When I went as a teenager to Coney Island and braved the roller coaster to show off before the girls, and later, when I took my young daughters to Disneyland, there wasn’t a thought in my head about the history of amusement parks, those who created them or how many of them there were in other parts of the world.
Now along comes Stephen M. Silverman with his book, “The Amusement Park—900 Years of Thrills and Spills, and the Dreamers and Schemers Who Built Them” (432 pp. Black Dog & Leventhal Publishers. $35). And what a book it is! Not only is it jam-packed with extensively-researched information, but Silverman presents it all with his jaunty style and frequently injected humor, and to boot, the book is handsomely designed and produced and liberally illustrated with intriguing photos and drawings. It is substantiated in an extensive bibliography that reflects all of the work that went into covering the amusement park scene from spanning its fascinating history to current attractions appealing to yet another generation of thrill-seekers.
The 900 years in the subtitle is an eye-catcher. That far back? In the book’s “Part One—The Fun Begins” the author recounts how England’s King Henry I (1068-1135), at the urging of his court jester, established in 1133 in honor of St. Bartholomew the first St. Bartholomew Fair in Smithfield that initially lasted three days but went on to become an institution.
“Under an ever-widening expanse of colorful tents and aromatic stalls,” Silverman writes, “the fair helped establish several standard practices carried out in the merriment arena: Exotic animal shows. Freak shows. Magic Shows. Acrobatic shows. Theatrical spectacles. Rides. Refreshment stands. Dedicated lodgings for visitors. Prostitutes. Actually the prostitutes were already well established; there were just more of them at fair time.”
Then Silverman adds one of the informational touches like those that he sprinkles throughout his survey: “The Smithfield gallows also made a substantial contribution, particularly on Bartholomew Fair’s opening day in 1305. Before a standing-room-only crowd, William Wallace, the controversial Scottish patriot known as Braveheart, was brought to the fair site in shackles, strung up, hanged, and, for good measure, disemboweled. With that fairgoers went back to making music and merry.”
Silverman persistently sees the broad picture, not only with respect to the varied amusement attractions, but how, for example, the hot dog came to be popular at Coney Island. He also follows the ups and downs of real estate deals and investments related to numerous amusement parks.
Yes, there is also the progress of inventiveness aimed at capturing public attendance. We can follow the development of roller coasters, the higher and more risky the better, the merry-go-round, the Ferris Wheel, bumper cars etc. There are the noted names, of course, whether P.T Barnum or Walt Disney. Silverman reports on competition, budgets, profits and losses and all of the excitement that projects generated. He covers the international spectrum, with amusements abroad, as in countries such as Denmark, Germany and Japan, just to name a few.
Silverman saves elaborating broadly on the amazing Disney phenomenon until near the end of the book. He meticulously details what was involved in creating Disneyland in California and Walt Disney World in Florida, as well as other Disney projects.
Sometimes at certain sections there may be even more information than we want to know, but the strength of the book lies in its comprehensiveness, right up to the recent concept of parlaying the Harry Potter saga into an amusement attraction.
You may be most interested in learning about amusement parks closest to where you live. I particularly enjoyed reading about the development of Coney Island and problems involved there. I also was especially interested in Six Flags Great Adventure amusement park in New Jersey and attractions in Atlantic City, where I repeatedly enjoyed visits to its famous Steel Pier.
The New Jersey shore was a big part of my fun territory when growing up. For example: Having been born with a club foot (long since mostly corrected), I regularly attended a clinic in Somerville, N.J. Once a year the Elks Lodge in my nearby town of Bound Brook would lay on a trip for clinic patients at a Jersey shore entertainment locale and treat everyone all day to a treasure trove of rides and all the food we could consume. I recall a big banner on our bus one year that said “Annual Labor Day Crippled Kiddies Outing.” Can you imagine a politically incorrect sign like that today? But who cared then?
“The Amusement Park” covers more attractions throughout the United States than I could possibly cite here, including at World Fairs. There is special emphasis on the important onrush of amusement park development in the 19th century, and how proliferation followed along through the 20th century and now in the 21st.
Hats off to Silverman for having the vision to take amusement parks as a unique subject for a book and entertainingly amass evidence to show what a major role they have played—and are still playing-- in lives in many parts of the world. Reviewed August 26, 2019.