The Amusement Park
SIR JOHN LUBBOCK;, in his quaint little philosophical mosaic The Pleasures of Life, entirely omits to mention those felicities which, selected and compounded with due discretion, fashion the amusement park. This delinquency argues no intellectual or emotional snobbishness on Lubbock’s part. With insatiable curiosity he probed the activities of Battas and Cambodians, of Fijis, Bachapins, and Bouriats, and recounted them in The Origin of Civilization and the Primitive Condition of Man. With equal (perhaps analogous) concern, I fancy, would he have contemplated the joys of shrieking multitudes such as frequent the “ sceenic ” railway, the “shoot the chutes,” and the “house of follies.” But The Pleasures of Life, appearing a score of years ago, came too early to admit of these fascinating considerations.
And yet, precisely at that period, Mr. Erastus Wiman was evolving the first amusement park, progenitor of the two thousand with which the nation is now beatified. To his iridescent electrical geyser at St. George’s, you had access only by his Staten Island Ferry; to his Wild West, somewhere in the Hinterland, only by his Staten Island Railway; thus, whether by boat or train or by entertainment, it was always Mr. Wiman who transported you. And so remunerative became the dual rôle that later, when the trolley began its conquest, speculative genius snatched a leaf from Mr. Wiman’s book; and you could scarce find a company unenterprising enough not to stimulate traffic by opening a grove or park supplied with alluring bears, irresistible simians, and the enticements of al fresco vaudeville. Meanwhile, the Saturday half-holiday and the Continental Sunday augmented the response vouchsafed by an adoring public.
It was commonly by milder measures than Erastus Wiman’s that his disciples applied his theories. They judged that the town-stayed summer millions would yield up dimes and nickels gladly in purchase of idyllic and faintly sensational enjoyments. In this they had the wisdom of their day; and, as eras overlap, in pleasures as clearly as in creeds and philosophies, many charming examples of that somewhat placid, not to say languid, style of amusement park still survive. The people love them; love them better at heart, I believe, than they love the corybantic frenzies that seek to supersede them. Happier, though less frolicsome, than at Luna Park or Wonderland, they taste the delights of restful contentment, commingled with a tempered and soothing gayety, — the shade of noble elms and oaks and beeches for coolness; flowers for radiant beauty; forest folk, in open-air cages, for things to pet and to wonder at; the theatre as at least a tolerable substitute for melody and humor; the river, with luscious wooded banks and glassy surface, for cruises in pretty launches or prettier canoes. Besides, there are swings, and a tiny electric fountain, and a “palace of electrical marvels,” to say nothing of the paradise of bonbons, tinted drinks, and peanuts; everywhere contentment, shining from sunny faces, particularly from the faces of wee children. Once, as it seemed to me, I saw the genius of such a place personified in a sweet little maid of three, who clapped her chubby hands in ecstasy before a bed of flowers as she cried, “Oh, see these pwitty, pwitty, pwitty woses!”
Nevertheless, there arose certain misguided schismatics who found the idyllic pleasure grow a trifle dull, or fancied they did. People don’t always think what they think they think, even regarding their amusements; indeed, it is there, most especially, that they manifest their autogullibility. This our purveyors of recreation have known from of old. Witness Barnum. Given, therefore, a populace prone to worship strange divinities, and capital will soon enough supply the altars. Here and yonder, springing up sporadically and without effort at organization, arose sierra-like funiculars, whirling death-traps, and mad, cyclonic — even seismic — bugaboos. Such won proselytes, who exhibited the traditional zeal of the convert, to the vast discomfiture of those who still confessed the fascination of bears and swings and peanuts. Folly, like would-be wisdom, has its poses, chief of which is sophistication; and what had been at first a mere inarticulate dissatisfaction with the tamer, but pleasanter, diversions became outspoken disdain. And all along, the charming grove had attracted many supercilious souls of the sort that affect to despise cheap amusement, as who should say, “Ah, yes, we went there, but pray don’t imagine that’s our notion of a lark! ” It was, and they fibbed; and now the fib served to aid the propaganda of heresy.
Meanwhile capital, with ever an ear to the ground, had caught murmurs that set it thinking; why not kidnap the institution, cram it with heathen allurements, put it where the proletariat was already wont to go a-pleasuring, and make the reincarnated and expanded elysium independent, henceforth, of the broomstick train ? In this there should be dividends! And just at this juncture, when speculative interests sat plotting, there arrived a concrete suggestion, brilliant and convincing.
