August 26th in Seal Beach History

On this date in 1937, Hal Ross launched the 1937 Derby Show on a triangle of land between Coast Highway and Hathaway Avenue in Seal Beach, probably in a large circus big top type tent.

To save the curious reader the trouble of pulling out (or googling) a map to look for Hathaway Avenue, there is no road by that name in Seal Beach today. Hathaway Avenue was built in 1931 and branched off from Coast Highway to offer a more inland route from Seal Beach into Long Beach, mostly through oilfields, where it connected with State Street — yet another street you won’t find on a modern street map of Long Beach.

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Hathaway Drive snakes up into Long Beach from the lower right corner

This is probably still confusing because it’s difficult to picture where a road could branch off from Coast Highway in today’s Seal Beach. It would be easy to assume that Hathaway Avenue (sometimes called the Hathaway cut-off) was re-graded, built over and no longer exists. But It does still exist as shown in the photo below.

Screenshot 2016-08-26 21.23.28

Here’s the solution to the puzzle. Hathaway Ave stretched from 8th Street in Seal Beach all the way up to the Traffic Circle in Long Beach where it connects with State Street. Both Hathaway Ave and State Street are now called Pacific Coast Highway. (There’s still a bit of Hathaway Avenue just past the Traffic Circle that stretches towards Signal Hill.)

In 1931, Coast Highway was not today’s Pacific Coast Highway. Beyond 8th Street, we now call it Marina Drive and it used to connect to Long Beach through Naples. This isn’t even the original Coast Highway route through Seal Beach, which used to run down Main Street to Central Avenue to Central Way along the marshy edge of Alamitos Bay that had since been filled with landfill as detailed in this post.

That’s a long digression before shifting to the real focus of today’s post — the “1937 Derby Show.”  This event was called many things, a derby show, a walkashow, and a walkathon, but regardless of what it was called, the event operated under the principles of a dance-a-thon, a controversial form of public entertainment that was wildly popular during the twenties and the thirties. These events were the spiritual ancestors of roller derbies, televised wrestling, and much of today’s reality TV competitions.

The details vary, but the dance-a-thons were endurance tests that lasted for weeks. A set number of contestants were chosen (sometimes with ringers from management mixed in) to compete for a large cash prize. The rules for dancing were strictly enforced — no shuffling, feet must leave the ground or the contestants would be counted out of the competition. Af first, there would be a ten minute rest period for every hour, but as time wore on, a minute would be shaved off the rest period until there was no break from dance. Popular entertainers were brought in to provide live music for the dancers, the crowd of ticket buyers, and sometimes even a radio audience. When the event started to become monotonous, the promoters would stage a marriage proposal between contestants or manufacture a drama or contrive a short-term contest to test the mettle of the exhausted sleep-deprived contestants.

Dance_marathon,_1923

This isn’t in Seal Beach, but it’s a typical scene from a dance-a-thon in 1923

The dance-a-thons were not without its critics. Doctors were concerned about the health effects of these endurance tests and a contestant had even died from a heart attack during a dance-a-thon. Some people found these events vulgar and atmosphere seamy like a sideshow carnival. Many of the operators were scam artists, rigging the winners and sometimes even skipping town without paying anyone. This aspect of the dance-a-thons became even more pronounced in the thirties when desperate and out of work Americans were attracted to the large cash payouts. Winners ended up with a nice little nest egg. The losers had just wasted weeks of their lives and had worked their bodies and minds to the point of exhaustion and burnout — all for nothing.

 

In spite of the popularity of these events, laws were passed to either limit or outlaw dance-a-thon endurance test competitions. Promoters tried modifying these events just enough, they hoped, to bypass the new laws while still provided the same entertainment value. They also rebrand them as walkashow, walk marathons, and even derby shows.

walkathon

Still not Seal Beach, but a typical scene at the late stages of a dance marathon

On August 4th, 1937, the Seal Beach city council passed a walk-a-thon ordinance that allowed Hal J. Ross Enterprises to file for a license to hold  a “1937 Derby Show” that was described as combination of athletic contests. The application fee was $500.

This was not the first event like this in Seal Beach. in 1930, the Anaheim Bay American Legion had held a 24-hour dance-a-thon at 8th Street and Ocean, but the Hal Ross event was going to last for weeks and would ultimately end prematurely due to legal issues. There will be more on this in a future post.

For now, to give a little flavor of what these events were like, here’s the coming attractions trailer for “They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?,”  a 1969 film adaptation of Horace McCoy’s novel of the same name, starring Jane Fonda and Michael Sarrazin. McCoy had worked as a bouncer at one of these events, so his novel was based on firsthand experience.

Just imagine it’s Thursday night, August 26th, 1937, and similar entertainments are about to start in a large tent on a vacant patch of a land where Bay City Center on Pacific Coast Highway now stands.

– Michael Dobkins

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August 25th in Seal Beach History

On this date in 1964, a sixty-year old evangelist preaching the bible in Seal Beach was assaulted by a band of teen-age delinquents.

Mark Frank Forsyth of Huntington Beach told police that he had been preaching at 10th Street on the beach as he done many times before in the previous two years. This time, however, a group of at least five teenagers began to heckle him at approximately 2 p.m. 

