Not far from the downtown of gleaming office buildings and chic restaurants--the area where Long Beach leaders see the city’s future--a longtime resident has hoarded all he can from the city’s past.
Ken Larkey’s Long Beach is still the place where the wooden Cyclone Racer roller coaster ruled the beach, where drugstores still had soda jerks, haircuts could be had for 15 cents. And where, he says pointedly, there really was a “long beach.”
In a beat-up storefront near 3rd Street and Elm Avenue, Larkey, 65, re-created the city as it was in the first half of the century.
He dedicated a corner to the Navy, with a mannequin dressed in uniform, matchbooks from sailor haunts along Ocean Boulevard, and a model of the Mighty Mo battleship. He set up on old barbershop, a corner grocery store, an old hotel switchboard, a living room. Everything, from the Rinso and White King cleanser on the shelves of the grocery store to the wooden roller coaster car and the pews piled in back, was found in Long Beach.
Now, the building that has housed Larkey’s Long Beach Heritage Museum is threatened. City building inspectors recently declared the building substandard. After 80 years of sitting in the same place with a concrete slab as a foundation, the building has begun to lean to one side, the result perhaps of an inadequate foundation and “significant structural problems,” city inspectors say. Owner Gordon Hudson said he has a choice: get a city rehabilitation loan and fix it up, or tear it down. He and Larkey, who helps manage the building, are counting on the loan.
“If we don’t get it, I’m not sure what I’ll do,” Larkey said. “I’m retired, I don’t have enough money to move someplace else.”
The city’s action came as Larkey was preparing to refurbish and reopen his museum. Eight years ago, Larkey stashed the more valuable things in storage and moved to Oregon to run a hotel. He sold the hotel and returned home last year loaded with pillows and blankets, plates and silverware, and other odds and ends that he planned to sell to earn some money. They are piled all over the storefront, which now barely resembles the Heritage Museum Larkey was so proud of.
The place is a mess. Water leaking from the three apartments upstairs has stained the whit e ceiling like tobacco juice, and the plaster is peeling in places, revealing wood planks.
Larkey’s pride and joy, the soda fountain from the old Harriman Jones medical clinic, dominates the room, but it is covered by an old tarp, and that is piled high with magazines, books and other stuff for sale. The barbershop has been dismantled. The Cyclone Racer car is all but invisible, stashed in a corner near a smiling mannequin dressed like a sailor. The church pews are jumbled in the back. (Larkey plans to sell all but one to raise money and create some space.) A 12-foot-tall surfboard of mahogany or redwood--Larkey is not sure which--stands in the corner.
The only displays intact are the operator station from the old Del Mar Hotel and the Navy retrospective. The telephone operator station comes with an old-fashioned wood switchboard, a dozen or so heavy black phones, a few old phone books and phone bills, and black and white photos of operators at work. The Navy display has dozens of photos of sailors, small gray ship models, trinkets once sold at the Pike.
The condition of the place is enough to make any archivist shudder, and Larkey readily acknowledges that he is not much of a curator. The most valuable items are still in storage, but he has no idea how many items he has, nor how many old photos or Long Beach postcards he has collected over the years.
But he argues that the city, not Ken Larkey, not even the Long Beach Historical Society, should take charge and dedicate a museum to the city’s history. Larkey, a member of the historical society, flushes and clasps his hands together, rolling one thumb over the other.
“The city fathers don’t care about old Long Beach,” he says bitterly. “They took downtown away from the people and gave it to the moneymakers. I’ve had young people come in here and they can’t believe what Long Beach looked like. ‘What happened?’ they ask. What can I tell them?”
Larkey said he fished the first piece of his collection, a 1906 panorama of the city, out of a garbage can when he was 9 years old.
In a way, he has never stopped collecting. He decided to open the first museum in 1971 after he displayed his sizable Long Beach photo collection at a hobby show and dozens of people gathered to see it. The museum, originally called Queen of the Beaches, stayed open intermittently during the next 14 years, depending on the number of patrons and how much spare change they dropped into the old metal bus fare box that he set up for collections.
Over the years, Larkey haunted swap meets, scoured classified ads and sweet-talked demolition crews for much of his collection. He saved what he could from some of the city’s oldest buildings--the beloved Pacific Coast Club, the Jergins Trust Building, the First Christian Church, the Omar Hubbard apartment building--before they became, respectively, a condominium tower, a dirt lot, a parking garage for the Long Beach Plaza mall, a city parking garage.
Larkey also published a series of calendars with black and white photos, and a picture book about the beach in which he criticizes city leaders for “destroying the very thing that attracted tourists and visitors to Long Beach.”
When asked why he has devoted so much time to his collection, the normally talkative Larkey mumbles something about future generations and repeats the story of people asking what happened to old Long Beach. “I’m not good with words,” he grumbles. “I wrote something about it in one of my calendars somewhere. Look it up.”
It’s there, in the back of the 1994 calendar, called “I remember. . . .”
“Our ties with the past cause us to reflect and make some choices about our own quality of life and the way we choose to direct and maintain it,” Larkey wrote. “Our old trees, roads, and buildings are important because they are our touch with our past, our roots. Without them, we look like everyone else; we lose our point of reflection, we lose our tangible tie with our ancestors and all those who have gone before us.”