Expositionism set in. It became epidemic. American cities were of two classes only, those that had had the distemper and those that wanted it; Americans likewise of two classes, those that had visited expositions and those that counted themselves debased and undone because they had n’t. If, therefore, a miniature exposition should lift its towers and opal-tinted minarets close to some enormous centre of population, it would pay for itself in a season or so. Sound logic, wanting only the revision that makes assurance doubly sure.
Problem: what features of the world’s fair to reproduce ? The most popular, of course. And which were they? To determine this, the capitalists studied expositionitis by isolating the germ. They watched its growth in the culture tube, and as soon as it got big enough for its name to be made out, they knew their duty. The Midway, as they had already guessed, was the clou of the exposition. Americans had owned themselves halfLatin in their zest for carnival; the gala mood, long held in abeyance by Puritan tradition, had leaped forth in a day, claiming and winning an uproarious recognition. Hence the reincarnated amusement park, while feebly imitating the exposition architecture and providing a garish replica of its illumination, gave the Midway a dominant rank,— indeed, permitted nothing but Midway, — and, in needless tremors lest the people might have tired of those somewhat familiar distractions, combed Christendom for supplementary felicities. The Middle Western street-fair, the Parisian fête foraine, the mardigras, the fiesta, the penny vaudeville, the circus, the dime museum, and the jubilant terrors of Coney Island, were rifled of their magic. Never was Midway so frantic, so extravagant, so upsetting, so innoculously bacchanalian!
Meanwhile an unsuspected economic secret had been disclosed. Whereas Wiman and the Wimanit.es had naïvely financed their own “attractions,” the brazen Midway compelled its concessionaires to purchase the right to exhibit. Thus its expansion knew practically no bounds. It realized the boast of the country circus, becoming literally “a stupendous aggregation of monster shows.” The more numerous and effulgent those shows, the more multitudinous the crush at the general entranceway. So, what with tolls at the outer wickets and imposts at the countless little counting houses of vassal princes, you had here a scheme for money-making that would tempt investments till, according to The Railway and, Engineering Review, the total capitalization of amusement parks in America has reached the great figure of $100,000,000.
On the other hand, economic law involved a limitation. Summer empties the town of the class that flung away money so riotously at the expositions; instead of a fifty-cent admission fee at the gate, the park humbles itself to be happy with a dime, and very modest must be the additional fees within. Its patrons, the residuum of the mountainward, shore-ward, and Europe-ward hegira, make up in numbers what, they lack in opulence. Besides, knowing world’s fairs chiefly by hearsay and the halftoned photographs in the Sunday newspapers, they are indulgent of sham. Have patience, then, with a world of shortcomings well calculated to scandalize the classic Burnham and cause the great Roltaire to beat his breast. A hot board walk replaces the delicious lawns and shrubbery, tinsel architecture the exquisite façades, a few plastic fol-de-rols the lavish sculpture-groups, a heartrending “lagoon” the iris-bordered waterways, a jargon of ill-combined hues the gracious harmonies of color, and a crudely magnificent illumination the sweet poetry of radiance that once — ah, so rapturously!— turned plaster to opalescent glory. And yet, if you dismiss those visions of supreme loveliness, you call the place very pretty, while to those for whom it is particularly designed it represents a jubilant paradise of beauty. Indeed, it contributes not a little to æsthetic education. The people, like yourself, arrive at artistic appreciation through an ever-diminishing series of humbugs.
In its main purpose, though, this barbaric ensemble attains the very pinnacle of success. It expresses joyousness — sings it, shouts it, a hundred times reechoes it. In cupolas and minarets, in domes and flaunting finials, in myriads of gay bannerets, in the jocund motion of merry-go-rounds, circle-swings, and wondrous sliding follies, in laughter and in shrieks, in the blare of brazen music and in the throbbing of tom-toms, it speaks its various language — joyous ever.
Yet somehow, amid those frisky multitudes, you detect traces of reaction. Aimless spirits drift hither and yon, wary and hesitant, “like green pigs far from home.” With hilarities awaiting them on every hand, they are teasing their souls with such questions as, “Is it worth a whole quarter?” or “Should I come off alive if I tried it?” And this countercurrent of grimness results, I suppose, from a popular (and highly unpopular) fallacy. A dime takes you into the park, or pretends to. But you are never so emphatically outside it as when merely inside it. Upon that central space converge all its gaudy shows, and you are n’t inside any one of them. Tantalus, I dare say, was a much-abused man in his time, but. they did n’t. make him purchase his affliction. Unlike Tantalus, you may gain the delights that now torment you, yet vaguely you imagine that they should of right be already yours. You know in your heart that they should not; you know that the initial dime simply qualified you to pace the board walk, hear the bands play, watch the parades of show people, — Indians, Arabs, firemen, and the rest, — and witness the antics of your contemporaries. Nevertheless, you cherish resentment, — the bitterer because of its lack of logic. How fallen your nature since you passed that metamorphic wicket! Outside it, you were Mark Tapley; within, you are Scrooge.