One of the teens grabbed Forsyth’s hat, and then the verbal assault escalated into violence. The other boys pelted Forsyth with rocks, hit him with their fists, and burnt him with cigarettes on the neck and left ankle. Forsyth’s clothes were torn as he tried to flee, and one boy grabbed his bible and tracts and begin to rip the pages of his bible. During the scuffle, no one came to Forsyth’s aid.

Later, the police brought in a fourteen-year old Long Beach youth on charges of participating in a riot, assault and battery, and armed riot, but he denied taking part in the attack and refused to identify any of his fellow teens.

When interviewed by an AP reporter, Forsyth said that he preached because he was “concerned for the spirit and physical well-being of the thousands of teenagers who flock to the beaches.”

– Michael Dobkins

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August 24th in Seal Beach History

On this date in 1920, Seal Beach fans of fresh milk were presented with an opportunity to enjoy the freshest of milk.  A “Fresh Jersey Cow” who was a “fine milker” and”very gentle” was listed for sale in the Santa Ana Register’s classified ads by F. L. Bailey at 259 5th Street.Aug_24_1920_Cow_for_Sale

Ninety-five years later, F. L. Bailey and the cow are gone and the address has been changed to 412 Marina Drive, but there is still milk (and other beverages) available at Marina Liquor, one of the businesses at this location.

– Michael Dobkins

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August 23rd in Seal Beach History

On this date in 1934, silent film actress Ruth Clifford filed for divorce from her husband, restaurant and real estate investor, James A. Cornelius, after ten years of marriage. Clifford wanted custody of their four-year old son and temporary alimony of $500 a month.

Ruth in happier times

Ruth Clifford and James A. Cornelius in Happier Times

The complaint claimed that Cornelius had beaten Clifford several times and once it had been severe enough to require the care of a doctor. The suit also accused Cornelius of committing infidelity with with a Miss Marian Elder,  a pretty secretary at his beach home at 2304 Electric Avenue in Seal Beach on August 14, 1933. (Electric Avenue once extended across Anaheim Bay and the beach house was probably destroyed when the Navy dredged Alamitos Bay and removed all the beach cottages along its shore. 

Ruth Clifford copy

Ruth Clifford had been a big star in the silent era, but her full credit list ranges from 1916 to 1977, including providing the voices for Minnie Mouse and Daisy Duck in some Disney cartoon from the late forties and fifties. So Cornelius cheated on both Minnie and Daisy from a certain perspective. What a bum.

The divorce was finalized in 1938, Ruth Clifford would live for another sixty years.

– Michael Dobkins

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August 22nd in Seal Beach History

On this date in 1926, the 7:15 p.m. Pacific Electric red car west bound on the Seal Beach to Long Beach line made an unexpected detour at First Street and Ocean Avenue. 

Normally, the red car would continue across the Ocean Avenue bridge to the Long Beach Peninsula. This time it took an unexpected turn on the sharply curved spur tracks into the Los Angeles Gas and Electric Corporation steam plant property. It crashed through the gates, but the motorman was able to slow the car enough to avoid derailment, and the only injury was his bruised elbow.

This March 11, 1933 photo shows the spur tracks into the steam plant property in the asphalt at lower left bottom. (You can also see damage to the steam plant from the Long Beach earthquake.)

This March 11, 1933 photo shows the spur tracks into the steam plant property in the asphalt in the bottom left half of the photo. You can also see damage from the Long Beach earthquake.

Philip A. Stanton, founder of Seal Beach, witnessed the incident from the front porch of his home on the corner of that intersection. He had actually seen a man with a young boy turn the switch immediately in front of his house a few minutes earlier, but Stanton had assumed the man was a Pacific Electric employee.

1933-1940s DWP copy copy

A better view of the Stanton house from where he saw the incident. The switch in front of the house appears to have been removed. This photo was taken after the taller steam plant stack was replaced with this shorter one due to the 1933 earthquake damage.

The Pacific Electric abandoned this line in February of 1940, the bridge to the Long Beach peninsula was removed in 1955, and the steam plant was torn down in 1967. The Pacific Electric tracks of the spur leading into the power plant property was still remained well into the seventies — decades past when the last red car rode down Ocean Avenue.

– Michael Dobkins

Addendum. – There seems to be more little curiosity about the steam plant in response to today’s post. You can find links to earlier posts and photos (including footage and photos from the demolition from Joyce Kucera) here.

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August 21st in Seal Beach History

On this date in 1918, Barney Weaver spent the last night of his life in Seal Beach. 

Details vary slightly from newspaper article to article. According to the Santa Ana Register, Los Angeles policeman Barney Weaver and an attractive young woman purported to be his wife choose Seal Beach as the site of a suicide pact. Barney Weaver had been drafted and was to leave on August 22nd, and the two had decided to die together rather than be separated. Weaver placed his revolver against her head a number of times, but couldn’t force himself to pull the trigger. Finally, he put the revolver to his own head and fired, killing himself instantly. The woman’s name was not mentioned in the story

The Los Angeles Times story two days later added many details to tale, but the article only deepened the mystery. According to Weaver’s relatives, he had received threatening letters from a woman and that the same woman had contacted the local draft board with information that resulted in his deferment due to dependents having been revoked.

