THEME PARK BOOK CORNER: “The Outdoor Amusement Industry…” by William Mangels
Back in 2014, I had started on a blog to provide detailed reviews of books on theme parks - not just coffee table books filled with pictures, but academic tomes, histories, and so on. And then I got busy (usually writing here) and it became a secondary concern at best. I've decided to port over the old reviews here and then provide you, our few and proud readers, with fresh reviews of books ranging from early 20th century academia to travel guides and much much more. Some of these are from my personal collection: others are made available to me thanks to the super rad university I work at. But some have never seen a review hit the light of day on the internet for a general audience until now.
And for that all important first post, I didn’t think there was any better tome of information to start with than this – one of the first books to ever discuss the topic of amusements, William Mangels’ “The Outdoor Amusement Industry: From Earliest Times to Present.” This was printed all the way back in 1952 – yes, 62 years ago, pre-Disneyland. The topic is broad – outdoor amusements means a lot of different things, and Mangels attempts to give a brief history over the course of 206 printed pages about all of it.
Before getting into the book itself, let’s talk about who William Mangels was. He was an amusement ride designer and manufacturer born in Germany. He immigrated to the United States as a teenager, and began working in the amusement industry not long after. We best remember Mangels for his key invention, the Whip. Several Mangels Whips still operate in the US. Mangels was also a historian and collector. He opened a short-lived museum dedicated to the amusement industry in Brooklyn (American Museum of Public Recreation) and scoured museums across America and Europe collecting information about the primitive history of the industry prior to writing this book. Mangels wrote it quite late in his life, finishing up at 86. His editor actually died during the making of the book, a fact he notes.
The book was published by Vantage Press, which if you weren’t aware, was basically a “vanity press” who would publish anything assuming you paid them money. Sponsoring the book’s existence is the NAAPPB. This acronym probably means next to nothing to you, but the organization changed names and gained a global focus over the years, becoming IAAPA. It was likely their sponsorship that gave Michigan State University a copy. As an employee there back in 2015, they delivered this to my office, and so you get to read this.
And so: the book. There’s not really much of a preface – a couple short paragraphs about the purpose of the book introduce it, and we’re off and running. There’s 21 chapters to the book. Some chapters run as short as two printed pages. Whether that’s because there was nothing more to say or that the author wasn’t particularly interested in the topic is speculation. He begins with the larger topic of historical amusement places, and then branches out into specific types of attractions. This leads to some repetition of facts, as many of the parks mentioned also brought with them specific innovations in rides.
Mangels takes was back, way, way back to the dawn of the permanent recreation industry. While he does discuss carnivals briefly, the 3 or 4 pages he assigns the carnival industry hardly register as a serious review of the history of the fair. Permanent recreation facilities basically begin with Vauxhall Gardens in the 17th century, and fan out across Europe from there. Honestly, I knew practically nothing about the urban pleasure gardens other than A) they existed B) were the foundation of the permanent European amusement industry. The book clarified a lot about them. They were often very complex and substantial complexes. Enormous night shows with pyrotechnic elements would be performed, and the wonder of thousands of whale oil lamps lighting paths drew crowds. Vauxhall even had season passes printed on pieces of silver for those who wished to visit again and again. The history of outdoor parks and then radiates out from London, across Great Britain and into France, and then throughout Europe, and Mangels does a good job communicating the basics.
Mangels spends quality time discussing the early American trolley parks. Clearly, he makes an important distinction about the origins of the amusement industry in America versus that of Europe. Early pleasure gardens in Europe were based around Inns and taverns to which entertainment drew individuals travelling or as a destination in and of itself. Mangels argues that the American amusement park industry, rather, was an escape derived from the picnic ground and the need for locations in which outdoor group activity could take place. He provides a list of amusement parks and provides their origins and then present situations. The list was substantive and ranged from the long dead (Jones’s Wood, NYC), to the alive-then-and-dead-now, (Glen Echo, Riverview, Coney Island Cincinnati), to the still going (Lake Compounce, Rye Playland, Kennywood).
Coney Island was a favorite topic of Mangels, and in both the Coney Island chapter and subsequent chapters about, well, every type of ride imaginable, Coney’s early history is filtered through him and onto the page. Coney didn’t start as a trolley park, but rather the 1880’s answer to Boston’s famed “Combat Zone”. Prostitutes, taverns, illegal gambling, race tracks, big hotels, and corrupt politicians mixed what is recorded as being a toxic stew. Out of the madness rose an array of diversions, ultimately culminating in the appearance of America’s first true roller coaster, Lamarcus Thompson’s early Switchback Railway.
