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The Vegas of the 20s: Seal Beach

The Joy Zone in Seal Beach in the 1920s.

The Joy Zone in Seal Beach in the 1920s.

By Pete Zarustica

Movie stars. Casinos. Stretches of sand. Pretty girls in revealing clothing.

Sounds very much like Las Vegas, doesn’t it? But it also once applied to the seaside community of Seal Beach.

Yes, about a hundred years ago, what is now a quiet beach town was a bit of a wild place, bringing glitz and gamblers to the Orange County coast.

The community started with the use of Anaheim Landing (near today’s Seal Beach Naval Weapons Station) as a place to ship materials and goods to the new German settlement of Anaheim (meaning home on the Santa Ana River). Anaheim was founded in 1857 and incorporated in 1870.

A tent city eventually grew up around the still waters of the bay, and the tents gave way to buildings in what was soon called Bay City. The arrival of the Pacific Electric railway connected the Orange County coast to Los Angeles (and Hollywood) and a remarkable boom came to the community.

Philip Stanton, a prominent political leader and developer, had a hand in establishing three Orange County cities: Stanton, Huntington Beach and Seal Beach, the latter renamed and incorporated in 1915. He and others invested in property along the northern part of the OC coast.

In 1916 the Joy Zone amusement park opened and kicked off the city’s turn in the spotlight. It included one of the longest piers on the Pacific Coast (illuminated at night by bright electric lanterns), the scarifying Derby Roller coaster and several bathhouses.

There was a large civic choir, bathing beauty pageants and other attractions.

The Jewel Café featured music, fine dining and gambling. Some folks began to call Seal Beach by a new name, “Sin City,” because of the presence of casinos, prostitution and rum-running. The coming of Prohibition in 1920 created an instant market for smuggling alcohol, and Anaheim Landing was a good spot to drop off bootleg whiskey, beer and wine.

Early Hollywood also fell in love with Seal Beach. This was the silent film era, and not only did stars of the era such as Fatty Arbuckle and Buster Keaton visit the “Coney Island of the Pacific” during that time to play, but movie companies used the area for filming.

Cecil B. DeMille’s 1923 version of “The Ten Commandments” used the flat, broad strand as a setting for the parting of the Red Sea. Other, less notable “beach comedies” were filmed in and around the town.

But, of course, nothing good (or bad) lasts forever. The crushing effects of the Great Depression took some of the steam out of the gambling and amusements park businesses, and the end of Prohibition eliminated the need for midnight whiskey deliveries.

A more familiar view of Seal Beach on a summer day.

A more familiar view of Seal Beach on a summer day.

By the late Thirties, most of the “fun zone” had been demolished, and the influx of suburban development in the late Forties and Fifties led to “Good Government” campaigns that eventually closed the last gambling hall.

Walking along Seal Beach’s charming and placid Main Street, it’s hard to imagine a time when it was considered a “wide open” town. That’s as far in the past as the seals which gave the community its name.

Sources: Orange County Historical Society, Seal Beach Sun, Los Angeles Times, “Orange County: A Centennial Celebration,” by Doris Walker.

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