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 over 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 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 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.
In 1906, it became the southern terminus for the Pacific Electric Railway connecting the beach with downtown Los Angeles. 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.
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.
In 1923, the Pavilion underwent remodeling making it more suitable for dancing.
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. 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.”
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.
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.
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.