Every summer, from as early as I can remember (around 1947) I would travel with my grandparents from Phoenix to Long Beach. There we would fan out to LA by car or Pacific Electric Red Car, or drive up to San Francisco. My grandfather was in the citrus business, owning several packing houses and groves in Phoenix. In the summer, there would be no picking, so we had about three months off each year for vacation. Sometimes we’d go for most of the three months; other times we’d leave in early July for the coast.
In Long Beach we stayed at several places that I can recall, including the Wilton/Hilton/Breakers; the Willmore Apartments (before it became own-your-own condos), the Robinson Hotel, the Lafayette Hotel and the Imperial Apartments owned by a lady name Mrs. Compton, over by Lincoln Park. Mornings, after breakfast, Grandpa and I would go to the park to watch men play Roque, a game similar to croquet, played on hard courts on the west side of Lincoln Park, behind the library. I would sit and watch with Grandpa, who would talk to acquaintances, some of whom had come from Phoenix like us, to spend the summer. At the time of which I speak, I was eight years old.
Though the years blur in my memory, what stands out clearly are my summer days at Rainbow Pier with my mom, where she’d rent me a paddleboard to skim around inside the lagoon, and those spent at the Pike. This was before the breakwater was built. We’d often go to the beach west of the Cyclone Racer and play in the waves too. Afterwards, when lunchtime arrived, we’d walk into the back entrance of Marfleet’s at the Pike, barefooted and sandy. We’d sit at a table and I’d have a burger and Coke in the bottle. The burgers came with onions and mustard…just the way I liked them. The Coke came with a paper straw that would sink down in the drink, and I’d have to fish it out again. Life’s little details were a constant struggle as a kid! Marfleet’s was the spot, either at lunch, or in the evenings when we’d all go to the Pike. Their slogan, written in neon out front was “Always a Good, Safe Place to Eat.” I recall an article in the early 1970s in the LA Times which quoted a cook at Marfleet’s as saying when business was slow he’d toss a bunch of chopped onions on the grill to entice customers with the aroma of friend onions, a trick that always got the passersby’s attention.
When I was getting a little older, my grandparents would let me go to the Pike by myself in the daytime. Armed with a pocketful of pennies and a few silver coins, I’d spend my time in the penny arcades playing games. Some days I’d alternate between the Pike and the two movie theaters, the Roxy on Ocean, and the Palace on Pine, just up the block from Ocean. Admission was 15 cents. That got you three features (never first-run). The shows changed every three days, so I could go to the Roxy on Monday, the Palace on Tuesday, the beach and Pike on Wednesday, and then back to the movie circuit which would change their movies on Thursday. With luck and no other commitments, I could see up to 12 movies a week! This schedule helped fuel my love for films! Both the Roxy and Palace were a bit run-down, not like the Fox West Coast or the State on Ocean, both premier theaters. I remember waiting in line at the Fox to see “Shane” when it first came out, and many, many other movies at those palaces. At the Strand Theatre on the Pike, I saw “The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms,” which ended with the giant lizard laying waste to the Cyclone Racer…while I was inside the theater watching the destruction going on outside.
We would go out to dinner every evening, all summer. Many of the places we visited are gone from my memory. Others are as fresh as yesterday. Chas. Savitz’ Just Good Food at Ocean and Locust was a favorite. A long, narrow place with a counter and several dining rooms, it was always packed at dinner. I would invariably get a turkey sandwich or ground sirloin dinner; the sandwich would come with a scoop of orange or pineapple sherbet, which I would eat before the sandwich. My grandparents loved cafeterias. There was one on First near Long Beach Boulevard called Jones Cafeteria, with a big aquarium in the waiting area. I would stare at the fish to while away the time as we waited to eat. In Belmont Shore we would go to a Chinese place with a screen door…a place always jammed with a line stretching down the sidewalk. I’d always moan when I saw the line, because it meant an interminable wait for a table, especially on Saturday nights.
But back to the Pike. I have so many stories of the Pike, it’s hard to put them in order and make this sound coherent. One experience didn’t happen to me, but I sure heard about it often enough! My mom and my uncle (her brother) were at the Pike before I was born, riding on the double Ferris wheel. My grandparents were over at Magruder’s getting a bag of salt water taffy as my mom and uncle were riding some rides. Up on the Ferris wheel, the operator was bringing it around to let the riders off, and finished his chore and locked up, unaware that my mom and uncle were in the top wheel, unnoticed! The man locked up the ride and went home, around 11:00 p.m. My grandparents were wandering around looking for them, unaware that they were sitting high above the Pike. My mom shouted and my uncle whistled, but no one could hear them. They started dropping popcorn but it would just drift away in the breeze. Finally my mom tossed her purse over the side, watching it spiral down and smack into the blacktop near my grandfather. He looked up and saw them waving, and immediately went to the Pike office and had them call the Ferris wheel guy, who had to come back down from home with the keys to unlock the place and get the wheel back down. That was a story they’d tell over and over!
My favorite rides were the Deep Sea Diving Bell, the Dodg’em Cars, the Laff-in-the-Dark funhouse, the Crazy House, the Crazie Maize, Pony Rides and the merry-go-round (hey, I was just a kid…). The “Let’s Shoot” shooting gallery was another favorite, where you could shoot moving targets with a .22 rifle. When I was on my own at the Pike, I’d go over to the shooting gallery and collect the spent cartridges to play with at home. The place by the big gift shop where you could shoot marbles at whiskey bottles with a slingshot was another favorite. So much broken glass by the end of the night! I wasn’t much good at that one.
