The flame burned bright as the Olympic torch entered Long Beach around 10 PM on July 26, 1984. A cool summer breeze spurred its carrier forward as the torch rounded out the last leg of its journey enroute to the Summer Olympic Opening Ceremonies at the LA Memorial Coliseum. For 79 days prior, the flame made its way 9,000 miles across America, passed hand-to-hand by more than 4,000 runners, as 30 million people cheered it on.
And tonight it was coming through Long Beach. Around 1 million exuberant, joyful, patriotic spectators lined the streets to witness this “once-in-a-lifetime” experience. People waved American flags, held balloons and played patriotic music to welcome the runners to the city.
“That night we were all one,” smiles John Morris, founder of Legends on Second Street. “We were all proud Americans, celebrating together, having fun together, watching this historic event as one big community. Those of us who’ve been around [for a while] haven’t seen anything like it before or since.”
The Olympic flame is the link between the ancient Greek games and the modern Olympiad. Each Olympics, the flame is lit from Olympia, Greece, just as in days of the ancient Olympiad. The torch is then transported to the host country where it travels throughout the region on its way to the host city in time for Opening Ceremonies.
On July 26, 1984, seven local residents were scheduled to carry the iconic torch south on Long Beach Boulevard, turning east on Carson Street, then south on Lakewood Boulevard to Pacific Coast Highway, finally turning west down 2nd Street toward Ocean Boulevard.
For the first time in Olympic history, the organization offered regular citizens the chance to carry the torch. More than 3,500 amateurs, known as Youth Legacy Kilometer Runners (YLK’s), obtained the right to carry the flame for 1 kilometer along the route by contributing $3,000 to athletic programs at their local Boys & Girls Club, YMCA or Special Olympics. The promotion, which ultimately raised nearly $11 million dollars for these charities, created a sense of Olympic pride among Americans across the country.
Lakewood resident Jeanine Vaden was standing with her husband and daughter on the corner of Lakewood Boulevard and Carson Street when fellow Lakewood resident Liz Rutledge ran by with the torch. “The local news was there covering the event too. And as the flame ran by, the reporter picked up our daughter and put her on his shoulders. It was a memorable moment,” Jeanine says.
About an hour later, Juanita Martinez of Long Beach received the flame and proceeded down PCH to Second Street. Along the route patients and workers from the Long Beach Veterans Administration Medical Center, many of whom had been camped out on the street for hours, cheered her on.
“I feel strongly that the Olympics is one of the only things we have left that joins the whole world together,” Juanita told the Press-Telegram in 1984. “This is a runner’s dream.”
As the torch headed toward Second Street in Belmont Shore, the crowd grew larger. Originally, the Olympic Committee had scheduled the torch to go straight down Long Beach Boulevard to Ocean, bypassing East Long Beach, Naples and Belmont Shore. When Morris, then sole proprietor of Legends on Second Street, heard about the proposed route, he was determined that the Shore would not be missed.
“Why wouldn’t you bring the torch down the shore to one of the most popular parts of town?” John says. “It just didn’t make any sense; they were missing a huge part of the city.”
John quickly mounted a campaign to have the route changed. And after many phone calls and strings pulled, the Olympic Committee conceded, much to the joy of East Side residents.
As the night approached, Second Street pulled out all the stops to make sure they didn’t disappoint. More than 100 historic American flags lined the businesses, adorning lampposts, stationed outside restaurant entrances and tied to parking meters. It was another visual reminder of the patriotic significance of this event.
For the Belmont Shore kilometer, the torchbearer was resident Audrey Langslet, wife of prominent developer and Long Beach Harbor Commissioner C. Robert Langslet. Fitted in a custom uniform adorned with Olympic pictures, Audrey prepared for her run. Her husband Bob recalls, “There must have been 60,000 people all crowding the streets. There was a motorcade of police around her as she ran. It was a once-in-a-lifetime event for sure.”
John Morris’ vision was for Audrey to run through “a tunnel of American flags, held by local Boy Scouts.” Around 11:00 pm, the Boy Scouts took their places. People lined up behind them, two to three rows deep on either side of the street. But as the night wore on, the torch ran late. And the crowd on Second Street continued to grow.
Dan Gooch, who grew up in Long Beach, remembers, “I’ve never seen anything like it…before or since.”
Soon the crowd was eight rows deep, then ten. The Boy Scouts with their flags were lost in a sea of zealous patriots, hoping to catch a glimpse of the historic flame.
“There was no room from one side to the other,” remembers Ed Arnold, Long Beach local and owner of the historic flags that decorated the street. “There was hardly enough room for the runner to get through.”
Spectators were on the roofs of the buildings and hanging from the lampposts. By the time the flame appeared over the bridge from Naples there was about a 4-foot wide path for Audrey and the flame to navigate.
Belmont Heights resident Valerie Steidel told the Press-Telegram at the time, “This is a laid-back community, and to see the crowd this happy is an absolute joy!”
As the Long Beach Municipal Band played “America The Beautiful,” the crowd went wild shouting “USA. USA. USA.” Thousands of revelers surged into the street to catch a glimpse of the flame. Audrey was forced to slow down to a walk. But the people didn’t care; this gave them an even better opportunity to witness such an historic event.
“You’ve never seen so many people together for a singular purpose,” John recalls. “Nobody wanted to leave.”
And nobody did. The celebration continued into the early hours of the next morning, long after Audrey had handed off the flame to continue down Ocean Boulevard and rest in Shoreline Village for the night.
The next morning, by all accounts, Second Street looked like the apocalypse had hit. Weaving among the desolate reminders of the electrifying night before, Ed collected the American flags. The Olympic pride still hung in the air. As he counted the flags, only a few were missing, and he thought, “If someone wants a flag that badly, that was okay.” After all, Ed says, “It was a different type of patriotism back then.”
Eric Johnson, current owner and GM of Legends, hands the Olympic Torch off to his son Riley. John Morris purchased the actual torch from the 1984 Olympics to add to Legend’s impressive sports memorabilia collection