Fun Town: Chicago’s Last Amusement Park
Posted Friday, February 14th, 2014 at 4:20 pm
Fun Town: Chicago’s Last Amusement Park
- February 13, 2014
By Jake Austen
Marcie Hill was seven years old when the fun died. In 1982, Fun Town, the last amusement park within Chicago’s city limits, ended its 32-year run of thrilling South Side children. For Hill, warm memories of spending time with her mother in a dynamic communal space in her own neighborhood linger every time she passes the strip malls that now occupy the real estate at 95th Street between Stony Island and Jeffrey Boulevard.
Upon realizing her memories were murky (she recalls the pride of being able to go on small-scale rides by herself, but not the exact rides), Hill began researching the park for Shorty, her South Side-themed blog. Though her search turned up a treasure trove of information about Riverview, the massive North Side amusement park that enchanted Chicago from 1904 through 1967, there was virtually nothing about Fun Town. One of the only mentions of the park in the Chicago Tribune was a tiny obituary of the park’s founder with wildly inaccurate information, and the Newberry Library’s Encyclopedia of Chicago documents numerous amusement parks, but omits her favorite one.
“As relevant as Fun Town was to my people, there should have been more press and more information available,” Hill laments. “This was an important part of Chicago history and black history. To see no record of it … it feels like people just don’t value the South Side.”
Kids at Kiddy Town (later renamed Fun Town), from Chicago Daily Defender, August 24, 1965.
It’s not too surprising that a modest eight-acre park, which at its peak had a couple of dozen rides, has been given history’s cold shoulder. One of Chicago’s defining achievements was hosting the grandest carnival imaginable, the 1893 World’s Fair (followed forty years later by its modernist sequel). And Riverview was spectacular: 140 acres filled with over a hundred attractions, including the massive Fireball rollercoaster, and a full sideshow. Yet it’s understandable that South Siders who held Fun Town dear, and who have come to expect patterns of second-class treatment, feel slighted every few years when yet another PBS special casts a nostalgic eye upon Riverview’s tattooed ladies and world-class coasters.
Despite its size Fun Town was important. At its birth it represented the baby boomers’ early influence on American amusements. In the 1960s when radical shifts in the racial demographics of the South Side took place, it peacefully transitioned from a majority white park to a majority black park while recreation spots around the city and the country were experiencing riots and protests. And during the seventies, thanks to black management, a funky jingle, and doors opened by Riverview’s doors shutting, it became a source of community pride in the heart of the black pride era. By ignoring the action that took place at 1711 E. 95th Street, history has been missing out on some serious fun.
In 1950 Harold “Cookoo” Greenwald, a South Shore entrepreneur, built the park, originally called Kiddy Town, from the ground up. Prior to that endeavor, Greenwald (who lettered in football at University of Michigan in 1926 and was recruited by the NFL’s Chicago Cardinals, but did not make the team), managed the Lion’s Club downtown, worked as a store detective at Goldblatt’s, and owned taverns. His son, Ted Greenwald, doesn’t recall what motivated his father to go into the amusement park industry, but at that time “kiddie” parks (with smaller, tamer rides than standard amusement parks) were a burgeoning business thanks to the postwar baby boom. Though the idea was not new (Kiddieland in Melrose Park, a northwest Chicago suburb, opened in 1929), in the fifties these parks rapidly proliferated. A 1953 newspaper ad (refuting a rumor about deadly rattlesnake attacks at local parks) listed 14 Chicagoland members of the Kiddie Park Operators’ Association.
Kiddy Town advertisement from the Chicago Daily Defender, July 29, 1965.
In the 1950s the park established many of the features it would proudly host for most of its run, including pony rides, go karts, trampolines, a small roller coaster, mini golf, and merry-go-rounds (including the Kiddie Tank Ride, with World War II-era tanks in place of horses). Though tiny compared to Riverview, for the tiny ones in the region it was paradise.
