Pleasure Island Remembered
Legendary Wakefield Amusement Park Opened 50 Years Ago
Writing about my recollections of Pleasure Island on the occasion of its 50th birthday forces me to acknowledge that I am at least as old as the park. So let me stipulate up front that I was but a wee lad, still wet behind the ears, when Pleasure Island first opened its gates in Wakefield, Massachusetts on Monday, June 22, 1959.
As fate would have it, the calendar has honored the anniversary by lining up the days exactly as they were 50 years ago. June 22, 2009 is also a Monday.
“Theme Parks” were all the rage at mid-century, inspired by the success of Disneyland in California. A day trip to Pleasure Island was the highlight of the summer for kids growing up in this area in the early 1960s.
The rides were unique and different from your typical amusement park, like Canobie Lake. There was no rollercoaster or Ferris wheel at Pleasure Island. Instead, you got to go on the park’s signature “Moby Dick Hunt,” where your “Captain” (usually a kid barely out of high school) steered your boat into the lagoon of a man-made pond where the giant fiberglass white whale rose from the deep and blew water from its spout to the gasps of all.
Also in “Clipper Cove” you could go on “The Wreck of the Hesperus,” a “dark ride” into the depths of the ocean where you encountered all manner of terrifying undersea creatures.
Moving to the Western City section of the park, you could take another dark ride on the “Chisholm Trail,” where behind every cactus lurked an ornery old gunfighter and huge rattlesnakes hissed inches from your ankles. Emerging back outside, you could walk around the corner and ride real live burros, which for kids reared on “The Lone Ranger,” was as close as many would ever get to riding a horse.
Speaking of the Lone Ranger, Clayton Moore was a regular performer at the Show Bowl, an outdoor amphitheater in Pleasure Island that also brought the Three Stooges to Wakefield and hosted many other national show business acts of the day.
But my most vivid memories of Pleasure Island are from the latter end of the park’s run, the 1967 and ’68 seasons, when I was (barely) old enough to work there. In fact, I was not old enough but my uncle, one of many teachers who moonlighted summers as supervisors at Pleasure Island, pulled a few strings to get me hired as a member of the grounds crew despite my tender age. (I assume, for my uncle’s sake, that the statute of limitations on child labor laws has long since expired.)
One of our major functions on the grounds crew was to walk around and pick up litter in the grassy areas using sticks affixed with sharpened nails. We also assisted with general park maintenance, which brings me to Walter Sherman, the infamous head of maintenance at Pleasure Island.
Walter was known to take an adult beverage under extreme social pressure, as was sometimes evident when he returned to the park after “lunch” at the Tally-Ho Tavern in Lynnfield. Everyone who ever worked at Pleasure Island has at least one Walter Sherman story, usually replete with language unsuitable for a family newspaper.
On one occasion, Walter handed me and another member of the grounds crew a bucket of paint and a couple of brushes and sent us off to paint a fence in a remote area of the park. As we walked away after receiving our orders, Walter called after us, “And I’ll be down in an hour to do it right!”
It was the late 1960s, and sometimes park announcer Dave Campanella would play disc jockey, and between announcements we might hear a Beatles’ song from Sgt. Pepper’s over the park’s intercom system. I was puzzled that one of the college-age guys who worked the Chisholm Trail ride was known by the nickname “Head.” I didn’t figure out until I was much older that this was short for “pothead.”
By the summer of 1968 I was promoted to conductor on the “Old Smoky” train ride. Although my $1.40 an hour salary remained the same, this was a status promotion. I got to wear a white shirt and a conductor’s hat and yell “all aboard” as the train left the station. Hey, it wasn’t whale boat captain, but it was better than grounds crew.
I was not there in 1969 to witness what would be the final season of Pleasure Island’s existence. By then I had gotten my first job in journalism – collating sections of the newspaper in the press room of the Wakefield Daily Item.
[This column originally appeared in the June 18, 2009 Wakefield Daily Item.]
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