Beginning in the late 1880s, the Southern California coast sprouted piers that fronted new beach resorts made accessible by rail. Most of the piers were connected to amusement zones – miniature Coney Islands – where ballyhoo, fakery, and slightly naughty entertainment brightened working class lives. This is the story of one of largest of those playgrounds by the sea.
In 1925, Sarah Bixby Smith, who had grown up on the nearby ranchos of Los Cerritos and Los Alamitos in the 1880s, remembered picnicking on the deserted shore at what would become the crowded amusement zone called the Pike:
(T)he beach was our own private, wonderful beach... Nobody knows what a wide, smooth, long beach it was. It was covered with shells and piles of kelp and a broad band of tiny clams; there were gulls and many little shore birds, and never a footprint except the few we made, only to be washed away by the next tide. Two or three times a summer we would go over from the ranch for a day. (…) Ying (the ranch cook) would put us up a most generous lunch, but the thing that was … best was the meat broiled over the little driftwood fire. Father always was cook of the mutton chops that were strung on a sharpened willow stick, and I shall never forget the … smoky chops, gritty with the sand blown over them by the constant sea breeze … of the beautiful, empty beach.
By 1900, Sarah’s lonely beach had become part of Willmore City (a brief failure) and then Long Beach (which had incorporated, disincorporated, and reincorporated). The little town – Long Beach hardly more than 2,500 residents then – already had some seaside attractions: the usual wood-frame hotels, a municipal pier, and “bath houses” for swimmers to button themselves into their flannel “bathing costumes,” as they were called then.
The breakers at Long Beach were notoriously rough and the rip tide treacherous. Most Long Beach tourists – and there were more every year – strolled along the four miles of level sand between the train station and Alamitos Bay. Accommodations in a temporary tent city, rented by the week, made do for visitors willing to rough it on the beach.
The Methodist Resort Association had built a large “tabernacle” suitable for camp meetings in 1884 on the bluff overlooking the beach. Thousands of church members assembled each summer. The Chautauqua of Southern California opened up a branch of the Chautauqua Literary and Scientific Society to equally large crowds. They came to hear lectures and concerts. Long Beach intended to be a community of revival and uplift “giving the Christian people of Southern California a genial, wholesome summer resort.” The correspondent from the Los Angeles Herald wrote that Long Beach was a city where:
The invalid and the pleasure seeker can regale themselves in the balmy breezes and not be molested or crowded by the drunken night brawler or the beastly element that are so conspicuous at some of our eastern seaside resorts, where the drunken rabble make night hideous and where the cultured and refined are compelled to jostle with the monkeying snob or the coarse, untutored braggadocio with more money than brains. The sale of liquor is not tolerated at this place, and as a consequence, there is a better class of people than otherwise would be.
Sedate, church-going Long Beach had been officially “dry” since its reincorporation, not even allowing wine to be blended into the sauces served at hotels that catered to more sophisticated tourists. The city council legislated against Sunday dancing too, as well as other frivolous entertainments on the Sabbath. Some residents (defying the city’s business leadership) even resisted the coming of the new, electric trolley cars, fearing the assault of day-tripping Angeleños on the “cultured and refined” Methodist and Chautauqua visitors who defined the image of Long Beach.
But Henry Huntington’s Pacific Electric cars could not be stopped. On July 4, 1902, the Los Angeles “rabble” arrived, crowding on a new line that quickly became the PE’s most profitable. Many of the visitors that summer headed for Charles Drake’s Long Beach Bath House, with its 60-by-120-foot concrete pool, specially designed Ladies Plunge, men’s and women’s dressing rooms, Casino Café, and bowling alley. There were band concerts every afternoon and evening but, as the proprietors carefully pointed out, no liquor.
By 1906, Drake’s Long Beach Bath House and Amusement Company had bought up much of the oceanfront below Pine Avenue and leased the land to lunch counters, a fortuneteller, candy and popcorn stands, a roller rink, and a shooting gallery. They were connected by a 12-foot-wide boardwalk that led to the colonnaded pool building. “All along this particular portion of the beach,” wrote a reporter for the Evening Tribune, “stands the row of stands, some of quaint design, and an interesting sight to the tourist. It is here that the hot tamale vender, the peanut crisp man and the pretty girls who sell sweets of all kinds, find a living for themselves.”
By 1908, the Bath House and been joined by the Majestic Ball Room, a movie theater, a municipal auditorium that extended on pilings into the water, and a twin-deck pier with a “sun parlor” at its end. The wood planks of the boardwalk had been replaced by a 35-foot-wide concrete esplanade illuminated at night by electroliers and strings of Edison light bulbs. It was called “The Walk of a Thousand Lights.”