To unscrooge Scrooge, all the beguilements of the art persuasive are let loose at you through megaphones; for your mood has been anticipated, and a race of coaxers, wheedlers, spell-binders, and bamboozlers raised up to make attractions attract. Nothing can surpass their moral earnestness, granted you don’t wink at them. They cry up the shows with passionate eloquence, sometimes even exhibiting the performers as a guarantee of good faith and a stimulus to zeal. “Esau here — the ape-man — only specia of his kind in existence!” “Princess Fatima here, a full-blooded Bedoueen from the storied city of Nineveh, will dance the mystic anaconda dance, exactly as danced by Hypatia in Holy Writ! ” “Don’t miss the Fatal Wedding! Sixty laughs to the minute!” “Foolish House — cra-a-a-azy house — only a dime, ten cents, the tenth part of a dollar!” “You’ll ha-a-a-ave to hurry! The whale is about to enter the ring!” Zounds, what a hubbub!
Laugh, if you must, at their methods, but laugh much more heartily at the need of their being here at all. For nowhere else, save in that most absurd of situations, a battle, will you find the case paralleled. Ten thousand men strut gayly forth to annihilate ten thousand others; but, once arrived upon the field of glory, they don’t know about that battle. That is why talented exhorters, called officers, have been scattered through the ranks to persuade the slayers to slay; without those subaltern cries of “Come on, boys!” there would be no battle. Likewise these pleasure-seekers, after braving the horrors of stiffing railway trains and hideously over-crowded trolley-cars to reach the blessed portals, have now to be barked through them.
Within, there is generally a ripple of rather ironical comment, an exchange of I-told-you-sos. And as you wait, wait, dripping with perspiration, you analyze the economies that permit the modest charge for admission — walls of painted burlap, gaps where the wood shows through, perchance even confessions of that tarred black paper suggestive of huts for Italian ditch diggers. And all the while, the “ballyhoo” keeps baying the crowds without, though the performance was “about to begin” and you “had to hurry.” You declare that you are not so much before a stage as behind the scenes, —that the real proscenium was the gorgeous entrance-way, the real performance a petty tragedy in which the overborne hero (to wit, yourself) got robbed of his money. But actors draw their pay, and you shall yet draw yours. See! Yonder comes the chief showman — with some natural pangs you recognize him as the barker. Hound of a cheat! — yet away with anger; the curtain goes up, the frolic begins — full value for the dime. However, it achieves its finale with surprising alacrity, and out you rush, unreasonably satisfied and unaccountably eager to be snared again.
For somehow you have caught the spirit of the place. You tingle with it from crown to heel. To slip dimes and quarters through silly ticket windows, to swelter in stuffy amusement pens, to cancel every canon of conventionality, every rubric of discretion, to court perils, discomforts, and mellow swindles - such is your symphony. You spy on your soul and laughingly exclaim, “Lawkamassy on us, this is none of I!” Theoretically an institution for the vulgar herd, the park is preëminently a delight for the cultivated, since the profanum vulgus remains involved in the embarrassment of possessing no personalities in particular to slough off.
Emotions, however, they have, —though of a primitive sort, responding only to extreme excitations. Or so, at least, you would conclude from the emotional stimuli here provided; but perhaps, as so frequently happens in picture-shows, literary competitions, and the architectural exploits of a parvenu street, each phenomenon assumes exaggerated virulence by reason merely of desperation, hoping against hope to outdo the rest. On the other hand, the popular response seems to justify the managerial philosophy, which asserts that the people crave three things only, — a chance to wonder, a chance to shudder, and a chance to be scared out of their wits.
“That most fascinating expression upon a child’s face,” cries Professor G. Stanley Hall,— “that most fascinating and most beautiful expression, the expression of wonder!” Children thrive in the park; at fifty they’re children still. Once they paid “ five pins, crooked ones not taken,” to peep through a hole in a paper box; now they pay real money for Eleusinian delights. The word “mystic,” printed in huge letters on the bill-boards, draws its scores of thousands, who burn to purchase pigs in pokes. And if, having entered the “mystic” gate, the middle-aged child should come upon illusions yet more mystical, he would be as elated as was Moses Primrose when he had sold his horse for a pair of shagreen spectacles.
