This week, we return to our intermittent miniseries on the surprising hotspot of theme park activity, the Adirondacks. I’m going to tell you the story of a legacy. In its abandonment, the park wasn’t much to look at. you might think of a famous quote: “she doesn’t look like much, but she’s got it where it counts, kid.” In its heyday, though, the park was magical, full of life and community, and it still touches people’s hearts today. This week, we’re talking about Gaslight Village, in Lake George, NY.
Podcast cover background photo is by 4045 on freepik.com. Image of the Opera House is from the collection of Bob Carroll and used with permission. Theme music is from “Aerobatics in Slow Motion” by TeknoAXE. Incidental music includes “Olde Timey” and “Plucky Daisy” by Kevin Macleod / incompetech.com. “The Ballad of Gaslight Village and Frontier Town” by Brian Dorn, Addison Rice, and Jahnavi Newsom (aka The Love Sprockets), used with permission. Additional audio clips are from the collection of Bob Carroll’s Gaslight Village memorabilia and are used with permission. All are available in full on his YouTube page, and include a clip of Warren Boden, the Gaslight Village commercial jingle, audience “boos” from a mellerdrama, and part of the Heckler sketch.
Well, it’s been some time since we were last in the Adirondacks, but we’re back. You might remember my episodes on Magic Forest (still operational, with some changes) and Time Town (long gone) back in the single digit episodes of TAC. Well, here we are, all the way in episode 25, back again in upstate NY, back in Lake George, this time to talk about a shining gem of the past. Let’s go back to a time of cool summer nights, brightly lit rides glowing in the twilight, music spilling out from the speakers and the shows at the Opera House. Gaslight Village, yesterday’s fun today.
To start today’s story, you need to know about the man behind it all: Charles R. Wood, dubbed by the IAAPA (the International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions) as the “grandfather of the American theme park”. Born in 1914, Charles was an entrepreneur who made his own opportunities.
He started out his investments at a young age – he bought two houses at the age of thirteen, unthinkable and impossible in today’s world a century later. As he became an adult, he worked in aviation as an aircraft technician throughout World War II.
After the war, it was an article in Reader’s Digest, of all things, that planted the seeds for his future in the amusement industry. See, Charles read about the Knotts and their berry farm over in California. An article in Reader’s Digest led him to Southern California to see Knott’s Berry Farm. “I fell in love with what he had done,” says Charley. “Mr. Knott had created the boysenberry, and Mrs. Knott cooked chicken and made boysenberry pie. People would swarm this place. Mr. Knott built a chapel and a volcano to entertain people while they waited for the dinner. He had started an amusement park. I came back full of beans and wanted to get into the amusement business.”
The story goes that Wood visited Albany, NY after seeing an ad for a skating rink for sale. The rink deal fell through, but he saw an ad locally for some land about 60 miles north, up in Lake George. When he asked for directions, he was told to take Route 9 north. As he later said, “It was just so pretty,” says Charley. “And I could just see nothing but opportunities.” It was a fateful trip.
Some consider Wood the pioneer of the tourism concept in Lake George. He started by purchasing property near Schroon Lake (30 minutes north of Lake George) and developed a resort there called Arrowhead Lodge. Then came a second property. Originally called Erlowest, it was a Queen Anne-style stone castle that Wood developed into Holiday House, right on Bolton Road in Lake George, now called Sun Castle. After years of development with these two summer resorts, Wood saw an opportunity. He’d realized something important about his audience – they were looking for more than just summer basics like tennis and boating. The resort wasn’t fulfilling enough for the guests. They were looking for amusements.
In 1954, then, a year before Disneyland opened, Charles Wood invested $75,000 in five acres of land off Route 9 between Lake George and Glen Falls. It was called Storytown USA, themed after Mother Goose stories, and is generally considered one of the first true theme parks in the US.
We’ll get into the history of Storytown in another episode, but without a doubt, Storytown was a success. Guests came in droves, and one quote from Wood remembering opening day illustrated the fervor: “When we tried to count the money it was blowing all over the place.” Wood invested the profits right back into the park. His success with Storytown paved the way for Wood’s future endeavors and future successes, including the topic of today’s episode, Gaslight Village.
Pottersville and the First Gaslight Village
In the tales of Gaslight Village, it’s an under-reported fact that Gaslight Village in Lake George was not actually the first Gaslight Village. Instead, the park had its beginnings in the hamlet of Pottersville NY, some 28 miles north of Lake George. From the 1870s through the 1960s, the small town hosted a variety of amusements drawing thousands of people, due to its proximity to the transportation of the time. These were things ranging from religious fairs in the early years, to dance halls, roller rinks, circus acts, and finally, the precursor to Gaslight Village. Specifically, by 1950, the town was promoting itself as “the home of Gaslight Village” in newspaper advertisements.
According to a 2007 retrospective article by Andy Flynn, the local Chestertown paper, “The Summer Sentinel”, reported on the opening day of the original Gaslight Village: “June 30, 1950 with the headline, “Gaslight Village, Gay ’90’s Spectacle, Opens this Evening.” ” They described the opening, and noted that the famed creative genius Arto Monaco had a hand in the design of Gaslight Village.
Now, not to get too much into a second tangent, but we should talk about Arto Monaco briefly before we move on. I’ll talk more about him when I get into the other area theme parks he was better known for. But he was an important guy – a Hollywood designer, working for Warner Brothers and MGM and Walt Disney. He made toys for companies like Mattel, and designed theme parks, lots of theme parks. He’s best known for his work on Storytown and The Land of Makebelieve, but he had his hands in many different parks in one way or another, including, as it turns out, Gaslight Village.
A July 1950 article clearly notes that the park was designed by Arto Monaco. Additionally, a sketch is floating around with an original layout and concept for Gaslight Village, attributed to Monaco, with his trademark designs – perfect, charming, and a little askew at the same time. And the original buildings, too, bear his aesthetic.
