Mike Cincola has made it his mission to help preserve the memory of the Long Beach Pike and the family that helped create it.
In its heyday, the Pike was one of America’s premier amusement parks and one of Southern California’s biggest tourist attractions.
Located on the coast of Long Beach off the old Red Car line, the park included the famous Looff Carousel -- named for the family that operated the Pike and designed rides -- as well as attractions such as the Cyclone Racer roller coaster, the Moon Rocket and Rollo Plane.
The park, however, fell on hard times and closed in the late 1970s. (A shopping center now sits on the site, using the Pike name.)
Cincola, a Long Beach developer, owns the last remaining Pike attraction, a game of chance known as Lite-a-Line that still operates a few miles from its original home.
Fond of Hawaiian shirts and driving around town in a 1952 Rolls-Royce with “Looff” license plates, Cincola is a history buff.
“There’s too much junk out there nowadays,” he said. “There’s something so much more authentic about the past.”
He wasn’t always a preserver of the Pike, and it was only recently that he became convinced that memories of old Long Beach would disappear unless he did something about it.
Cincola, 61, married into the Looff family in the 1960s, not really aware of the family history.
“We went for a walk on the Pike one day and [my wife] pointed to the old carousel building and said, ‘That belongs to my dad,’ but we never really talked about it again.”
He was focused on other projects, concentrating on his real estate business while longtime employees ran Lite-a-Line.
For decades, in a time before television and major theme parks, the 20-block stretch of beachfront, rides and the famous “plunge” bathing spot offered the best in entertainment.
“Long Beach was really the vacation spot for much of America,” said Carl Winston, an amusement park historian at San Diego State University.
Much of the Pike was reduced to rubble in the Long Beach earthquake of 1933. What remained burned in a fire in the 1940s.
The death of the Pike was hastened when supplies that would have rebuilt it were given over to the World War II effort.
“Slowly but surely, the Pike became a place for less-desirable people: vagrants, drunken sailors,” said Paul Ruben, an amusement park historian and editor for the industry magazine Park World.
By 1970, even the roller coaster was gone.
By then, Arthur Looff, the man who created amusement rides across America, was getting worried.
When he sold his last carousel, the one in Griffith Park, Looff realized that the family did not own a single one of the magnificent wooden horses with real horsehair tails and gold-leaf bridles that it had built its reputation on.
“I knew it was time to sit down and hear some stories,” said Cincola. “Looff realized, I guess, that the family legacy would die unless he told me about it.”
Carousels had become the family’s source of income, and the craftsmanship was known across the nation, as Charles I.D. Looff, Arthur’s father, built small parks in Spokane, Wash., and Riverside, R.I.
The German immigrant had brought the family to Long Beach in 1910. And in keeping with the work ethic of the day, the elder Looff lived with his family on the second floor of the carousel building -- a large white building with a giant green dome at the Pike.
“When I heard about this, how the family used to live above the Lite-a-Line, it was like a mission for me to make sure that I would do what I could to keep the place intact,” Cincola said.
Arthur Looff took the family legacy further, building in the 1920s amusement centers in Seattle, Houston, Santa Cruz, San Francisco, Redondo Beach, Venice and Ocean Park -- all the while shipping his carousels and building roller coasters from Hawaii to the Jersey shore.
When Arthur Looff died in 1970, Cincola’s interest in the family business grew stronger.
“I wanted to make sure that another part of my history, of Long Beach history, didn’t get turned into trash,” he said.
With Looff’s passing, he had inherited a giant warehouse in Long Beach’s industrial district. The two-story facility was already home to what Cincola saw as treasure: the old wooden benches where Charles I.D. Looff and his men used to carve the carousel horses.
Now, 34 years later, the warehouse is stuffed. Cincola has spent thousands of dollars scouring rubble from the Pike days, visiting yard sales and church rummage sales to fill the warehouse with everything he could find from the old Pike.
He regularly scans ads in the Long Beach newspaper, hoping to turn up more memorabilia.
He has pieces from the Hall of Mirrors -- wooden planks with orange and purple paint -- parts of an old shooting gallery and stools from a hamburger stand.
He has signs from the penny arcade that advertise popcorn and five-cent games, and old games that are the ancestors of Pac-Man and Pong. There’s even the counter and all of the seating for the old Majestic Cafe, closed for decades now.
Eventually, Cincola would like to organize his collection -- now gathering dust in his warehouse -- and display it to the public. He is thinking that a second-story addition to the Lite-a-Line building might be perfect.
“One day, after I convince the city to let me build another story, there’ll be a great museum here, right on this lot above the Lite-a-Line,” Cincola says. “Instead of being in my warehouse, everyone will come here and see parts of the old Pike.”
This dream makes Mary Sisk, 75, a longtime Lite-a-Line employee, smile.
“The Pike was too good to lose, and too important for the world to forget about,” she said. “Mike’s going to help people understand.”