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Twilight Dance Series Rocks On Thanks to Katharine King  

By Melonie Magruder
Lookout Staff

August 29, 2011 --The Twilight Dance Series – the lively program of free summer concerts on the Santa Monica Pier – has been a community crowd pleaser since it debuted 27 years ago, part of a civic rallying cry to restore a city landmark that had been so heavily damaged by winter storms, city council members were seriously considering the fiscal benefits of a pier-free Santa Monica Beach.

The idea outraged many residents, who quickly formed a committee, designated a “Save the Pier Week,” and found the perfect champion to demonstrate the pier’s irreplaceable power, Katharine King.

King, president of the concert and event promotions firm, King & Company, dug through her rolodex and quickly lined up a roster of entertainers for weekly evening concerts during the summer. They proved so popular, the event has continued annually since 1983.

Last week, the Pier Restoration Corporation honored King for her years of service at a special V.I.P. party before Milongatron took the stage with a Tango on the Timbers concert.

Katharine King, center, flanked by supporters before last
Thursday's concert. Photo by Melonie Magruder

King spoke with The Lookout about her tenure with the Twilight Dance Series.

“It’s been a long haul,” King said. “Back when we started we had no money. I think the first year’s budget was about $7,000 for ten free concerts. Now, it’s $300,000.”

The challenge, of course, was to stretch those pennies, while still lining up a roster of stellar, nationally recognized talent. King mined the relationships she had developed with talent agencies since she arrived in Los Angeles in the early 80s, with the goal of becoming a film producer.

Film production proved dissatisfying, but her organizational skills and let-me-show-you-how-much-I-can-accomplish-with-nothing attitude appealed to large-scale event promoters, and King was tapped to stage evening entertainment for the thousands of Olympic athletes garrisoned in UCLA’s Olympic Village during the 1984 Summer Olympics.

By the time she signed up to helm the dance series on the pier, she knew a lot about talent but got a crash course in municipal-style budgeting.

“It was always a struggle to find funding, even with a challenge grant from the city,” King said. “In ’91, we started to bring in corporate sponsors and it got more exciting.”

King brought in an astonishingly eclectic roster of artists to perform for the series. The event quickly outgrew its blue and white circus tent, spilling out onto the pier and demanding increasingly generous dance floors to accommodate the throngs that exploded from around 300 in the early 80s to up to 15,000 today.

King said that before the pier was rebuilt, she would literally take her tape measure out to find a space that could provide for a crowd, but not dump someone into the ocean.

“I mean, it got stupid after a while,” she said. “We’ve even had noise complaints from people who live around the pier.”

Acts she booked included Patti Smith and Joan Baez, Asleep at the Wheel and Tower of Power, the Texas Tornados and the Shirelles, Bela Fleck & the Flecktones and Janis Ian, Richie Havens and Peter & Gordon, John Mayall and The Yellowjackets, Buck Owens and the Spanish Harlem Orchestra. It was a cavalcade of 20th century pop music history.

King demurs when asked how she was able to attract such top flight talent on such a shoestring budget, saying that she counted on relationships she nurtured, timely phone calls and some ladylike arm-twisting. And it wasn’t always an unqualified triumph.

“Tito Puente was fond of the bottle,” she said. “He was really late arriving one night and we had this huge crowd. I had a local act ready to take over but he finally showed up at the last minute. It was pretty dramatic.

“Another time, Mavis Staples was booked and she was traveling separately from her band,” King continued. “She got here but her band didn’t. Ry Cooder was producing an album of hers and he was ready to drop everything and step in to play for her with the opening act’s band. And I had so many problems with bands from Cuba not getting their visas at the last minute that I’ll just never book any of them again.”

King is taking a break from producing the dance series, saying she’s going to concentrate on a foundation she is working with. But she says the Twilight Dance Series, now presented by OneWest Bank, is a tradition that deserves to be supported.

“I see this kind of event as a modern-day town square,” King said. “Music is the universal language. It brings you out to meet and maybe even dance with your neighbor.”

Indeed, last Thursday’s event showcased a tango band featuring three accordions, two violins, a clarinet, saxophone, flute, keyboards and an upright bass. Bandleader Schwee Miguel pointed out that the dance series continues an almost 100-year tradition, when the old La Monica Music Hall was at the end of the pier.

Then the band struck up a tango, and dancers with very long legs, very short skirts and very high heels took to the floor.


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