Back to the amusement park. Milt Selleck was the man behind the original Gaslight Village, owner of the nearby Glen Manor hotel for 5 years prior to opening the new amusement park. It was located at a resort called Under the Maples, which was later converted to a campground called Smoke Rise. Described by the paper at the time: “a movie set quality pervades the place, and you find yourself transported to an old village square complete with a candy shoppe, village store, firehouse, and jail.” There was an outdoor music hall with live entertainment, a carnival for children, and a miniature train called The Adirondack Limited. The park served all kinds of food and drink, including cocktails and steins of beer.
There was also, of course, a carousel. The 2007 retrospective calls it “Clint Swan’s 1903 merry-go-round from Kansas”. The July 1950 article describes it thusly: “vintage of 1890, complete with prancing steeds powered by steam, no less.” The train and the carousel were both set on terraces above the road to attract the eye to the park, between which led a wide gravel-paved road.
Another article from June 1950 goes into greater depth, describing much that would be familiar to any fan of the later version of the park: keystone cops, photo studios offering old-fashioned tintypes, a penny arcade, museum, dueling pianos, a barbershop quartet, and of course, a magician. The evening program began with the “Lamplighter’s Serenade”, where the gas lights around the village square were illuminated, followed by a “Gaslight Waltz” routine and then an evening play.
The July 1950 article concludes by saying that the park is “too good to miss!”
Despite this delightful description, the Pottersville Gaslight Village reportedly lasted only a single season. That summer was apparently wet and cool, and that was a death knell for a park relying on primarily outdoor entertainment. Just over a year after its glowing report on the park’s opening, the Summer Sentinel published another article about the park, calling it a ghost town. Quote: “Today the square, a false facade in the Hollywood style, stands grey and mournful behind Glen Manor. Only the entrance, visible from Route 9, still glistens, but even that is neglected, forsaken in the greenery creeping up its very sides.”
One person has posted images of this place to a historical FB group, from a grandparents’ album, and they’re available on Facebook. In his description, the photos are noted as dating from 1949, which does conflict a bit with the information given in the paper articles. Perhaps they were from prior to the park’s opening? Nonetheless, the park didn’t survive for long in Pottersville by any account.
As the Adirondack Almanack describes in a 2009 blog post, Charley Wood purchased the Pottersville Gaslight Village “kit and kaboodle” in 1958, seven years after its reported abandonment. He would’ve been very familiar with the original park – not only was he friends and business associates with designer Arto Monaco, but he would’ve driven past Gaslight Village in Pottersville as he drove to his Arrowhead Lodge on Schroon Lake property. How exactly the buildings made it the 28 miles south isn’t quite clear, but move they did, to their more familiar location: Lake George.
Preparing the Site for Gaslight Village in Lake George, NY
By the time Gaslight Village officially opened in Lake George in 1959, Charles Wood had reportedly invested over half a million dollars in the park. Not only was there the cost of moving property from Pottersville. No, Charles Wood actually had to move a small mountain.
The location of Gaslight Village in Lake George was on the site of the former Delaware and Hudson (D&H) Railway’s Freight House, where the D&H terminated and trains turned around on the “balloon track”. Charles Wood purchased the former railroad property some time in 1958. On the site was also a sawmill with a huge sawdust mountain. Under Wood’s direction, the sawmill was moved. The sawdust pile and large hill or mountain on the south side of the property were taken down with heavy machinery, finally lending a lake view to the now-level site. A May 1959 article describes it thusly: “the visitor sees only beauty where unsightly products of early industry had been before. Moving the hill revealed the unforgettable beauty of Lake George.” Now, then, Wood had his blank canvas for building his newest theme park: Gaslight Village.
Gaslight Village: Opening Day, 1959
It was, from the outset, an adult-oriented amusement park.
Wood’s first theme park, Storytown USA and Ghost Town, had already been opened for five years. This park predated even Disneyland (by a year) and was themed around Mother Goose rhymes, as I’ve already mentioned. Storytown, though, as the theme might suggest, was aimed at younger children, and was open for the earlier hours of the day, closing by 5. Gaslight Village at its heart was the complement to Storytown, aimed at adults and older children, open after noon through the late evening.
The earliest press release I could find is from a July 1959 “Queensbury Hotel & Motor Inn News”, posted on the invaluable Gaslight Village Lake George NY Facebook page. The park was described as combining “the fun of an amusement park, the entertainment of stage and screen, the enjoyment of participating [in] activities, the educational value of a museum, and all the romance of the gay 90’s in an authentically recreated setting”.
I suppose I’ve breezed past it enough times that we ought to have a brief discussion on the term “Gay Nineties”, since it’s the park’s theme. Obviously this term has a bit of a different conotation nowadays (yes, there’s a gay bar by this name in Minneapolis now in 2019). The term in its historical definition was coined in the 1920s and 1930s to describe the decade of the 1890s, with people at the time longing for a comfortable past in the midst of the Great Depression. In the UK, the decade is referred to as the “Naughty Nineties”.
It was a time thought of as decadent, full of scandals, as well as the beginning of the suffragette movement. It was a time when Oscar Wilde was at the height of popularity.
Despite the plight of the massive lower class, and the actual poor economy of the decade, including the 1893 panic and the depression that set in for most of the decade, popular culture remembers the period for its pleasant aspects. It’s remembered for the icons of a new age in steam-driven machines, the 1893 invention of the Ferris wheel, nickelodeon movies, vaudeville, and of course, glimmering gas lighting.
(Gaslights were initially introduced in the 1810s, but did not reach widespread use until the mid-1850s or later. The invention of the “gas mantle” in 1891 and commercial production of the same in 1892 are likely the reasons behind our association of gaslight and this era, as the mantle was rapidly adopted, remaining an important part of street lighting until the widespread adoption of electric lights in the early 1900s.)
Other more broad names for the same gay nineties era are the Victorian era (1837-1901), the Gilded Age (1870s through 1900), and the Belle Epoque (1871-1914).
Summer 1959 at Gaslight Village
Given all this, then, we can move back to Gaslight Village with a better sense of historical context.
The catchphrase? Yesterday’s fun today.
