Makers & Shakers
Museum Honor Roll
The Great Depression wrecked havoc on American amusement parks. Of the more than 1,800 operating when the stock market crashed in October of 1929, all but 303 parks had failed by 1935.
Somehow, August M. Williams turned the Palace into one of the survivors. Many details of how he managed are lost in the dustbin of this, the least documented era in Palace history, but these are the surviving facts:
When Williams bought the Palace from Ernest Schnitzler in the mid-1920s, the arcade was a 100-foot by 153-foot rectangle, consisting of the original pavilion, the rotating wheel building, and the Crystal Maze building. Williams wanted to expand, but couldn't, because he was blocked to the west by three commercial buildings and to the north by a hotel, the Lyric Theatre, and a cluster of buildings near the corner of Cookman Avenue and Kingsley Street. So Williams opted instead to install rides in the new $1.5 million Casino amusements center which opened across Ocean Avenue in 1929. His attractions there included a carousel built in 1932 by the Philadelphia Toboggan Company.
We also know that under Williams, the Palace carousel continued to operate, featuring two chariots and at least 22 animals hand carved in 1888 by Looff (including eight prancers, three giraffes, three jumpers, two camels, and two deer), five Dentzel animals (including three standers) dating to 1888, and 43 Illions jumpers carved in 1910. The rotating wheel, now powered by electricity, still carried passengers through the roof, although Williams reduced the number of carriages from 20 to 18 and removed the observatory.
Since ownership of the Palace was in private hands, there has never been a public accounting for how Williams managed to keep his park open while so many other parks fell under the crush of the Great Depression. An advertisement published on page 6 of the Dec. 24, 1930 Red Bank Register demonstrates Williams' precarious economic situation. The advertisement, recently discovered by Brian Maher, the last assistant manager at the Palace, announced that the Palace and all of its contents were for sale, and gave buyers the name and contact information of a seller, who was not Williams. The advertisements appears to have been placed by creditors, perhaps in an attempt to pressure Williams into a sale. Whatever the case, the "for sale" gambit failed, and the Palace remained seasonally open during the Depression.
In large measure, Williams' success in keeping the Palace alive during the Depression owed a great deal to a designer, "Nick" Nichols, and a Polish carpenter remembered today only as Mr. D.
THE CAROUSEL HOUSE: 1930s
THE FUN HOUSE
The first major innovation by Nichols and Mr. D was the construction of a steep, surprise filled Fun House rising all the way to the eaves of the Palace roof, flush along the northern wall of Ernest Schnitzler's original Victorian pavilion. Designed by Nichols, built at strange angles by Mr. D, and hailed as a disorientating classic, this walk-through attraction played tricks on one's equilibrium, tested powers of logic and balance, and, when least expected, delivered up drafts of air through cleverly hidden air holes. It could be navigated, said Joe Travers, the Palace's chief mechanic in the late '30s and early 1940s, in 15 or 20 minutes, but at times, "sailors would come in with a girl and not come out for a half hour or more."
Few details of the original Fun House have survived, but it is still possible to tour the Fun House as it was in the late 1940s, courtesy of Ralph Lopez Jr., a frequent Fun House visitor as a child and later a creative force at the Palace in his own right. Want to come along?
It will cost you a quarter to get in, paid to that fellow in a booth, who also controls the air holes. Immediately you must pass through a rotating barrel (which will wreck your balance if you're not totally careful), then walk by a scary animation hiding in a small hallway and climb a steep circular stairway, overhung by a figure created by Nichols to resemble Olive Oyl, the companion to Popeye, the spinach-eating cartoon strongman.
The staircase spirals upward to a series of flat, apparently stable planks. In reality, the planks shift and wave side-to-side each time you take a step; thankfully, there is a small and seemingly inconsequential railing to keep you from falling over the side, but just as you get to the end of this undulating threat, a sudden puff of air shoots up from an air hole hidden in the floor; dresses worn by young women flap in the air.
Next you encounter a series of back-lit opaque glass panels; the light in here creates spooky shadows on a nearby screen and again, at the most unsuspecting moment, you experience another air hole, which is unavoidable if you hope to enter a maze of hallways with animations and illusions including a glass and projection trick where a human figure is transformed into a skeleton.
