Charles Phoenix and the Monorail

A fair-sized crowd turned out Thursday evening for the Charles Phoenix slide show at Fairplex’s NHRA Museum. I was told that 60 or 70 people, or more than half, had reserved spots after seeing a mention in Wednesday’s column, which was nice to hear. Nobody glared at me afterward so they must have had a good time.

Phoenix narrated vintage slides from his collection of various Pomona and Ontario landmarks. Among them: Tate Cadillac, Sears, Vince’s Spaghetti, the Fox Theater, Betsy Ross, the Agitator Shop, the Valley Drive-In, Donahoo’s Chicken and L.A. County Fair attractions such as the Fun Zone, the Flower and Garden Pavilion, the Clock Tower, the Garden Railroad, the Grandstand and the Monorail.

Ah, yes, the Monorail. It was built in 1962 — “Richard Nixon rode on it,” Phoenix said — and removed in the 1990s. It hung from an overhead track and plied the fairgrounds. The original design was by sculptor John Svenson, of all people.

A success? Not exactly.

“They forgot one thing. There was no air conditioning,” Phoenix said. “And the windows didn’t open.” As Quizno’s likes to say: “Mmmm…toasty.”

Anyone ever ride the fair’s monorail? And do you know if the ski lift replaced it and follows the same route?

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  • ren

    I rode it plenty of times and yes it did get a little warm in there. One time the Monorail broke down and they had to pull the people out because they couldn’t get any air.

    The Monorail went down the main strip towards the old Fun Zone then made a left over to and near the Big Slide and near Picnic Hill and then back up to the main strip. I wrote to the paper that it’s too bad, they could have used it to go around Pomona and bring people to the Fair. That would have been cool to ride the Monorail to the Fair.

  • Derek Christensen

    Yes, I rode the LA County Fair Monorail several times before it was removed. Funny thing, they refurbished it just a few years before they removed it.

    I typically rode on it in the evening hours, so the lack of “air conditioning” was not a personal factor.

    No, the Monorail did not follow the same path as the Sky-Lift (which is basically a straight line).

    The Monorail was more circuitous and followed a inner-perimeter route. There was a “Station” for loading/offloading passengers located southwest of the main grandstands, near the entry to the Fun Zone.

    Seems to me at some point in the Monorail’s history, one of the passenger-cabs fell to the ground. I don’t recall if there were severe injuries or death involved, and it didn’t result in permanent closure either.

    Really do miss it. It was a nice feature of the fair.

    [Thanks for the info. — DA]

  • Tad Decker

    I always wanted to “See the Fair from the Air” when I was a kid, but my parents would never let us ride the Monorail; by the time I was able to ride it, the original cars had been replaced (I think with air-conditioned models).

    The skyway does not follow the route of the Monorail; in fact, they may have coexisted for a few years.

    My recollection is that the station from which you embarked was located across from the entrance to the Fun Zone (at the north end of the fair). The rail proceeded a bit to the west, then headed south along the street which runs on the west side of the large covered outdoor exhibit area. It skirted the park at the southwest corner of the fairgrounds, passing over the large pond with the fountain (nearby the administration buildings by Gate 1). From there it turned eastward, passed near the clock tower, then proceeded due north along Broadway (passing the Toad in the Hole, Ernie’s, and the Grandstand), until it dropped you off at a point just north of the Grandstand.

    When the system was upgraded, not only were the cars replaced, but the two stations were combined into one at the site of the original embarkation point. This new station, rather than the 1960s futuristic look, sported a throwback 1880s industrial age guise. Not long after the upgrade work was done, the entire system was demolished.

    One criticism I always had of the Monorail was that it was really just a “ride,” rather than a mode of transport. Even in its original incarnation, you were dropped off just a short distance from where you had begun. It would have made more sense if there had been several stations at various points on the grounds, so that exhausted fairgoers might have been willing to pay a few bucks to give their feet a rest.

    [Thanks for your info too, Tad. — DA]

  • I vaguely remember it … but I did find out where the Monorail cars that were used at the fair are at now?

  • Derek Christensen

    According to Fairplex’s 1990s history at their website:

    …the Monorail system was renovated with 10 new cars and upgraded station in 1990. The system was “torn down and removed” in 1996, which was a few years longer in service than I had thought.

    I remember both the old cars and the newer cars and believe I had a chance to ride in both.

    Really appreciate the previous posts as to recollections, and what happened to the 10 replacement monorail cars (China).

    Typically I read your column, but missed Wednesday, so didn’t know about the slide show or would have attended. Oh well, maybe next time.


    [I guess you learned your lesson about missing even one of my columns! Just teasing, Derek. Thanks for the comments. — DA]

  • Elisa (Alta Loma)

    I do remember the Monorail, and I believe our family rode it once, however I don’t remember how old I was at the time. My mother and father loved going to the fair, which we did for many years as a family. I do remember also that there was an incident of at least one of the cars falling off, but I also cannot remember when that was nor if anyone was injured. I remember after that incident, I made sure not to walking under any of them when I was there!