The park in its initial conception, seen in the Pottersville version and in the Arto Monaco sketch, was solely about the village aspect, without any rides. Blueprints reportedly called for the eponymous gaslights every 40 feet along the park streets. There were horse-drawn trolleys and horse and buggy rides for guests to experience, and a vintage double-decker bus. A 1912 steam locomotive was reportedly shipped from Louisiana up to the park via Chicago and then to Glens Falls.
The 1959 version of the park had a 1900 drug store, reportedly purchased complete with interior furnishings, cabinetry, and old pharmaceuticals. Then there was a Bicycle Shop, featuring over 30 bicycles, some as old as 1867. Reportedly, the shop contained an example of almost every type of bicycle to date, “from the first glider […] to the old high-wheelers”. Many of these bicycles were purchased from the Tracy Killiam transportation collection in 1958, previously on display in Sandy Creek NY, 200 miles due west.
There was a Musical Museum, featuring “many rare and priceless music-making devices of the old days”, such as lap organs and melodians from the 1830s, as well as an 1891 Edison home phonograph. Something called The Ladies Emporium featured the “only known matching collection of fashion dolls”. These were not paper dolls or toy dolls. They were actually more than 50 life-sized figurines, displaying clothes of the decade, “showing what Fifth Avenue grand dames wore in the time of our grandparents”.
And then there was the Antique Auto Collection, some of the cars that would later be part of the Cavalcade of Cars. In the early stage, there were 1908 buggies and 1922 and 1925 model Ts, as well as 1882 horse drawn firetrucks.
The Penny Arcade featured old but playable penny arcade machines.
The Palace Theater was the home to silent films on endless loop, at the outset reported to be from the “original Edison collection”.
And then there was the Opera House. It reportedly had the largest dance floor in the area, roomy enough for 1000 people. The Opera House from the outset had both an indoor stage and an outdoor stage. The latter looked out onto a vintage beer garden, where guests could enjoy a beer stein with their stage show. The outdoor stage, though nice in concept, was reportedly difficult for everyone in rainy or cold weather (as had been the issue with the Pottersville park), so after some time, it was closed and only the interior of the Opera House was used. The stage shows themselves were old time “mellerdrammer”, or melodramas, where there were heroes and villains. The audience was expected to participate at minimum with boos and hisses, shouts and catcalls.
This was the park as it was on opening day in 1959.
Rides at Gaslight Village
On May 31, 1791, Thomas Jefferson wrote in a letter to his daughter, “Lake George is without comparison, the most beautiful water I ever saw; formed by a contour of mountains into a basin… finely interspersed with islands, its water limpid as crystal, and the mountain sides covered with rich groves… down to the water-edge: here and there precipices of rock to checker the scene and save it from monotony.” Lake George is a small summer resort town up in the Adirondacks. Its population as of 2000 was 985. However, summertime population is reported to swell over 50,000 – 50x the normal population.
It might not be surprising, then, the high concentration of theme parks in the surrounding areas of Lake George, especially in the days before inexpensive air travel, when most vacationing was done via car. A three and a half hour drive from NYC was no big deal back in the day, and even now, 3.5 hours isn’t that far away to drive.
Charles Wood’s Gaslight Village in Lake George saw success after its first year, and was able to continue on as an amusement park.
One of the immediate additions though was rides. As noted earlier, the park was originally intended to be “just” the village, with its museums and displays, shows and entertainment. There was always a boardwalk with sideshow type attractions, like the Wild Man of Borneo and fun house mirror mazes. However, with his theme park knowledge given the years of experience Wood already had from Storytown USA, it’s not surprising that rides were soon added.
Some of the rides at Gaslight Village may have always there. It seems likely that the carousel and the small train both were purchased from the Pottersville Gaslight Village, though that’s not clear. Some of the articles about the park date the carousel back to 1800 which is almost certainly not correct, given that the first steam-powered carousel wasn’t invented until 1861. However, it does seem that the park did have multiple carousels in its lifetime, with a unique “rocking horse” carousel in colloquial history reportedly sold in parts across Europe prior to the park’s closure. One online commenter references this as a Parker carousel, while another calls it a Dentzel carousel. The world may never known.
The auction catalog for the park’s eventual demise, dating to 2000, does seem to combine some Storytown rides as well as Gaslight Village rides; while multiple carousels are listed, none were this unique-sounding one. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. Let’s get back to the operational history of the park and talk about rides some more.
In or around 1968, after the park had already been open for over a decade, the Steeplechase Bicycle Carousel came to Gaslight Village. This was said to be one of the oldest operating flat rides at one point, dating back to the Steeplechase Park at Coney Island. The ride was likely purchased sometime after Steeplchase’s ultimate closure in 1964. However, it’s actually much older than that, possibly dating back to early 1900. It was originally located in the Pavilion of Fun at Steeplechase in Coney Island. I’ll include a link to pictures of the ride at Steeplechase, as well as the ride at Gaslight Village. The concept was simple – a carousel powered by human action of pedalling bicycles. The faster you and your fellow riders pedaled, the faster the carousel went. The ride was quite the draw, finally being removed from Gaslight Village only when someone fell off and got hurt while the ride was in operation.
The rides started coming fast and furious, with a Paratrooper and the Green Monster (an octopus ride) coming in 1969. Then there were the usual parade of theme park staples, moving in and out of the park: a Ferris wheel, bumper boats, a scrambler, a Tip Top (which seems to have been called the Shaving Mug), a roundup, a tilt-a-whirl, and a trabant. There were kiddie rides like “the turtles” and a classic Red Baron airplane ride. There was a swinging boat “space shuttle” ride and a classic Flying Bobs ride and bumper cars and a flying trapeze swing ride. Apparently Wood was notorious for moving the rides around, not just physically at the park, but between Gaslight Village and Storytown, as well, adding to some of the confusion when researching the exact rides at the park.
(If you’re interested in a rabbithole, you can do some research into the spaceship-like Futuro House, which once sat in the Gaslight Village parking lot between the park and the Waxlife attraction Wood owned across the street. Despite not technically being part of Gaslight Village, many fondly remember the “spaceship”. Of Finnish design, less than 100 were built in the late 60s and early 70s, and there’s a delightful website dedicated to tracking the once and current homes of these spaceship-like houses (here’s the link for Lake George’s Futuro). I recently saw one while driving down I-55 in Illinois, at Pink Elephant Antiques (which also has a Muffler Man among many other cool giant fiberglass figures). Here’s an article with a dynamic map for every known remaining Futuro.)