“The best part of my life was growing up on the South Side,” recalls Dianne White, who lived in South Shore in the fifties and sixties. “Kiddy Town was so exciting, right off of a busy street, just this colorful place in the heart of the South Side. If we got good grades, we were allowed to go. It was a place we really considered to be our own. Riverview was for the North Side, but this was close to our house.”
At the time the demographics of the park clientele reflected the population of the area, which had many Jewish and Greek Orthodox families (the Nation of Islam’s Mosque Maryam on Stony Island was originally a Greek Orthodox church). Some Hispanic and black families visited the park, but the customers were overwhelmingly white.
Some time after Greenwald’s 1963 death, Alan Carvell Jr. and his wife June Marie Carvell took over park ownership. They also owned the Rainbo ice skating rink on the North Side (later the Rainbo roller rink), which briefly doubled as the Kinetic Playground in the 1960s, a rock club that hosted Jimi Hendrix, Led Zeppelin, and the Who.
Around 1968, presumably in reaction to the closing of Riverview, Kiddy Town acquired a Wild Mouse roller coaster, a Rock-O-Plane ride, and other attractions aimed at older kids and teens. The name was changed to Fun Town (sometimes written as Funtown), and the park’s phone book display ad now boasted a whopping 18 rides (to go along with go karts, batting cages, and a “swinging gym”). The patrons, by then predominantly black, enjoyed a park that was often bustling, but never overcrowded. There were rarely long lines to board the Moon Rocket, take a spin on the Trabant, or go down the Astro Slide. And the prices were fair, with no admission charge, cheap ride tickets, half price coupons from Jewel supermarket, and (according to a 1971 ad) all day ride passes on special days for $2.
The park’s chain of ownership has been difficult to verify, especially in the later years when it may have changed hands several times, and ownership/management groups may have been involved. The park leased out various sections, receiving rent and a percentage of receipts, so the arcade, for example, had a separate owner. Keith McDonald, who worked at the park from 1973 to 1975 stocking the food stands with cotton candy, corndogs, and sno-cone fixings, told me he believed several police officers, including Ira Harris, were park owners, but that does not appear to be the case, though Harris was in upper management, and did most of the hiring. David Dines, a ride operator and park marshal from 1975 to 1982 believes the Carvells maintained ownership until 1977. He attributes the park’s decline to the 1977 takeover (either as owners or managers) by Jack Thompson Shows, an out of town interest that ran the park like a low-grade travelling carnival. After several years of bad management, he says, a well-intentioned man named Bob Johnson became the final owner, renaming it Big “J” Funtown, before the park gave its last ride in 1982.
Perhaps contributing to Fun Town’s low historical profile was summer after summer of uneventful amusements. Though Riverview’s long tenure saw several ride-related deaths, and 72 riders injured in a 1937 roller coaster accident, no such excitement occurred on the South Side. Ted Greenwald, who worked part time at his father’s park as a ride operator (“he promised I would get to run the Shetland pony concession, but I never got it,”) doesn’t recall any serious accidents in the fifties, and the only lawsuit he remembers involved a child being slightly bruised after falling off a train ride. Bob Gas, whose father was the maintenance manager from 1965 until 1982, and whose mother worked in the kitchen (Bob worked concessions) is pretty sure there were no serious injuries or deaths (not even from snake attacks) during his years there. “My Dad took great pride in making sure that every nut and bolt was checked and double tightened, especially on the larger rides.”
Ad referencing the infamous snakebite rumor, Chicago Daily Tribune, July 8, 1953.
The countless kids protected by Mr. Gas’s busy wrench included many groups of underprivileged children brought on trips by a variety of organizations. The Chicago Defender newspaper documented a 1965 free day for a thousand West Side kids sponsored by the Chicago Commission of Youth Welfare and the Chicago Committee on Urban Opportunity. The Englewood Urban Progress Center brought seven hundred kids to the park in 1970. The Defender announced the 21st Police District-sponsored Fun Day bringing in three thousand kids in 1971. Jesse Jackson’s Operation Push also hosted events, and Mayor Richard J. Daley bussed in kids from city day camps.
