Just three weeks ago we revived a childhood memory and again rode the passenger trains of the Santa Fe Railroad.
Now we’re going to catch some new memories and walk through the gates of “Yesteryear’s Amusement Parks.” Some are still around, like Disneyland, but vastly changed and updated with 21st century technology. Others are gone, victims of declining attendance and rickety rides.
Back in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s, I lived for trips to Disneyland and Knotts Berry Farm. In our San Bernardino neighborhood just off Foothill Boulevard (travelers passing through knew it as Route 66), boys and girls loved to talk about Space Mountain and the jungle ride at Disneyland or the shootout re-enactments at Knotts Berry Farm’s Ghost Town. My next-door neighbor, Roger Gall, wore a beaded Indian-style belt purchased at Disneyland. I was envious; pestered my mom and dad so they had no choice but to buy me one when we made the pilgrimage to the Magic Kingdom. In the early 60s it seemed like every kid at Meyers Elementary School had an Indian belt.
We always looked forward to visits by grandparents. That’s when we’d go to Disneyland and Knotts Berry Farm. Dad always took home movies at the parks. I’ve got a DVD tucked away in the closet that shows scenes of those visits now almost 60 years in the past. They’re precious because all the faces – except for me and my sister Jody – are gone. One scene shows my mom and me exiting a Disneyland boat ride, walking briskly toward the cameraman… of course, my dad. She had my hand, and I struggled to keep up with her. The ride had malfunctioned, and we’d been marooned for quite a while – long enough to leave mom in a tizzy.
In another scene, Grandpa Frog and I come around a curve in a sports car. He’s driving and seven-year-old mike is no doubt wishing he could be in the driver’s seat. The roadway doesn’t yet have a guide rail, so grandpa is actually driving. If I’d have been tall enough to reach the height line, I could have driven. Sadly, that would have to wait for a future year and another trip.
The last time I rode the Matterhorn – in 1964 during a visit by my Ohio cousins Candy and Pat – I finagled with my safety belt for the entire ride. The teenage ride helper hadn’t secured the belt as tight as I thought necessary and I struggled to make it snug as the bobsled began moving. I held the belt tight against my waist as the bobsled twisted left and right along the rails darting into and out of the mountain. Was the belt truly loose or was my overactive imagination at work? Frankly, I don’t know.
My memories of Knotts Berry Farm are not as vivid as those of Disneyland. I do recall my aunts Hortense and Avis sharing a bench with a couple of saloon floozies. If you’ve been to Knotts Berry Farm, you know what I’m referring to… the floozies are statues. Thousands of photos have been taken over the decades of folks cuddling up to them. Of course it helps that dad’s Kodak Brownie 8mm movie camera captured the moment.
I do recall eating in Knotts Berry Farm’s chicken dinner restaurant. The fried chicken and biscuits were good, but the boysenberry pie still awakens my taste buds more than fifty years after I last spooned it into my mouth. I know the train robberies and gunfights should be my favorite memories, but they’re not close to my slices of boysenberry pie.
In my childhood, train and car trips to Ohio to visit relatives included making memories at quaint amusement parks patterned after Coney Island. Only Cedar Point adapted to changing times. Chippewa Lake and Meyers Lake amusement parks are gone.
I took my first roller coaster ride in 1960 at Meyers Lake in Canton. Grandpa Frog took me on the Comet. Family members said I was pale as a corpse as grandpa led me away from the wooden structure after that wild ride. Grandma Mid chastised him and made sure he kept the rides no scarier than the ferris wheel, merry-go-around and bumper cars.
The memories of Chippewa Lake are not of rides, but of my mom’s stories about her teenage years and dances in the Starlight Ballroom. Sometimes it was a Saturday night date and jitterbugging or slow dancing to bands such as Benny Goodman and Tommy Dorsey. Other times mom and several girlfriends would pile into a car and motor across the county line to Chippewa Lake. It must have been a dazzling sight… the way the ballroom’s light reflected off the lake. The last time I went to the amusement park was 1969, and it was a shell of its former self. It closed in 1978 and was razed in 2009. If you think the kids of the late 19th century had nothing to do but go to church picnics and play piano recitals for their grandmothers and aunts, think again. Chippewa Lake opened in 1878.
We took many trips to Cedar Point with my cousins Candy and Pat after we moved back to Ohio in 1965 when I was in 8th grade. There’s a blur of memories, but one stands out… climbing into a bumper car and taking aim at Candy. Another fun memory: riding in the back of their dad Jack’s stationwagon on the way to Cedar Point and singing Chattanooga Choo-Choo.
You’d think I’d have a ton of snapshots of those long-ago days at Disneyland and Knotts Berry Farm as well as those Ohio amusement parks, right? I’ve done days and days of scanning over the last few years, but I found only one photo for this post. An Indian wearing a headdress is showing me the proper way to cross my arms and hold them high. Did any Indian tribes actually do this?
I’ve never learned how to take the home-movie DVD and convert it to an Internet video file format that can be downloaded onto YouTube. But I wanted to end this post by leaving a link to a video of Disneyland in 1957. Here it is: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=v3Vcr2Zc-Ek. Notice how well the adults dressed, the women in dresses, the men in dress shirts and pants, some with ties and sports coats. And not a tattoo anywhere.
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Mike’s the author of two fantasy novels, The Emperor’s Mistress and Thief’s Coin. They’re the first two books of a trilogy. He’s working on the third novel, Assassins’ Lair. He’s been at it for four years, but he promises he’ll soon have it shipshape for his publisher.