Photos by Jason Ruiz.
Heading north on Long Beach Boulevard, away from the shoreline and bustle of downtown, a relic of the Pike’s past sits tucked between strip malls, fast food joints and used car dealerships. Loof’s Lite-A-Line's fate has followed the path of the bouncing ball at the heart of its business. The “game of skill” that once was a hub for tourists visiting the Nu-Pike, found a new home when it bounced to its new location on the Boulevard in 2000.
What was once a standing-room only operation at its peak in the 40s, Looff’s now stands as a shrine to years past, with memories from the city’s amusement park days preserved behind glass and largely ignored by the patrons preoccupied with the fate of their shiny metal pinballs. The survival of the business, and of the history displayed in its museum can be credited to Michele Cicola, the current owner and operator at Lite-A-Line and son-in-law of Charles Looff.
Cincola received the call that brought him into the Lite-A-Line fold on a Sunday night in 1997. It was the general manager, Al Brown, a co-founder of Lite-A-Line who had worked at and operated the business for over 70 years.
“We’re closing Light-A- Line in the morning,” Cincola recalled him saying. “We’re just not making any money.”
Brown was hired by Arthur Looff, the son of Charles Looff, the architect of the first carousel in the United States on Coney Island, who then moved his horse tornado factory from Brooklyn, New York to Long Beach in 1910, helping to build the city’s pier into a boardwalk empire that drew in countless thrill-seeking tourists. Cincola said his in-laws were Disney before there was Disney, having built numerous carousels and theme parks across the country.
Over the years, Lite-A-Line has navigated its share of obstacles, whether it be bans on indoor smoking or having to legally prove theirs was a game of skill as to not be categorized as a gambling operation. But ultimately, it was being marooned by a City Council decision in 1979 to not renew the land lease, resulting in the closure and demolition of the surrounding businesses and reducing the flow of business that prompted Brown’s call to Cincola. He moved quickly, completely gutting and remodeling the new location at 2500 Long Beach Boulevard and creating a home for a family heirloom.
“Amusements were a big part of Long Beach, you know. When Drake started the Pike, and the people came,” Cincola said motioning to a black and white photo of a packed boardwalk. “There are a lot of people that have memories of Long Beach and the amusement zone. So I thought it would be nice to just create a history of Long Beach amusement, so that’s what I did.”
Oh, is there history.
There is an old coaster car from the Cyclone Racer, portions of the old carousel building, bumper cars and even a Magruder Salt Water Taffy sign. There are hand carved heads from a funhouse that date back to the turn of the 20th century, along with the carving bench that Arthur Looff shaped them on. There are even the original .22 caliber pistols that players would use to shoot targets—with live ammunition—in a quest to win carnival prizes at the Pike, something Cincola said would never work today. The 72-year-old joked that everything inside Looff’s is old, including him.
“All these things were together at one time," Cincola said of his decision to create the museum. “So I thought it would be kind of an anecdote to put them all together again.”
The game, described by Cincola as skill bingo, is as simple as it is frustrating. The player uses a spring-powered plunger to launch a silver ball a la pinball into a labyrinth of rubber bumpers and carved-out wooden holes that the player “skillfully” aims for in an attempt to light a line (vertically, horizontally or diagonally), like bingo. Pull on the plunger too hard and the ball will come right back to you like a child fresh off of college graduation, pull too softly and it will never leave.
The cost per round varies, with most games starting at $1.00 to $1.20 to play. Each game pays out a minimum of $12 and, depending on the round, prizes can climb to over $500 in the nightly progressive games. The game doesn’t start until the ball falls through one of the carved-out holes, which means, depending on the skill level of the player, the game may never start.
“I only work here, I’m not very good at the game,” Cincola joked.
But it is a game of skill, or at least that’s what a Wilcoxon signed-rank test performed in the 70s determined. A professor and a group of students from UCLA were invited down to play against regulars in an attempt to show that over time, one develops a skill making the game easier to play. Showing that players weren’t completely at the mercy of the random bouncing, and that it was not a game of luck, was important to keep Lite-A-Line from being categorized as a gambling operation.
To show this, both the “experts” and the students played blind, with coverings over the glass-enclosed game board, resulting in an equal distribution of victories for both sides. However, when the blinds were lifted, the skill of the regulars took over. And over time, the students also increased their ability to finesse the silver ball to their desired targets. Lite-A-Line was cleared; it was a game of skill.
