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Manhattan Memories: Old-Timers Chuckle Over Pranks of Yore

October 23, 1986|KAREN ROEBUCK

Manhattan Beach's pranksters of yesteryear--1920s and early 1930s graduates of the old Center Street School--are still around. Although they claim they can't see as well and that their pace is a little slower now, the twinkles in their eyes and the chuckles they can't suppress give warning that they can still raise a little hell.

Townfolk probably should keep an eye on their outhouses, the church bell and the fire siren, especially near Halloween. Manhattan Beach's "old-timers" still find the pranks of their youths quite amusing, and their reunion last Sunday may have inspired some new trickery.

The Manhattan Beach Historical Society hosted the Old-Timers Reunion in an attempt to record recollections of some of the city's early residents.

"I was Peck's bad boy in Manhattan Beach," 70-year-old John Dale said with a laugh. He briefly stopped his reminiscing (or was it bragging?) to explain to someone several decades his junior that a Peck's bad boy is someone who is always causing trouble, but in a humorous way. The phrase originated from newspaper stories published in the late 1800s in the Milwaukee Sun.

"Whatever went wrong in Manhattan Beach, I was blamed for," Dale said. He didn't say, however, that he was unfairly blamed.

With a little help from former Rose Queen Marion (Cook) Johnson, 70, Dale recounted between laughs how he and friends managed to get an old-fashioned wagon that weighed 1,000 to 2,000 pounds on the roof of a grocery. Then there were the times he would pour sand on Manhattan Avenue, douse it with gasoline and set it on fire. When a car stopped because of the fire blockade, he would trap the unsuspecting driver by doing the same thing behind him.

But Dale molded the city in other ways, too: The Historical Society credits him with being Manhattan Beach's first surfer and an early surfboard manufacturer. He plans to donate one of his early boards to the society.

Society President Julia Tedesco attempted to record the conversations as an oral history of the city but was hindered somewhat by the laughter and chatter of the 60 old-timers. She said the organization would like to make the reunions an annual event. Similar get-togethers were held in 1978 and 1985.

Many of the old-timers talked of hanging around the recently removed Santa Fe Railroad tracks to watch Tom Mix and other film stars of the early 1900s make movies. Quite a "big thing," they agreed.

Earle Jamison, 74, boasted that he took care of Mix's horse, Tony. "We were the only house around there," he said, explaining the honor. "We had a big yard with a fence." The yard, near Marine and Pacific avenues, was also home to several cows and goats.

Like today, residents near the beach distinguished themselves from those on the east side of town during the 1920s and '30s. "There's no life east of Sepulveda, but there is parking," west-side Manhattanites of the '80s joke.

More than half a century ago, anyone who lived east of the Santa Fe tracks lived in the "back country."

"We weren't with the elite, shall we say," said Olive Monk, 75, a "back-country" resident. "Everybody who lived on the beachfront, they were with the council and the mayor. . . . Any place in Manhattan Beach is exclusive now. You tell someone you live in Manhattan Beach, they think you're a millionaire."

Bob Creech, 76, moved to Manhattan 65 years ago. He remembers Rosecrans Avenue as a dirt trail, crowded El Porto as barren desert and The Strand as a rattlesnake-infested boardwalk.

Creech recalled tobogganing on the sand hills in Manhattan Beach and tipping over his share of outhouses on Halloween. Creech, who has lived at Bass Lake, north of Fresno, since 1967, does not like the year-round congestion in Manhattan Beach. Other old-timers have moved, too.

"Oh, I'm still a Manhattanite even though I live in Hermosa," said Helen A. Sinsabaugh, 78, a retired teacher of Center Street School and Redondo Union High School. She reactivated the Girl Scouts at Center Street in 1932, she said proudly. (The school was closed in June, 1985.)

"They're all grandmothers now, most of them. We still get together for lunch twice a year. One year, for my birthday, they gave me a bottle of vodka," Sinsabaugh said to a friend, giggling, as if revealing a secret. "I think of how things changed. I wouldn't have drunk a thing in front of them then."

Old class photos circulating during the reunion showed that many of the now gray-haired and bald classmates went to school shoeless. Jamison, now a San Fernando Valley resident, and former classmate Ralph Whitehead, 73, of Janesville in northeastern California reminisced about their fifth-grade girlfriends. Jamison and his sweetheart would rub feet during class, he revealed.

Richard J. Young, 74, has lived in Manhattan Beach since he was born in 1912, the year the city was incorporated. His "big move" was from the 600 block of 13th Street to the 600 block of 14th Street where he now lives.

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