Like many South Siders, Keith McDonald’s childhood visits to Riverview made deep impressions, but ultimately he felt more of an affinity to the park in his backyard. “On the South Side you didn’t see people outside of your ethnic group, but at Riverview you saw everybody,” he remembers. “It was so big, and they had the guy with the bubble eyes and the lady with the beard…but Fun Town was in my neighborhood. Seeing excitement on familiar faces, hearing James Brown music at the batting cages, having a place for all the teenagers to hang out…we had cotton candy back then, we didn’t have shootings.”
Unlike legendary parks like Riverview and Brooklyn’s Coney Island, Fun Town is rarely cited as a cultural reference (Chicago rapper Common makes a brief mention in his nostalgic 1994 song “Nuthin’ To Do” and one book from Arcadia Publishing has a photo from the 1950s mislabeled as “Kiddyland”). However, a different Funtown looms large in American culture. In Dr. Martin Luther King’s powerful 1963 “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” the Civil Rights leader recalls his daughter’s excitement at seeing a TV commercial for a local amusement park, followed by “tears welling up in her eyes when she is told that Funtown is closed to colored children.” That story (most recently revived in Martin Luther King III’s 2013 children’s book, My Daddy, Martin Luther King, Jr.) was about an Atlanta park with a far different history than Chicago’s Fun Town (despite both operating a Wild Mouse coaster). But the story does bring up two subjects that make Chicago’s Fun Town so important to South Siders: promotions and racial politics.
In contrast to Atlanta’s park, Fun Town in Chicago didn’t advertise on television (though in the 50s when TV personalities like Two Ton Baker made park appearances, their fee also paid for an announcement of the event on their show). But mention Fun Town to nearly any Chicagoan who listened to black local radio in the 1970s and they likely will respond in song, wistfully recalling the popular jingle, “Fun Town, Fun Town for the kids and you/ 95th and Stony Island Av-e-nue…Fun Town!” Though the park also advertised itself with a small fire truck with “Fun Town” painted on the door (which would pick up kids for birthday parties), by far their most successful promotional activity in the seventies was placing this infectious jingle on Chicago black radio stations WVON, WJPC, and WMPP (the East Chicago Heights station that also served Gary, Indiana’s R&B needs). Though Fun Town’s radio commercials changed over the years (they sometimes featured mascot Suzy Funtown, a character resembling Stephanie Mills’ Dorothy from “The Wiz,” who also made live park appearances), the joyous jingle remained the same.
Chicago DJ Richard Pegue, creator of the iconic 1970 Fun Town jingle. Photo courtesy of Richard Pegue.
The song was the handiwork of Richard Pegue, an iconic figure in Chicago radio. As a teen in the late fifties, like many of his peers, he had a high school vocal group. But Pegue didn’t just want his songs played on the radio, he wanted to understand every aspect of radio and music production. The teen tape machine tinkerer began working behind the scenes writing, producing, and engineering music, as well as deejaying neighborhood parties. He eventually gained fame as one of the “Good Guys,” the legendary disc jockeys at WVON (“The Voice of the Negro,” the influential station owned by the Chess Brothers). Less prominent was his music production career, but as Numero Group’s 2011 compilation of his productions argues, Pegue was a special talent. In a town famed for sweet harmonies, he arranged and recorded some of the sweetest, and his compositions and arrangements were groovy, whimsical, and memorable.
But after his failure to produce a hit record by the early 70s, his record producing dreams were put on the back shelf. Pegue, however, never stopped recording. He had a knack for jingle writing and over the years he produced memorable local spots for North Grand Auto Parts, Wallace’s Catfish Corner (featuring soulman Otis Clay on vocals), and his most enduring promotion, the Moo and Oink meat warehouse ads that he continued to record weekly in his analog home studio until he passed away in 2009. “His commercials weren’t slapped together,” recalls disc jockey PJ Willis, a Pegue protégé who sometimes helped on the spots. “He had a personal touch you don’t usually hear in commercial work.”