Then you enter a wonderful illusion attraction known as the Dizzy Room. This room relies on the tendency of your mind to misinterpret what it thinks it sees. The room itself appears to be conventionally constructed, but as soon as you step inside, the laws of gravity seem out of control. The room is actually built on a tilt, so walking is bewildering, and doubly so because a ball that seems to be rolling uphill along a trough is, in fact, rolling downhill.
Still high above the Palace floor, you pass through an open archway onto another series of slip boards, another unexpected air hole, and finally work your way down to the final obstacle - the jail. In the first cell, you are enclosed by bars and must search for the one elusive rubber bar that would allow you to squeeze into the second and final cell. By now you're conditioned to look for a rubber bar, but you search in vain, for this time you have to find a trick gate. Just as the confusing search finally ends, you are hit once again with a blast from an air hole, the last indignity before you leave to experience the rest of the Palace.
"The old fun house was the best," Lopez said. "Everything was angled, you were always going on angles up and down. That's what was so neat!"
THE CRYSTAL MAZE BUILDING: 1930s
GHOST TOWN: THE FIRST DARK RIDE
Nichols also appeared to have been a major player in the development of the first dark ride at the Palace, created on the ground floor of the Crystal Maze building. However, the very first dark ride in Asbury Park operated not at the Palace, but underneath the sidewalks at the Old Mill Amusement Palace at Ocean and 1st Avenues, where long stretches of electrified track snaked through dark tunnels that were once the site of the underground boat ride. When the Old Mill went out of business, Williams bought the track and trains, manufactured by the Pretzel Ride Company in Bridgeton, New Jersey, and moved them to the Palace.
As dark rides go, the first one at the Palace was highly unusual. Pretzel rides traditionally ran along tracks that twisted back and forth at sudden intervals, an experience that left riders feeling bent, as one famously put it, like a pretzel.
In this instance, however, the tracks removed from the Old Mill tunnels were much straighter, so it fell to Nichols to create an interior environment that made up in thrills what the tracks lacked in twists. The end result was a dark ride known as Ghost Town, featuring a series of spooky encounters and figures created by Nichols. One Nichols figure was a paper march� image of a barker, reputedly patterned after a local Asbury Park politician; another was a manufactured animation of a bulldog, dressed as an Asbury Park police chief with the title deliberately misspelled "The Cheef" on his hat.
|The Barker, first used in the Ghost Town dark ride. From the Peter Szikura Collection. Photo copyrighted by Frank Saragnese. view larger image
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Beyond those facts, little is specifically known about how the Palace operated under Williams. There are general details, however, which help explain why the Palace survived America's gravest economic crisis when so many other parks failed.
Some features of the traditional Asbury "season" fell victim to the deepening economic crisis, most notably the annual baby parade, which had attracted an estimated 200,000 spectators in 1930, 100,000 in 1931, and then was discontinued in 1932. Yet even with changing times and a shortage of money, the lure of the beach brought crowds to the Asbury waterfront. Depression-era crowds came for Easter parades on the boardwalk and to escape the heat waves of July and August. Organizations including the Realtors, Shriners and Elks booked gatherings into the newly built Convention Hall. Heavyweight boxing champion Max Baer drew crowds to his Asbury training camp. Many of these people sought diversion in the Palace and Asbury Park's other places of amusement.
In a strange way, even the Depression's most devastating impact on Asbury Park helped the Palace and other waterfront amusements survive the 1930s. When the bottom fell out of local tax collections in 1932, the Asbury city government defaulted on $6,000,000 worth of short term bonds, prompting state and federal investigations that ultimately led the State of New Jersey to takeover Asbury Park's financial affairs. From March of 1935 through mid-December of 1938, the State Municipal Finance Commission ran Asbury Park, including, for a time, the municipally owned waterfront properties. By putting new managers and money into the waterfront, the State saved Asbury Park as an amusement center, with benefits that were felt by the privately owned Palace as well as the municipally owned Casino and other waterfront attractions.
The Palace also survived thanks to the fact that it had nothing to do with the trolley industry. Many American trolley companies encouraged, even directly sponsored, the development of end-of-the-line amusement parks with picnic areas, dance halls, restaurants, games and other amusements as a way to stimulate use of their trolleys. There were more than 1,000 of these parks in 1929, but as the Depression made land more valuable and as auto makers bought out the trolleys, nearly all of the end-of-the-line parks folded. It was a fate the Palace dodged, having developed in the summer resort tradition.