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Memories of Palisades Amusement Park: An Editor in Search of a Crown

A fire may have destroyed an iconic amusement park and the hopes of this editor every being crowned 'Little Miss America'--but the dream lives on.

Seems April skies are in her eyes,
A living doll that talks smiling as she walks.

May she stay somehow sweet as she is now. 
Little Miss America take a bow.

-Gladys Shelley

I have such fond memories of Palisades Amusement Park—Casper’s Ghostland, the Caterpillar ride, the Fun House, the Archie Hot Rod ride, the French fries with vinegar, the games-of-chance, Cousin Brucie...but there are two moments that stand out most. 

The first is Bozo the Clown, my hero, bending down as I sat in my stroller, his soft white-gloved hand tickling my chin. I think I nearly lost consciousness when he told me with his trademark zany laugh that he loved my red hair. Come on--name one man today who surrounds himself with children, has a red nose and big feet that can make you want to be 'Butch for a Day' and get away with it.

The second is hugging the application to the Little Miss America Pageant to my heart when I was five years old. 

For years, I waited patiently to make the five-year-old age requirement so that I could showcase my talent to the world. I had no idea what that talent was. I couldn’t tap dance; I couldn’t sing, and my attempts at cartwheeling resulted in the toe-heel destruction of countless porcelain knick-knacks my mother had precisely organized in clusters around our living room. 

But I knew that in order to win it I had to have it, and I was trying really hard to find it. (Surely if I ever found it, I have since lost it.)

Unfortunately, my father and I did not see eye-to-eye regarding my participation in the Little Miss America Pageant. It was the nascent age of Women's Lib and, conservative though he was, he was determined to make his only daughter a strong independent woman by endowing me with skills that would make me self-reliant--changing a flat, jumping a battery, fixing a carborator, shingling a roof, stopping a leak, swinging a bat, mowing a lawn, reading everything (with an emphasis on history, Shakespeare and the Old Testament stories), and working hard to earn my own money so that I would never be strapped, or dependent on anyone, for cash.

The idea of my parading around a stage being judged by a group of strangers was not something he could support. Of course it didn’t help that my life's ambition at the time was to become a “go-go dancer.” I had no idea what it really meant, but hyphenated words carried a curious sophistication and I loved to dance and wear boots--so what could possibly be so wrong about that?

I freely and routinely paraded around the house in my blue leotard and white patent leather “go-go” boots dancing to Chika-a-Boom (dontcha just love it!).

What can I say? I was a product of my times. Laugh-In was in, man; Goldie Hawn made dancing in a bikini with body graffiti and go-go boots cool. And Dean Martin’s Golddiggers turned everyone’s living room into a party.

But Little Miss America was the only party I ever wanted in on, and I held that invitation tightly in my hand, carrying it like Wonka's golden ticket everywhere I went.

Images recorded in my brain literally jump from clutching the application in my hands in April 1971 to Palisades Amusement Park being swallowed by flames. 

I remember watching the park burn, convinced that my father had a hand in it to prevent me from competing in the pageant. My cousins did nothing to dispel this rumor; in fact, they encouraged it with their not-so-subtle jabs such as, “The Park would still be standing if only you didn’t want to be Little Miss America;" or, "Here she comes, Little Miss Firestarter."

What I do remember is this: the fire started just as school was getting out. My mother drove me, my brother and our friends to watch it from the exterior perimeter of the northern edge of the Park. I remember standing on the curve of pavement where the road begins to wind its way down to Edgewater, mesmerized by flames shooting high into the sky, before momentarily collapsing from the weight of shooting water. Then rising again--stretching, leaning, twisting, stumbling--refusing to be knocked out.

There I stood, mourning a memory that had yet to take shape, watching the flames lick to ash all that was once so familiar, so sacred. I remember the resounding hiss and crackle of those icons of pleasure echoing as they collapsed; indelibly burning themselves onto the pyre of rememberance. 

There stood so many of us in our Catholic School uniforms, unwilling to move as we watched our beloved Park fall and crumble and die right before our eyes. Not quite understanding that we were to be the first generation that would not grow up and come of age at the Park.  

Standing, watching, shivering as night began to fall upon the cliffs of the Palisades. For the first time, the Park closed at dusk that day, and this almost-Little Miss America stood silent as she watched it take its final bow. 

Do you have any memories of Palisades Amusement Park? Share them with us.

Jack B Goode February 18, 2013 at 01:04 AM
I worked on some of the rides there. We had a hose handy for such accidents. The worst was when some young guy was on a date and "shared his breakfast" all over his girl friend .
Bobby February 18, 2013 at 03:22 AM
Hey Jimmy. Why don't you and Jack get together and throw up on each other and I'll come by and hose you both off. Of all the memories people came away with you two find it necessary to share this nonsense. Very distasteful.
Darlene February 18, 2013 at 03:40 PM
Ay yi yi. Even comments on the most innocent of posts have to devolve into this. Whatever. Having grown up in the San Francisco Bay area, I have no memories of the park itself, but I feel like I experienced it a tiny bit by way of the Freddy "Boom Boom" Cannon tune, "Palisades Park". Love that song!!!
Gernot May 24, 2013 at 07:33 PM
Is Palisades Park in New Jersey the same park that used to advertise in comicbooks back in the '60's with Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman? The heroes had discount coupons for admission and rides, I think.

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