New Year's Eve in Long Beach | The Penny Scramble
Tabernacle - 3rd Street and Locust
In Long Beach, New Year’s Eve has always been a popular time to celebrate. One hundred twenty years ago Long Beach festively greeted the New Year with ringing bells, singing songs and tooting horns at a party held at the Tabernacle. The Tabernacle, the major building for city events, was decked out by women of the city with a banner in bright red letters made of flowers which read “Welcome 1898.” Music, songs, recitations were all part of the elaborate program to greet the coming year. But customs changed when the Pike arrived in Long Beach in 1902.
Promoters came up with various ways to lure people to Long Beach’s amusement zone. There was the bathhouse, Looff’s carousel, and various contests. But one of the most popular and long lasting traditions was the penny scramble on New Year’s Eve. It began in 1910 when a hundred pennies were tossed from the bathhouse mezzanine. The celebration took a hiatus during World War I, but was revived in 1920 when $100 in pennies was again pitched from the bathhouse.
Things became rowdy in 1921 when many were injured in the mad scramble, and some fun zone buildings damaged, in the rush for the copper coins. Police Chief McLendon declared a ban on repetition of this New Year custom. But public sentiment won out. The penny scramble was held again the following
year, this time, how- Long Beach Bathhouse
ever, the pennies were
scattered by a vehicle traveling along the fun zone, instead of from the bathhouse mezzanine. This seemed to end the destructiveness and the 1922 event was described as “most orderly” by the press.
For the next 20 years the scramble was held every New Year’s Eve, except in 1932 when the penny toss was postponed because of wet weather. Even the attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941 didn’t put an end to New Year’s Eve celebrations on the Pike. The December 31, 1941 celebration was slightly dimmer than in the past
because there were
no firework displays, no penny scramble and parade. All had been cancelled in the interest of emergency precautions. However, you could still visit the plunge, hot dog stands and the rest of the amusements in the fun zone.
In 1948 the penny scramble was back, but not as a New Year’s Eve event. This time it was Halloween that brought out the copper coins and around 500 kids. Held from 1948-1955, every Long Beach youngster was invited to the Pike. Those in costume received a prize booklet of free tickets for rides. There were prizes for best costume, and hats, horns and various favors were distributed. In 1954 grown-ups wanted to get in on the Halloween fun and an adult penny scramble was held in front of the bathhouse at 11 p.m.
Adults who remembered the New Year’s Eve penny scramble, wanted to revive the tradition. On December 31, 1951, their wish was granted when more than 10,000 pennies were tossed out of the historic bathhouse to mark the 50-year-old tradition. There was even a Miss Pretty Penny of 1952 to preside over the two coin tosses---one scramble held at 10 p.m. and the second at midnight.
Inflation hit the traditional New Year’s Eve Pike penny scramble in 1961. Nickels, dimes and quarters were thrown along with pennies. At least $200 was tossed from a truck touring the fun zone between Magnolia Avenue and Pine Avenue from 7 p.m. to midnight. The last penny scramble I have found was held December 31, 1963, when over 10,000 pennies were thrown from a truck touring the 8 block amusement zone at 9:30 p.m.
Back in 1910, when the penny scramble began, a penny was worth 26 cents in today's money. Quite a bit when you realize the average US wage that same year was 22 cents per hour. Today we don’t value pennies, if people see one lying on the sidewalk they don’t even bother to pick it up. There has been talk for years about doing away with the copper coin since it costs more to make it than it is worth, but we have clung onto the coin which is now mostly zinc.
Like the penny, which has changed in composition, the Pike lives on, but in a different form. The Pike amusement zone closed just after midnight following Labor Day in 1979, but its name lives on at the new entertainment area known as the Pike at Rainbow Harbor.
About the Author:
Claudine Burnett has actively been pursuing Southern California history since 1971. She is the former head of the Literature and History Department of Long Beach Public Library and is a member of various historical societies. Her credentials include a B.A. in history from the University of California, Irvine; a Master’s in Information Science from the University of California, Los Angeles; and a Master’s in Public Administration from California State University, Long Beach.
Claudine has written a number of books on Southern California history that can be found HERE. She also has a blog, "Long Beach's Past," about Long Beach history. Make sure to check out Claudine's website and blog for more great Long Beach information!
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