The Spit ‘n’ Argue Club at the pier —

Spit ‘n’ Argue

Good arguments can provide the healthiest form of entertainment; they stimulate adrenal glands, arouse governments and nurture change. The Spit ‘n’ Argue Club, later the University by the Sea, has done that through most of Long Beach’s history.

 The professor’s white beard fluttered in the sea breeze. Alone, he faced the empty benches. His right hand swung a gavel—whop!—against the rostrum. “We will come to order,” Professor Selah Brickman, 90, said into a dead microphone. “The University by the Sea is now in session!” Only one person watched and heard, a man with a camera, there to photograph the Professor.“It’s cold today,” the Professor said. “The members stay home.”

This is the story of the rise and fall of a debating society linked to Long Beach history. The society should not perish without obit; for there were times in the past 70 years when its voices fiercely claimed free speech for a clammed-up, anti-anything and at times scared stiff city.

Before Long Beach grew where it stands now, on hot summer weekends the farmers inland used to pile their families into wagons and drive down here to camp on the sand. There were breakers tall as a row of corn, in those days, and clean sea air blowing the smell of ocean—of kelp and salt and sunshine. While women and kids waded, the men grouped up to swap news and ideas over a chew of tobacco.

That was the start of it. That was before newspapers in the area, and long before radio and long, long before TV. Men wanted to know each other’s thinking. They wanted to speak up. They got together and talked—and in that era, among farmers especially, tobacco chewing was a social necessity.

Those were the years after the Civil War—the ‘70s, the ‘80s. The farmers threshed politics and they threshed religion. The sounds of anger and of laughing, of threats and cheers, startled sea gulls from their dozing on the warm wet sand. Beach camping is gritty stuff and fresh water had to be carried. By 1884 a three-story wooden hotel rose from the beach below the present Long Beach Civic Center. It offered comfort—and a broad veranda for open-air debate.

Worldly folk, real travelers, met the local folks there on the veranda. The forum pummeled rich topics. Listeners came from the growing hamlet—which in 1885 boasted 51 homes, 13 business buildings, three stables, the hotel and a church. When voices shrilled angrily, women folk shuddered. “All they do,” the women said bitterly of the debaters, “is spit and argue.” So the outfit got its name, away back there, long before it really organized. The group became the Spit ‘n’ Argue. Eventually the word “club” was tacked on.

The hotel—veranda and all—burned Nov. 8, 1888. The group resumed sessions on the sunny beach. That was the year the new city incorporated. Local politics could be dissected. Spit ‘n’ Argue tore every issue, every candidate for anything, into oratorical shreds. Plug tobacco sold hand over fist at the Lowe’s general store at Pine and Ocean. By 1890 the club was drawing talent from the town’s 564 residents.

Spit ‘n’ Argue on May 27, 1893, first got a pier to stand on. It was the first of three piers to rise and fall under the club’s innumerable feats. Soap-box type oratory flourished on the first pier until the pier was battered by waves, and condemned a few years later. Meanwhile a million words were shouted to the sunny sky by S & A members and guests. The War with Spain fed the club’s oratory through 1898. Six years later the group took its stand on a brand new pier at the foot of Pine Avenue, a wooden beauty with upper and lower decks, 1,296 feet long. It was there, on the wide landward end of the Pine Avenue Pier, that in 1910 Spit ‘n’ Argue reached the glorious stage of formal organizing.

Pine Avenue Pier

There had been a most stimulating decade—the first 10 years of 1900—which started with a Long Beach population of 2,254 and saw newcomers pouring in like a cascade of new-threshed wheat. On July 4, 1902 Pacific Electric had linked its Big Red Cars at last to Long Beach. On the same great day, the Long Beach Bath House opened its heated seawater plunge, the biggest on this or any other world. The Pike was looking more like the Atlantic City boardwalk every day.

“Let’s organize!” shouted the club’s guiding spirits, among them Charles Hamilton, who for two years had owned a beach shop—and who for many years later resided in Long Beach. So Spit ‘n’ Argue set up officers and a platform. Right-wingers in town were aghast.

Spit ‘n’ Argue came out flat-footed for municipal ownership of water and gas. It backed continuation of concerts by an expensive municipal band—which had played its first concert March 13, 1909, a year previous. And Spit ‘n’ Argue demanded a “free market” where farmers could see direct to consumers. “Socialism!” screamed the conservative voices of Republican Long Beach.

But Spit ‘n’ Argue backed the band, and the band has continued to this day 60 years later. In 1911 the city voters bought a municipal water supply. In March, 1913, the Public Market was created by ordinance, and to this day it continues as a picturesque open-air mart beside Lincoln Park. The fourth plank of the platform was nailed down much later—not till Aug. 14, 1923. But Long Beach then got municipal-owned gas.

