austin_dern (austin_dern) wrote,

Midway hawkers calling ``Try your luck with me''

Lakeside Amusement Park, Denver, opened in 1908 as one of your classic trolley park/White City parks. It occupied nearly half the small town from which it took the name. Its front gate is the Tower of Jewels, this magnificent World's Fair-grade pillar, encased in lights, originally topped with the spotlight from the 1904 World's Fair Ferris Wheel. On its base, as you leave, is the cryptic invitation ``REDIT''. It means ``Return'', but it does sound a little ominous put like that.

In the 1930s a fellow named Ben Krasner bought the park, and he had it renovated and built in the most Art Deco style humanly possible. The place became this astounding festival of beautifully shaped concrete moulds and lined with neon lighting. It still is. The park has passed to Krasner's daughter, Rhoda Krasner, who still owns the park and is still active and careful about the park's management. It's possible to see her walking the park, consulting on even the individual business of which rides need to close and for how long that day. We believe we saw her.

Admission is by the main parking lot; the great Tower of Jewels --- opening onto the sidewalk, like Kennywood or d'Efteling or other amusement parks that are in their city --- is closed off, at least ordinarily. It's $4 per person, and that gets you a 50 cent credit for buying ride tickets or pay-one-price wristbands. A 50 cent ride ticket is enough for one ride on the carousel; even the priciest of rides like the Cyclone roller coaster is only $3.00. So you see this isn't a pricy day at the park. The first thing noticeable inside the parking lot is the Lakeside Speedway.

It's abandoned. It had been one of the last spots for Midget-Car Racing, until a nasty accident when a car went off the track, killing a person and injuring a dozen more. Rhoda Krasner, horrified, closed the track immediately. There are, apparently, always rumors that the Speedway will be torn down, or renovated into something else (it had been a baseball park before it was a racecar track). But none of the plans has ever quite happened. It's been three decades. The Speedway stands there, derelict and becoming even more a natural object for wonder and curiosity and surely high-school urban legends.

Almost along the side of the lake, in a prominent and unmissable spot while walking along the main drag, and certainly the centerpiece of the park's skyline as seen from on or across the lake (as, for example, from the miniature train ride that orbits the lake) is the Staride. It's a Ferris Wheel-type ride, with spokes that reach out from the central wheel so that the park looks like a star, cars dangling from the ends of those points. It was installed in 1913. It might be the only example of this particular kind of Ferris Wheel made. It has never run in bunny_hugger's lifetime. It might never have run in mine. A fire in 1973 destroyed the drive system for the Staride, and all but one of its cars, and also its blueprints.

The ride is still there, though. Perhaps from fear that without the Staride and the Tower of Jewels, Lakeside Park could not be Lakeside Park. Perhaps from the dream that maybe someday, if they could put the money together, someone could retrofit a set of plans and design new cars and a drive system, and make the ride run again. The ride isn't well-kept; it's sitting there, fenced off and overgrowing with weeds; there's a tree that's woven into the wheel, as though this were a ride at a long-abandoned amusement park. But the ride is there, in this strange state in which it's unrideable and probably can't be made rideable. But it's not replaced, nor is it repaired, nor is it made to look as if, well, maybe next year they will be able to repair it. It's even more mysteriously abandoned-in-place than the Speedway is. And, worse, it goes unexplained; a sign explaining the ride and its history would do much to turn this from a weird and ominous portent into a touchstone.

The Tower of Jewels is less jeweled, too. The tower itself had, at least according to the publicity, something like ten thousand light bulbs illuminating it and half the City of Denver at night. There's maybe ten still working. The lights have just been burning out, as they will, apparently without replacement. It inspires grim thoughts about the park, and a joke at least in amusement park fan circles that the park figures to just wait until the last bulb goes off and then close the park. The Speedway and the Staride encourage the impression of a park that's limping out its last days; the burned-out lights seem to confirm it.

And, something we did not know at the time. Among the park rules is a prohibition on photographs. Which sounds like madness. But is also understandable. The place is washed over with deferred maintenance. The Staride alone looks unreal. The burned-out light bulbs on the Tower of Jewels. Buildings whose 1930s Art Deco gorgeousness overcomes the peeled, faded paint and water stains. Heaps of once-useful junk tucked behind but still visible from rides. It would be easy to take pictures of the park and make it look sad and depressed and dismal, like those disaster-tourist web sites showcasing victims of capitalism like Detroit or East Saint Louis or something.