The woman on the beach with Weaver that night was now identified as twenty-one year old Theresa Marie Forgeron, and the Times makes a strong implication that she was one writing the letters and contacting the draft board. She had lived with Weaver for three months, although she was alleged to be married to another man. The two had separated recently after an argument, and Forgeron told the police that Weaver had been jealous of her and had even struck her once.

 

Aug_21_1918_SB_Suicide_Pact___Theresa_Marie_Forgeron

The police investigation discovered that Weaver had been ordered to appear before the draft board and that Forgeron had appeared before the board. The board ordered that Weaver should marry Forgeron that day and return on the 22nd for a physical examination, after which he would most likely be shipped to Camp Lewis. The two left the board hearing in tears.

Their quarrel forgotten, Weaver and Forgeron hired an auto and drove to Seal Beach. A letter signed by Forgeron on the suicide scene stated that she  was pregnant and could not live on the $30 that the army would pay Weaver. Reading between the lines, it seems likely that Mrs. Theresa Marie Forgeron would not have been eligible for any spousal benefits because she was already married to another man and had been “living in sin” with Barney Weaver those three months. This was not spelled out directly in the Times article, but the truth was that the two lovers could not marry as ordered by the draft board.

It’s possible that when the police questioned Forgeron that they received a fuller accounting of Weaver’s and her night in Seal Beach, but the Times says nothing in the story. Perhaps they had a last meal at Jewel Cafe or went dancing. Another mystery is why they choose Seal Beach. Did they have shared history there? Was it a romantic getaway that they had planned in happier times and this was their last chance to take it? There is so much of this story that exists only in the realm of speculation.

What is certain is that around 2 a.m. that night, Eric Weaver took his life on the sands of Seal Beach. Mabel Thomas, who had been near the scene, testified before Orange County Coroner Winbigler at the  that she had heard a woman begging “Take me with you!” right before the shot. Four letters found in Weaver’s pocket described their suicide pact and Mrs. Theresa Marie Forgeron’s testimony lead the Coroner’s jury to rule Weaver’s death a suicide.

One of the letters ended: “I am going to take Dot with me. Please bury us together, even if you have to bury us in the potter’s field.”

There’s no one alive today that remembers Barney Weaver, and very few details about him survive. At the time of his death, he was nearing the end of his six month probationary period with the Los Angeles Police, but according to city directories and his draft registration card, his previous employment was as a conductor for Pacific Electric. It’s possible that he may have even worked on red car trolleys traveling through Seal Beach. He was born on January 22nd, 1889 in Mansfield, Missouri. His draft card listed his as being of medium height and build with blue eyes and light hair. He had already served one and a half years of military service as a corporal for the Second Field Artillery. And in August 1919, facing an uncertain future as the father of a child with a woman still married to another man, Barney M. Weaver ended his life.

After the inquest on the 22nd, Undertaker Montell took Forgeron to her grandmother’s home in Los Angeles. Later, she left and wandered the streets until nighttime and then went to the house of her mother’s house where the police found her and brought her in for questioning (which seems odd since the death had already been ruled a suicide.)

There is addendum to this sad affair that concerns Theresa Marie’s unnamed husband. In 1920, both the Los Angeles Times and the Santa Ana Register ran articles on a Willard W. Forgeron filing for divorce from his wife, Theresa Marie Forgeron. Willard had been a soldier in World War I when the suicide occurred and had only heard about it upon his return. He filed for divorce in 1919, but in August 1920 he was finally able to provide proof that his wife was the woman involved in the suicide pact by producing clippings of the Los Angeles Times story with the picture of his wife and providing testimony from Barney Weaver’s and Theresa Marie’s Forgeron’s landlady. Willard Forgeron got his divorce, later remarried, and died in 1964.

As for Theresa Marie Forgeron, she disappeared after August 22nd. She isn’t listed in the 1920, the 1930, or the 1940 census under the Forgeron last name or her mother’s last name. In fact, her mother and her grandmother don’t show up in any city directory or census. Using the addresses given in the Los Angeles Times story about the suicide and Google street views, I was able to explore her 1919 neighborhood on the web. Her grandmother’s apartment, her mother’s house, and the apartment she shared with Barney Weaver were only a few blocks away from each other, although the 10 Freeway passes over where her love nest with Barney once stood. It’s hard not to imagine young Theresa Marie wondering those streets, wondering how it all went wrong and blaming herself for the tragedy and scared about her impending motherhood. I hope it didn’t end for her there. I hope that she went somewhere else, somewhere far away and rebuilt her life under a new name and found peace and happiness.

– Michael Dobkins

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August 20th in Seal Beach History

On this date in 1976, The Rossmoor Center hosted a HUGE Bicentennial Indian Pow-Wow. The next day, they did it again.

Why Native Americans would celebrate the Bicentennial or what the heck is Indian Country Western Music are questions best not asked forty years later.

Aug_20_1976_Bicentennial_Pow_Wow_at_Rossmoor_Center

– Michael Dobkins

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