A few months ago I was looking for vintage magic images to use in my collages. I stumbled upon wonderful posters for a magician named Howard Thurston. Well, you know how one things lead to another – I soon found myself engrossed in a superb book about said magician and the early history of magic in America. The Last Greatest Magician in the World by Jim Steinmeyer sheds light on the greatest magician of the early 20th century who essentially faded into oblivion. Unless you’re a magician, magic aficionado, or collector, you likely haven’t heard about this guy. Everybody has heard of Harry Houdini, but as Steinmeyer points out, while he was a great escape artist, Houdini wasn’t all that impressive when it came to card tricks and illusions. Thurston was five years older and four inches taller than his peer and oft adversary Houdini. Early Beginnings Born on July 20, 1869 in Columbus, Ohio, Thurston had four siblings – May (Myrtle) the eldest was born in 1865, followed by Charles, Howard, Harry (who figures prominently in this story), and William. Their father’s carriage business collapsed in 1873 and he subsequently tinkered with making a wide array of inventions, none of which were successful. Unable to support his family, his father had a mild nervous breakdown and started spending a lot of time at the corner saloon. By all accounts, he was a wretched and abusive father and husband who regularly beat his children and wife. Other than Harry, the only mention of the other siblings in the book is when Charles was murdered in February 1920 while working as a railroad detective in Columbus. The murderer escaped after pumping eight bullet holes into Charles’ back. When he was just 12, Thurston started earned money selling newspapers on trains between…
When I was a kid, I was particularly good at Skee-Ball. I remember one family vacation to N.J. to visit my Aunt Ella, stopping at some run-down arcade with Skee-Ball and rolling a high score. This talent continued through my teen years and early adulthood. When I visited NYC in the mid- to-late 1970s, I always made it a point to stop at the Playland at 1565 or 1580 Broadway and play Skee-Ball. As I recall, I accumulated enough tickets to win a metal Statue of Liberty souvenir. Back then, every neighborhood carnival seemed to have a few Skee-Ball lanes, but these dwindled over the years until you could no longer find them. Skee Ball was relegated to a a few old school game arcades and later to party venues like Chuck E. Cheese, GameWorks, Dave & Buster’s, and the like. The balls at GameWorks are made of cheap white plastic and simply don’t have the same “roll” as the originals or well-made new balls. Furthermore, one game costs four credits which is $1.00!
A few days ago, I posted an ad of a backyard roller coaster on a Facebook page dedicated to advertisements from the 1960’s-1970’s. This ad and another photo were shared by a reader on my Toys from the 1960s-1970s blog. I know nostalgia strikes a chord with many people, but that blog has elicited far more comments and views than anything else I have ever written. Published in December 2013, the blog still generates a good deal of interest. What is even more amazing is that the Facebook post has evoked a torrent of comments, some of which I will share further on in this blog. Reader Robert Jaye shared information about this backyard roller coaster in June 2014: We had a backyard roller coaster set from Montgomery Ward. It was little more than a tubular slide set. The tubes slipped over one another and one climbed to the top of the slide, and sat on a cart with wheels that were molded to ride the tubes. You pushed a release and down you went, all of five or six feet at a gentle slide angle. You rolled on for another five feet before encountering two small bumps that slowed you down before you rolled off into the grass.
I have a fascination with amusement parks dating back to childhood. This interest relates primarily to the imagery, colors, and people-watching potential associated with these venues rather than anything practical because I actually dislike most rides. I am a wimp when it comes to roller coasters and rides that spin, although when I was a kid I could handle some spinning rides like the Tilt-A-Whirl and smaller coasters. There are a few fond memories that I will touch upon in this article, with Hollywood Kiddieland topping my list. I enjoyed this magical place from a wee tot all the way through my teen years when a high school boyfriend worked at the batting cages. I am very interested in amusement parks from a historical perspective and although I only went to Riverview Park once and never had the pleasure of exploring Coney Island, these two parks have been lifelong objects of my affection. My trips to NYC during college and more recently were too brief to justify the long subway ride, and now of course, Coney Island has changed drastically. I have been to Disneyland three times and to Disney World once, but these iconic parks really don’t rock my boat. If I had to choose one of these parks, my preference would be Disneyland.