Antique Car Ride
An iconic ride at the park was the antique car ride, right up front – think Disneyland’s Autopia, but with cars from the 1890s. The cars were built by Arrow Development Corp, and were there at the park from the beginning, advertised in a 1959 Billboard magazine. According to a history of the company, the official description for the cars from the company was “Open-topped antique cars, reproduced to five-eighths scale, provide a pleasant ride through an old-fashioned country setting. Each car seats up to five, and anyone 10 years or over can drive. A single pedal – accelerator and brake combined – controls the one-cylinder engine that pushes the cars along at a top speed of four miles an hour”.
In the early days, there wasn’t even a guide track; alas, when a guest tried to take a car on a joyride off the track over to the Opera House, a guide rail had to be installed. Online recollections often mention this ride, including the thrilling aspect of a young child being able to drive a real car.
Employees remember the car ride as being a fun place to work, particularly compared to the monotony of the Kiddie rides. One story from a former employee on the Gaslight Village Facebook page tells of how the cars had very small gas tanks, often running out of gas in the middle of a drive. Employees would then have to run out with a gas can to refill the tanks. However, the engines were very hot, and the common slight spills during the fill process would catch the cars on fire, much to the consternation of the guests. Reportedly it was no big deal – the flames were batted down, the guests were on their way, and everyone would cheer.
The next attraction to discuss was a here again, gone again sort of deal. It was called the Mystery House.
Of course, you know I love a good rabbithole here on The Abandoned Carousel, and we have that with the Mystery House. See, one theory is that it originally was called Casa Loca, and that it originally lived at Freedomland, in the Bronx.
Now, I will tell you that Freedomland has a future episode lined up for it, and it has since the moment I heard of the place. This park was only open for five seasons, but has an incredible Facebook page, fan page, and even a 300+ page book about its history.
Casa Loca was a classic disorienting walkthrough attraction, designed to trick the senses. From an article on patch.com, the attraction was described thusly: “We went in one end not knowing what to expect and came out the other amazed by what our senses told us was impossible. Simple disorientation and gravity created an illusion that had cans rolling up a table and out a window as well as pool table balls that went uphill.”
Freedomland closed in 1964, only five years after its 1960 opening. There are some strong connections between Freedomland and Lake George, as Charley Wood purchased many rides and placed them in Storytown USA. It’s speculated that Casa Loca went to Gaslight Village, where it was renamed Mystery House.
Ultimately, however, this all turns out to be speculation and coincidence. I’ve been in contact with Mike Virgintino, who wrote the book on Freedomland’s history. He’s learned that Gaslight Village already had a crooked house (the Mystery House) in 1964, when Freedomland was still in its last season. Therefore, it’s only coincidence, and Freedomland’s Casa Loca didn’t actually go to Gaslight Village after all.
Still, though, a delightful attraction, a crooked house, in any iteration. A former guest commented online about the Gaslight Village version of the attraction, saying “Hey, does anyone remember the ‘Mystery House’? From what I remember, first you passed by some ‘funny mirrors’ where you saw yourself either short and fat or stretched out. Then you entered a room where everything was lopsided and out of proportion, and you got dizzy walking through it. I really enjoyed that one,”
The attraction was said to have been removed a few years prior to the park’s closure, perhaps in 1987 or 1988.
Some recollections online mention a singing bear, with some degree of uncertainty. It’s true, however, that for a period of time, a set of animatronics operated at Gaslight Village, going by the name “Gaslight Jamboree”. It operated in the Palace Theater during its later years (where the silent movies ran). One was called Friendly Freddy, a 1977 animatronic black bear with a guitar. He performed with two of the so-called “Wolfpack 5” characters: Wolfman, who was a wolfman, and Fatz Geronimo, a keyboard-playing gorilla.
This was actually a surprising rabbithole for me to go down in my research. All of these animatronics, and there were many, were predecessors to a show called “Rock-afire Explosion”, which was an animatronic band that performed in Showbiz pizza places as well as other restaurants and shopping centers between 1980 and 1992. You probably don’t remember ShowBiz Pizza, but you probably do remember what they became. Between 1990 and 1992, all ShowBiz Pizza locations were converted to Chuck E Cheese.
(It’s far beyond the scope of this podcast, but there’s some great details about the process of “Concept Unification” where ShowBiz became Chuck E. Cheese, worth spending five minutes on if you’ve got them. The remaining animatronics are still popular today, as YouTube sensations. Who knew that there was such a huge fanbase for thirty year old animatronic bears?)
Cavalcade of Cars
By 1974 the Cavalcade of Cars opened at Gaslight Village, to display Wood’s collection of automobiles. At one time, the Cavalcade and Gaslight Village were two separate attractions with two separate entrance fees, but Wood wasn’t seeing the numbers that he wanted. The story goes that one day, Mr. Wood came in and had the prices changed for Gaslight Village, and bam, suddenly the Cavalcade of Cars was part of the Gaslight Village admission price. Visitor numbers shot up.
Now, I’m not really a car person, but apparently the cars were quite special, especially for their time. There was a 1933 Duesenberg once owned by Greta Garbo. There was a car shaped like a giant can of V8 juice, which by some accounts once also dispensed juice, too. An Evel Knevel motorcycle was a big draw, and a former Pope-mobile, though that might not be the correct name.
There was a car from The Munsters and a car with two fully functional barber shop chairs. There were three large model ships from the 1970 film Tora Tora Tora, and one from Ben Hur. And there was what I think is the coolest of them – one of the Chitty Chitty Bang Bang cars, used in the 1968 movie. This was the version with “wings”, and featured wax models of Dick van Dyke and the other cast members. According to enthusiasts, this was the model used in all the promotional imagery, posters, and merchandise. The model was also used for most of the scenes for the movie.