To get the maximum of wonder out of an illusion, you must n’t be too rational, since at bottom the marvel is n’t that the eye can sometimes be fooled, but that the eye can so rarely be fooled. When, at the age of four, you thought your railway train had started, and discovered that, instead, the train next yours had been moving in the opposite direction, you crowed with glee; you felt that something most extraordinary had been taking place inside you, and you valued yourself more highly on account of it.
To be gulled, to know you are gulled, and to know that the people who gull you know you know they’re gulling you
— ah! the bliss! Here at the park a mimic railway carriage, with biograph pictures at its farther end, takes you spinning along the funicular “up Mt. Vesuvius;” likewise a make-believe airship transports you to realms beyond the stars, since a descending panorama connotes an ascending beholder; still subtler mysteries of optics permit your fellow mortals to be innocuously burned alive before your eyes, or turned into skeletons, or waited upon by spooks. But for illusions par excellence commend me to yonder fat and sleepy pythoness, who sits within the Temple of Palmistry and between yawns deludes the eye of faith. There is something magnificent about those yawns. As when the wire-dancer goes blindfold, they attest sublime selfconfidence; also a conviction, majestic in its immovability, that whoso has paid a half-dollar for a hoax will find grace to swallow it.
Let us not be censorious; the palmist’s case verges less closely upon deceit than upon romantic fiction. You consent to illusion, just as when you opened The Prisoner of Zenda. If, however, instead of surrendering yourself to Mr. Anthony Hope, you had chosen a book by George Gissing and detected flaws in its realism, vast disgruntlement would result. And so it does when you cross the threshold of Fair Japan, that “revelation and perfect, unabridged realization of the Kingdom of the Mikado and the Chrysanthemum.” Later, though, you find it a very agreeable psychological lark, since the people are obviously undismayed by American girls in Japanese costumes, or by wistaria reproduced in paper, or by shabby little pools bordered with Portland cement; and as for vermilion gateways and the crudest and most inartistic of decorations, not the jiu-jitsu performance itself gets a serener acceptance as “the real thing.” Well, Cimabue’s Madonna was a pretty sad counterfeit of womanhood, though his contemporaries carried it in triumph through Florence; and they of the amusement park still tarry within the archaic era of æsthetic development.
In Beautiful Orient, on the contrary, you see the anachronism turned literally end for end. Thanks to Mr. Frank Carpenter and Mr. William Eleroy Curtis,— newspaper heralds of the American invasion, — the spectators think the Levant a sort of incommensurable Bowery, where racial customs already give way before an overwhelming tide of occidentalism. The Princess Zuleika (née Flannery) trips forth in a second-hand costume that once lent decorous adornment to a vaudeville soubrette, and you trace her theory of the dance less to Cairo or Stamboul than to Broadway. So be it! If we must have an American invasion, we must put up with the result. Nevertheless, some would fain have proof that “East is East,” as “West is West,” and that “never the twain shall meet.” Such take comfort in camels, in wondrous narghiles, in jugglers and sword-swallowers, in whirling dervishes and musicians from Tangier. They cherish at least a faint hope that the Turkish Theatre will reflect oriental viciousness with something approaching fidelity. But fidelity, which thrives none too well in the Levant itself, fares ill indeed in a make-believe Levant; and if you will put yourself in the manager’s place, you will see that there remains no necessity for fair play. A show as old as his, long advertised by its loving friends, is bound to draw. Says Tom to Jerry, “Gee! This is what Bill seen in Chicago!” Emerging, — deeply grieved, but in excellent ethical repair,— they horribly arraign poor Bill, Not so the average visitant, who would rather quaff his orientalism in tincture than in essence.
Yet, when our pleasurers aspire to craze their souls with vicarious terror, they insist upon “the real thing.” How sweet that moment when a man — preferably a woman, ideally a young and comely woman — struts among lions, or drops from a balloon, or vaults through space in an inverted automobile. Barbarism ? Yes, but whereas the Coliseum gloated upon the spectacle of death, these modern Romans glory in the escape from death. Light and cruel were the mob in Cæsar’s day, serious and cruel are these — unconsciously serious, unconsciously cruel. They don’t comprehend that their hunger for shudders forces the management to gratify it, or that it is they who have put. another’s life in jeopardy. Neither do they comprehend the far from trivial source of their enjoyment. Flaming sympathies, wild upsurgings of desire, and mad jubilance, — when the dread crisis has passed, — give the spectator a panoramic view of his own soul. Incapable, commonly, of introspection, he has experienced an interval of dazzling, astounding self-revelation. Out of his littleness, he rises to momentary greatness— feels himself terribly, almost epically, alive.