No one could name a figure for the number of words screamed and bellowed in Spit ‘n’ Argue oratory back in the Pine Avenue Pier days; but ocean swells wrecked the pier on Aug. 6, 1934 ending a 30-year stand by the club. On Aug. 14, 1935, in mid-December, the Spit ‘n’ Argue Club renamed University by the Sea after a civic cleanup drive, attended the city’s formal dedication of a 40-by-76 foot platform on the new Rainbow Pier, on which, by tolerance of the City Council, soap-box type oratory would be permitted. “Gag!” screamed the club’s hotheads, after the dedication was over. “Censorship!”

The Spit ‘n’ Argue platform was at the shore end of the pier

The Rainbow and old Pine Avenue Pier were next to each other for a short period of time

From the first club organizing, back in 1910, to the Pine Avenue Pier collapse of 1934, Spit ‘n’ Argue had fought its way orally through World War I, the Russian Revolution, the end of Prohibition, the change from Hoover to FDR, the alphabet soup of the New Deal, the Townsend Pension Plan, and the March 10, 1933, earthquake. Religion came in in for a few licks too. Depression brought left-wingers, flapping and whooping to the S & A, alias University by the Sea. “Communism!” Against the pinkish threat the Peterson Post of the American Legion rose up in horror.

Battle lines were drawn, with the City Council in No Man’s Land. It became a war and it went on for years. Fed up with being in No Man’s Land, the Council handed the club supervision to the Recreation Department April 25, 1940.

The war between Legion and oratory was still rumbling like the over-the-mountain gunfire when groups of S & A oldsters were complaining that fascists had taken over the forum. “Fascism!” The whole war became confused. Both sides demanded free speech. S & A stalwarts held on longest and won, advocating free speech forever.

 In June, 1949, the city spent $5,000 to widen the club’s pier platform by 20 feet. Two months later, 299 signers petitioned the City Council to kill the club as anti-American. On record is a message informing the Council the club’s trouble was being caused by “inflammatory rhetoric by four psychopaths, two religious fanatics and a crackpot.

An editorial in the Press-Telegram Feb. 19, 1952, concluded: “So we say let the Commies bray. Let them discredit and entangle themselves. But don’t let them goad us into mutilating with our own hands the very rights which we cherish most.”

The Rainbow Pier and a rapidly growing Long Beach 

In May, 1953, the Rainbow Pier platform was lost to land-sinkage and a sand-fill project. The soap-boxers were ousted. Grumbling, they met in Lincoln Park, and elsewhere until Oct. 11, 1953, when they were permitted to return to the pier. Since the club wouldn’t die and stay dead, the city came up with a $6,900 sage-green 32-by-60 foot windbreak and rostrum on the beach west of the hallowed Pine Avenue Pier, and later Rainbow Pier sites, and the club moved in on Jan. 3, 1960. Beach redevelopment has turned the access area, to the east, into an impassable mess with signs warning all comers to keep out. Only old-timers know how to find the club now.

Where orators used to face audiences of 2,000 or more, now on best days only a handful of listeners can be found. The Recreation Department’s supervisor of senior citizen activities, Jack Dillon, sees to it that on the third Saturday of each November the club elects a five-man committee to run its affairs. The committee chairman—Brickman this year, who is called “The Professor”—presides from 1:30 to 4:30 p.m. daily whether the members show up or nay.

Dillon says the “keep out” signs have hurt the club for certain, but that another factor has hurt it worse. “Television took its steam,” Dillon says, “The rebels who used to shout and draw a crowd to the old pier platforms are shouting on TV forums now. They’ve gone away; they’ve cut the controversy down.”

Alone at the beach rostrum, facing empty benches, the club’s chairman, Professor Brickman, says a few kind words for his absent members, to the visiting man with a camera. The Professor stands picket-pin straight, his white beard blowing, his Navy P-coat buttoned tight around him. “So many things are gone,” he says. “So many of our old members. The people walking around the pier. The breakers, the sound of them. In 1902, a teacher, I came from Live in the Russian Ukraine to get away from the Czar, to find freedom and free speech. Here, yes, they are here! “But our members are old now. When the wind blows, they get cold. They stay home. No, no one chews tobacco any more. No one spits, here at our club. On sunny days, we still talk of everything. A few of us. But the old times have gone.”

—Southland Sunday, Dick Emery, Long Beach Independent Press-Telegram, June 7, 1970

As said in the article, television may have brought about the end of the Spit ‘n’ Argue club. It was much easier to simply sit in front of a television watching debate. There seemed to be less need for honest and open, in-person debate. Today, with the advent of computers, cell phones and social media, we seem to see an even more drastic change in communication. Debate is alive but sitting behind a screen allows a more vitriolic and hateful form of communication and for some, little desire for free speech or debate.  A tremendous loss in my opinion.

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