Articles

SUMMER PLAYGROUND

THOMAS WALSH June 1 1951
Articles

SUMMER PLAYGROUND

THOMAS WALSH June 1 1951

SUMMER PLAYGROUND

THOMAS WALSH

CRYSTAL BEACH is a jumbo-sized permanent amusement park surrounded by a summer colony on the weedy north shore of Lake Erie, ten miles west of the Peace Bridge, which

spans the Niagara River between Fort Erie and Buffalo. As a lyrical little folder put out by Crystal Beach says: “It’s an inter-

national mecca where the work-a-day world seems to fade and the health-giving rays of the friendly sun make your holidays a dream that came true.”

It is also the only entertainment spot in Canada where Americans always outnumber Canadians. Between the 24th of May and Labor Day the park is visited by about two million people (seventy per cent are Americans), who spend each year about a quarter of a million dollars on—as the folder says—“Fun Galore on the Canadian Shore.” It is the most popular playground for the 800,000 citizens of Buffalo.

The fun includes a quarter-mile bathing beach; a midway; a Lake Erie-going excursion boat, the Canadiana; a free picnic grove; a breeze-cooled, quarter-million-dollar ballroom; and just about everything else for a razzle-dazzle holiday. As a lost boy told the

nurse in the first-aid station, where he waited to be claimed by his family, “My two brothers are having a lot more fun than I am.”

Crystal Beach has been providing a lot of fun for a long time, and not only for youngsters. Last year a peppery eighty-year-old woman had to be helped down from the merry-go-round. She’d got a leg up on one of the horses without help but got stuck when dismounting. Another time a middle-aged Buffalo citizen rode the roller coaster all day, making the trip one hundred and twenty-seven times before he came back to earth. Then, smiling as if he had discharged some old compulsion, he shuffled off to Buffalo.

Officially, Crystal Beach is operated by the Crystal Beach Company Limited, under the

direction of J. T. Mitchell, manager; J. H. Nagel, park superintendent; and Edward G. Hall and George Hall Jr. But the Crystal Beach Transit Co. Inc., of Buffalo (President George Hall Sr.. Vice-president and treasurer Charles Laube, Secretary Charles Diebold Jr., and General Manager F. L. Hall) holds a large interest and owns the steamship Canadiana.

General Manager Fillmore Hall is a lean, energetic man of forty-three who paces around quoting phrases that sound like radio plugs. “The people run Crystal Beach,” he says. “If they don’t like it they won’t come back. The park is brushed and flushed every night. The year before last we spent fifty thousand dollars on a solar bath house. In the last six years we spent three quarters of a million to make our midway one of the best in the world.”

Crystal Beach midway offers a versatile collection of devices to fulfill Joe Citizen’s peculiar appetite to be jiggled, dropped, rotated, swiveled, looped and otherwise scared out of his pants, including two roller coasters.

Crystal Beach has always offered something special in roller coasters. The Cyclone coaster, predecessor of the current Comet coaster, was so special that the management is still trying to live it down. The cars came down from the drop-off at such a steep angle and made such a sharp turn at the bottom that people looked back upon the experience the way they would an appendectomy. Oddly, they came back for more. But steel tends to crystallize under constant heavy pounding and park officials never drew a comfortable breath until the coaster was torn down in 1947 and the streamlined Comet, one of the biggest coasters in the world, built in its place at a cost of more than two hundred thousand dollars. The Comet averages fifty-five miles an hour over nearly a mile of track. But, in spite of its breath-taking speed, it’s as safe as sitting at home in a lukewarm bath. The Comet, like all roller coasters, rides on a steel runway with its multiple wheels locked on the tracks in somewhat the same way that ball bearings are locked in their race. To overcome crystallization the bottom of each drop is cushioned with a

laminated bed of B. C. fir planks.

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With fireworks and furious rides, picnics and parades, a giant amusement park on Lake Erie sells ready-made fun to two million people a year. A big part of the job at Crystal Beach is keeping customers from killing themselves for laughs

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The ideal ride is one that scares the passengers just enough without scaring them away, like the Rock-O-Plane, a huge affair like a rimless wheel with enclosed passenger - carrying baskets swinging at the end of each spoke, and the Moon Rocket, a circular train of tube-shaped cars racing around a spinning disc.

The important thing is to keep a ride busy. As long as people see others going on they’ll give it a try. Rack in 1934 a tipsy passenger was killed when he stood up in the old Cyclone coaster and fell out at one of the turns. People were lined up fifteen minutes later waiting to get on.

Another reason the rides must be kept busy is that the average one costs eighteen thousand dollars just to put there. The rides at Crystal Reach are located so that there’s a popular attraction in every part of the park. Women and children usually head for the merry-go-round, which remains the most faithful money - earner in all parks; but everyone eventually finds the roller coaster (two hundred and sixty-five thousand people rode the Comet last year).

Fill Hall is always on the lookout for special attractions. He brought to the park a motordrome, an exhibition of water skiing, the bathing beauty finals for New York State, and engaged Fifi, who admits to being one of Canada’s best clowns, to wander around the grounds whipping up a carnival spirit and staging impromptu acts for the crowds.

Although Crystal Reach is a traditional spot for a guy to take his girl, the park is chaperoned closely. Nobody is allowed to wander through the park

in a bathing suit unless it’s covered by a sweater or jacket; men can’t walk around with their shirts undone. People wearing shorts are not permitted on the dance floor. Only one person is allowed on a blanket at the beach.

