The bell rings, and some 20 heads hunch over rows of glass-topped tables, eyes locked on the tiny metal balls ricocheting across numbered, color-coded boards. Green 4, red 2, blue 5 — the players race to connect the dots in a straight line. Within three minutes a winner is called among them, and the patrons of Looff's Lite-A-Line laugh and loosen up. At this anachronistic Long Beach gaming parlor, the camaraderie is as big a draw as the $15 cash prize.
It's tough to describe the game of Lite-A-Line succinctly: It's like bingo, with pachinko trappings, loosely controlled by a pinball plunger. All owner Mike Cincola knows is that the diversion invented by his father-in-law, amusement baron Arthur Looff, in 1941 is still the only one of its kind in existence, anywhere.
Strolling the floor, Cincola, 71, greets longtime regulars by name. With his snappy blazer, suede loafers and gelled hair, he looks the part of an old-time casino boss as he shakes hands with retirees, housewives and blue-collar workers from the neighborhood.
"They come and they visit, they play and relax," Cincola says. "It's a nice business because people come to have a good time."
Playing the game is easy: You pull the spring-loaded plunger, sending the ball careening toward a series of holes that correspond to numbers on a bingo board.
Winning, however, has an arcane mystique. Adjusting the force on the plunger affects where the ball rolls, and rubber bumpers that block the ball's path add a wild-card element to each turn. You can't jostle the table, as you would a pinball game; violence will get you thrown out.
If there's a trick to getting good, the frequent winners aren't telling – most give a bashful chuckle and demur.
But that doesn't stop gamers of all stripes from enjoying the pastime. They'll learn a little history, too, if Cincola has anything to say about it.
Looff's Lite-a-Line is an oddball legacy from a family that helped shape the Southern California coastline — and the concept of American amusement — over the past century. It all started with Charles I.D. Looff, a skilled woodworker who immigrated to New York from Germany in 1870. A furniture carver by day, he began crafting carousel horses at home in his spare time. In 1876, Charles opened the first merry-go-round at Coney Island, a ride so popular that he set up a factory and began producing carousels on commission.
His iconic carousels and amusement parks made him a rich man, and in 1910 he moved his family to Long Beach, where he created the carousel at the famed Pike shorefront amusement park. He and his son Arthur then built Santa Monica Pier in 1916, and according to Looff family lore, the merry-go-round Charles helped build in Griffith Park inspired Walt Disney to build Disneyland.
"They were Disney before Disney," Cincola says of his family.
Arthur Looff, Cincola's father-in-law, continued his father's work but nursed an itch to strike out on his own. He operated bingo parlors during the Depression, but when bingo was made illegal, he came up with a concept authorities couldn't outlaw so easily — Lite-A-Line. Conceived as a game of skill rather than luck, it opened in 1941 to enthralled crowds.
Yet controversy dogged the establishment: Was it gambling or not?
"One year you were OK; the next year, everybody had a different opinion" on the Long Beach City Council, Cincola says. "If you voted for the wrong guy, someone would say, 'That looks like gambling to me.'?"
It took a court case in the 1970s to finally settle the matter. During a high-stakes playoff between college students and seasoned players, the regulars beat the amateurs "handily," he says. That showed the game was governed by skill, not purely chance.
After the historic Pike fell into disrepair and was closed by the city of Long Beach in 1979, Looff's Lite-A-Line soldiered on as once-adored attractions around it were demolished. In 2000, Cincola moved — the last surviving holdout — to Long Beach Boulevard, where Lite-A-Line gained foot traffic.
"It's basically just a novelty now," Cincola says. "You can win money on your phone; you can play games online. We've got card clubs all around us. We've got so much going on that people don't need Lite-A-Line. Really, they come because they love the game."
On a recent Friday, the 64 tables are about one-third full. Laughter erupts now and then; shouts of joy and disappointment punctuate the continuous rattle of plungers being released and the shick, shick of metal balls gliding across wooden boards.
Della Ramirez, who is in her 70s, has been playing the tables at Looff's on and off since 1969. She now comes in just about every weekday.
"I don't stay longer than two hours, win or lose," the retired hospital manager says. "I relax when I come here. I forget I have children, I forget I have a husband, I forget everything. I just concentrate on my playing." She's cagey about her win record, only admitting, "I'm pretty lucky," with a nod and faint smile.
Linda Day says playing gives her something to do now that her kids are grown. "When I win a little something, it's good. But when I don't win, I don't cry about it."
Cincola concedes that, after 74 years in Southern California, "Most people haven't heard of us," he adds. "But we're always being rediscovered."
And little by little, he's reclaiming pieces of the Pike's history. Cincola has spent years and a small fortune scouring yard sales and warehouses for memorabilia from his family's past.
Now, a generous area at Lite-A-Line is given over to museum cases chronicling the Looffs' and the Pike's rich history: Charles Looff's woodcarving tools and toolbox, a restored roller-coaster car from the Pike's Cyclone Racer, even shooting-gallery targets that patrons a century ago sprayed — with live ammunition.
"There's something from 1900 and something from 2000, which is pretty neat," Cincola says.
The game of Lite-A-Line hasn't changed since 1941, but the tables have been updated piecemeal as parts have given out. Games are called, via bell, every two or three minutes daily until 2 a.m. Inflation has forced Cincola to raise the price to play — it's now $1.20, up from 10 cents when the venue first opened. The biggest change was replacing the original analog scoreboards with digital screens, which are a source of grumbling among some older patrons.
Juan Tenas, a former sheet-metal mechanic in his 60s, stops by several times a week. "What else would I do, stay in the house?" he muses. "Lots of people have nothing to do. We come here. Everybody is like a family over here."
Tenas has been playing for 36 years and is part of the group that preferred the charm of the analog scoreboards. "We liked the old way — it was tradition," he says.
But Cincola says the digital fixtures are more acceptable to younger generations, whom he'll need to court if the parlor's historic neon sign is to stay lit another 74 years.
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"What are you going to do?" he shrugs. "I'm not going back."
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