History Abounds Around Town

INTRODUCING DOUGLAS R. PRICER, LBHM STAFF WRITER 

Doug PricerDoug Pricer, who has a wealth of knowledge about Long Beach and its history, has generously agreed to write the headline article for our newsletter. His first article gives you insight into his connection to the Long Beach Heritage Museum and its founder, Ken Larkey.

History Abounds Around Town 

Douglas R. Pricer

I love Long Beach. It’s where I grew up and came of age and now, with a well-traveled lifetime of comparative experience, I’ve come to deeply appreciate its rich history. It was thus with a sense of delight that I accepted a commission in 2007 from the Farmers and Merchants Bank of Long Beach to write a book celebrating F&M’s centennial. It was a wonderful experience, one that brought me back to my roots and allowed me entrée to one of Long Beach’s oldest and most distinguished businesses. 

It also introduced me to the late Ken Larkey, a treasure of a man who not only founded our museum but also possessed an encyclopedic knowledge of all things Long Beach.

Driving around town with Ken was like touring Philadelphia with Benjamin Franklin. He knew everything! “Here’s where the Balboa Studio’s were located,” he’d say. “And that building? It used to sit on the site of the Villa Rivera. It was moved up the street as part of the deal when the land was sold. And right there was where the Hotel Virginia stood. See those trees? John Bixby planted them …” and on and on.

Ken never tired of talking about his beloved city, and I never tired of listening. When he passed away in 2011 it was as if a library had burned down.

Movie studioRecently, I spent some time with Marshall Pumphrey, Ken’s successor and current president and keeper of the flame for our museum. Like Ken, Marshall loves to drive around Long Beach and soak in the history. On this outing, we stopped at Roxanne’s Lounge & Grill in the historic California Heights to see the beautiful mahogany church pews from the old First Christian Church on display in their Exhibition Room. But I found that Roxanne’s has much more to offer.

Owned and operated for the four years by Robert Molina, a young, dynamic entrepreneur, Roxanne’s is vintage Long Beach. “The building was built in 1944 as two separate spaces,” Robert said of the historic building. “A man named Chuck Heckle and his wife knocked out a wall and ran one of the city’s two ‘Cook Your Own Steak’ restaurants for the next 50 years.”

Although not a native, Robert is a devoted Long Beacher. “I’ve been coming here since I was five,” he said. “My family would come from East LA to visit my grandmother and it was she who opened the door to the Long Beach that I fell in love with.”

In years past, when Long Beach was the nation’s silent film capitol, notable actors like W.C. Fields, and Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle plied their craft at the local Balboa Studios. A gilded nightlife also thrived, marked by fine music, partygoers dressed to the nines and high-tone night clubs that served classic cocktails prepared by master mixologists.

“A lot of that lively nightlife evaporated,” says Robert, “starting in the 20’s with prohibition. I opened Roxanne’s (named after his four-year-old daughter Penelope Roxanne) to recapture and pay tribute to the times when the nightlife was full of class and excitement.”

RoxannesRoxanne’s consists of a main dining room and bar, plus an outside patio displaying several large vintage photographs of the town. But it is the Exhibition Room that harkens to a time when making a cocktail required the skills of an artist and drinking one—especially for a lady—was a little bit wicked.

Admittance to the sanctum is by reservation only. Parties are limited to eight guests and proper attire is required; business casual is fine but many dress-up, some in period attire, thereby adding to the ambiance. To gain entry, one steps into a wood-paneled 1940’s telephone booth that once adorned the foyer of the Los Angeles Coliseum (complete with an old-fashioned phone with a separate ear piece and transmitter). After pressing a call button and whispering your reservation number, the back panel of the booth silently opens and you are allowed to duck inside. It’s all very “speakeasy” – and exceptionally hip.

Once inside, time is off the clock. The dark walls are a museum of old photos offering a journey through the history of Long Beach’s drinking establishments, starting with the towns first tavern owned by Dennis McCarthy on Pine Avenue in the 1880’s to the classic Tiki-Space-Age Java Lanes Bowling Alley, with the sultry “Room of the Three Goddesses”.

Behind the marble bar, mixologists (there are no bartenders) sport vests, ties and fedoras while leggy cocktail waitresses strut the room dressed like 1920 flappers. For a bird’s eye view, climb the wrought iron serpentine staircase that leads to a narrow catwalk overlooking the room. Against one wall is an upright piano played by a wonderful lady whose deep repertoire ranges from ragtime to jazz, to the blues and booze of Rick’s Café in the immortal film, Casablanca. Images of dapper men in double-breasted suits with a rose in the lapel, spectator shoes, and classy dames—all beautiful and sexy and a little bit risqué are easily conjured.

“I have a passion to rejuvenate the upper class drinking community lost to history.” says Robert. “I wanted to put Long Beach back on the map for a fine, perfectly mixed cocktail in a special room that honors the colorful history of our town. I like to think that I’ve done so.” One passage through the secret phone booth to the Exhibition Room will convince all comers that he has.