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Pick of the Week: Memories recalls heyday of local amusement parks

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by Sue Todd

Special Products Editor

Do you remember when Geauga Lake Park was Geauga Lake Park the first time and you could watch Sea Worlds water-skiing shows from the lakeshore? Did your parents or grandparents tell you stories of the notorious sideshows at Luna Park? Were you there during the summer of 1969, when Euclid Beach Park opened for its final season?

If you have fond memories of childhood trips to Cleveland-area amusement parks or even if you dont, but you are interested in local history, then Cleveland Amusement Park Memories (Gray & Company, Publishers; $19.95 in softcover) is for you.

A fascinating look back at the heyday of Northeast Ohios amusement park culture, Wadsworth residents David and Diane Francis Memories recalls the sights, sounds and smells of Euclid Beach, Luna Park, Geauga Lake, Puritas Springs, Lincoln Park, Willoughbeach Park, Orchard Lake Park, Gordon Gardens, White City, Memphis Kiddie Park, Geneva-on-the-Lake and Cleveland Zoo Kiddie Park. The book includes photos, anecdotes and historical facts related to each parks rise and fall, from the height of the amusement park craze in the early 1900s (when Ohio alone was home to 54 parks), through the trials and tribulations of several wars and the Great Depression, to Cedar Fairs purchase of Six Flags Worlds of Adventure, returning it and the former Sea World to its roots as Geauga Lake.

Each chapter (or subchapter, in the case of the smaller parks) of Memories covers the origins of one of the parks; how it fared throughout financial crises, Prohibition, roller-coaster accidents and war-related shortages; and the circumstances of its downfall and how it survived, if it did. Some of the stories, such as those of annual Emancipation Day festivities at Puritas Springs or of some parks practice of declaring their ballrooms and roller rinks to be private clubs to avoid admitting non-white patrons, examine the role of amusement parks in desegregation issues.

I was intrigued by comparisons between the squeaky-clean Euclid Beach and the slightly risque Luna Park, the photos of the eye-catching and often ingeniously space-saving layouts and the many fascinating facts and coincidences the authors revealed.

For example, as Euclid Beach Park was limping sadly through its last couple of seasons, developer Dominic Visconsi made an option agreement with the owners (the Humphrey family) and planned to convert the land into high-rise residential housing. The Great American Racing Derby carousel went to Cedar Point and was renamed Cedar Downs, while several other rides were moved to Geauga Lake and a new, smaller park operated by the Humphreys from 1978 to 1982: Shady Lake Park in Streetsboro.

Geauga Lake Park originally was a picnic and fishing area. It metamorphosed into a fancy summer resort, the site for Clevelands National League baseball teams Sunday games, the home of a floating dance hall and a lakeside ballroom before opening in 1925 as an amusement park offering free admission to everything from sports fields to dances to the countrys largest shooting gallery. A hill in the parks $50,000 roller coaster served as the entrance arch, and Johnny Weissmulller set one of his 67 world swimming records in the parks Olympic-sized pool. Geauga Lake even hosted full-scale opera performances in 1934, but the parks owners soon discovered touring big bands and country acts were bigger draws for the summer crowds.

Luna Park and White City, both patterned after parks on New Yorks Coney Island, each acquired a version of a rather bizarre attraction that drew both criticism and praise baby incubator exhibits. In these exhibits, premature babies in climate-controlled incubators were on display for a small fee. Despite complaints that the babies were being exploited, the exhibit provided free up-to-date medical care for the babies, funded completely by admission fees. Dr. Martin Couney, whose operations stretched from White City to Atlantic City, managed to save the lives of 6,500 premature infants through his exhibits.

Fortunately, the White City exhibit was unoccupied May 25, 1906, when a tar fire inside a boat ride tunnel wiped out the entire park except its Scenic Railway ride. Ironically, Coney Islands Dreamland Park, the inspiration for White City, was destroyed May 27, 1911, also by fire a tar fire inside a boat ride tunnel.

Although most of these parks are gone, replaced by housing developments, commercial properties or empty land only Geauga Lake, Memphis Kiddie Park and Geneva-on-the-Lakes 18-ride Erieview park remain in operation the warm memories of childhood fun, first dates and family outings can last a lifetime. Cleveland Amusement Park Memories, and with the Francis other works, Cedar Point: Queen of American Watering Places, Ohios Amusement Parks, The Golden Age of Roller Coasters, and Chippewa Lake Park, both reminisce with us and teach us things we never knew about these ghosts of summers past.

Cleveland Amusement Park Memories is available at local bookstores and online.

E-mail: stodd@recordpub.net

Phone: 330-688-0088 ext. 3153

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