Still, there’s no denying that beneath these nobler passions lurks something morbid — morbid or (more precisely) primitive. Blind instinct leads thousands of men to congregate before the prison when a criminal is to be executed; they see nothing, hear nothing, nor do they expect to. Ah! but when somebody gets under the fender of a trolley car, the same blind instinct brings the same seekers after shudders; yet, once there, they lift the car bodily, rescue the sufferer, and exhibit civilized mercy almost simultaneously with prehistoric savagery! Nor will you particularly revere the more delicate individuals who pass by, with averted faces, too tender-hearted to witness pain. However vile the horrorthirst, its ulterior purpose (if you sanction that degree of teleology) is beneficent. The more shame, then, that it should be played with, here at the amusement park, where men and women see life imperiled without lifting a finger to prevent it, or even desiring to! The more amazing that these are the very men and women who, so brief a while ago, were cheerfully paying money to visit, and thus to support, the infant incubators, whose sole object is the saving of endangered lives!
Self-contradiction — forgive it without disdain, in those undisciplined minds and hearts; it is a rather common failing with the best of us, and we have here to do with by no means the best or wisest. How easily they are deceived! They imagine they are witnessing a carnival of heroism—the performer goes so smilingly to his task; they overlook the necessity, circumstantial or temperamental, that has driven him to adopt such an atrocious calling. Besides, they ’re bad judges of danger. They think the young lion-tamer in especial peril, whereas it is usually the seasoned one who comes to grief. And they delight in the brandishing of whips— “Dauntless fellow, he even dares strike them ! ” Well, I once rubbed elbows with Mr. James J. Corbett, but not for worlds would I have ventured to punch him.
With equal innocence, the crowds deduce valor in the bronco-busters at the Wild West Show and Indian Congress, whereas few of our fellow-countrymen enjoy a more secure existence. The danger is n’t in the breaking of a wild horse after you know how, it is in trying to break one when you ’re green. To applaud the courage of acquired skill becomes a mere ex post facto procedure. For “the real thing” the audience should transport itself westward to Wolfville and backward to 1890.
Yonder, at “Fire and Flames,” the same guileless lack of discernment. Half a million dollars invested in tinder-boxes necessitates expensive fire-fighting apparatus and a large squad of firemen, and the park makes the people pay for them. Seated in a huge grandstand, you look out upon a tenement street, which swarms with such improvident Thespians as have laid by no money for the summer. As guttersnipes, factory girls, policemen, pawnbrokers, Chinese laundrymen, newsboys, and roisterers, they enact a travesty upon the life of the quarter, and what with fights, ambulance calls, robberies, arrests, and the clangor of patrol wagons, they do it full justice. But see! a wisp of smoke curls upward from Cohen’s pawnshop! Then flames, and more flames. The alarm rings out, shouts rend the air, and in a moment the Department, with two steamers, a hose cart, a chemical, and a hook-and-ladder truck, comes charging through the throng, and attacks the conflagration, which has spread to adjoining buildings, at whose windows some forty women stand screaming. Up go the ladders, out spread the life nets. Girls leap headlong and are caught in safety. Others the firemen carry shrieking down their ladders. And all this, remember, amid clouds of smoke and frequent explosions. But the spectators — missing the point, as usual — forget that those who climb and those who leap have had long training either as firemen or acrobats, and that the only people really in mortal danger are the unfortunate Thespians. How they dodge the rushing engines, that Providence which watches over inebriates, babes, and play-actors alone knows.
Suppose, now, that in room of watching others coquet with Death, you should toy with her yourself. With infinite ingenuity, the amusement park affords you opportunity. Tempt any one of a dozen thanatopses, and you will derive an emotional reaction that shames literature, the drama, and the dare-devil exhibition as well. Note the ascending scale. The ballad-singer tells you about the imperiled hero, the actor impersonates the imperiled hero, the hired dare-devil is the imperiled hero. This passage from romance to realism, from realism to reality, can go only a step further. Its final achievement makes you the imperiled hero. Hitherto, by the exercise of sympathy, through imagination, you “put yourself in the place of” that wretched wight; sweeter were it to change places with him outright. Thus, by substituting the subjective for the objective, the acme of thrill would result. And, bless you, it shall!