Flight to Mars at Gaslight Village
One of the most unique rides at Gaslight Village was the Flight to Mars. This ride was quite rare, and has a fun history worth talking about. The “Laff in the Dark” dark ride history page has a nice article on the ride. Produced in Europe by Anton Schwarzkopf, better known for his incredible roller coasters, there were only a few of these dark rides ever imported into the US. They came by way of a man called Mickey Hughes, who liked to showcase new rides at his theme parks in order to encourage imports of the rides. The Flight to Mars was a delight – a two story dark ride with a coaster dip visible from the exterior. Theming was vaguely “outer space”, with some versions of the ride more elaborate than others. Riders rode in small two person space cars through a twisty turny track – the thrills came from the spooks and spectres ready to pop out at you in the dark. Think about Joyland’s Whacky Shack from one of my previous episodes.
Like I said, there were only a couple of the rides ever actually brought to the US, and I actually can’t find any info on the rides operating elsewhere. It’s known that one went to Astroland in Coney Island in 1964, and another went to Palisades Park in New Jersey. Palisades Park will be a great topic for a future episode, with a long and interesting history, but for today, know that it was one of the most visited parks ever. It closed in 1971 and was bulldozed for high-rise condos. Astroland also is said to have sold its Flight to Mars around this same time, in 1971.
One of the rides, the Astroland/Coney Island one, went to Adventurer’s Inn, a small park in Flushing, NY. There, it was notable for always having a typo in the large letters spelling the ride’s name: FLIGTH. This park shuttered in the mid-70s, leaving the rides in place, abandoned, until everything was bulldozed in 1978. I’ll include a link to a sad abandoned image of this Flight to Mars.
Gaslight Village purchased the Flight to Mars from Palisades Park. It was placed in between the Ferris wheel and the bicycle carousel, and there it thrilled guests for years. Here’s a great twilight image taken in 1981. Guests remember it for being scary to a tween, and a nice little dark ride for two for an older set.
Ultimately the Flight to Mars was sold prior to the closure of Gaslight Village. It’s reported that it may have gone to Columbia; others say the ride was demolished before it ever left the park. Unfortunately, it’s not clear what happened to this model of the Flight to Mars.
What I haven’t yet mentioned is that there was also a Flight to Mars that went straight to the west coast, built for the 1961 World’s Fair in Seattle. It went into storage after that year, but by the late 1960s, it had been rebuilt on its original site. That Flight to Mars stayed in operation through the late 90s, until the decline of the surrounding Fun Forest Amusement Park and replacement by the Experience Music Project. This Flight to Mars was sold and now operates to this day at the State Fair of Texas in Dallas, TX (though some accounts say it is in storage in the late 2010s). The theming is a little different from the elaborate detailing that was once present in the Gaslight Village version, but it’s nice to be able to have this tangential piece of the park still today.
People: the Heart of Gaslight Village
Every story about Gaslight Village talks about the aspect that made the park special: the people and the sense of community.
The park was truly about the performers, the performances, and the shows. They were the heart of the park and what made Gaslight Village unique.
During its heyday, the park ran a 13 week season, from June until a week after Labor Day, operating 2PM until 11PM daily. The “olio” acts began performing music (such as piano or guitar) right at 2 PM. Then there were singing waiters and waitresses that would begin to sing, until the first show began at 2:30. The entertainment then ran continuously, revolving around the different areas and stages at the park.
There were people like Joe Jackson Jr, the “clown on the bicycle”. Joe was famous for his broken bicycle act, which he’d inherited from his father, and was particularly popular in Sweden. He performed at New York’s Radio City Music Hall; La Scala in Berlin; Moulin Rouge in Paris and Tivoli Garden in Denmark; and appeared on many television shows, including Ed Sullivan’s.
There were the plethora of ice skaters, performing on the small ice rink in front of the interior Opera House stage. Far too many to name, so please forgive any I don’t mention. Howard Bissell and Jerry Farley performed together, sometimes with Joe Jackson Jr; they did something called a “death spiral” on the small ice rink that was breathtaking. The ice rink was filled with skate shows of all varieties: Randy Choura and Elyn Tia, Kim Reale. One year there was “South Pacific on Ice”. There was Ron Urban’s Ice Revue, a video of which can be seen here. According to a magazine article from the time this was the first ice show to ever visit the White House.
There were animal acts: Kay Roseiere and her big cats, Carol and her bengal tigers; Frank Mogyorosi and his lions.
Of course, there were other acts: Mario Manzini, the escape artist. The Jumpin Jack duo, performing amazing trampoline acrobatics that included at one time a “hair-raising” high dive onto a giant sponge. Though perhaps not culturally correct, a popular act at the time was the midget wrestling championships, and Bob Hermine’s Midgets show. Magic and ventriloquism from people like the very fine Bob Carroll.
Let me stop here and talk about Bob for a minute. If you look into the park enough, you’ll see a common name pop up, and that’s Bob Carroll. Bob worked at Gaslight Village for 20 years, beginning in 1969 with a few seasons at Time Town in between. I’ve been privileged to have the opportunity to be in contact with Bob, discussing Gaslight Village and what made the park special. He’s one of the people in charge of the Facebook page “Gaslight Village Lake George, New York”, and it’s his photos that will appear on the show notes page and social media posts for this episode.
Bob wore many hats throughout his twenty years at Gaslight Village, from doing the old time pie fights, emceeing at the Opera House, doing park announcements, etc. He eventually became Opera House Manager, and performed his act 3 or 4 times a day on the outdoor stage or inside at the Opera House. He’s had a very successful career as a ventriloquist and magician, since then, including a stint in the Guinness Book of World Records for telling jokes for over 24 hours straight. Bob told me he wouldn’t be where he is now without the start at Gaslight Village that Charley Wood gave him back in the day.
Keystone Cops and Pie Fights
Back to the performances at large, there were keystone cops. The Keystone cops, themselves a holdover from the Pottersville version of the park, continued to be a constant presence in the park. They provided skits and guest interactment throughout the park, much to visitors’ delight. At one point, Bob Carroll did a medicine show “selling” guests the magic tonic of a bottle of water. Slapstick comedy on the lawns of the town square!