“Everyone shot at the same time but since the tables were covered it was about 50 percent students and 50 percent skill players won,” Cincola said. “Then they took off the covers, well the skill players could see the ball, they could shoot and they beat the students hands down.”
Regarded as California’s oldest gaming establishment, and the only place in the world to play this unique hybrid game, Lite-A-Line has been in operation since 1941 when it took over the vacant Looff’s carousel building that had opened 30 years earlier. For those curious enough to enter now, a window to the past and a path to potential winnings—if they’re skilled enough—awaits them on the other side of its glass doors.
I had to try my hand at this game that represents one of the last remaining links to the Pike. The game’s overseer Jennifer instructs us on the ground rules and of the breakneck speed of the games. My colleague and I got the customary practice round, but it became clear that just one wasn’t going to suffice. After the fourth practice game, Jennifer pushed us out of the nest and parted after giving us a friendly reminder.
“You’re competing against everyone in the room," she said with a smile. "Even your friends are enemies.”
There’s a saying that goes if you love something, let it go, and if it comes back then it was meant to be. If that’s really true, the silver ball and I have a level of affection that would rival Romeo and Juliet. While I was trying to figure out why this ball had flown back at my plunger for the seventh consecutive time, someone across the room had already won the round. Roughly two minutes had passed and I was now $1.20 poorer.
Jennifer announced over the speakers that in honor of the newbies playing, everyone gets a free game. This was received with a brief, muted celebration but then the dozen or so players sitting at their machines quickly returned to the rattle of the plunger and bouncing of the ball. The silence of the players was occasionally broken by obscenity-laced cries of agony as the ball danced away from their desired targets.
It took no less than 20 minutes for my $20 dollar investment into this skilled bingo operation to disappear, leaving me as deflated as a New England Patriots football. Napoleon Dynamite once said that chicks dig guys with skills; which ones I possess I’m unsure of, but after last night, I can add Lite-A-Line skills to the list of nunchuck skills and bow-staff skills that I also lack.
Out a Hamilton, the notion that this game is skill-based and not completely up to chance began to sound like a load of manure to me, the kind that would come out of the horses that Charles Looff so lovingly reproduced in wood on his carving bench. But that's just my personal, bitter, poor-sport opinion.
As my last game ended and I waited for my colleague—who, surprisingly, does possess Lite-A-Line skills—to finish playing, the man sitting to our left exclaimed “It’s all luck, man."
The man, who gave his name as Edwin, said he’s been going to Looff’s for about 15 years, and has followed it from its old location downtown to its current home. He was introduced to the game by his older brother, but has started coming on his own. Despite being a regular, he seemed conflicted on whether or not he was the master of the silver ball or just a spectator.
“To me it’s all a game of luck,” Edwin said. “If it was a game of skill, it would be the same person winning all the time. You’ve got to know the table. If you shoot it too hard, it’ll hit the rail and bounce back. Some tables are different. Some tables you can shoot it soft, some tables you can’t do that.”
Another player who went by Tony has only been to Looff’s a handful of times. He said that the artifacts lining the walls are a nice glimpse of the things he never had a chance to see when the Pike was in existence. When asked if he could share a few pointers with me so I could attempt and win my money back, he declined.
“Sorry,” he said with a smile on his face. “Everyone has their tricks. All you have to do is relax.”
Cincola said that now, Lite-A-Line is little more than a break-even business. There are so many casinos in the area now that the game of skilled bingo has lost the traction that it had with the public in earlier decades. He keeps it going more out of sentimentality for its history than anything. Recalling his memory of an 8-year-old boy riding the Cyclone Racer for the first (and last) time, Cincola said there are others who also wish to revisit their memories of the Pike, and his museum provides that.
“We have some people coming from back East,” Cincola said. “I had one lady come and she said ‘I’m so glad I found this place.’ Her dad used to operate a business down there and she was so happy to find some memorabilia from the Pike.”
The history of the place is just as much a selling point as the tortuous “game of skill” known as Lite-A-Line. Whether or not you wish to discover how skilled or unskilled you are, Cincola said a trip down memory lane is always available to anyone who stops in.
“A lot of people don’t know we’re here,” Cincola said. “They drive by and say ‘what is that place?’ If you care a little about history, not just pictures, the actual items, we’ve got a bunch of it.”
Looff's Light-a-Line is located at 2500 Long Beach Boulevard.