Growing up in the early 1970s, Samantha Spearman fondly remembers her dad taking her to The Pike amusement zone in Downtown Long Beach. He would walk her up to one of the various carnival attractions, where she would throw balls or rings. And she always won big.
“Now I realize when he shook the guy’s hand, he probably slipped him 20 bucks,” Spearman said with a laugh.
Decades later, Spearman finds herself intertwined with the legacy of The Pike, which she’s recently taken steps to preserve, along with her father’s love of history.
Now a relic of the past, the Pike was founded in 1902 along Long Beach’s shoreline, which used to be closer to Ocean Boulevard. The area was home to arcades, food stands, gift shops, a bathhouse and rides, including various iterations of a rollercoaster.
Two of the main attractions were a carousel and Lite-A-Line — a bingo-pinball hybrid game from which people could win money — operated by the Looff family. The game won an extra measure of fame when, in 1961, the Los Angeles Superior Court ruled it was a game of skill and technically not gambling.
Though The Pike met its end in 1979, Looff’s Lite-A-Line lived on at a new location a couple of miles away on Long Beach Boulevard thanks to Spearman’s dad, who took over the Looffs’ Pike operations in 1970.
Spearman took the helm of the gaming operation when her dad died in 2015. Things were steady until the pandemic, she said. She fought to keep the business afloat, but after numerous forced closures and rising costs, she was forced to shutter permanently on Nov. 28, 2022.
While the business is no more, the iconic neon sign, which has lit up the night in Long Beach for nearly nine decades, has a new home after Spearman recently donated it to the Museum of Neon Art in Glendale. It was removed from the building at 2500 Long Beach Blvd. earlier this month.
“My dad wanted to preserve everything and to have people love it and honor the family,” Spearman said, adding that she also has donated numerous pieces of Looff and Pike artifacts to the Historical Society of Long Beach.
“I could sell [these things] to somebody or put [them] in our family warehouse, but it makes no sense,” she continued. “This will keep everything alive.”
Spearman was not an original member of the Looff family. Her grandmother married Arthur Looff, the son of Danish master carver Charles I. D. Looff. Charles is famous for constructing dozens of hand-carved carousels and other amusement rides across the United States, the first of which was installed at Coney Island in 1876 as its first carousel and ride.
Charles moved to California in August 1910 and bought property at The Pike where he built a large merry-go-round, which included an apartment above the ride where the family lived. Arthur, meanwhile, also operated Lite-A-Line.
The father-son team went on to construct Pleasure Pier, now known simply as the Santa Monica Pier, in 1916.
Spearman’s dad, Michele “Mike” Cincola, took over the Looff’s Pike operations after Arthur died in 1970. Business was good until the city decided The Pike had run its course.
Cincola held out as long as he could, with the Lite-A-Line building being the last remaining vestige of the amusement zone. But it was ultimately destroyed during the demolition of The Pike that began in 1979.
Cincola moved the game of skill to 2500 Long Beach Boulevard over the span of two years. The space opened in 2000 and included countless mementos from The Pike as a sort of museum.
“It was a labor of love for him,” Spearman said, noting that he sold off many of her personal possessions, including cars, to keep the space — and history — alive.
Outside of its historical ties to Long Beach, the neon sign has a broader connection to the region, according to Eric Lynxwiler, board president of the Museum of Neon Art. The sign was designed and built in 1935 by Manhattan Beach–based Metlox Manufacturing Company — a rare find, since the company was forced out of the neon sign business and into ceramic houseware due to a lawsuit, Lynxwiler said.
Along with the Looff’s sign, Lynxwiler said Spearman donated a second neon sign of the word “amusements.” The two are being refurbished and are expected to be on display, together, in January, he said.
Spearman still has some carousel horses — though not from the original ride, which was destroyed in a 1943 fire. But she is taking her time to find the right home for it, such as The Carousel Museum in Bristol, Connecticut.
The historical significance of the neon signs cannot be understated, Lynxwiler said — both on a cultural and personal level. It is one of the last surviving signs from The Pike, he said, an amusement zone that he has fond memories of visiting as a child.
“It’s wonderful, it’s stupendous, this beautiful, curvaceous script sign,” Lynxwiler said, adding that Spearman even donated the original blueprints, which “nobody ever saves.”
The museum opened in 1981 and has about 200 pieces in its collection, according to Lynxwiler, including the Brown Derby derby from Hollywood and Vine and a 40-foot-long dragon from Grauman’s Chinese Theatre.
The Looff’s signs, like all the others, will be displayed with a plaque that tells the story behind it, Lynxwiler said. Once the Looff’s signs are on display next year, the museum should have QR codes for each piece that will give more information — the detailed history Mike Cincola worked decades to preserve.
“In saving neon signs, we’re also saving the stories behind the signs,” Lynxwiler said. “We’re saving so many different stories and one now is the story of the Looffs — coming from New York to Long Beach.”
Spearman said she visits her dad’s grave every two weeks. In late 2022, during a visit, she was asking for business advice and decided to stick it out until the end of the year. That night, one of her managers called to say the Lite-A-Line games shut off — an issue they had never had.
A repairman reset the system that night for free because Spearman did not have the money to pay. The next day, the games shut off again after only minutes. That was her sign that it was time to shut down.
“The clientele we had weren’t really appreciating it. It’s so sweet that the homes these things have gone to, how much people appreciate them,” Spearman said through tears. “It just makes my heart so happy and I know my dad would be so happy.”
The Museum of Neon Art is at 216 S. Brand Blvd. in Glendale.