The Keystone cops along with other entertainers were also a key part of the daily pie-in-the-face skits: whipped cream or shaving cream pie fights staged messily between the various performers, with reportedly as many as 70 people involved at a time.
Of course, the pie fight was a vaudeville staple, from a time of silent movies when jokes needed to come across without sound. They were popularized by comedians like Laurel and Hardy and The Three Stooges. I don’t have the time for it here, but I’m going to link to a fascinating article on the history of the pie fight – worth the read. Pie fights appeared on-screen as early as 1909, so they were perfect for the gay nineties theming of Gaslight Village.
As the story was told, the pie fight unfolded thusly:
“So every night at 7 PM, we put on a skit about a lady getting her cat stuck in a tree. A drunk happened by, a keystone kop, a baker, a passerby and the park announcer all took a pie in the face. They all were driven away in the old paddy wagon. Those were the days. The longest running pie fight in the history of show biz!”
Opera House and Mellerdrama
The Opera House was the center of the park. Physically, yes, because it was originally the only location for the bathrooms in the park. It was the main place to get food (such as the waffles with strawberries that one guest online remembers). It was the shortcut to get to the Cavalcade of Cars attraction. And it had room for over 400 people, so it was the place to wait out the rain. The Opera House for a long time was the heartbeat of the park. Metaphorically, as well, since the Opera House was the home to the mellerdrama, said to be the last vaudeville house in the US.
An article in 1976 described the Opera House as “dedicated to the production of the 1890’s comic Melodrama art form. Encouraging the audience to “hiss and boo” in true Melodrama fashion, the talented acting troupes present a comedy sketch based on American satire“. Magazine copy from the 80s wrote that the Opera House was the last remaining theatre left in the US “dedicated to the production of the traditional comic melodramatic art form”.
A mellerdrama calls for over-the-top hero and villain stories, with intentional corny jokes, the worse the better.
And there were a variety of musical acts in between the star mellerdrama, like the Sunshine Express show band and banjo acts from the inimitable Warren Boden.
The evenings would often wrap with Warren Boden playing his banjo. He’d end with a fast polka, as one former band member recalled on the FB group. Warren would look at the bandstand, and “then say “To the ______” – and name the Bar to go to that night.”
The shows were a huge draw for the “non-ride” crowd, and a person could sit with a beer and watch without repeating an act for over two hours. One person in the Gaslight Village FB group remembers the shows as the best part of visiting the park, describing it: “The family eating pizza and getting a pitcher of soda with the plastic Gaslight Village mugs watching the ice revue and other great acts.”
People Are What Make Gaslight Village Special
As I’ve alluded to several times now, it wasn’t the rides that made Gaslight Village special or memorable. It was the sense of community you felt when you visited.
“One big reason Gaslight Village was so special was its employees. They were always friendly and helpful,” said one person online. ”One thing you noticed is although everyone was working hard it always looked like they were having a good time.”
The park was always sparkling clean, it seemed, and this was due to the hard efforts of the “grounds boys” – the cleaning staff, the lowest rung on the totem. They often moved up the ladder in their tenure at the park, as well. Why, the inimitable Bob Carroll started out as a groundsboy before he became an official entertainer at the park.
Another person, a former employee, said “It was not like a real job. You left work at 11:30 PM and then went out to the bars or went to dinner. We had employee ride nights and Entertainment nights.” They contrasted it with the more standard theme-park atmosphere over at Storytown, saying, “It was a different atmosphere. People met friends, got married to each other and just had a grand time. I know at least 8 people who met their spouses there!” Bob Caroll echoed this sentiment, saying “We all had parties, birthdays and a lot of us met our spouses there. It is now 45 years of marriage to Deb…my wife who I met when she was the parking lot attendant there. The Keystone Cop married the French translator and several other people married there too!”
General sentiment is that working at Gaslight Village was unlike any other job in the world.
Employee morale was often high, it seems. Employees had fairly free rein to make the guests happy. The Gaslight Village FB page describes the importance of events like Ride Night and Entertainment Night, which were held annually for the employees to mingle and get to know one another. On Entertainment Night, the entertainers performed for the rest of the park employees, while on Ride Night, the shoe was on the other foot, with the entertainers able to ride all the rides. Of course, there were plenty of free refreshments: hot dogs, beer, and soda.
Even though Gaslight Village was located in the village of Lake George, it’s remembered for being its own separate place, a true small village. “Gaslight Village employees were a Gaslight Village Family no matter what you did.”
The tone came from the top, from the inimitable Charles Wood. I really appreciated the story one person told online, about his reaction to the historic first steps on the moon. Of course, this occurred July 20, 1969, and was broadcast live across the United States. It would’ve occurred around 4 pm in New York. Wood reportedly closed down all of the rides and shows in the park for 20-30 minutes, and had the moon landing broadcast throughout the park’s speakers. “All over the park, families and small groups of people stood, mesmerized by the voice describing man’s first steps on another celestial body.”
Transition from Gaslight Village to Lake George Ride and Fun Park
As always, what goes up must come down. Nothing gold can stay.
Gaslight Village saw a small handful of accidents, with the notable incidents from my research being broken bones on the original fun house slide and on the Ferris wheel. A more well-known incident was a broken car on the Paratrooper in the 1970s, injuring one person and requiring the entire ride to be slowed down, losing its thrilling nature. But none of these had any significant effect on the park as a whole.
1974 saw attendance worries due to the gasoline crisis, but by all accounts, the park bounced back.
Truly, it wasn’t any one incident that led to the closure of Gaslight Village.
As the 1970s rolled into the 1980s, large theme parks were beginning to take hold, drawing people from far away across the country. No longer was the regional theme park king – people were being drawn to massive theme parks with larger and larger thrills, and flying larger distances for it with the rise of increasingly inexpensive airfare. People simply weren’t staying locally in the area anymore.
The late 70s and early 80s saw the rise of the Six Flags theme park franchise as they acquired and expanded their parks. Disney World’s Magic Kingdom, as we talked about last episode, opened in 1971, and EPCOT opened in 1982. Between 1982 and 1983, the nearby Storyland USA acquired at least eight major adult thrill rides and rebranded as The Great Escape.
