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Wednesday, May 18, 2011

The thrill is gone

Of all the amusement parks in the New York area, the Palisades Park, located near the George Washington Bridge, was my favorite. To get there from Hoboken, I took the No. 22 Public Service Bus from the corner of 14th and Washington Street. The bus meandered through Weehawken, Gutenberg, North Bergen, and Cliffside Park, taking at least an hour and a half to reach its destination. On hot, muggy days, this ride was miserable. Exhaust fumes would fill the bus as it made innumerable stops along the way. Once you entered the park, you forgot about the long journey.

Joe Finnerty

Palisades Park featured a magnificent swimming pool. A sandy beach area bordered the shallow end. On opening day in 1942, I fell asleep there and awoke, hours later, badly sunburned, fried red. My long history of skin cancer probably began with this day’s exposure.

At the deep end of the pool, water flowed down a wall painted to resemble a mountain waterfall. Here, divers could choose from a number of boards, which varied in spring and elevation. The highest one stood about ten feet high. The first time I jumped off, it seemed more like a hundred.
My brother took me to this pool often. He could dive beautifully. His repertoire included swan dives, back dives, inward dives, jack knives, and a half-gainer, his best. He would spring straight up off the end of that ten-foot board, arching his back as if he was going to do a swan dive, but then he would twist a half turn, and pierce the water perfectly, his pointed toes seemingly glued together. He made me feel proud but envious, as my diving skill never came close to matching his.

My favorite ride, The Virginia Reel, featured an open, circular car in which as many as eight riders could sit. Each person would grip the peripheral handrail to keep from spinning off the seat. A cable pulled the car up a track to the top of the ride where it entered a building through swinging doors. At that point, the car began its descent, spinning clockwise and pitching over at an angle of ten or twenty degrees, then suddenly reversing both direction and rotation. The car would swerve, reeling, back and forth six or eight times before hurtling out at the bottom through another pair of swinging doors. The enclosed surrounding helped to magnify the riders screams and yells of delight and fright.

One day an Orthodox Jewish man, his son and daughter sat in the car with my brother and me. As the car spun, the man lost his grip, slid off the seat and wound up sitting in the center pit on top of our feet. "Get up, papa!" implored his kids. "I can't!" He was laughing. The man was having the ride of his life, enjoying his misfortune, but his kids were embarrassed. My brother and I howled with joy.

The Fun House, with its crooked floors, crazy mirrors, and room mazes, made for great entertainment. Teenagers loved this place as much as the Tunnel of Love, and for the same reason. Kissing abounded within its crooked walls.

The roller coaster was exciting to ride, never more so than the day Jimmy Kennedy and I rode together, seated in the first car. When we reached the bottom of the first incline the hold-down bar across our laps accidentally unlatched, causing us to pitch forward. We were lucky not to have fallen out.

Candied red apples, bumper cars, a shooting gallery, Palisades Park had it all and it always remained my favorite venue, but it did not enjoy a monopoly. There were other amusement parks at Rye Beach, Rockaway Beach, and of course, Coney Island.

In 1943, Red Burke, Eddie Anderson and Jimmy Kennedy joined with me to spend an entire day at Coney Island. Its Steeplechase Park featured wooden horses on which patrons could ride around an elevated track. The feature attraction was the famous Parachute Drop, brought in from the World’s Fair of 1939. Riders were lifted up to the top of the structure, then allowed to free-fall for a short distance until the parachute swelled out to slow their descent. It made my heart skip a beat the first time I dropped from the sky.

Steeplechase Park was also famous for its Fun House. One of its features included an array of spinning barrels you could walk through if you could manage to keep your balance. A slide carried riders on protective mats down to a flat surface where six or eight rotating wheels sent them spinning first in one direction and then the other. On this particular day, I forgot to take an orange out of my pocket beforehand. It squashed during the ride and left me icky-sticky for the rest of the day.

A clown, equipped with an electric prod, would zap people occasionally. By threatening to prod them, he would maneuver girls to stand over a small hole in the floor. He would then direct an air jet from below, blowing their skirts up, amid squeals and laughter.

Some movies have included scenes of Steeplechase Park, including one made in 1937 called, A Damsel in Distress. It featured Fred Astaire, George Burns and Gracie Allen. They tap danced through a spinning barrel before sliding onto the rotating disks. From my experience, they could have squeezed more fun out of the finale had they thought to place a few oranges in their pockets.

Palisades Park is no more, Coney Island still exists, but it is far less amusing.

Teen-age girls do not wear dresses anymore and the clown left town. So did I.

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