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The Nu Pike
By Bob Stockton
Saturday, August 25, 2012
Rated "PG" by the Author.
Remembering my Navy days in mid 1950 Long Beach, California
©2010 Bob Stockton. Adapted from 'Listening To Ghosts' (Xlibris Press) by Bob Stockton. All rights reserved.
Navy liberty in downtown Long Beach did not present a lot of options that were available for a baby faced 150 pound eighteen year old bluejacket that was just six months removed from boot camp and was looking for fun in all the wrong places. My liberty choices were limited to a Christian Serviceman’s Club where one
could get a sandwich and soft drink along with counseling and pamphlets regarding the pitfalls that the bars and tattoo parlors that lined the main drag presented, and the Nu Pike, an amusement park that was just behind the main drag and down a sloping grade of three long flights of concrete steps. Those steps became legend in USS Small liberty lore when a Third Class Boatswain’s Mate from 1st Division named Linton exited the Saratoga Bar and Grill on the main drag late one evening drunk as a billy goat, staggered over to those steps and loudly announced to all within earshot that he had drunk enough beer to be able to piss from the top to the bottom of those steps without hitting a step and then proceeded to back up his boast by generating a truly remarkable stream of urine, targeting the distant bottom of the concrete cascade. The Long Beach City Police arrived on scene shortly after Linton began his record attempt and were not amused, roundly belaboring the Boatswains Mate about the head and shoulders before cuffing him and hauling him off to the slammer.
The main attraction on the Nu Pike was the Cyclone Racer, a huge roller coaster that featured dual parallel tracks. When the cars from both tracks were filled to capacity, they would begin the ride simultaneously and the race was on to see which set of cars navigated the course more quickly. It was great fun and a thrilling ride. People came from near and far to ride the Cyclone.
Walking the main promenade of the Pike one passed the notorious Laughing Lady Fun House, which was discovered one day to have an actual mummified body hanging from a noose tied to a rafter inside the attraction. For years it was assumed by everyone that the hanging man was just a dummy but one day a work crew inside the attraction took the “dummy” down to repair the beam from which it was hanging and much to their - and everyone else’s - surprise found that it
was an actual corpse! After some research the body was determined to be the mummified remains of one Elmer McCurdy, a minor Oklahoma outlaw who was shot and killed at the age of thirty-one by a sheriff’s posse in 1911. How Mr. McCurdy’s corpse found its way to the Laughing Lady is a story that may never be fully uncovered.
TheNu Pike promenade reminded me of the boardwalks of the Jersey shore resorts. There were the many rides, arcades, shooting galleries and above all a number of bars where one could stop for a bit of adult refreshment on a sunny vacation day. The Hollywood and the Carousel bars were particular sailor favorites. How I longed to go in and have a few drinks on those liberty nights, but virtually everyone that entered those establishments was carded. Back aboard
ship I would listen intently to my shipmates that were over 21 tell stories about their exploits in the local watering holes. Listening to them it seemed like all one had to do was to walk in one of those bars and a stunning beauty would walk right up and ask for a date. My day will come, I told myself, but it never did. The following year I left Long Beach never to return.
The Nu Pike was about more than rides, bars, shooting galleries and salt water taffy. About halfway down the promenade was the Lido Ballroom where a sailor and his date could go dancing to a live orchestra, or if a little necking in a dark place was indicated there was the Strand Theater nearby. The second run movies that played the Strand were no obstacle for a couple that wanted to have at it hot and heavy in the balcony. They were anything but cinematic masterpieces. Nights when money was scarce - which was usually most nights - I’d cross over from my destroyer to the USS O’Brien to see what my friend Ken Walpole was up to and the two of us would hit the beach, change into civvies and head straight for the Pike to look for a couple of high school girls that wanted to join us in a bottle or two of cheap Thunderbird wine. Most nights this presented no difficulty, especially during the summer months when school was out, and there was always a wino around that would buy the wine for us if we bought one for him. After that it was just a matter of finding a secluded spot near the beach where we could drink with the girls and after a bottle or so see how far we could get with them. We would pair off, Ken with one girl and I with the other and separate so that one girl would not become embarrassed by fooling around in front of her friend.
On the nights when I went on liberty alone I’d wander down to the Pike just to be part of the throng and see if anything of interest to me was happening. Very early on I came across a “freak show” at the extreme eastern end of the promenade, very near the Cyclone Racer. Since my childhood in the ’40s I had always been fascinated by these lurid side show presentations often seen in the traveling carnivals of earlier times and I decided to invest the twenty five cents or however much it was for a ticket and went inside.
Once a valued addition to any traveling carnival or tent circus, by the ‘50s the side show was a vanishing phenomenon on the American traveling show scene, partly because of the trend toward demystifying science and medicine, and partly due to its own seedy charade. The two headed boy advertised on the large canvas poster outside was nothing more than a fetal miscarriage bathed in formaldehyde in an old pickle jar. The monkey girl? A micro cephalic “child” of more than sixty years, the product of some past coupling of two people too directly related which produced an exploited child that no one wanted.
The owner of the Nu Pike side show was Tony Marino, a Mexican in his early sixties who had learned his profession as a member of any number of the traveling carnivals both in Mexico and stateside. Tony was the backbone of the show. He was the fire eating act, the sword swallowing act, the knife thrower, the illusionist
who would saw Sandy the obligatory “girl in the net stockings“ in half, and could perform any of the acts except for “Bobby the Human Pincushion” and the hypnotist demonstration performed by the show pitchman, Claude. Bobby was an affable, slightly built young gay man from somewhere in L.A. with obvious masochistic tendencies. He was covered with tattoos and his act consisted of skewering himself with very long, very large, very sharp needles. Try as I might I just couldn’t watch Bobby’s act. It was sick.
Claude, a long faced baritone voiced man, was the pitchman and show hypnotist. He had a steady, calming voice that captured just about all that came within earshot. Man could he ever pitch that show from the stage outside! He got the suckers in from the promenade and then Tony took over, beginning with his fire eating act. When it came time for Claude to do his hypnotist routine, there was always someone - usually a young woman - more than willing to go onstage and be mesmerized by his soothing baritone, long black cape and oscillating pocket watch. I bought a ticket for so many of those shows that eventually Chuck, the ticket seller and backup pitchman would just wave me through without my having to pay. I knew all of them quite well before I left the west coast the following year. Off stage they were just average everyday folks working at what they knew best in order to provide for their families. I liked every one of them, even Bobby who was the most mentally unstable of the lot.
I have often wondered what it was that was so fascinating to me about Tony and his entourage. Part of it was listening to the stories that Tony told about his years on the road, working in those past gypsy-like carny days, but after the passage of more than a half century I also think it was the fact that I was witnessing a piece of Americana which had begun in the mid nineteenth century that was rapidly vanishing from our culture. They were an anachronism, relics of a robust time since gone by.
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