Against this background, the gay nineties theme of Gaslight Village too seemed more anachronism than “yesterday’s fun today”, as the slogan went. The rides were older, standard at most every theme park, and the shows weren’t having the same draw they once did. There was no room for ride expansion to include a bigger coaster that might draw more folks.
And the weather, the weather was always a concern. Yes, there was the Opera House, but by the time a few hours had passed, a guest would’ve seen all the shows. Accounts from the Gaslight Village FB page describe the park and the village as a ghost town after a day or two of rain. And there was the age of Charley Wood, who would’ve been in his mid-70s by this point, perhaps with his passions turning to other things. 1989 saw him selling Storytown USA (now called The Great Escape).
Attendance numbers for Gaslight Village in the mid to late 80s reportedly dropped way down. Something had to be done, or it would be the standard story here on The Abandoned Carousel – not profitable to keep investing money in the park.
According to an account over at the Gaslight Village FB page, the operation budget for the entertainment alone in the late 80s was tens of thousands of dollars per week. That was a big line item that could be used to balance the books…
So the decision came down that in 1989, Gaslight Village as it was known would be closed. The entertainment acts were told first. See, it wasn’t the whole park that was closing, it was the Opera House and the Outdoor Stage that were closing. The park would now be rebranded and would only include rides. In an account from the Gaslight Village FB page: “it was the end of Vaudeville. I think it was what it felt like when the last theaters closed “. They went on to say: “The shows started at 2 PM and ended at 10:50 PM. 7 days a week. It was like an engine of a train. It was the lifeline of the park. Yes, the rides were a big part of it but the real soul of the park was the people who came to the park to see the shows. A lot of people came week after week to see the shows. We got to know them by name.”
The Gaslight Village FB page sums it up, saying “we knew that it wasn’t going to be Gaslight Village because without the Opera House, it was just rides.”
Lake George Ride and Fun Park / Lake George Action Park
Funnily enough, there’s not a lot of clarity online about the most recent iterations of the park post-Gaslight Village, despite being more recent. Most of my online research about the place doesn’t even mention the Ride & Fun Park name. I’m thankful to the enthusiasts for The Great Escape in particular, who’ve kept tabs on the park.
Lake George Ride and Fun Park
What is clear is that from 1989 on, “Gaslight Village” as it was was split in half, with half remaining a theme park, and half becoming a parking lot for the new boat on the lake that docked close by.
What remained was known as Lake George Ride & Fun Park first, reportedly from 1990-1992. During this time, a few more rides were brought in – I’ve seen reference to two different swinging boat rides: both a Pirat that later went to Great Escape, and a “Space Shuttle”. A Balloon trip spinning flat ride and a Dumbo-type elephant ride were also added. Now some of these might have been added in the later years of Gaslight Village, it’s just not clear.
To be honest, there’s not much to say about Ride and Fun Park. I’ll include a link to the one single image I’ve found of a brochure for this aspect of the park.
Lake George Action Park
After Ride & Fun Park shuttered in 1992, it sat closed for several years. In late 1994 or 1995, a Sea Dragon swinging boat ride moved from The Great Escape over to what we’ll now be calling Action Park. And there it reportedly sat, “racked up” for two years until the short-lived Action Park opened in 1996. (The Sea Dragon at Action Park was praised in the forums I found, for having such an exceptionally good swing, for what it’s worth.) It’s known that there was a powered dragon coaster at Action Park for at least a short time (this is listed on the RCDB with pictures), one of Zamperla’s more common models.
The go-kart track was one of the main features of Action Park. A guest remembers online: “The Action Park had really decent rides. The Bumper Cars were one of the best, and both [go-kart] tracks were top notch. The oval track in the back was cool, because you were actually enclosed in the car, and we would pour baby powder on the turns so the cars could skid.”
Another guest remembers: “The majority of the crowd was always at the front gocart track. The line would usually be about 30 mins or so; that’s how crowded it was. Plus, the timer was set for 9 mins, so you actually got your $4 worth.” They go on to say “The park was cool, because it really was never all that crowded.”
At the end of the 1997 season, possibly unsurprisingly, after only two years of operation, Action Park closed.
And that was it.
Auction for Lake George Action Park
With the turn of the century into the 2000s, it was time for another classic theme park auction. As always, I am eternally grateful to the enthusiasts who not only save things like auction catalogs, but also post and caption them and share them freely with others. In 2000, Norton’s auctioned off the remaining Action Park items. It was a huge auction based on the catalog’s listings. Not only were Action Park rides sold, but also things from Storytown USA, and even Charley Wood’s old car collection and the original bicycle museum collection from Gaslight Village.
Thus comes my favorite part – the genealogy of the theme park attraction.
Some, as we’ve discussed, were demolished or are simply unknown prior to the closure of Gaslight Village – the Mystery House, the Bicycle Carousel, Flight to Mars.
Others went to Wood’s sister park prior to the auction, back to the still-operational Storytown, now called The Great Escape. In this category are the Pirate boat ride, the Flying Trapeze swing ride, the Trabant. The last of these was moved to the Great Escape around 1993, where it operated until it was forced to be removed “due to age” in 2011. The Pirate ship operated at TGE from 1995-2013, according to Wikipedia. The Flying Trapeze still operates today.
Several of the rides went to Delgrosso’s in Tipton, NJ. This includes the balloon ride and the Sea Dragon, both of which are located next to one another at DelGrosso’s. Or were, because some time between 2017 and 2019, both rides are reportedly no longer in operation there.
The carousel was reportedly purchased by a private buyer and has been in storage somewhere in Vermont since then.
Of the cars, I could only find information on Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, though it appears several of the other cars have moved through multiple auctions. This was auctioned in 1990, and was displayed at a Chicago restaurant called “The Retreat” for several years until the restaurant went bankrupt. In 2007, it was auctioned again, and went to live with a collector in Florida, where it’s currently undergoing restoration.
Beyond this, the buyers of the remaining rides and attraction components aren’t readily available online.
With the rides sold, nothing but the buildings remained.
Abandoned Gaslight Village
As the buildings sat, moldering through long New York winter after long New York winter, let’s again ponder the park’s closure.
