Here’s a great idea: Let’s build a theme park based on American history, so the kids aren’t just having fun, they’re learning stuff too!
(‘Cause everyone knows that kids secretly go to theme parks to learn.)
Sounds like a non-starter, doesn’t it? It doesn’t sound like something out of the Walt Disney playbook; it sounds like something your overeager seventh-grade social studies teacher might cook up.
Maybe that explains why neither my dad nor my aunt has any memory tracks related to this week’s calendar entry.
Freedomland U.S.A. (I’m mainly cribbing from the insanely thorough Wikipedia entry for my info) was a theme park in the Bronx whose footprint roughly resembled that of the contiguous United States.
Freedomland wasn’t strictly educational, per se: You wouldn’t get a lecture from an animatronic Paul Revere.
But, the park trod a more informational path than that traveled by Mickey and Minnie Mouse. Different parts of the park were designed to mimic different periods and places in America’s past.
So you weren’t just shooting a mock rifle when you sat down in the shooting gallery. You were shooting in the Cavalry Rifles on the Great Plains during the 19th century.
(I’m not sure what you were supposed to be shooting. Not Native Americans, I hope, nor buffalo either. Prairie dogs, maybe?)
And you weren’t just taking a boat ride when you visited the California part of the park; you were following in the footsteps of 19th-century Western fur trappers.
You get the picture. Again, the Wiki entry will give you a thorough idea of what else was on offer. So will this website maintained by Long Islander Rob Friedman, which includes photos, sound recordings and other memories related to Freedomland.
This advertising brochure from 1962 also gives you some idea of the scope of Freedomland: “…Freedomland is the U.S.A. … eight miles of navigable waterways and lakes, 10,000 beautiful trees … Freedomland cost more than $65,000,000 to build. No effort has been spared in creating for you — with amazing attention to detail — the pride of America’s past, the pulse of the present, and glimpses of the fabulous future.”
About that “fabulous future” part: Of course, this being the early ’60s, there was a “Satellite City” area in the park, complete with a simulated rocket ride and a ride in futuristic mini-cars. I bet those rides would be a trip to take now.
Alas, I must report that, here in Pennsylvania, the futuristic mini-car has not yet made much of an inroad into the popularity of the extended-cab pickup truck.
The park that gave us the futuristic mini-cars never caught on, either. Despite getting an opening-night promo from no less than Ed Sullivan, Freedomland was deep in debt by the end of its second season.
This New York Times blog post lists some of the park’s problems, including a fire during construction; graft demanded by city officials; and a roster of rides that didn’t offer young people the carnival-style excitement they expected.
Freedomland offered rides on burros and in antique automobiles … but roller coasters and bumper cars, not so much.
For the 1962 season, the park’s operators downplayed the historic American theme, adding more conventional rides. Which, in turn, led to a lawsuit from at least one original sponsor, the Benjamin Moore paint company, which sought to cancel its lease because the park had deviated from its original concept.
This particular American dream cratered after just five seasons. The park closed in September 1964, citing competition from the 1964-65 World’s Fair in Flushing. (I’ve written about that fair in this space before.)
The land was quickly sold off and the rides torn down; a huge cooperative housing development occupies the property now.
Neither my dad nor my aunt remembers going there, or why it would be written on my grandfather’s calendar.
My dad’s only guess is that he might have gone to see a concert at the Moon Bowl, a venue for performances located in the Satellite City area.
Quite a few well-known musicians played there. Duke Ellington played the Moon Bowl almost exactly a year before my dad went. And a Stan Kenton performance just a few weeks before my dad went has been issued on CD. I haven’t been able to find out who might have been playing there on Aug. 18, 1962, though.
Today, the story of Freedomland offers a different kind of history lesson.
It’s an education in what happens when you offer the public something it doesn’t really want, no matter how lavishly you spend, how extensively you plan and how many parking spaces you create.