At the east entrance of the Pike, through the arch of the Ocean Building, across from the Hollywood At The Pike nightclub, was a big Chinese store filled with curios, incense, clothes and trinkets. My grandmother loved this place. I can’t recall its name, but it was huge. I’d get some incense and Chinese puzzles and those “finger cuffs” made of paper that you’d put your fingers in and not be able to get free from again without adult assistance.
The rides I avoided were the Rotor (I always thought I’d get dizzy and throw up) and the dreaded Cyclone Racer. In fact, it wasn’t until I was 12 years old that I finally rode the Cyclone. A friend from Phoenix, Bobby Bayliss had come to visit his grandparents who were summering in Long Beach, and he and I went to the Pike. He was a year older and much more “worldly” than me. First we rented a rowboat somewhere over by Magnolia Pier or Pierpoint Landing, I don’t remember which. My first mistake. We rowed waaay out into the blue Pacific, near some Navy ships. The rowboat was small and tippy, and I was completely panicked. We managed to circumnavigate the waters offshore and back where we started, but by then I was as limp as a wet washrag.
Once I had regained my land-legs, Bobby suggested a turn on the Cyclone Racer. After our experience at sea, the Cyclone seemed like a breeze to me. Until we were strapped in. Once again I questioned my association with this wild child Bobby. He had nearly gotten me drowned at sea; now I was sure we would be flung to our deaths from the rickety-old Cyclone Racer.
Of course, Bobby insisted that we sit in the front car. I was apprehensive, but seeing as how I agreed to do it, I couldn’t back out at this point. As the coaster began its trip to the top before plunging down who-knows-where, I said a silent prayer. Maybe more than one. As we cleared the top and plunged straight down into an abyss of wood stilts, I figured it was all over, that to die at such an early age was a real waste. It seemed to me that not only were we going straight down to China, but that we were actually going down and under, not just down a slope. I expected at any moment the rear coaster cars would overtake us and we would sail through the forest of wood timbers, flipping over backwards, end over end. When I opened my eyes we were banked nearly 90 degrees to the right. I could look down over my shoulder and see the inside of the Cyclone’s grounds, perpendicular to me. “This is it!” I shouted. No one heard me. Bobby was laughing like a maniac. I was screaming louder than a banshee. The next moment we were coursing around the outside of the coaster, swinging wide out over the ocean. I saw people on the beach. I was sure my life was passing before their very eyes. They were paying no attention to my screams.
What seemed like hours passed before we zipped into the tunnel of beams and back where we started. I managed a weak smile as I looked over at Bobby. “That wasn’t so bad, was it?” I croaked weakly, trying to muster a bit of bravado. It was at that moment that I realized WE WEREN’T STOPPING. The old man running the Cyclone was leaning back on his stool, smoking a short cigar. His eyes were slits; his mouth twisted in an evil grin as he saw my terror. He kicked a lever of some kind with his foot and the ratcheta-racheta sound of the eternal conveyor of doom carried us up, up and over the top. I was limp by this time. Not a scream left in me. My teeth ached from my mouth being clamped shut tighter than a pitbull on a sirloin.
This time, when the car returned to the start/finish line, it jerked to a stop. I didn’t wait for the old guy to get us out. I leaped from the car to the wooden sidewalk and promptly fell to my knees. My legs were rubber. I crawled to my feet and began pulling splinters from my palm.
“Wanna go again?” asked Bobby, with a grin.
“I’m outta money,” I lied, staggering like a drunk as I started to wobble down the ramp to safety. “Besides, it’s time we were back at the hotel to get ready for dinner.” A smart move on my part, as Bobby was digging into his pants, looking for change. “Yeah, I guess you’re right. That’s enough fun for one day. Whaddaya wanna do tomorrow?”
Tomorrow? Jeez, Bobby, I thought, what can we do? Climb an oilwell drilling tower and see Catalina? Dive into the diving bell pond and swim with the sharks? Go get tattooed??
“I dunno…why don’t we see what’s playing at the Roxy?”
“Sounds good, creampuff.”
Years later, around 1964, I was driving from Encinitas where I lived, back to my college home in Naples, on a Sunday night. Following me was my college roommate and high school pal Steve. For some reason we wound up at the Pike. I was showing Steve some of my old haunts, and before long we stood in front of my nemesis, the Cyclone Racer. Steve gave me a look; it was the same look, and the same question he would always pose before we went to speech class: I’ll go if you will.”
I wasn’t so sure. For a while, we sat on the white benches out in front of the Cyclone and watched and listened as daredevils or fools took their turn, the screams echoing through the Racer’s canyons. Finally, I had enough. It was time to grow up. I stood, looked at Steve, cocked my head toward the Cyclone and said, “Let’s do it,” giving it my best Robert Redford.
Like two gunslingers, we strode up to the ticket booth, threw down our quarters and were soon strapped in the coaster cars.
At night there was a whole new complexion to the Cyclone Racer. Dim lightbulbs illuminated the path up to that first fateful freefall. For some reason, I wasn’t scared. Excited, yes…but not scared! Once we climbed over the hill and were cascading down into inky black oblivion, we both screamed in ecstasy. This was fun!! Get on the phone and tell that Bobby Bayliss that I’m KING OF THE CYCLONE!!! Ain’t no stopping me now. I’ll ride waves bigger than buildings…I’ll climb Yosemite’s Half Dome–well, let’s not go too far now.
Once we finished our ride I did the unthinkable. I rode it again. I even amazed myself.
Now, years after the Cyclone is only a memory, I really, truly miss the experience and mourn its passing, despite all the agony it gave me that first time. The Cyclone Racer: The World’s Greatest Ride!