Why the drawn-out years of this smaller, sadder park? Wood was getting older, and his interests were turning away from amusement parks towards philanthropy. Some suggest that there were legalities in Charley Wood’s contract with the village, preventing him from passing the park on. However, the details for this are unclear. Even the process of making the conservation park, which we’re about to get into, took decades and plenty of local political squabbles. As early as 1988, there was a local news article reporting that Wood was in negotiations to sell the site for a convention center. (The convention center never went forward.)
Gaslight Village, or Lake George Action Park as it was last known, sat abandoned, for a decade. The rides were all gone. A sign remained for some time, as did the bold blue and white paint on the entrance. Grass grew, rain fell, and the buildings went ever further into disrepair.
It’s always the same story when it comes to abandoned parks, it seems, with flaking paint, overgrown grass, broken things…especially when the rides have been removed, it’s often hard to see the charm of the original site. From the exterior, it all just looks like sad shabby buildings.
As of 2008, the land was purchased from the Charles R. Wood Foundation. It was a joint purchase, with the town and village of Lake George took 19% ownership of the land, with the county taking 62% ownership. Three environmental groups held a conservation easement on the property, and plans were in place to convert the former Gaslight Village into a “wetland treatment facility to improve the water quality of West Brook and Lake George, while also creating a staging area for festivals.” It took almost a decade to get the purchase to go through in order to get the various groups on the same page about the funding and the future for the property.
The delays continued after the land was purchased, with newspaper reports describing delays due to disagreements between the multiple parties with ownership stake in the land. The news reports about the park once it was opened called it a ten-year collaboration, but it seems that the multi-decade operation was often more contentious than collaborative.
According to the paper, the original plans had called for restoration of the Opera House and other structures on the property. The town invested tens of thousands of dollars in the buildings, partially re-roofing the Opera House and tearing off the sides to begin preparation for an open air building to be used for festivals and events. In early 2010, however, demolition plans moved forward despite the money already invested; investigation had deemed the structures too badly damaged, saying that it would cost the same or less to build a new modern building than try to repair the decaying original structures.
Ultimately, mother nature took care of it: snow collapsed part of the roof for the Opera House in February 2011 before the demolition crews could even begin. The remainder of the buildings were demolished later that spring.
Charles R. Wood Park
Originally, the park was to be called West Brook Environmental Park. After an offer from the Charles R. Wood Foundation to donate three quarters of a million dollars to the park, the name was changed to Charles R. Wood Park.
We haven’t gotten to it yet, but towards the end of his life, Wood turned to philanthropy as a more major focus. He was known for wanting to own places where people were happy, and this began to broaden beyond the theme park scope. “‘I made money here and I want to leave it here,”” Wood was once quoted as saying. In the early 1990s, Wood got in touch with Paul Newman and boldly requested money to begin the Double H Ranch, a free camp for children with serious illnesses. He also founded the Charles R. Wood Foundation, which “focuses on assisting children who are critically ill and furthering culture for future generations.” Before his death in 2004 and afterwards, through his foundation, he donated millions to hospitals, clinics, libraries, and otherwise invested in the lives of the people in his area.
On the 12 acres where Gaslight once stood, are now 2.5 acres of festival ground, waterways, a skateboard course, a kid’s playground, and hiking and fitness trails. The bulk of the land was returned to wetlands, which the area once was prior to being filled in for the timber mills and railroads. Though some find the wetlands unsightly, they apparently serve as natural filters to maintain the clear water quality of the eponymous Lake George.
A local man donated his vintage Gaslight Village memorabilia sign, and it now stands on the site of the conservation park, marking what was once there, making sure that the memory of Gaslight Village lives on.
Gaslight Village Was Special
One account online called Gaslight Village an odd and wonderful place, which is a phrasing I love. “The secret of Gaslight’s appeal to me is the notion of a temporary community involved in one enterprise: Show Business. It’s like a play or building a sand castle: you rehearse, memorize, screw up, in the name of ephemeral art that will wash away. But we were there. We sang, told jokes, booed the villain, juggled, swallowed fire, did toe loops. We worked with skating chimpanzees, poodles and doves. There were clowns and brass bands and a guy who played with Paul Whiteman. It wasn’t all good: We fell for the wrong people; our bosses were petty tyrants; we lied and snuck out for a drink and too many people are gone.”
But in the end, Gaslight Village remains something special: a community, a place that’s more about the people than the buildings or rides or even the land. Charles R. Wood is quoted as saying “We do what we can for society, but it must come from our heart.” And Gaslight Village seems like it did embody that. It was a unique moment in time: yesterday’s fun, today.
Thanks for listening to this episode of The Abandoned Carousel where I talked about the history of the unique Gaslight Village, yesterday’s fun today. I’d like to particularly thank Bob Carroll for being an inexhaustible resource on the topic of Gaslight Village. He’s got an incredible archive of videos on his YouTube page and on the Gaslight Village FB page, and I recommend you check them both out. He’s also the source for several of the audio clips used in this episode, and graciously allowed me to include his photos on this episode page. I’d also like to thank all the admins and members of the Gaslight Village FB page. It’s an incredible resource on the topic of this delightful park, and I’m so grateful there’s a place to gather and share memories of this special place.
Additional thanks to Brian Dorn, Addison Rice, and Jahnavi Newsom (aka The Love Sprockets), for allowing the use of their song about Gaslight Village and Frontier Town. Their work beyond this song is delightful to listen to, so check them out!
Remember what Lucy Maud Montgomery once said: nothing is ever really lost to us, as long as we remember it.
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- Why were they called the gay nineties? http://youaskandy.com/questions-answers/28-articles-series-1990/2150-why-were-they-called-the-gay-nineties.html. Accessed November 20, 2019.
- WMHT | Charles R. Wood: A Storied Life. WMHT. https://www.wmht.org/crwood/. Accessed November 17, 2019.
- Wood founded Gaslight Village | Hometown | poststar.com. https://poststar.com/lifestyles/hometown/wood-founded-gaslight-village/article_2e72389a-61c2-11df-be9d-001cc4c03286.html. Accessed November 15, 2019.
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