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The Good Old Days Take on a New Look : The Rowdies Are Really Stuntmen, Events Are Geared for Families, and the Oil Boom Is Just a Memory

August 20, 1992|EMILY ADAMS | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

SIGNAL HILL — In the middle of a sun-baked park in Signal Hill, a dozen children pulled on a thick rope, struggling against a crew of grimy, growling men in chaps and dusty jeans.

Parents smiled at the scene, knowing that the grimy guys were stuntmen, brought in to add a little color to last weekend's "Roughneck Roundup," Signal Hill's tribute to its oil-rich heritage.

Fifteen years ago, a mud pit would have sat in the middle of this tug-of-war, and oil workers--true roughnecks--would have seized the rope on each side. The battle would have been fierce and probably drunken.

These days, the festival is a family-friendly, alcohol-free event. It bears little resemblance to the old city-hosted party that featured roughnecks who drank and swaggered, remembering the glory days of Signal Hill's oily past.

"Back then, this wasn't exactly a place for children," said stuntman Clyde Key, a 15-year resident of the city built atop one of the richest deposits of black gold in California.

"The festival was really for oil workers and there was a lot of drinking."

To those who remember the days when Signal Hill was all open land and oil derricks, the city celebration has lost something. It's just for the amusement of young families who inhabit hillside condominiums, Key said.

Gone are the men climbing greased poles, breaking pipes with heavy wrenches and swilling beer. The old deep-pit barbecue has been replaced with hot dog booths.

And there's the festival name. Roughneck Roundup is a confusion of oil workers and cowboys, the old-timers say. Until the late 1970s, it was called La Fiesta de Oro Negro: Black Gold Carnival.

"We don't have roughnecks anymore, and there's certainly no roundup--that's what you do with cattle--so it doesn't really relate to anything anymore," said Mary Louise Lynott, a former teacher who has lived in Signal Hill for 46 years.

"When they renamed it Roughneck Roundup, everybody started dressing like cowboys. That's not the point," said Al Silva, 60, a city street maintenance worker.

Silva, a 33-year resident, doesn't attend the festival anymore, he said. It just isn't the same.

Like Silva, Lynott remembers a different Signal Hill. When she moved to the hill in 1946, open land surrounded the towering oil derricks.

Hers was the only house on the block. Her neighbors were birds, rabbits and other wildlife. From just about anywhere on the hill, she could watch the great machines pump oil night and day.

"I always figured they were praying--going up and down like that," she said.

Before the discovery of oil, Signal Hill was sleepy ranchland. About 80 years ago, residents described the hill as fertile growing land where autumn skies were thick with migrating birds.

Oilmen sank wells on the hill after discoveries in Huntington Beach, but they yielded little until June 23, 1921, when Shell Oil's speculation, named Alamitos One, blew a 1,200-barrel geyser of oil into the night sky. Within days, heavy machinery and land salesmen covered the hill. Wooden oil derricks sprouted like wheat, and the oil rush, which would last nearly four decades, began in earnest.

The first city festival was held in 1948, but it didn't become an annual event until 1970, after the oil boom had died down. Throughout the '70s and early '80s, roughnecks would return to the old oil fields and remember when Signal Hill was a workingman's town. The party became increasingly boisterous until 1987, when the City Council cut off liquor and began enforcing city drinking laws for the event.

It's a quiet party now, but Sam Stine, a resident since 1949, wistfully recalls the old days. Last weekend he dressed like a cowboy and went through a stunt routine for the children with his old friend Clyde Key. The new festival is nice enough, he said, but he misses the deep pit barbecue and the rowdies.

"It's more civilized now," he said, "but I miss the old crowd. This whole hill used to be full of oil derricks--they were everywhere.

"And, you know, it was a beautiful thing."

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