The story goes that in the 1880s, a woman spotted some tobacco-chewing debaters on the veranda of the Long Beach Hotel and complained to a friend: “All they do is spit and argue.”
And so the Spit ‘n’ Argue Club became the name of the informal group of mostly retired characters who met daily in Long Beach to chew and whittle while tackling such issues as God, world peace and the proper methods of plowing a wheat field.
The colorful conclave eventually became a tourist attraction, drawing upward of 1,500 spectators a day and surviving more than three-quarters of a century.
It outlived the hotel (which burned to the ground in 1888) and three piers, where the group later gathered.
The idea of the piers as the home of the Spit ‘n’ Argue reportedly came from local merchants who didn’t want the noisy soap-boxers near their businesses.
Occasionally, there were fracases. A 1923 Times story reported the case of a belligerent man who “began to enforce his statements with blows delivered indiscriminately,” until he was arrested by a police officer “immune to both words and blows.”
But for the most part, the verbal jousting was good-natured.
In 1935, the Spit ‘n’ Argue Club came under the control of the image-conscious city and was renamed the University by the Sea, though few of the regulars wasted their saliva on such a stuffy title.
Formal rules were issued. A chairman was selected each day, and speakers were allowed to mount a dais on the 40- by 75-foot platform and discourse on any issue for up to 10 minutes.
In fact, the speaker wasn’t even required to speak. “One member faithfully uses his 10 minutes each day to give a solo on a flute,” The Times reported.
Profanity and alcoholic beverages were banned, as well as bathing suits. It seemed almost blasphemous to debate the existence of God while wearing swimwear.
Tim Grobaty’s book, “Long Beach Almanac,” recorded the observations of a Des Moines Register reporter who attended a Spit ‘n’ Argue meeting in 1937.
“White shavings from the knives of the whittlers are littering the spacious rectangle off Rainbow Pier,” the Iowan said. “A terse sign says, ‘Minors Not Allowed.’ ” The sign was meant not to protect children but to prevent speakers from being disturbed by “immature prattling.”
In downtown Los Angeles, meanwhile, a second outdoor debating society sprouted in a well-known park. Locals called it the Pershing Square Country Club. It was less structured than the Long Beach version and had no designated speaking area. Two dozen face-to-face rhetorical clashes might be raging at any one time in Pershing Square.
As for the style of the oratory, Times columnist Lee Shippey commented in 1935 that it seems “when you know a thing, you may merely speak it, but when you are rather doubtful, you must assert it so loudly as to overwhelm all opposition.”
After World War II, the oratory grew more heated in both locations as communism -- and anti-communism -- became issues.
A 1949 petition signed by 299 people demanded that the Long Beach City Council shut down Spit ‘n’ Argue because they said it was an anti-American organization whose rhetoric was inflamed “by four psychopaths, two religious fanatics and a crackpot.” The council refused.
The American Legion contended that Spit ‘n’ Argue and the Pershing Square Country Club were riddled with communists. Another faction said that Spit ‘n’ Argue had been infiltrated by the Ku Klux Klan.
Politics aside, the park population was changing. The oldsters were dying out.
“Used to be, a load of wooden sticks was brought down for whittlers,” a Spit ‘n’ Argue member named Mac told The Times in 1948. “But not many good old-fashioned whittlers are left.”
Vagrants and criminals began hanging out at both locations.
Radio and TV also contributed to the decline of the outdoor talkfests.
“The airwaves were filled with call-in talk shows that robbed the vibrancy of live, open-air debate,” wrote Richard DeAtley in “Long Beach: The Golden Shore.”
The Pershing Square Country Club had faded away as an arena for political discussion by the late 1960s. Spit ‘n’ Argue lasted until 1972, when the city quietly shut down its gathering spot near Pine Avenue.
Selah Brickman, a 90-year-old orator known as “The Professor,” saw it all coming in 1970 when he told the Long Beach Press-Telegram’s Dick Emery:
“In 1902, a teacher, I came from Kiev in the Russian Ukraine to get away from the Czar to find freedom and free speech. Here, yes, they are here!
“But our members are old now. When the wind blows, they get cold. They stay home. No one chews tobacco anymore. No one spits here at our club.”