Recalling The Pike at its Peak

James M. Leavy is assistant editor of the Southeast/Long Beach sections. His column appears occasionally

Sea breezes that have not been spent on the Port of Long Beach, the Queen Mary or Shoreline Aquatic Park swirl in a dusty, abandoned patch of concrete once known as The Pike.

They mock this forlorn-looking place that for nearly a century provided excitement for generations of Southern Californians and at one time was one of the area's major attractions.

That was before Disneyland, Knott's Berry Farm and Magic Mountain made anachronisms of merry-go-rounds, Ferris wheels and fun houses.

Now The Pike is a massive urban wasteland, a parking lot waiting for developers to put up hotels, restaurants and office buildings.

When that happens only a few old-timers who still hear the laughter, smell the hamburgers and hot dogs, and understand the special thrills the place provided.

If you want to know what it was all about, ask 83-year-old Al Brown. He was 16 years old, a student at Long Beach Poly High School, when he took a job as ring boy on the merry-go-round. He replaced the rings that riders grabbed for prizes.

The merry-go-round is gone, but Brown is in the same building, operating a Lite-a-Line game.

"When I walk out of my office here, I don't see this vacant property. I can still see the Cyclone Racer, the Ferris wheel, all the barkers and the spielers. It's still with me in my mind, and I enjoy thinking about it. It was a great life, and I sure enjoyed it."

He produces a photo of dozens of young women in bathing suits down to their knees and describes the city's first beauty contest. Brown said it caused a lot of trouble, including a court fight that resulted in an injunction barring future beauty contests. The event was too wild for Long Beach in 1925.

"Want to see who won?" he asked and impishly pointed to a photograph of all the contestants. Only the winner's head is visible in the back row, because she apparently was daring enough to wear a one-piece bathing suit that did not extend below her knees.

Brown said the event attracted thousands of people, but it was the last one held in Long Beach until the Miss Universe contest in 1952.

The Pike had ways of luring people. "Everyone had a gaff down here . . . something that would help them sell more of anything they were peddling. If you were selling hamburgers, you would pile up some onions on a corner of the grill and let them simmer. If you just smelled those onions on the grill . . . I'd just dare you to walk by without buying a hamburger."

It was not all deception, however. Brown said you could give a kid 50 cents in the 1930s or '40s and he could ride anything he wanted to.

The Cyclone Racer (roller coaster) was billed as "the fastest and steepest ride in the world."

Reckless Ross would ride his motorcycle around the inside of a cylinder-shaped arena. Centrifugal force would keep him on the wall and mystify the audience.

Brown operated two scooter rides (bumper cars), a penny arcade, shooting gallery and owned part of the merry-go-round.

In 1941, when The Pike swarmed with sailors, he opened a Lite-a-Line game. Players paid 50 cents to compete with one another for money on more than a dozen oversized pinball machines. The first player to line up five balls in a row won the game. Citizens of Long Beach attacked it as gambling, but a court said it was legal because it is a game of skill. The ruling has stood for nearly 50 years.

In 1925 Brown fell in love with Lavona, the daughter of a man who brought his family from Nebraska to open a popcorn stand on the Pike. Six years later they were married. They will celebrate their 60th anniversary Oct. 6.

Brown has become a self-styled curator of Pike artifacts. He preserves the Pike's golden days in stories and photos and addresses local clubs and civic groups. But each day he goes to the famous old Looff building to operate Lite-a-Line for as long as he can.

Brown and the building are both hanging on to a small corner of a world that all but disappeared nearly a decade ago. Almost everything is a memory. Brown will take you outside and show you the reinforced foundation that protected the building against high tides when it was on the edge of the sea and the roller coaster stood on pilings in the water.

Landfill has moved the shore away from the building. The music, the laughter, the screams of those brave enough to ride the world's steepest and fastest roller coaster are all gone.

And what will Brown do when he has to go?

"Probably get a rockin' chair and wait around for the Carnival Operator Upstairs to call me to run a scooter ride or something."

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