Moreover it does — from the moment you first front the terror-breeding mechanical Torquemada. The bright face of danger, challenging the eternal juvenile within you, seems — exactly as in years gone by — to be taunting, “Fraidycat! you dass n’t!” Eagerly you retort, “Yes, I dass!” Ah! but do you “dass” ? An army officer, they say, once suspected that his courage was dwindling, and set his mind at rest on that head by going up in an airship. By an analogous recourse to empiricism, you buy your ticket and suffer yourself to be packed into the abhorred vehicle, which will soon go leaping, flying, or diving till you’re sure of your grit. If you only knew it, though, the act of supreme audacity has already been performed. What follows is the mere secondary heroism which Jackies display in an naval engagement. It takes nerve to enlist in the navy; a fellow could back out, even after entering the recruiting office. It does n’t take nerve to fight; a fellow can’t possibly run away. And this, just now, is your status. However, you resolve to cut as brilliant a figure as may be before your own conscience, and yon summon up that sham valor which consists in thinking it is n’t afraid when it shakes in its boots. A rumble, a tug — you’re off! A sharp pang of fear; then relief. “Not so bad after all!” you exclaim. A moment later you revel in a perfect delirium of speed, bumps, yanks, vaults, and sickening descents. You utter the cry of a tiny boy, “Scare me again! Scare me — scare me worse! ” When finally you make your escape,—gasping, panting, and bewildered to find yourself still alive, — you flatter yourself that you could brave the very doors of Dis, you who only yesterday quivered like an aspen while discharging the cook!
Cook! Say not “Cook!” you have reverted to that cookless era when men hunted the mastodon. It is n’t enough to describe the “chutes,” for instance, as an apotheosis of the banister, or as the cellar door in excelsis. The passion that gets its satisfaction from these varied deathtraps takes you back to the troglodyte, perhaps even to the ape. Your simian ancestors, swinging from treetop to tree-top, had much your sensation. They of the Neolithic Age sought it in the chase and in battle. A small boy gets it when a kind and thoughtful citizen turns him upside down. And you yourself, by a personal application of Darwinism,find it here and pronounce it glorious. Said an enthusiast to Mr. Charles Belmont Davis, “Easily the best sensation at the Island is the scenic railway with a wooden beam that looks as if it was going to hit you on the head. It’s great! ” Seneca was right: “the most happy ought to wish for death.”
Nevertheless they don’t. They want only a brush with it. For a brush with death makes life unutterably precious. We never love it so dearly or feel it so keenly as when it seems to be slipping from us. That is why people climb Matterhorns, drive motors at breakneck speed, and take pleasure rides in submarines. And even the most adventurous select a reliable guide, scrutinize every shaft and bolt of the chassis, and seek reasonable hope that the submarine will come up again. Besides, they welcome the hair’s-breadth escape only when they have chosen it freely,—a circumstance which explains the anomaly noted by Mr. Mark Sullivan when he declared, “If a man suffered in a trolley car what ten thousand New Yorkers pay ten cents to have done to them at Coney Island, he would go to a hospital for a month, call himself a nervous wreck for the rest of his days, and sue the trolley company for $20,000 damages.”
Apart from their sensationalism, these ready-made thanatopses charm also by their mystery. “I wonder how it feels ?” muses the neophyte. Pray don’t insist that imagination should suffice, for in the case of emotional reactions induced by mechanical deviltries or untried shakeups of whatever sort, there’s a world of unexpectedness. How does it feel to drive an automobile a hundred miles an hour ? Mr. Barney Oldfield reports that “you are conscious only of a desire to go faster.” How does it feel to be up in a balloon ? Mr. Roy Knabenshue tells me the sensation is one of sweet repose. How does it feel to be shipwrecked ? Mr. Winthrop Packard, thrice a castaway, says your first emotion savors wholly of disgust; you have confided yourself to a supposedly respectable, rightminded, businesslike ship, and now she plays you false.
What wonder, then, if a priori judgment flies wide of the mark regarding what a mortal goes through when he shoots the chutes. I had said it was like riding on the stone that somebody sends skipping across a mill-pond. I had not foreseen that the aquatic comedy would serve only as the epilogue to a gloria of speed, a downward rush that tossed all creation up to meet me; nor had I imagined that when the boat took the water I should suffer a sting of regret at the anticlimax. Or what more transparent in its intentions than the “sceenic’ railway- “sceenic” because it now and then dives through tunnels enlivened with representations of Venice, the Klondike, and Araby the Blest ? Nevertheless, it deceives you by presenting its terrific “thank-youma’ams,” so to speak, beam on, whereas you don’t ride a railway in side elevation, — you ride it lengthwise, and thus get its bumps and dips foreshortened. They rise like palisades, fall away like canyons. Moreover, lest familiarity breed contempt, the worst come last.
