Playwright James Harris Merrily Makes His World Go Round the Santa Monica Pier

Gil Kaan

Writer, Registered Critic

The Santa Monica Public Theatre will world premiere AN ILLEGAL START, featuring the combined talents of Santa Monica denizens Tony Award-winning actor Paul Sand and playwright/Santa Monica Pier Restoration’s deputy director James Harris. Paul will direct James’ new play in the Santa Monica Pier’s national landmark, the Looff Hippodrome. James’ story of two complete strangers whose disparate paths lead them to a defunct amusement park where an unexpected bond’s formed will debut on May 5, 2017.

Like grabbing a hanging ring on a carousel ride, I grabbed the chance to quiz Jim on his merry-go-round-centric projects.

Thank you, Jim for taking the time for this interview.

When did you first start writing AN ILLEGAL START?

I completed the very first draft of AN ILLEGAL START in the fall of 2003. At that time, it was strictly autobiographical – a cathartic exercise to help me to cope with a near-fatal event that I experienced in my teens and which has had a profound impact on my life ever since. The story has since been through a number of rewrites and re-imaginings in order to make it into a better, more engaging play. In 2007, I completed what I considered to be the final draft of the play – a very good working version for the traditional stage. And now, of course, I’ve adapted it to be performed in the Merry-Go-Round!

You have been deputy director of the Santa Monica Pier Restoration Corporation since the beginning of 2003, the same year you completed your first draft of AN ILLEGAL START. With your intimate knowledge of the Pier’s historic Looff Hippodrome (the Merry-Go-Round Building), did you set the plot of AN ILLEGAL START around the merry-go-round locale? Or did the merry-go-round become an added, perfect complement to your play?

I originally wrote the play to be performed on the traditional stage with a very simple set – a telephone pole at center stage. One day, over lunch, Paul Sand and I were discussing the play and Paul glanced over at the Merry Go-Round Building and suggested that I adapt the play to be done there. Since I know the building so well, and since I handle event bookings there anyway, how could I resist? 

How freeing has it been to adapt that single telephone pole into the Santa Monica Pier’s Merry-Go-Round?

Switching the telephone pole out for a merry-go-round was actually not easy at all! The original version of the play includes a car crashing into the pole, as well as some other business that just cannot be done with the merry-go-round. I had to be mindful that the Pier’s Merry-Go-Round, which I was adapting specifically for, is an antique and commands great care and respect. There were things in the original script that I would never dare attempt with those horses! As I progressed with the rewrite, though, things did become easier, and I allowed myself to have fun with the new atmosphere. 

This will be the first time the Santa Monica Pier’s national landmark will be used for live theatre. What notable events in its past 100 years has been held here?

In 1954, art curator Walter Hopps used the Merry-Go-Round Building as a gallery for his show ACTION 1 (often referred to as “The Merry-Go-Round Show”). Other than that, the building has been used for hundreds of private events, receptions and weddings, but no other cultural activities or shows that I am aware of. 

A good majority of your creative projects seem to revolve around the Santa Monica Pier. Would you tell us your history with the Pier that raises such passion in you to share it?       

In 1989, I moved to this area from western Colorado with dreams of a career in writing or acting. I had a Bachelors Degree in Theatre, so why not try to use it, right? Like so many before me (and after), I took a job as a bartender. As fate would have it, my bartending job was at the old Boathouse Restaurant on the Santa Monica Pier. At that time the Pier was far less popular and far less celebrated than it is today, but it did have a number of long-time regular visitors who told the most colorful and interesting stories of the Pier’s past. As a bartender, all I had to do was listen. 28 years later, I’m the one sharing those old stories! And now, with this “Theatre in the Merry-Go-Round,” I have the opportunity to add a unique little chapter of my own.

What initially brought you and Paul Sand together – KURT WEILL AT THE CUTTLEFISH HOTEL in 2015? Or did you two meet before while he had an office over the Merry-Go-Round?

As the Pier’s centennial approached in 2009, I took on the project of writing a history book about it (Santa Monica Pier: A Century of the Last Great Pleasure Pier). My vision for the book was for it to be more than just a cut and dried retelling of facts and happenings. Since I learned about the Pier and fell in love with it by listening to the colorful stories told by those who lived the Pier’s history, I wanted for readers of the book to experience that same feeling, that same passion for what the Pier has meant to people. So I began searching for people to interview. Paul Sand actually lived in one of the apartments above the Merry-Go-Round when he was a teenager. Eventually I was introduced to him and we have been good friends ever since!

Was having Paul direct your play SAVE THE PIER at Loyola Marymount University in 2015 the seeding spark for Santa Monica Public Theatre (SMPT), which you two co-founded in 2016?

Actually, no. SAVE THE PIER was more of a reinforcement of an idea sparked by Paul when he put together his initial run of KURT WEILL AT THE CUTTLEFISH HOTEL at the west end of the Pier in 2013. Paul has always felt at home at the Pier, just as I have. And since I know the Pier and its intricacies so very well, he and I began envisioning possibilities for something really site-specific and really unique back then.

What’s in the near future for SMPT?    

We currently have our eye on another possible venue on the Pier. Additionally, Paul has long wanted to stage a very specific production inside an airplane hangar, and Santa Monica just happens to have a few of those! We’ll keep you posted!

What is in the immediate future for James Harris?  

There are three things that I insist on keeping constant in my life: my family (I have a wife and two daughters), my writing (yes, more to come!) and the Santa Monica Pier (because it’s my home). As long as I can keep a good, consistent balance of those three in my everyday life, what more could I ask for?

What would you like your audience to go away with after the curtain call of AN ILLEGAL START?

Without giving too much away, I think that many will walk away from this play thinking that they need to call that close friend whom they haven’t been in touch with for years. 

BTW, will the audience get to ride the merry-go-round?

Because the merry-go-round is, in fact, the stage, it will be very difficult for us to quickly convert it back to being ready for public use. We’re working on it, but I cannot make that guarantee at this time. Something special that we will have available, though, is Soda Jerks, the old-fashioned ice cream soda fountain inside the building. They will be staffed and open for business exclusively to our patrons before the show, during intermission, and immediately after the show. 

Thank you again, Jim! I look forward to my Paul Sand-directed ‘ride’ on your merry-go-round.

For available tickets for their 8pm performances May 5, 6, 11, 12 & 13, log onto

Gil Kaan, a former Managing Editor of the now-defunct Genre magazine, has had the privilege of photographing and interviewing some major divas in his career, including Ann-Margret, Diana Ross, Faye Dunaway, Carol Channing, Shirley MacLaine, Catherine Deneuve, Liza Minnelli, Sandra Bernhard, Anna Nicole Smith, Margaret Cho, and three Catwomen—Eartha Kitt, Lee Meriwether and Julie Newmar. He had the fortuitous opportunity to conduct Lily Tomlin’s coming out interview. Gil has since reviewed movies and theatre for a number of local and national outlets.
A photo montage of Gil’s Halloween Carnavale photos through the last decade was recently included in the WeHo@ 25 juried exhibition.