  • Todd Dice

    I rode it with my wife and remember in its last incarnation being sponsored by Arrowhead Water (I seem to remember bottled water dispensers by the entrance or exit). I don’t remember it falling from the track but I recall it breaking down and the fire department having to come out and rescue riders via ladder from the cars. I suppose it was dismantled due to maintenance and reliability issues; kind of like the fate of the sky ride at Disneyland?

  • JMac

    As a kid who grew up about the length of the Monorail away, it truly made the Fair unique.

    While dining at Bonnie’s Pancakes, Tom’s hamburgers, or Carmen’s Mexican Food, my sisters and I would play a game of “guess which color the next car would be” while waiting for our food. The thing didn’t travel much faster than 5 mph.

    The original disembarkment station was on Broadway, and directly underneath it housed that “Have Your Handwriting Analyzed” attraction. It looked like this gigantic Sperry Univac HAL 2000 computer, and they would feed your signature into it and out would pop what your “happy face dotting your I’s” would all mean.

    As far as a car falling off the rails, well not quite. As I recall, it occured in front of the grandstand and only one end collapsed. There has to be pictures in the archives somewhere, as I recall it being front page news. In 1978 or 79 I was working a cherry picker for a film crew inside the grandstand, shooting the Royal Canadian Mounted Police show, when the Monorail broke down. The crowd was massive and trying to maneuver that rig took forever, but I got everyone down, with only one gentleman complaining of any sort of ailment. His only ailment was how loud he could be letting everyone know how much pain he was in.

    That Monorail would short out every now and then at certain points along the track, but I just remember the one time of it leaving the tracks.

    I’m sorry I missed a local Charles Phoenix extravaganza as well. Would have been a treat to see the Fair again as I remember it. Oh for one more trip through the Magic Carpet ride!

    [JMac, welcome back to the boards, and thanks for the I-was-there story on the Monorail incident. — DA]

  • Dave,

    Sorry I missed the Charles Phoenix show. He’s great. Just got back in town, so it’s time to respond and get my own blog going again.

    Yeah, the monorail was a Fair landmark from the early ’60s into the ’80s. Unfortunately, it always had trouble and would break down. Sometimes the wait was quite a while, and there was no air conditioning.

    In the late 1980s, the old unreliable monorail cars were replaced with new air-conditioned cars that held considerably more people. A new station opened, and there was even a “garage” that was hidden from the public where the cars could be stored when the Fair wasn’t going.

    But those cars never worked right, and there was an assortment of problems that followed. The biggest issue was that the new cars were over-designed, and they were too big and heavy for the track. Unlike the monorail at Disneyland, where the cars rode on top of the track, these hung from the track.

    It was probably just a matter of time before the track broke and a car would come down. It’s actually amazing that it didn’t happen in the five years or so that the new cars were in operation. In the interest of safety and with a huge reconstruction estimate ahead, it was determined that it would be best to take down the ride, which was really nothing more than an aerial tour of the fairgrounds. It started and ended in the same place.

    I’m sad the station wasn’t salvaged, because it had some interesting architecture and probably could have been re-purposed for something else. It seemed to be a much better building than many of those other “temporary” older structures that are still in use only for the 18 days of the Fair.

    [Sid, welcome back and thanks for the additional insights into the monorail. This is one of my favorite parts of this blog — throwing something out there and watching as an informal history is built by readers adding their memories until, in the end, we’ve collected an array of first-hand information. — DA]

  • Thanks Dave,

    With the Fair just weeks away, I’m sure you’ll have plenty of things to write about. Keeping with the Charles Phoenix theme, there used to be a directional sign for the Fair located on the corner of White and Foothill next to the Mt. Baldy Drive-in. The Fair folks salvaged it, and it is still in storage. I know there are people who would love to see the neon replaced and the sign with a fresh coat of paint and then have it reappear in La Verne — maybe even at the Fruit Street exit from the 210 freeway…

    And there were other great signs, too. I’m sure the old Fun Zone sign is long gone. That was torn down in the early ’80s, because it truly separated the carnival area from the rest of the grounds, and there was often trouble at night in the fun zone in those days. With the sign down, there was a smoother transition into the carnival. But the sign was a landmark — as were the neon signs for Pie A-La-Mode, Toad in the Hole, Ernie’s Barbecue and others. Great stuff. I’ll try to throw out some of my own Fair memories soon… Maybe I’ll see you there. I’ll be doing the “house” announcements at the concerts again.


    [Actually, the White/Foothill sign is no longer in storage. Stay tuned for news about it… — DA]

  • James Sikora

    The original monorail cars did have AC in them, I rode on them several times. Once the AC was stuck on and the car was about 50* inside, that was when they had a person operating them manually as the electrical systems had been poorly maintained.

    I still miss the old cars.

    [Phoenix said the cars didn’t have AC at first but it was added later. I see I didn’t make that clear. It sounds like you rode the cars in the later years? — DA]

  • Josh W.

    I have very fond memories of riding the monorail at the L.A. County Fair in the early to mid-1980’s. I would have been about 11 years old at the time. I remember looking down from the monorail car and seeing the wall of people down below. The original cars were my favorite. I also remember there used to be motorhomes on display at the fair, too! Thanx for posting.