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 makeover 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 magical, since most of the original structures are still there.)

Some of the stores on the Promenade occupy Art Deco structures from back in the day. Banana Republic, for example, was once JC Penney.

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 holds 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 JC Penney for my back-to-school shopping at Thom MeAn 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.