Friday, February 08, 2008

So Long, Conneaut Lake Park

My apologies to my regular on-line readers (both of you), but after resurrecting the old column about the park, I couldn't resist revisiting the topic for the newspaper column. A bit redundant, I know, but the completist in me requires that the new column be included here.

(News-Herald, February 7) When the Dreamland Ballroom at Conneaut Lake Park burned down last week, stored in the maintenance department underneath it were most of the major mechanicals for the remaining rides. The park has perched for years on the brink of oblivion, and I suppose one more miraculous escape is possible. But it seems more likely that this is the final kiss of ignominious death for the park.

The ballroom itself was actually the second in the park’s history; the first ballroom burned down in 1908 and the Dreamland Ballroom was opened in the 1909 season. The park, like Cedar Point, Waldameer, and Venangoland’s own Monarch Park, was built as a destination park, set up by a transit company as a way to sell train tickets.

Like most grown-ups in the region, I have fond memories of the park. In the eighties, I played in a Dixieland band that performed on the midway every summer Saturday night. The park paid us a modest stipend supplemented by free food during our supper break. (Management eventually wised up—Bob and Fred Frye were in the band and for what the Frye boys could eat in an hour, the park could have hired the entire Philadelphia Symphony for a week.) It was a great job; I don’t think any other job allows you to see so many people, particularly little tiny people, dance around just because they feel happy.

The food was fairly decent park food, with better than average fries. The rides weren’t eye-poppingly enormous, but made up for it with a certain dangerous edge. Was there ever a time when riders did not suspect that the Blue Streak or the Wild Mouse might actually collapse at any moment?

My ex-wife’s family used to take a yearly vacation by renting a cottage at the lake. Some of my best CLP memories are from those times; in the evening we would just stroll up to the park and wander about (eat some fries), play some games (eat some fries), and just watch people (and eat some fries). The park, at its best, was like a fireman’s fair that stayed open all summer.

I didn’t see the inside of the ballroom often—it wasn’t in use a great deal, and in some ways I think that saved it from being “modernized” too much.

For those of you still trying to remember where it was, here are the directions. As you walked up the midway, toward the lake, you eventually got to the last big intersection before the lakefront street itself. On your right, the fun house, and ahead on the right, the mini golf course. Ahead on your left, some sort of store or game on the corner, and on your near left, in the corner of the building, the entrance to the ballroom.

The ballroom was the entire upstairs of that building. In its prime it was advertised as the “largest uninterrupted ballroom between New York City and Chicago.” It was a big space with lots of arches, wrapped all around with porch space. In the thirties virtually every band that mattered played there.

The Park was eventually sold by its longtime owners. Big name parks were supersizing, adding new massive rides every year. New owners made the ludicrous choice to join the wave; they put up fences around the park and made everyone pay to come inside. They ripped out the cheesy old rides and replaced them with fewer cheesy new ones. It didn’t help.

For a while there were rumors that some Big Time Amusement Park People were buying the place. It also took a swing at becoming a great outdoor concert venue, booking acts like Steppenwolf and Bob Dylan, but there is an inherent problem with any NW PA business plan that uses the phrase “outdoor concert.” The park passed through a series of ownership deals involving some people who really loved the park and some people with, well, allegedly very colorful financial backgrounds.

The last time I set foot in the park was 2000. By then the place was just a sad shadow of its former self, and I’ve never been able to bring myself to go back. I suspect there are many folks who aren’t even sure they know how many of the last few summers the park has actually been open. But still—as long as the pieces and the real estate were still there, there was a lingering chance that somehow the park might be resurrected.

But like many slices of yesterday, the park had already surrendered a big chunk of its heart and soul. Sometimes you can go through a rough patch and come out the other side. Unfortunately, you can also just run out of time and money and luck.


Anonymous said...

I agree .. my family still rents a cottage every summer at the lake and we would always head over to the park once a week to ride rides. Many childhood memories come from that park. But over the years its been a combination of me getting older and the park going downhill, that I have lost interest in the park. My family would still send money to help revitilize it, but I think this last fire should be the final straw for the park. As much as I loved it and have memories of it ... sometimes you just have to let it go.

Inmate1972 said...

I grew up in Michigan but father who is from that area always made a point of taking em to the ask whenever we were in town. I can still remember the ballroom and sliding around the floor in socks one early summer evening. I remember the helicopter rides you could take over the park as well. It's so sad to see it go, like everything else...

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