That was the touch he applied to his great 1970 Fun Town jingle, the recording that started his alternate career. “I was working at WVON,” Pegue told Chicago soul historian Bob Abrahamian in a 2009 interview, “and one of the salesmen had an account for an amusement park…I heard their commercials and they were rather blasé. So I struck up an association with the people who ran the park, and they said they need something, and I said I need something…money!” Pegue’s first jingle borrowed a backing track from a 1969 studio instrumental he produced called “For Brothers Only” by the group The Brothers & Sisters, though the vocal act has little to do on the lyric-free song (a serial recycler, in 1981 Pegue would add jingle bells to the track and use it again for a radio station Christmas single). After adding professional singers emoting the catchy couplet, Pegue’s production was solid but needed something extra to appeal to the Fun Town crowd.
Lorenzo Modeste and Lisa Ramirez, singers in the famous 1970 Fun Town jingle. Photo courtesy of Lorenzo Modeste.
Eight year-old Lorenzo Modeste and his ten year-old sister Lisa Ramirez were brought by their mother, a friend of Pegue’s, to the WVON studios. They put on headphones, got behind the microphone and did the spoken intro (“Hey mama, hey daddy, let’s go to Fun Town…”) and then sang along with the pre-recorded vocal tracks. Pegue paid their mother enough to buy the children a dresser for their bedroom, but the real compensation came when the song hit the WVON airwaves less than a week later. “Within a few days,” Modeste (now a dentist in Virginia) recalls, “we became instant celebrities.” The song remained on the air until he graduated high school. In addition, the “Fun Town Kids” received free ride tickets for the rest of their childhoods.
The popularity of the jingle was proven on the days Lisa and Lorenzo mounted the Funtown Stage (not to be confused with the short-lived, Pegue-programmed Funtown Disco Stage, a 35-foot flatbed trailer precariously parked on the inclined concrete of the former batting cages). The siblings sang along to their “hit” as the crowd cheered the youngsters, thrilled to see the radio stars in the flesh. (Pegue fans should note that Lisa was also the juvenile voice declaring, “You got a funny name,” at the start of each of his radio shows)
Though that jingle remains the most memorable facet of Fun Town, the park’s real legacy may be the way it survived and thrived during the seventies when urban amusement parks were disappearing. Specifically, Fun Town, unlike so many amusement parks around the country, did not disappear because a black populace took over the neighborhood. Instead it flourished, becoming a point of pride for teens holding down their first jobs, parents appreciating affordable family entertainment, and kids able to experience something special without leaving their corner of the city. In an era when an ethos of self-sufficiency was profoundly important to the black community, Fun Town was something South Siders felt belonged to them.
That narrative is unique, according to University of Buffalo SUNY professor Victoria Wolcott, author of Race, Riots, and Roller Coasters. As racial populations shifted in the 20th Century, urban recreational facilities wary of desegregation were often sites of violence and protests. Midwest unrest ensued in Cleveland (where a Euclid Beach security guard shot an off-duty black police officer during a desegregation protest), in Cincinnati (where protestor’s spent nine years picketing, blocking gates, and going to jail to fully integrate their Coney Island amusement park), and 4.5 miles from Fun Town at Rainbow Beach, the site of a 1961 “wade in” demonstration, in which black and white swimmers entered the water together, and were subsequently attacked by white youth gangs throwing rocks. At Riverview Park, black patrons were admitted, but were likely uncomfortable with the “Dunk the Nigger” dunk tank attraction on the midway (later re-named “The African Dip,” and ultimately shut down after NAACP protests in the late 1950s). Many parks (including Atlanta’s Funtown) closed rather than dealing with integration. According to Wolcott, the massive suburban parks that replaced them used high entrance fees (as opposed to cheap per-ride tickets) to filter out undesired populaces.
