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A teacher of living history By David N. Young | Fri, Feb 02 2018 01:15 AM

As Seal Beach residents gathered to hear an update on the Bay Theatre last week, few realized that seated among them was Libby Applegate, a former teacher who once sold tickets at the historic structure.

In fact, not only did she sell tickets, but she also made the popcorn, sold the drinks and balanced the books at the end of the night.

More than that, however, Applegate is in many ways a teacher of living history who has seen— and lived—much of Seal Beach’s proud, yet colorful history.

“For me, Seal Beach is about the beach and its people,” remembers Applegate, who moved here with her family in 1953. Her mother was tired of the summer heat in Flintridge and Libby had just graduated from high school.

Her father, Maurice J. “Maury” Beam, had moved his family from La Canada into a small house on 8th street that he purchased for $8,000. Life in Seal Beach proved much better for the Applegates.

It didn’t take long for Libby and her sister Marilyn to begin liking their new town. “The friendly surfers and lifeguards who lived in town were knocking on our door the first week wanting to show us around.” They taught Libby to surf.

At that time, Applegate had not yet enrolled in Long Beach State and she had fun and adventure on her mind. She worked a number of summer jobs, including at the L.A. County Library and Rancho Los Amigos (in the polio ward). But on weekends, she and her lifelong friend Nancy Sebring Shook would “dance under the stars” near Bullet Hill. Facebook was still seven decades away but teenage parties at the Applegates on 8th gave the kids ample opportunity to strut their stuff and occasionally, stretch the truth a bit. “Most of the stories were exaggerations,” she says, yet those who “knew these characters knew who told the biggest whoppers.”

Even though she was a fun-loving teenager, Applegate retained a ferocious appetite for knowledge, perhaps inspired by her famous dad. Maury Beam was an L.A. Times reporter who gained significant notoriety during his reporting career. In those days, Seal Beach was a very sparse town. Not many people ventured out because few had cars and it was bordered on one side by a river, a Navy base and Hellman Ranch on the other.

“It seemed to me as if there were very few people in town,” says Libby. “Someone told me there were 700 residents in town. We were isolated,” she said.

“When my dad drove me to Orange Coast College on my first day, there was not one car on the road,” she remembers. “Nothing but agricultural fields as far as one could see.” As Libby studied, however, her dad faced more serious issues. Although a very humorous man at home, he was completely focused as a reporter. Applegate’s father, who covered the Board of Supervisors and city hall for the Times, was on a mission. While Libby and her friends enjoyed waves in the surf, Maury Beam began to make political waves with his headlines.

Beam aimed his pen at the “Airport Club” and eventually, on a 3-2 council vote, poker was outlawed in Seal Beach. Shortly thereafter, gambling and associated interests were driven from the city.

Maury Beam succeeded in his campaign, yet paid a significant price. His friends in the police department warned him he should move his family out of Seal Beach as those most affected by his reporting had threatened to blow up his 8th Street home. The Beams were forced to move to an undisclosed location in Belmont Shores in 1954 for fear of their safety. Life precariously went on, however, and they eventually were able to move back.

In addition to his newspaper reporting, Beam was also recognized as an accomplished “True Detective” writer, turning out a story per week and had two published novels to his credit. Libby’s said her mom DeFayna was his writing partner. “She had a great knack for details and always gave the end a twist.”

After Libby received her Associate’s degree from OCC, she and Nancy worked for a year at Van Camps Seafood Company, saved their money and took off to Hawaii to surf. Their parents drove them to the airport and soon they were Hawaii bound. “We promised ourselves that we would continue our education after we got down to 50 cents,” says Libby. Soon after arriving in Hawaii, they connected with Seal Beach surfing legend Harry Schurch, who was stationed in the Navy there and living with his new wife Pat and could hardly believe their good fortune.  

Schurch introduced them to Bruce Brown, who became a famous surfer filmmaker and John Severson, who became the owner of Surfer Magazine. For Libby and Nancy, they were in surf heaven and loving every minute of it.

Every morning, the girls knocked on Harry’s door and begged him to take them to where the waves were good that day. He did and the girls were on Waikiki beach one minute, grabbing a wave the next and doing it over and over again. For as long as she can remember, surfing has been a favorite pasttime in Seal Beach. She remembers paying homage to the ‘surf sphinx’ causing the surf to rise to “enormous heights” and made “Seal Beach to be the place to surf.”