But, then. Park admission is four dollars. The most expensive single ride, bought a-la-carte, is three dollars. That's below what you even pay at a county fair, for both admission and a-la-carte rides. Concession prices are similarly cheap; a soda or a frozen Icee is about a dollar. You could double any of these and still have a pretty cheap park, and enough profit to replace all the light bulbs and have enough to do something with the more decrepit structures too.

People have noticed. Rumor is that Krasner has heard all this. And gotten offers from people who would like to invest in the park and bring it back to the glories anybody can see on looking at it. She turns them down, solidly. An elderly woman clinging to control of a family business, possibly to the detriment of the place? That's a familiar story and an easy one to suppose. But is it so?

Because here's an answer to all that. They're putting in a new roller coaster this year. They had it assembled but not running when we visited. We learned about it the day we arrived in town and cursed ourselves because they promised to open ``in June'' and here we were, in June, and missing the new coaster. (New to them. It had previously been Nebraska's only non-kiddie roller coaster and, before that, was at the Saginaw, Michigan, county fairgrounds.) Had we gone but two weeks later we --- would have been disappointed again; the ride still hasn't opened. New rides always open late. Still, while the ride --- a Pinfari Zyklon --- would not be, like, Cedar Point's Big New Ride for the year, it's still a pretty big, pretty exciting thing, one of those roller coasters big enough to be thrilling but not so big that Mom would refuse to ride it. Great for a family park. And an expansion of the place.

And another answer. We got to the park on a Saturday, usually the busiest day. It was early summer, the weather was great. The place was packed. The staff was up to it. There weren't weirdly long queues for things, there weren't weird blips of something in the park obviously needing attention and not getting it (like, overflowing trash bins or dirty bathrooms or something). They had the staff to cover a bustling day, and it did not look like the staff was stretched thin. Park operations were smooth and, so far as we could tell, problem-free. That's a sign of a park that's got the money it needs to run about as it is, and keep the show going well.

All right, but then why not a $5 admission and a $2 frozen Icee? ... And here again, rumor is, Krasner knows. But has decided that the park's mission is to be a place that larger families and poorer people can afford to go. That even if you don't have major-amusement-park money you should be able to go somewhere and ride a roller coaster and play a redemption game and smash bumper cars and go on rides that spin you very fast. She's right of course. And she's maybe atoning for the park's long history as a segregated park. (The side of classic old parks that white amusement park enthusiasts never discuss is how many were white-only, and how many closed rather than desegregate, which had more to do with local parks closing in the 60s and 70s than is generally admitted.)

An amusement park can approach the democratic ideal that all persons mingle together, equals before the Ferris wheel. But you have to pay for the ride. All right, but the ride can cost as little as possible and still allow the ride to go. And if that means the sparkling but, fundamentally, non-essential lights on the Tower of Jewels go unrepaired? Maybe that's an acceptable trade.

So this gives you a sense of the physical and the philosophical layout of the amusement park we spent Saturday in, after we'd eaten at Casa Bonita. Do you think that we enjoyed ourselves? ... Write down your answers, read on, and we shall see whether you were correct.

Trivia: The British islands officially imported about six tons of tea in 1699. A century later they imported about eleven thousand tons. Source: A History of the World in Six Glasses, Tom Standage.

Currently Reading: How To Read Nancy: The Elements Of Comics In Three Easy Panels, Paul Karasik, Mark Newgarden.

PS: Storybook Land, a family-owned park that doesn't give the vibe it's ever had money problems.


Your mouse guide to the Tick-Tock Clock Drop, a time-themed drop tower. The ``clock repair'' building peeking out from behind the sign is a bit of a lie; there's just some park machinery inside.


Mouse creeping on you behind the seats of the Tick-Tock Clock Drop.


Sign for the Happy Dragon ride (in the winter they take the dragons off and put up reindeer-pulled sleighs on it), along with a sign that would seem to explain the height requirement, but that leaves so many options for the slightly older kid to rules-lawyer their siblings into crying fits.

Tags: denver dash, fifth anniversary trip, lakeside park, story book land
  • Post a new comment


    default userpic

    Your reply will be screened

    When you submit the form an invisible reCAPTCHA check will be performed.
    You must follow the Privacy Policy and Google Terms of use.