History of Orange County

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.

4 replies »

  1. The only true comparison to Vegas is the gambling, and most of Seal Beach’s early glamour existed only in its real estate comnpany’s press releases and carefully staged photos. Bay City (rebranded Seal Beach in Aug 1913) was a series of failed real estate campaigns in 1904-06, 1912-1914, 1916-1919). There was very little glamour in the amusement zone (aka the Joy Zone, built in 1916). Despite the efforts of its town realtors/press agents, low attendance (i.e. lack of profits) and World War I restrictions resulted in no additional concessions or rides being constructed or maintained after 1917. However,1920 changed things. During Prohibition, the town’s location between Anaheim and Alamitos Bay provided many good locations for rum-runners to drop off contraband booze, and the town’s size (only three police officers) made it an easily affordable town to bribe. (Frustrated Federal Booze agents called Seal Beach the “wettest spot on the Pacific Coast.”). And the discovery of oil in both Huntington Beach and Long Beach found Seal Beach right between the two — the perfect nearby spot for all those single oil workers to blow off some steam and spend their money. So in the 1920s the town profited from many illegal drinking and gambling sites. And after 1929 its location on the county line (and the confusion over jurisdiction) made it a popular place for the offshore gambling ships. When the ships and gambling were shut down by Earl Warren by 1940, many of the town’s gambling operators moved to Las Vegas and were instrumental in that town’s development. Ballard Barron, who ran gambling in Seal Beach in the 1930s moved to Vegas in 1942 and ran the casino at the Last Frontier Hotel (the first large casino hotel on the Vegas strip) and the Silver Slipper. Marion Hicks built the Thunderbird on the strip and one or two on Fremont Street. Sam Boyd built Sam’s town and a couple downtown Vegas casinos.

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