“The park is run for good clean fun,” Fill Hall says. “We don’t tolerate any gyp games, peep shows, burlesque shows, alcoholic drinks, pitchmen, sucker games, side shows or gambling.”

The park is a popular spot for family outings and industrial picnics and it’s something close to Utopia for kids, who come by the thousands.

“Pve seen the Canadiana carrying j a crowd of three thousand on an afternoon trip,” said Hall, “and there wouldn’t be fifty men on board. All j mothers, aunts and children.”

A lot of fights used to start at I Crystal Reach over girls who had J dated too many guys in Ruffalo and j ran into them all at once on the Canadian side. Rut that’s changed since Crystal Reach got its own police force, | under an ex-provincial policeman, Wilj liam Diamond, a sharp-featured baldj ing man who looks like a lean President j Truman. In spite of the fact that ! Crystal Reach is a port of entry and gets a metropolitan crowd from big j U. S. cities, trouble nowadays is rare. The buffalo police give full co-operation, and if any suspicious-looking characters head that way they give the Crystal Reach force a tip-off.

The night before I was there Diamond had turned a youth over to the town police for setting off a giant firecracker in the fish-and-chip stand, and the day before he had been hit with an uncooked egg. “It was a fresh one,” he said. Crystal Reach is run on a park-wide ticket system. The standard ticket,

which can be bought at any of the twenty-eight cashiers’ booths, costs six cents. A ride on the Comet costs five tickets and a ride on the Moon Rocket or a cup of coffee costs two tickets. A special book of Kiddieland tickets costs fifty cents and entitles a child to go on each of the nine Kiddieland rides.

The Pinkerton Detective Agency services the park and watches for any financial fast work. All the games at Crystal Beach are games of skill in which the public throws something or in some way participates. There are no wheels. Even so, it would be possible to rig a game so that few people would win anything. Fill Hall pops up regularly to check such things as whether hoops are big enough to fit over their targets.

Hiring help is one of the main headaches at Crystal Beach. Many of the two hundred employees are reliable skilled permanent help, such as the men who check the Comet each morning, walking almost a mile up and down the steep steel hills to make sure all units are in proper alignment. But about half the staff is made up of drifters who follow carnivals, circuses or any other attraction where they can work for a few days and get a little money. Then they get careless about turning up, or even standing up. Any employee showing signs of drink at Crystal Beach is fired on the spot, but it often leaves the management scurrying around at the last minute for someone to operate a ride.

The biggest concern of park operators is not the people who work there, but the people who come there for fun. A big crowd can get out of hand quickly. One day twenty-five thousand people who had come over from Buffalo decided, for some reason, to take the same boat back and started shoving along the dock. Hoses had to be turned on them to keep them from shoving one another into the water.

Another time, when Artie Shaw ordered his band to pack its instruments halfway through a dance because the park had docked him for being two hours late, the dancers began to gang up on him; when park officials intervened, the crowd turned on them, smashed windows and put on a minor riot.

Park men say a crowd is influenced by the weather. The ideal weather is a clear day of seventy-five to eighty degrees, with not too much humidity. On a rainy day people get in a touchy mood and loudspeakers in the dance hall are turned on with cheerful music.

Another concern of park officials is a tendency of people on holiday to try to kill themselves. Warn them that it’s dangerous to stand up in a ride, and they promptly do it; roller coasters have special devices to make standing up almost impossible.

Sometimes people get surprisingly ingenious in the way they cause accidents. A man once playfully picked upan eighteen-year old girl, dropped her on the pavement, broke two of her ribs. He had to pay the hospital bill, plus ten dollars and costs in court. He didn’t even know her.

The park tries to keep one step ahead of these suicidal impulses by providing the more obvious safeguards. No bottled drinks are allowed on the grounds; all drinks are sold in paper cups. Bottles get kicked around and broken, or tjiey may be thrown off the roller coaster.

Common injuries are brush burns. In some of the fun houses people shoot down a wood slide on their seats. Men are well protected by their trousers, but a woman often finds herself riding along on nothing but herself. And it’s an injury she hesitates to take to the

first-aid station. Sunburn always keeps the first-aid people busy; in a season there’s usually a hundred cases so bad that the patients suffer shock.

Few insurance companies will underwrite amusement parks because experience has shown that the public can hardly wait to sue them. One time a boy waiting to get on the Kiddieland whip in Crystal Beach fell so that one of the cars went over his little finger. The cars are light and it was found that the damage was slight, but the manager of Kiddieland insisted that the boy be taken to a doctor and X-rays taken. The doctor reported that the hand had received only minor injuries. The following winter the manager got a letter from a Buffalo lawyer, stating that he was filing a claim for lifetime injury to the boy’s right hand. The doctor who had taken the X-rays checked his records and told the lawyer to go ahead and sue. It was the left hand the car had run over.

If a woman gets a bit of grease on her dress she wants a new one. “It’s always the first time she’s worn it,” said George Hall. “We always offer to clean it, but she always wants a new dress.”

But, for all the headaches that go with an amusement park, working at Crystal Beach has for its staff a peculiar fascination that leaves them a bit sad when the captain of the Canadiana takes his traditional LaborDay stroll through the park, watches the fireworks, returns to his boat and casts off on his last trip while a band plays Auld Lang Syne.

The feeling was expressed by Mrs. Caroline Soper, from Devonshire, who has been at Crystal Beach for thirtythree years and who now takes tickets in the busiest spot in the park, near the Comet coaster. She says that each year she can hardly wait for spring to come around again and the beginning of activity around Crystal Beach.

“Ah like to get back,” she told me. “Ah reely doo.” if