“Seal Beach has always been a surfing community,” she adds, and there they were, living it up in Hawaii using every bit of surfing knowledge she had absorbed. They went surf crazy in Hawaii for two months and came back to California with a whole dollar.

Libby enrolled in Long Beach State where she eventually earned a Bachelor’s Degree in Education. It was during this period that she worked at the Bay on weekends to help pay for her education.  So then, it stands to reason why memories of living history came flooding back to Libby as she listened to Councilmember Ellery Deaton and owner Paul Dunlap discuss plans for the theatre’s renovation last week. Even though Libby did not work at the Bay until a decade after it opened, her memories have brought the theatre’s opening and history to life.

On Nov. 22, 1945, the growing town of Seal Beach was decorated with colorful bunting in anticipation of a great event. She remembers it was the night before Thanksgiving. World War II was over. People were jubilant. In Seal Beach, a new theatre was about to open. According to Libby, Oscar C. Johnson, the first manager, “gushed” over the new 700-seat theatre, with its bright red carpets, dark red plush seats, as it planned to feature a “double-bill” for opening week.

The first customers of the Bay Theatre would see Eddie Bracken and Veronica Lake in “Out of This World” and “The Phantom of 42nd Street” starring Dave O’Brian and Kay Aldridge. By then, Seal Beach’s location near Naval bases and the active Los Alamitos military base prompted significant population growth during and after the war.

The economy was healthy but theatre tickets only cost 50 cents for adults, and 35 cents for children. Candy and popcorn would set you back a nickel. Sadly, the new theatre’s prosperity didn’t last long.

Remember, these were the days before mass media, even before color, and problems with the “moving picture” technology, and the market, persisted.

However, the Bay would live to see another day.  Libby says the theatre was acquired by the Fox West Coast Theatre Group in 1946 and reopened shortly thereafter under new management. The movie business was good again. In fact, she says, “so many people flocked to the Saturday matinees, that the Seal Beach Lions Club had to install a bike rack” in front of the theatre.

With Libby now in CSULB (1957-59) she (and her friend Nancy) worked at the Bay Theatre on weekends. Libby has nothing but “fond memories” of her days selling tickets in the glass booth that still sits out front at 340 Main St. Back then, the theatre’s weekend management team was largely an all woman affair. After the tickets were sold, Libby would run inside to help Nancy sell the candy and popcorn and later in the evening would balance the books. Applegate said a “good night” at the theatre would bring in approximately $150, all in.

She remembers every detail as if it happened yesterday, though it was almost 60 years ago. She is “delighted” to hear it will reopen and even more excited that it will be brought its original condition. “It still looks the same as it did then,” she said.

Talk of restoration “takes me back in time,” she says. “I can visualize it. The theatre is much the same as it was then. Haven’t changed the bathroom. Drinking fountain’s the same. Lots of great memories.”

She was happy to hear Dunlap say he planned to restore it, as much as possible, to its original configuration. When the theatre is restored, so will be the memories of thousands like Libby who have their own Bay Theatre stories. When she graduated from Long Beach State, Libby reluctantly said good-bye to her theatre job to begin her teaching career in Garden Grove. Even so, Libby stayed in close touch with many of her friends for whom she had arranged for jobs at the theatre.

Libby married Kenneth Applegate, a federal worker, and settled down on the Hill in Seal Beach. They had two children, Robert and Marsha.  Tragically, Marsha passed away at 22 but her son Robert lives and works in Santa Barbara. Like his mother, he loves to surf and does it often. Libby retired from teaching after many years in the classroom and substitute teaching (she once led a band in music class).

Though retired, Libby is as active today as ever. She adores the community of Seal Beach and many people in it. She is recognized as a local historian and is very active in the Seal Beach Woman’s Club.

Mostly, Libby Applegate embodies the spirit and resilience of Seal Beach as a resident whose family came here to find a better life and found herself in the midst of a paradise. 

Sure, she is a living witness to the Bay Theatre but on reflection, a witness to so much more.

After sharing an incredible life here, she is indeed a teacher of living history and, thankfully, there are still many lessons to be learned.

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