A Walk Along Long Beach’s Gaudy, Tawdry, Bawdy Pike | KCET
A Walk Along Long Beach’s Gaudy, Tawdry, Bawdy Pike
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:
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:
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:
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:
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.
By 1954, the Nu-Pike was the fifth largest amusement zone in the nation, but its appeal had begun to fade. The aspects of the Nu-Pike that give it, in memory, an ironic, noir-adjacent vibe kept young families away. Disneyland and Knott’s Berry Farm had many of the same kind of rides, but none of the midway’s louche sideshows, dim arcades with questionable “games of skill.” They didn’t have its drunken sailors, tattooists, palm readers, a headless chicken (periodically replaced), or Looff’s Lite-A-Line (“The World's Most Thrilling and Fascinating Skill Game!”).
The Nu-Pike looked cheap and felt cheap, despite periodic efforts to Disneyize the midway. The old-time carnival operators and their culture weren’t made for Disney’s militant niceness.
Redevelopment claimed the Jungle in 1961, as Long Beach tried to redefine itself as a city of international trade. The city bought the Queen Mary ocean liner in 1967, hoping to rebrand the shoreline as a tourist destination, but the effect was unimpressive. The pools of the original Long Beach Bath House had closed by then. The city had begun filling in the shoreline for a new convention center. Redevelopment was poised to claim more of the old downtown.
The rides, concessions, and sideshows still ran when I walked the Nu-Pike midway in the 1960s, a college kid spending an evening in what passed for me as a big city. I could wander into one of the tattoo parlors at the far end of the midway, its walls still covered with the “flash art” of 30 years before – big pink nudes in pinup poses and anchors with Navy mottos – but also now biker symbols, flaming skulls, a peace sign, and a bleeding Jesus. To introduce you to the idea of an electric needle repeatedly puncturing your skin, you could get four small, black dots tattooed for a few dollars. I never did.
The decline of the midway – of the Pike in all its manifestations – were propelled by the city’s plans for redeveloping its downtown and by the Nu-Pike’s owners, who realized that no amount of repainting and dressing up could ever restore the long-ago allure of “The Walk of a Thousand Lights.” The Cyclone Racer stopped in September 1968, and that seemed to take much of the life out of the midway.
In 1976, a macabre discovery in the Laff In The Dark funhouse summed up the arc of the Pike’s story. Paul Prosise, who has been collecting an oral and personal history of the Pike, was told by Ken McGrath, a Nu-Pike policeman until 1978, what was found:
Elmer McCurdy’s leathery remains were returned to Guthrie, Oklahoma in 1977, where his hapless career as a train and bank robber had begun.
A corpse from 1911, embalmed in arsenic, was the Pike’s fitting icon, a fun zone stuck in a time that had a different, darker idea of fun.
The Nu-Pike, now called Queen’s Park in honor of the Queen Mary, closed officially in 1979, but some outlier attractions continued. The Lite-A-Line players, as enduring as Elmer McCurdy, continued to trust their skill at getting the pinballs into the right rows.
Today the Ocean Center Building on Ocean Boulevard is the Pike’s only remaining structure. The arched entrance to the midway on the beach side of the building had been the patio of a cocktail lounge. In January 2017, it was closed. “The Walk of a Thousand Lights” is the name of an access road within the cluster of condominiums that replaced the eastern end of the Pike, part of a residential, entertainment, and retail complex that fronts the Long Beach Convention Center.
The Outer Limits Tattoo and Museum has a corner in what had been the beach side of the Sovereign building, put up in 1922. Fill moved the shore away. Redevelopment left the Sovereign behind, eventually to rent a space to a tattoo parlor, a memory at the end of the midway of the gaudy, tawdry, bawdy Pike.
 Sarah Bixby Smith, Adobe Days: Being the Truthful Narrative of the Events in the Life of a California Girl, (Cedar Rapids, Iowa, The Torch press, 1925), p125-126.
 “The Most Charming Beach on the Pacific Coast,” Los Angeles Herald, Sept. 6, 1884, p6.
 “Wine Sauce Ordered Out at Long Beach,” Los Angeles Daily Times, Aug. 22, 1901, p15.
 “A Short Trip Along the Pike.” Evening Tribune, March 18, 1905, p2.
 Bisby's Spiral Airship, built in 1902, had open cars suspended under a track. The cars traveled up a lift to the top of the conical tower where they were allowed to descend. As the “airships” began their descent, centrifugal force caused the cars to swing outward. Not surprisingly, Bisby's Spiral Airship was the only one of its kind.
 Welcome Rather Late,” Los Angeles Daily Times, April 4, 1911, p14.
 “Jitterbugs Trial to Dance Police, Long Beach Independent, Sept. 1, 1938, p1 “Dime a dance” halls also were forbidden, as was the sale of liquor in dance halls. The Long Beach PD Vice Bureau kept six patrolmen at the Pike, which also had its own force of “special officers” sworn in by the Long Beach PD.
 It’s still being played in Long Beach by third- and fourth-generation players.
 “Cobra Woman, a Man, Came to U.S. as ‘Dog Faced Boy’,” Long Beach Independent, April 16, 1946, p1.
 “Welcome to the Jungle: The Forgotten Tale of Long Beach's Oceanfront Slum,” Long Beach Post, Oct. 23 2013, np.
 “Long Beach Fun Spot Called Miracle,” The Billboard, Nov. 26, 1949, p112.
 The owners of the Nu-Pike acquired Virginia Park and its concessions in 1952. “Long Beach Firm Outlines 50G Plans for Virginia Park,” The Billboard, Jan. 10, 1953, p47.
 The many films shot at the Pike – going back to silent comedies in the 1920s – include several films noirs. What seems like a complete list of movies is included in the Wikipedia entry on the Pike.
 In 1959, two semi-nude photographs of Miss Universe contestants appeared in a men’s magazine. Long Beach officials demanded more demure coverage of the contestants, but the swimsuit company that owned the Miss Universe and Miss America trademarks wouldn’t agree to a “no swimsuit” contest.
While third-wave coffee shops are symbols of gentrification in places like Boyle Heights, one coffee shop called Primera Taza is doing things differently and establishing themselves as a safe space for the community.
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