Surprised by chutes and funiculars, you are yet more surprised by “flying airships.” Imagine a gigantic steel Maypole with steel rods dangling from its top instead of ribbons, and little roofed gondolas at their lower ends instead of dancers. The central mast rotates, the rods fly out by centrifugal force, and your tiny craft not only revolves, ever faster, ever taking a wider orbit, and ever soaring higher, but at the same time tips inward toward the centre, like a skater rounding a curve. This you call a rather wanton and extravagant complication of afflictions, concluding that any man with the hardihood and sanity to survive them should receive both the sabre of the general staff and the white ermine of the judiciary. When the barker assures you his victims “feel only a refreshing coolness,” you remind him that Dr. Guillotine said the same of his. Then, at cost of drastic self-abnegation,you try it, when lo! you experience no more disquietude than a bird on the wing or the stars in their courses. The laws of physics uphold you, seem almost to caress you. You are silent,yes, and happy; while beneath you the world reels and swells and topples to and fro like mid-ocean billows, since every successive moment gives you a new scale of perspective. This, which you had in no wise foreseen, is what chiefly amuses you.
Behold now the bugaboo shows — Hell Gate and the Foolish House. Wiling or half-veiling their interior shudders and shocks, they spur the impulse for exploration, an impulse compounded of inquisitiveness, bravado, and the thirst, for incident. As you watch the little shallops thread the whirlpool within the Hell Gate grotto, and see them sucked down at its vortex, you yearn to know what destiny awaits them. Also what torments rend their occupants. With certain highly Dantesque forebodings, you embark. Slowly, grimly, your circling boat drifts nearer that atrocious abyss. Sardonic jokes, from adventurers in craft ahead of you or behind, so dismay you that if it were possible you would purchase deliverance at cost of half your lands. At last, it is but a single coil of the spiral that separates you from the drop to Avernus! Zounds, what suspense! Then a rush, a sinking of the heart, a sound of grinding wood, and a plunge down a twisted cataract into chaos and resounding night. With your whole soul you combat fear, even transform it into joy. “Hail, horrors! Hail, infernal world!” And now you laugh. Light comes, and with it red devils amid flames, volcanoes spitting fire, gorgeous grottoes all dripping with stalactites, and — very soothing to the eschatological emotions — icebergs and polar bears! Gradually you retrace the spiral, traversing canals built just under those of the preliminary whirlpool, and finally come out upon a little quay, rich in varied grotesqueries.
If half-veiled scares attract so powerfully, were it not still shrewder to veil them totally ? Roar, “ My attorney will call upon you!” and I squirm; mutter darkly, “I’ll not say what I intend for thee,” and I quake. Hence the charm of the Foolish House. It is vague and mysterious, — without, a blend of the awesome and the comic; within, well, let’s see! Darkness, a winding passage
— innocuous enough, but wait! Next moment a frolicsome tornado has all but knocked you senseless. The floor wallows and shakes. Horrifying bumps confront your feet. What with tempests and earthquakes and night and labyrinthine confusion and stumbling-blocks combined, you wish yourself dead. Then relief! A crystal maze, humorous but not alarming. A row of concave and convex mirrors, showing you yourself as Humpty Dumpty, or as that gracefully attenuated celebrity, Jack the Beanstalk. Five minutes of laughter. After that, you bravely run the gauntlet of supplementary distresses, and when you emerge it is with a shining countenance as of one newly initiated by the “joiners.”
Once free of its terrors, you begin to revere the psychological acumen that arranged them. One might fancy that a bugaboo show ought to be made as harrowing as possible. Not so. The crowd wants only enough hazing to shock the nerves agreeably; give it more and it bolts. That is why the mirrors and the crystal maze were introduced — a palliative like that employed by a dramatist when he weaves funny incidents into . a “me-chiid, me-child” melodrama.
Such, then, are the more conspicuous joys — of wonder, of vicarious terror, and the first-hand hair’s-breadth ’scape
— vouchsafed by the amusement park. Others, still unmentioned, abound, beyond the wildest surmises of the higher mathematics. Who shall number the beatific Moxie stands, the popcorn and peanut stalls, the rapturous candy-mills; who shall compute the tintype galleries, bamboo slides, penny vaudevilles, sandbumps, graphophones, merry-go-rounds, strength-testing devices, nickel-in-the-slot machines, Japanese “gambling” games, rifle-ranges, and establishments where “you get your money back if I fail to guess your weight within three pounds ” ? But chiefly there remain the contrivances for the better promotion of romance — the ball-room, Love’s Journey, and the gay camaraderie of the board walk.