Fun Town avoided these tensions, in part because white flight was so rapid in the area. In 1968 there was only one black girl in Dianne White’s eighth grade class but by 1970 hers was one of only three remaining white families in the neighborhood. The amusement park’s demographic shift followed suit. The park may have also avoided some of the tensions that plagued other sites because it catered only to small children during much of the fifties and sixties, the influx of “threatening” black teens coming only after the 1968 shift to the Fun Town name, when white families were already leaving the area. One disturbing urban myth that plagued Riverview claimed it was a space for black teenagers to rape white girls.
Kids at Fun Town. Chicago Daily Defender, October 24, 1970.
In contrast, instead of damning black youth with dangerous stereotypes, Fun Town presented them with models of success, and not only with visiting celebrities like Pegue, fellow Good Guy Herb Kent, and athletes like Ernie Banks. Because Fun Town was closed in the winter, and only operated weekends when school was in session, the black managers and concession owners were moonlighting at the park, and many had successful outside careers. Leo Ammons, who owned the carnival games, also had his own construction company. And Ira Harris was one of the more prominent African-American police officers in Chicago. He would go on to be president of NOBLE, the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives, and also served as Chief of Police of the Chicago Housing Authority.
Fun Town represented opportunity for many local teens. Terrance Morris, now Operations Director for CAN-TV (Chicago’s cable access network), managed carnival games at the park from 1972 through 1976, starting when he was barely a teen. “Working there taught me responsibility, and showed us it was possible to make something of ourselves. A lot of what I do in my job today I learned working at Fun Town.”
One anecdote McDonald wistfully recalls says it all for him in terms of what Fun Town meant to the South Side. “One time I had to close and didn’t leave until after 11, and while I was waiting for the bus at 95th and Stony a policeman approached and asked to see my ID. But then he saw my red and white Fun Town shirt, and that was ID enough. That shirt was iconic in the neighborhood, if you worked at Fun Town everyone knew you were okay.”
By the early 80s, Fun Town was not okay. Mismanagement chipped away at the goodwill associated with the park. Increasing poverty in a neighborhood where once everyone could work in the nearby US Steel mill, which laid off half its workers by 1980, led to increased crime. Gas recalls overnight break-ins which resulted in German shepherd dogs patrolling the park at night. “Sadly,” he says “several of them were found dead, some poisoned and some shot.” The increasing popularity of the suburban mega-amusement park Great America, which opened in 1976, was the final nail in Fun Town’s casket. “There were some nights,” David Dines recalls, “where there might have been five customers in the park. It was really sad and hopeless.” In 1982 the rides were auctioned, the land sold, and Chicago’s last amusement park was no more.
“Places of urban recreation were such important spaces for residents of these communities,” Wolcott reflects. “It’s sad they no longer exist.”
Terrance Morris concurs. “Fun Town did a lot for the neighborhood in terms of giving kids a safe environment. It was a meeting place, not a lot of riffraff hanging around. If there were something like that today maybe we wouldn’t have so much of this violence.”
Thanks to Bob Abrahamian, Bill Dahl, David Dines, Bob Gas, Ted Greenwald, Al Greer, Marcie Hill, Cynthia Plaster Caster, Lisa Ramirez Martin, Keith McDonald, Lorenzo Modeste, Terrance Morris, Erica Rizzio, Rob Sevier, Mario Smith, Richard Steele, Gary Tyson, Alex White, Dianne White, PJ Willis, and Dr. Victoria Wolcott.
If anyone has photographs, home movies, corrections, or additional information about Kiddy Town/Fun Town please post to comments or contact the author at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @JakeandRatso. Top photo courtesy of David Dines.
Jake Austen is editor of Roctober magazine, author of several books, and has freelanced for publications including Harper’s, Vice, Chicago Tribune, and Chicago Reader. Playground(Gliteratti Incorporated, 3/14), his forthcoming collaboration with Paul Zone, is a coffee table book of photographs and stories from New York’s early 70s pre-punk scene.
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