Still echoing across the ether somewhere above Long Beach are the faint sounds of carousel music, the chimes of carnival games, the roaring of amusement park rides, and the chatter and bustling of thousands of people who came together to take part in the pure ecstasy and excitement of what was known as The Pike.
For a moment, let’s pretend that, like when watching a play, the curtains have risen, and this scene is unfolding like it were happening now. The time is 1943. The Pike, known as “The Coney Island of the West,” already in existence for 40 years at this point, stands beset the surf that once met the sand in Long Beach before the breakwater. There is indeed a roller coaster racing through the clouds, The Cyclone Racer. It passes over that sandy beach to the surf’s edge. In full view, is a pier shaped like a Rainbow -- aptly named Rainbow Pier.
Enter Richard Dowdy. Every summer, from as early as he can remember, he would travel with his grandparents from Phoenix to Long Beach.
Mornings after breakfast, Richard and his grandfather would go to Lincoln Park, near The Pike, to watch men play Roque, a game similar to croquet, which was played on hard courts on the west side of the park, behind the old 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 in Long Beach,” Richard says.
Richard at the Pike’s Pony Rides, 1951
At the time of which Richard speaks, he was eight years old. It’s 2017 now and he’s 74 years old. Returning to his old stomping grounds to reminisce with our magazine. More than six decades have past, and The Pike now only exists as a distant memory.
But while reflecting on his summers at The Pike in Long Beach, Richard recalls these countless memories that meant so much to him, with childlike enthusiasm. We see the fun, the drama, and the joyful plotlines unfold as if they were being recounted on a colorfully-lit stage juxtaposed against the darkness of a theatre house where the audience watches with delight as the scene is acted out.
Armed with a pocketful of pennies and a few silver coins, Richard would spend his time in the penny arcades playing games at The Pike. Some days he’d alternate between The Pike and the two movie theatres nearby, the Roxy on Ocean Boulevard, and the Palace on Pine Avenue, just up the block from Ocean. Admission was 15 cents.
“That got you three features and the shows changed every three days, so I could go to the Roxy on Monday, the Palace on Tuesday, and the beach and Pike on Wednesday,” Richard recalls.
Though the years blur in his memory, what stands out clearly for Richard are his summer days at Rainbow Pier with his mom, where she’d rent him a paddleboard to skim around inside the lagoon. 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,” Richard says.
Afterwards, when lunchtime had arrived, Richard, barefoot and sandy, would walk into the back entrance of Marfleet’s, a popular diner on The Pike. He’d sit at a table and have a burger and soda in the bottle.
“The burgers came with onions and mustard, just the way I liked them,” Richard recalls. “The soda came with a paper straw that would sink down in the drink, and I’d have to fish it out again.”
Straw-management may have been a constant struggle for young Richard, but Marfleets was the spot. Their slogan, written in neon out front was, “Always a Good, Safe Place to Eat.”
Another diner on The Pike was called the Star Cafe, and, like Marfleet’s, boasted a neon sign -- only it was of a bright star. Enter Patricia Tersi. Her girlfriends had brought her down to California from Mississippi in August 1958.
“It wasn’t a very big cafe,” Patricia recalls. “But I stopped by for coffee at the Star Cafe one day and that’s where I met my future husband.”
His name was George Kallas, the owner of the Star Cafe. He was Greek. And like most other immigrants during that era, he had fled from Europe to the United States at a young age, to make a living away from war’s grip.
“When I went passed him, he was sitting in the front booth and he said, ‘Hi beautiful.’ I stuck up my nose; I didn’t even talk to him,” Patricia recalls. “He said to me, ‘Would you like to have a cup of coffee?’ And I said ‘No,’ very arrogantly. And he said, ‘Ok, would you like to go for some hot chocolate?’ And I said ‘No,’ again. I had been taught not to talk to strangers.”
But the cafe owner’s charm ultimately proved too tough to resist, and Patricia and George were married.
At the beach at Ocean Boulevard and Alamitos Street
Born and raised in Long Beach, Chris Sardelis remembers his grandmother first took him to The Pike in 1963.
“I still remember seeing all the sailors around The Pike because the Navy fleet was still there,” Chris recalls.
Chris’ mom was a go-go dancer at a bar right off the Pike on Pacific Avenue. She also danced at the Dance Hall at The Pike, where she would perform as a swing dancer. By association, Chris became acquainted with The Pike quite quickly.
“I remember there was this psychedelic shop and penny arcades,” Chris says. “In The Pike’s later days, it became really sparse. There weren’t a whole lot of people down there anymore and things got really cheap and rundown. But it was still a really cool place to go as a kid; it was like a mini Disneyland, with a haunted house and everything.”
Owner of the Star Cafe
Chris would often go to The Pike with his sister, where they got their picture taken in the popular carnival booth at The Pike known as “The Long Beach Jail.”
Though the physical structure of The Pike is no more, for people like Richard, Patricia, and Chris, the memories are still as colorful and illuminating as ever. Their memories, like a good piece of theatre, entertain, evoke the child within, and transport the soul to another time and place.