At the far end of the walk – and a sign of things to come – were two thrill rides: Bisby's Spiral Airship and the first of several roller coasters. There also was a storefront on the walk whose business designation was “slot machines.” Boarding houses and tenements had gone up on Ocean Boulevard overlooking Sarah’s beautiful beach.
In 1910, Charles Looff look control of part of the walk to house a “hippodrome” with carousel horses and figures of his design. When the carousel opened, Looff and his family moved into the apartment built over it. Looff posted a sign outside his carousel: “Colored people and their friends are welcome after 9 o’clock Saturday nights.” When African-American visitors protested, Looff told the Los Angeles Times that “his amusement is run for ladies and children and he will not agree to any modification of his rules.”
By 1915, “Reckless” Ross Millman had begun thrilling audiences at one of the first “Wall of Death” silodromes, taking his Indian motorcycle up and around the inside wall of a vertical drum. Overhead, the cars on the twin tracks of the new Jackrabbit Racer roller coaster rumbled and riders screamed. There was still no Sunday dancing.
“The Walk of a Thousand Lights” expanded in the following years into a fun zone with even more carnival rides, as well as beauty parades, hot dog sellers, curio dealers, vaudeville performers, more movie theaters, and the pitch and skill games carnival operators call “flat shops” designed to separate the rubes from as many of their nickels and dimes as possible. In the shadows beyond the thousand lights were peep shows, bootlegging, and some prostitution.
The municipal auditorium, next to the pier and the Long Beach Bath House, had become popular with Midwest conventioneers. The pious Methodist campers and the earnest Chautauqua audiences were gone. The walk was now the Pike, and its blend of innocence and vulgarity would continue until the Pike finally closed in 1979. The attractions would have different owners and names – Silver Spray Pier in 1915, Nu-Pike in the 1950s, and Queen’s Park in the late 1960s – but no one in Long Beach called them anything but the Pike.
When the US fleet split into Atlantic and Pacific divisions in 1919, Long Beach became the homeport of the Pacific Fleet and a shore leave destination for thousands of sailors. Through the 1920s and 1930s, throngs of young men in uniform crowded the sidewalks along Ocean Boulevard, past the movie theaters, credit jewelers, and dance halls. Most of the sailors eventually drifted down the bluff at Pine Avenue to enter the world of the Pike.
Poolrooms arrived in 1927, at the request of the Amusement League, an association of the Pike’s concession operators and the pier owners, proving that Long Beach City Councilmen could count. The Pike that year employed 1,229 area residents and had an average weekly payroll of $42,287.
The Cyclone Racer (“The World’s Greatest Ride”) replaced the Jackrabbit Racer in 1930. The new roller coaster was taller (94 feet), had more hills and drops (17), and could pack in 2,400 riders per hour. It had high-velocity banked turns where riders experienced more than 3gs of centrifugal force. Regularly, a daredevil teenager or drunk sailor would stand or try some other stunt in one of the coaster cars and be killed.
A new municipal auditorium, surrounded on three sides by a lagoon and the semi-circular Rainbow Pier, opened in 1932. Even more Shriners and Elks went looking for fun – or worse – along “The Walk of a Thousand Lights.”
Bars and open-front liquor stores replaced some of the Pike’s popcorn and salt-water taffy stands after 1934. Tattoo parlors and palm readers replaced most of the curio dealers. Spooky “dark house” rides – a staple of the Pike – drew sailors and their dates, who found the sights inside less thrilling than stolen kisses. Sideshows, with their real and fake “human oddities,” drew in the curious and gullible. Dodg'em cars gave riders the troubling thrill of reckless driving. The Cinderella dance hall joined the Majestic Ball Room, where jitterbugging was frowned on. Couples were forbidden, by city ordinance, from dancing cheek to cheek.
But Looff’s carousel still turned. The Weight Guesser, shooting galleries, pinball arcades, and “flat shops” still separated the out-of-town visitors from their dimes and quarters. On the Rainbow Pier that surrounded the new municipal auditorium, retirees from the Midwest listened to prophets, tax reformers, and Socialists – including Upton Sinclair – argue while the retirees whittled on white pine sticks provided for their use.
For Latino youth, the Pike was escape from the East Los Angeles barrio and the constraints of older, more traditional family members. It was a place of (mostly) harmless fun. But from the end of the municipal pier – or the top of the Cyclone Racer – they might have seen the lights of gambling barges in the bay, anchored beyond the three-mile limit, and the motor launches plying back and forth carrying Hollywood starlets, Midwest mobsters, and conventioneers on a spree. Long Beach welcomed 50,000 of them in 1939 and almost 70,000 in 1940.
