PALISADES PARK by Alan Brennert

Book Quote:

The park slumbers through the long winter, weighed down by ice and snow, dreaming of spring… it drowses beneath its quilt of snow, it dreams of all the people who flocked to its midways: men, women and especially children, the joy the park brought them, the laughter that was like oxygen for the park, which breathed it in as it floated up from the Cyclone, the Funhouse, the Wild Mouse, the Carousel.

Book Review:

Review by Jana L. Perskie  (JAN 25, 2014)

Palisades Park is no roller coaster ride of a novel, rather it is a well written love letter to a “cherished part of the author’s childhood.” (author’s quote). This is a fascinating historical fiction, written with love to a magical place and era long gone.

Located high atop the New Jersey Palisades’ cliffs, within the boroughs of Cliffside Park and Fort Lee, once stood the home of the famous Cyclone roller coaster, the Tunnel of Love and the world’s largest salt water pool. The place was called Palisades Amusement Park and even today, over thirty years after it closed its gates, the Park is still warmly remembered, with nostalgia, by many, many people. This novel strikes a particular chord with me as I was born and raised in Atlantic City, NJ, (way before the casinos marred the beauty of the town, and the majestic, beautifully designed hotels were torn down to make room for tacky casino architecture). I was a regular at Steel Pier and Million Dollar Pier and would ride the “rides” even when I was in college.

The protagonist of this tale is the Park itself, inhabiting 30 acres across the Hudson River from New York City. The glue holding the storyline together is a carnie family, the Stopkas. Eddie Stopka ran away from home in his teens, during the Great Depression and Prohibition. He rode the rails until he got a job at Palisades Park “sweeping up.” It was here where Eddie meets Adele Worth who works at a root beer concession. He is attracted to her because she is beautiful and he is also amused by her “pitch.” She would call, “Root beer, ice-cold root beer! Only legal beer in the Park! Not as much fun as malt, but just as delicious and twice as foamy! C’mon, lift a glass to Carrie Nation!!”

Adele’s father used to be a well known film director in Fort Lee, NJ. His company was called Worth While Pictures. Eventually the film industry relocates to Hollywood, thus ending his career in the movies. He remains bitter about this change for the rest of his life and drinks heavily as a result. Adele was just 6 months old when she “acted” in her first film, “Babes in Arms.” As a pre-teen she meets big stars like Douglas Fairbanks and silent film actress Blanche Sweet. The lovely Adele is crowned Miss Bergen County. She comes to work at Palisades hoping to be noticed by anyone who can help her get a job in the film industry. And why not? “Everyone” visits Palisades Park! She holds on to her dream of being a movie star all her life.

Eddie and Adele eventually marry and their children Antoinette, a tomboy, fantasizes about being a great diver, like the daredevil she sees at the park who jumps from a 90-foot tower into a water tank six feet deep. She insists, to her mother’s dismay, that she be called Toni and is definitely more into swimming and trying to climb the Palisades than in playing with dolls. Her younger brother Jack has a real knack for drawing and a love of action comic book characters. Eventually, when their parents buy a “joint,” (a carny concession), the children work there. This is their real home, more so than the house where they live in Edgewater, NJ.

In 1912, the park added a salt-water swimming pool. It is filled by pumping water from the saline Hudson River, 200 feet below. This pool, 400 by 600 feet in surface area, is billed as the largest salt-water wave pool in the nation. Behind the water falls are huge pontoons that rise up and down as they rotate, creating a one-foot wave in the pool. This pool  eventually plays a big role in Toni’s life.

The carnival “freaks” “Jolly Irene, the Fattest Woman In The World,” “Susi, The Elephant-Skinned Girl,” “Charles Phelan, Strong Man,” “Victor-Victoria – Half Man, Half Woman,” “Hoppe The Frog Boy,” etc., are not freaks to the children or their parents, they are just friends and colleagues on the midway. Here there is an aura of camaraderie. Vendors help each other through fire, sickness, poverty and loss. Annually the Rosenthal brothers, who own the park, add new rides. They also construct a 24-foot high, one million watt marquee advertising Palisades Park.

The park’s reputation and attendance continues to grow throughout the 1950s and 1960s, largely due to saturation advertising and the continued success of the park’s music pavilion and the Caisson bar. In addition, behind the Palisade Park music stage lay the park’s worst-kept secret: a hole in the fence used by local children to sneak into the park without paying admission. Despite the fact that the Rosenthal brothers know all about this breach, it is purposely left unrepaired.

Palisades Park spans several decades, 1922-1971 (the closing of the park). We experience, through the author’s writing and impeccable research, the evolution of the Park. Some of the well-incorporated historical details include: The Great Depression, President Roosevelt’s Fireside Chats, the peacetime draft, big band music, Hitler, Pearl Harbor, Mafia hits, racial discrimination, the Korean War, and the 1960’s, which brought a major change to American culture. The reader also learns about the Park’s history which runs parallel to world history. There were major events here which effected both the families who worked at Palisades and those who came to be entertained. A few devastating fires, the bane of amusement parks everywhere, resulted in extraordinary damage, including terrible injuries and, sometimes, death. The resulting loss of property caused those who owned concessions to rebuild or go to work elsewhere, traveling the carnie circuit.

Alan Brennert magically brings to life a way of life. The character of Palisades Park in all its moods, and the people, especially the engaging Stopkas, are vividly portrayed in this enjoyable novel.

My “however moment,” is this – although this is a very entertaining read, the characters are not complex at all. There is nothing in their life stories which has not been written about before. The novelty is the Park itself and the view of history which the author brings to the story. Yet I found myself satisfied, even through these shortcomings, because of other aspects, written about above, which makes this a hard to put down book.

I think the character of Park owner Irving Rosenthal sums things up when he says,

“A place like this – it’s like a living thing, the way people interact with it, how they think of it. For kids like you who grew up around here, it’s always been a part of your lives – it’s personal. Sell it to someone like Walt Disney, and it’s no longer the same park. I want it to be the same, to go one living after I’m gone. We’re at the top of our game now. Palisades has never been more popular, more famous. What’s wrong with wanting that to go on? Nobody wants summer to end.”

Palisades finally closed its doors on September 12, 1971 to make room for high rise condominiums but the memories live on.

AMAZON READER RATING: from 203 readers
PUBLISHER: St. Martin’s Griffin (October 29, 2013)
REVIEWER: Jana L. Perskie


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January 25, 2014 · Judi Clark · No Comments
Tags: , , , , ,  · Posted in: Facing History, NE & New York

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