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Circling the bay – my first and forever


Key experiences never slip from memory. One of my earliest was a nightmare where a monster bear chased me up the dirt hills of Westchester, Calif. I was 3. Another is the day I walked the Esplanade of Redondo Beach with my Auntie Grace and saw the Pacific Ocean for the first time. Incredible! A third magic moment was watching Monster from the Black Lagoon with my family in a convertible Ford at a drive-in theater near Torrance. Each of these became “a first and a forever.”

Arriving in Newport Beach, a year or so later, an entirely new collection of experiences began. Moving from crowded L.A., we settled on Balboa Peninsula, where we camped for two years while our family home was being built on Lido Isle.

For a 4-year-old, Newport Beach was an adventure on the scale of sailing solo around the world. Living in the small apartment with mom, dad, two siblings and 12 cats made it crowded, fun and full of activity. Attending Newport Elementary School as a kindergartner, I met children of fishermen, boat skippers, blue collar craftsmen, teachers, lawyers and doctors. Professions were meaningless to me, but it put me with a vast array of kids and lifestyles. Southern California was still country-wonderful, and Newport Beach was the Shangri-La of the era. We grew up spoiled beach kids, not due to money, but a remarkable beach lifestyle. My childhood was my oyster.

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Photo by Duncan Forgey

Cruising the bay

Newport “firsts and forevers” came quickly. Like warm liquid on a freezing cold day, these memories sooth and protect me to this day.  Riding over train tracks to eat burgers and ice cream at the Fun Zone, hours on the sands of Newport during mild sunny days and its addictive sun, crashing waves at night acting as a lullaby leading to deep sleep and comfortable dreams, and fresh fish caught by fathers and friends, or bought from local families at Delaney’s, the dory fishermen or Crab Cooker.

Friends and their families became very close. Our houses were shared with neighbors. “Gangs” formed for fun and mischief on Lido, the Peninsula, in the Heights and CdM. We all met and scuffled at school.

By the time our house was completed, Lido Isle represented a totally new way of life in the city. More vacant lots than homes, kids created athletic fields and adventure lands, alongside bay beaches, tennis courts, the clubhouse and the yacht club. Camaraderie on Lido was a way of life for all ages. Life was a celebration, especially with the explosion of “war babies” that roamed the streets and the stradas. Lido residents appreciated the ambience and aspects of a beach town with a newly designed European flair.

In the 1950s, Newport Beach awakened quickly in an exciting and transformational way. The city doubled in size with more Pasadena, Los Angeles, Arcadia and even East Coast families settling near the harbor.  Lido Village was the town center until Fashion Island was created decades later.

The first time I “circled the bay” was on a bay cruise boat with the family. Here we were told the history and magic of the harbor. As a youngster, I saw my first pelicans up close and heard sea lions talking to each other. The skipper talked of the murder of William Bartholomew, successes of Joe Beek’s ferry, the career of Helena Mojeska and the estate of James Cagney. He pointed out the Balboa Bay Club, the Pavilion and told us the story of the two Gillette homes, all of which were key historical landmarks. Celebrities abounded around the bay for many years. Stars were scattered about as loosely as chocolate chips on grandma’s cookies. Dick Dale, John Wayne, Humphrey Bogart, Andy Devine and multitudes of others were points of pride for residents of Newport.

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Photo by Duncan Forgey

The Reuben E. Lee restaurant opened in 1964 and was known as “The Pride of Newport.” The PCH bridge can be seen in the background.

Life was calm in the winter and the streets were empty. Newport belonged to the locals. But in the summers, the bay and beaches amassed huge crowds, especially during Bal Week, Fourth of July or when 100-degree temperatures tortured inlanders. The tourists have always been a huge part of the city’s financial success. International fame was scant in the town’s early years with many East Coast elites thinking the Southwest was populated by a bunch of country bumkins.

As we grew up, “circling the bay” became an addiction.

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Courtesy of OC Archives

The Flight of the Snowbirds, later named The Flight of the Lasers in 1979

Swimming, fishing, sailing and water skiing were available. The bay was our own year-round resort. With thousands of boats ringing the harbor, a rowboat, canoe, small sloop, Boston Whaler, Duffy, sport fisher, sexy racing sloop or 100-foot motor yacht, was perfect for a bay cruise.

Hard-core fishermen left the harbor in darkness and returned exhausted and smelly with fish flags flapping. Their bay cruise ended with a fresh fish dinner. Local sailors were weaned off of sabots, Snowbirds (now Lasers), Beer Can races chasing a case of beer, Hobie Catters on windy days and Lido 14s. The Duffy Boat changed a simple craze to cruise into an obsession.

The boat cruise is still the most popular use of the harbor.

Recently, several Indiana friends asked to me to “circle the bay” with them. Halfway, the excited wife politely apologized for taking up so much of my time asking graciously, “You must get tired of doing this?”

“Oh no!” I responded immediately with great sincerity. “I never get tired of cruising the harbor; ‘circling the bay’ is my favorite ‘first and forever.’”

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Photo by Duncan Forgey

This photo was captured 24 hours before the famous China House in Corona del Mar was to be demolished. A couple on the bench enjoy the view.

There have been so many changes: playing pirates on the sands of Shark Island (Linda Isle), back flips off the Lido Bridge; catching dinner off the Genoa Pier and seeing the finest of yachts. Lines of autos backed up during Bal Week are now common much of the summer. From Helena Mojeska’s home on Bay Island and PT Joe the WWII subchaser to John Wayne’s home in Bayshores – all are key reminders of a golden past. We saw an all-wooden fleet of sailboats and yachts transition to the plastic and fiberglass boats of today. We fished and swam the bay without warnings about environmental safety from overcautious mothers. Plus, we did not hear overhead jets. The only noise came from the rumbling engines of seabound fishing boats at 4 a.m.

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Photo by Duncan Forgey

A pelican perches on a buoy in quiet repose

My latest but definitely not my last “circling of the bay,” was with friends at our 50th Harbor High School reunion. Laughter and stories flushed out like water from a broken facet. Non-stoppable memories from every part of the old town were shared as we lit up like kids, once again.

But no matter the generation, a flame burns in the hearts of Newporters that will never be extinguished. Newport Harbor offers a one-of-a-kind lifestyle that will always be a “first and a forever” for all of us.


Duncan Forgey, long-time resident, photographer and historian of Newport Beach, makes his home on Kaua’i and is a regular contributor to Stu News Newport. His first novel “Flyin’ Kai: A Pelican’s Tale,” which received a recommendation by Kirkus Reviews, is available through his website – He would love to hear from you.

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