The war years after 1941 suspended convention business in Long Beach, but restrictions on travel and the buildup of defense industries meant the Pike was more crowded than ever, even though the midway, its theaters and dance halls still entertaining war workers and furloughed troops, was becoming grittier. The Pike’s dart and peg games turned out to be dodges for gambling. The payoff typically was in packs of cigarettes. Winning players at the Lite-A-Line arcades – the game combines bingo and pinball – were given coupons which could be exchanged (covertly, at nearby gas stations) for cash. The District Attorney, ordering a raid in early 1943, called the Pike “a menace to our community and to soldiers and sailors on leave.”
Despite arrests, the games continued. Juries decided that Lite-A-Line actually was a game of skill. In the summer of 1943, the Looff carousel burned down. Its place on the Pike was taken by another Lite-A-Line arcade. Gambling and the political payoffs that gambling required colored the Pike’s place in the city.
The end of the war in 1945 left Long Beach bigger, with a booming suburban fringe, flush with jobs, and more than a little run down. A city famous for its Midwest retirees in the 1920s had aged all at once. The theaters on the midway no longer showed first-run films. The greasy spoons were greasier. The number of bars and liquor stores in the amusement zone had grown. Teenagers cutting class roamed the midway during the day. Crime was a problem after dark. In 1946, Cobra Woman, a sideshow headliner for years, was killed by Emperor, her biggest rattlesnake, during the “kiss of death” routine. Bitten at least twice on the face in as many seconds, Cobra Woman died at Seaside hospital a few hours later. Autopsied, Cobra Woman turned out to be a man.
In an effort to rebrand itself, the Pike turned into the Nu-Pike in 1950, with more than 100 new concessions and rides on beachfront reclaimed from the original fun zone. The Silver Spray Pier was demolished, leaving ownership of the Cyclone Racer in doubt. As inducements for the city to turn over even more shoreline, the operators of the Nu-Pike brought in a zoo and kiddieland rides.
The Nu-Pike was larger now but in reality not much newer. The sailors of the Navy’s Shore Patrol still walked the midway in pairs, with their SP armbands and khaki putees, swinging their billy clubs on its leather strap. The Pike could not be gentrified into something tame, as Long Beach writer Matt Cohn noted:
Imagine, then, the sensory bombardment of the original Long Beach Pike, with its freak shows, carnival barkers, pickpockets and con artists; its aromas of salt-water taffy, fried shrimp baskets, popcorn and diesel fumes; the constant shots from the real .22 rifles used in the shooting galleries, and the chaos caused by the occasional drunken sailor plunging from the top of the legendary Cyclone Racer roller coaster ...
The rides included a double Ferris wheel, Tilt-a-Whirl, Caterpillar, Octopus, Rolloplane, and Pretzel ride, along with two sets of bumper cars, the “Sharks Alive” diving bell, a boat ride, a train ride, a kiddie roller coaster, and a Mother Goose Land featuring animated nursery rhyme characters. The Stone Man, Painless Parker (who did his dentistry in public), and the bullet-riddled Al Capone Car (sometimes it was the equally fake and bullet-riddled Dillinger Car) were on display. Other concessionaires included “skill” games like fish bowl toss, ball game, dart game, Skee Ball, and horse race. These still has aspects of gambling with payoffs in merchandise that was convertible, under the counter, for cash.
Richard Dowdy remembered what hanging out at the Nu-Pike was like in his memoir Summertime at Long Beach and the Pike:
My favorite rides were the Deep Sea Diving Bell, the Dodg'em cars, the Laff In The Dark funhouse, the Crazy House, the Crazie Maize, pony rides and the merry-go-round... The Let's Shoot shooting gallery was another favorite, where you could shoot moving targets with a .22 rifle. When I was on my own at the Pike, I'd go over to the shooting gallery and collect the spent cartridges to play with at home. The place by the big gift shop where you could shoot marbles at whiskey bottles with a slingshot was another favorite. So much broken glass by the end of the night! I wasn't much good at that one.
In fact, there were now more than 200 concessions, lunch counters, tattoo parlors, fortune tellers, thrill rides, and shows like Sid Hirsch’s “mental act” and Joe Glacy’s side show on a midway that stretched from Hollywood At The Pike (a burlesque club) at the foot of Pine Avenue almost to the pier at Magnolia Avenue and a second fun zone called the Virginia Park Gayway (“Contains all the Elements of a Circus and Carnival”).
Beyond the pony ride and the cotton candy stands of Virginia Park were sketchier businesses that merged with a neighborhood of shabby apartment buildings on short, narrow streets leading up from the Navy Landing. The Shore Patrol and the Long Beach PD called it “the jungle.”
The Miss Universe pageant came to Long Beach in 1952, bringing temporary glamour and TV cameras, but the young women in swimsuits left amid controversy in 1959. It’s not recorded if many of the contestants or attendees wandered down to the Nu-Pike. Catholic orphans from Los Angeles still did, annual guests of the Nu-Pike management and always the subject of an amusing newspaper photograph of nuns in their traditional habits riding on a carousel.