Then young folks arrive in couples ? Yes and no. Many come singly — each lad with an as yet unidentified pompadour in his heart, each lass cherishing a shy anticipation. But how, you ask, shall those youthful strangers be made acquainted ? Leave that to them. In the ballroom any well-seeming youngster may invite any girl to dance — an arrangement long since sanctioned by that maelstrom of proletarian jollity, the “social,” where tickets (“gents 35 cents, ladies 25”) connote partners and more partners, till everbody knows everybody else. Moreover, if you study the People’s Column in a penny newspaper, you will see how puzzling to the masses is our custom of letting one another alone until introduced. “Introductions,” writes Johnnie Blue, “are a fad that is greatly overdone.”
The little shop girl shares his convictions. Nor need we waste shudders on her behalf; keen and knowing, ever on the defensive, she discourages such advances as perplex her — whether in the ballroom, or, a shade less decorously, upon the board walk. Especially she distrusts cavaliers not of her own station. I have heard of a venturesome aristocrat who, seeing a handsome young woman, hastened to present himself; whereupon the fair one exclaimed, “Say, ain’t you the gaily article ? Go sell your papers! ”
And look not too harshly upon certain other somewhat disconcerting marvels of deportment. Arms, it is true, encircle waists, and half the allurement of the Foolish House inheres in its inky, winding passages. The proprietor of a Coney Island maze unblushingly announces. “The men like it because it gives them a chance to hug the girls, the girls like it because it gives them a chance to get hugged.” Viewed vertically, from the altitude of personal dignity, such license takes a coloring by no means pleasant. Viewed horizontally, it becomes a mere convention. To the popular mind the caress means no more than the mildly affectionate phrases with which we begin and end our letters.
But what went ye out for to see ? Youthful gaucherie repressed in an amusement park ? Say, rather, youthful gaucherie granted full freedom, and neither more nor less uncouth here than elsewhere. The park was not founded for the culture of decorum; it was founded for the culture of wild hilarity, in which mission it brilliantly and gloriously succeeds. It is the gayer too, by reason of its moral cleanness. Its laundered diversions attract a laundered constituency; and if it refuses to sell liquor (some parks do refuse), it expunges those hints of wrong-doing, which for all their bravado never fail to depress; and although its little shams and booby-traps need ethical tinkering here and there, they usually give the gullible their money’s worth; a permanent amusement park can’t afford out-and-out swindles. Still, I sometimes fear it’s an economic nuisance. Adding up your expenditures, you perceive that an evening’s frolic has cost as much as a ticket for “Lohengrin,” or two for “ Candida,” or three for Herr Rübeneck’s instructive lecture; it has cost the young gentleman in the erroneous neckwear a sum that would have liquidated a week’s board; and yet both you and he have enjoyed that sense of monetary frivolity which is the heart and soul of a holiday. Down with the Dismal Science! Let us assert our superiority to cash — and swallow the consequence!
Nevertheless, I cannot escape the pathetic humor of this whole tumultuous situation. What more ludicrous and what more sad than the spectacle of vast hordes of people rushing to the oceanside, to escape the city’s din and crowds and nervous strain, and, once within sight and sound of the waves, courting worse din, denser crowds, and an infinitely more devastating nervous strain inside an inclosure whence the ocean cannot possibly be seen ? Is it thus they seek rest, by a madly exaggerated homoeopathy ? Is it thus they cure Babylon, not with more Babylon, but with Babel gone daft ? We Anglo-Saxons have scandalized the seaside long ere this, building our miniature London at Brighton, our miniature Bowery at Coney Island; we have spoiled our holidays from of old, hiding behind newspapers on coastwise steamboats amid entrancing scenery, talking Wall Street on the Grand Canal, transplanting high fashion to the very forest; yet not till of late have we achieved so frantic a travesty upon recreation (which ought to re-create) as in the tom-tom foolery of an amusement park.
Mr. Guy Wetmore Carryl, contemplating its marvels, exclaimed, “Never tell me again that Americans are a nervous people!” They are, though, and yonder amazing institution proves it. Manhattanitis, with its numerous congeners, is n’t merely a disease, it’s an obsession. It does n’t ask relief, it only asks aggravation. The sole treatment that it welcomes is the counter-irritant — powerful, drastic, and like in kind to itself. Of all the shrewd observations noted down in the now very considerable literature of this subject, the shrewdest, I judge, is the one that calls the amusement park “an artificial distraction for an artificial life.”