The Ghosts of Long Beach Past

Every city has its heyday.

For Long Beach, it was the 1940s when "our boys" pulled into the naval base in ship after ship, all of them in service to the country. They used up their shore leave at the Pike, roaming city streets that flashed bright with the sailors' heroic medals and white uniforms.

And this was when people flocked here from the country's interior to fill defense industry jobs to swell the ranks of the middle class. So many came that Long Beach became known as Iowa by the Sea.

A ghost of this era still clings to the city, but in a way that is difficult to pinpoint. It's there in a tattoo parlor near the harbor and in the shipping cranes that loom on the horizon, just past downtown.

And that same ghost of is also visible in the Queen Mary--more specifically, in the ship's Royal Theater, where a small group, Work With Unknowns, is re-creating wartime Long Beach.

They're doing this with a play entitled "The Rose Shrine," which is a first in several ways.

It's the first traditional full-length play being performed in the 120-seat theater, situated cozily next to the ship's boiler room below decks. And it's the first traditional drama being produced by Work With Unknowns, a Long Beach group fascinated with the city's history. (The group has concentrated in the past on an annual Christmas production at Rancho Los Alamitos Historic Site.)

"The Rose Shrine," written by Nora Boland-Ullrich and directed by David Fruechting, is not just a set piece, however. This is the story of one girl's coming of age at a time (1941) and place and family where boys were the center of attention.

The shrine of the title is a few simple objects gathered around a rose, which is replaced daily in memory of a son who died during World War II. This first son haunts the Long Beach family--the dead soldier's mother, brother, sister-in-law, niece and nephew.

The play, seen through the eyes of the teen-age girl, Nonie, revolves around her grandmother's unending grief for her dead son, even while Nonie's brother is itching to join the Army Air Corps. It's a story of death and war and growing up in the shadow of the Pike's old wooden roller coaster, the Cyclone Racer. It is quintessentially Long Beach.

"The Rose Shrine" plays Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m., and Saturdays and Sundays at 2 p.m. in the Queen Mary's Royal Theater, 1126 Queen's Highway. Evening performances are $7, matinees are $5. Reservations are recommended to avoid ship entrance fees in the afternoon. Information: (310) 833-7852 or (714) 761-5735.

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