Prior to the discussion of Coney Island, the book is fairly rote and largely academic in read. Once he gets to Coney, Mangels turns it up a little bit and actually displays some degree of real passion in what he’s writing. Describing early attempts at roller coasters that leapt gaps, he jokingly suggests the idea of using a funnel and a bullet shaped vehicle. There are points where he just sorta pounds the keyboard and gets out as soon as possible – his section on Dance Halls basically doesn’t connect the value of the dance hall with the amusement park. It is almost as if they are two different entities. But other sections get detailed with bits and pieces of info that were often very new to me. A handful of items worth mentioning from the book:
-Mangels was highly critical of the idea of the submarine attraction, citing multiple past failures. Back in 1904, Hans Pfiefer received this US patent (#764675) for a submarine ride to run on a track. The undulating track would lead the submarine above and below water. More well-known was 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea, which opened at Coney Island’s Luna Park way back in 1904. Originally the plans were to have motorized submarines that would surface and descend using motorized propellers mounted underneath the boats. This failed miserably, leading the vehicle to be stationary within a concrete basin. Water was then pumped in around it, submerging it. Further investigation that I did seems to indicate there was a film to go with it.
-Speaking of film rides, a chapter dedicated to “Funhouses and Illusion Rides” discusses a wide array of “proto-simulator” simulation attractions. Simulator rides are seen as being more of a modern development than anything by fans, but in truth, the use of projection screens in place of and in tandem with practical effects goes way back to Hale’s Tours at the turn of the 20th century – POV films of train rides played in theaters often built from train cars with simulated motion and sounds intended to create the effect of actually riding in a train.
-George Ferris didn’t really invent the ferris wheel, but he built a very good one. He also didn’t do very well after he first introduced his specific wheel at the 1893 Columbian Exposition and died broke before he saw his 40th birthday. I wonder if there’s more to that story?
-Looping coasters go way back – the first person to be inverted on a coaster was all the way back in 1817 at one of those pleasure gardens I wrote about earlier. His name is lost to time. Also in 1952, apparently no one had thought to put any elements after the vertical loop, and Mangels deems it a failure.
-Mangels states that he only intends to write about the most popular and influential rides in history. Naturally, he spends quality time discussing not only the Whip, but another one of his inventions, the Tickler.
-In 1952, CW Parker constructed Ferris Wheels are rarities, and the Conderman Wheel was a success and popular. Today, there’s one remaining Conderman wheel anywhere, and it is at a museum only available to visit by special request. Meanwhile, there are still 4 CW Parker wheels standing.
Once Mangels wraps up talking about different styles of attractions and their histories, he offers a quick appendix listing organizations in the amusement industry and that’s it. Not really any footnotes or references here. I guess when you’re writing the first book of this era, you don’t have many references. You are the reference.
DO I WANT THIS:
How does it read?: It’s OK. Mangels is writing in his second language and it shows because he’s generally clinical.
Will I learn anything?: Yeah, probably. He lists the attraction takes for a number of different World’s Fairs. How likely is it you know about that?
Did you take anything away from this?: Actually, yes. Two things, really.
1) Mangels description of the history of roller coasters also goes about effectively explaining what happened to all those hundreds of trolley parks built-in the first two decades of the 20th century. The advent of underwheels and flanged trains for wood coaster rather nicely matched up with the expansion of the automobile in American life. No longer were people limited to what was merely on the trolley line for entertainment – they could drive to a park that had a more interesting set of rides. And since people could drive now, that reduced trolley fares, and the companies who started these parks were less interested in making the expensive upgrades necessary to be competitive. A figure 8 wood coaster (like Leap The Dips at Lakemont, the only remaining one on earth) cost around $16,000. A full circuit, state of the art wooden coaster in the 1920s with new fangled devices to keep it on the track often cost around $200,000. Lowered attendance, increased competition, increasing costs of maintenance over time, and an interest in focusing on the core product led lots of trolley parks to go out of business as the depression hit. This scenario later repeats itself in amusement park history with Storybook parks in the 50s and 60s and many more traditional amusement facilities in the 70s and 80s. You could even argue that the post-Disneyland theme parks and their contraction and combining is related to this.
2) This is an officially sponsored product by the forerunner of IAAPA. I mention this specifically because, during the portion about games, Mangels spends quality time discussing the popularity of “African Dodger”. This is a game which he describes as such:
“The African Dodger is a ball-throwing game which has amused thousands of people. It consists of a canvas stretched between two posts with a hole in the center. A Negro or a man in blackface thrusts his head through the opening and the public is invited to hit it with baseballs, three throws for ten cents…..After a while this game was looked upon by many as degrading to a race and in some localities it is prohibited by law.”
Interestingly, while he offers what could apologetically be called a “clinical” view of a game that is outrageously racist, the immediate following paragraph find him calling a game consisting of a live chicken being placed in an earthen pot which must be broken to free it “cruel”. You could think I’m leaving out the parts that make Mangels look better here when he went into discussing this, but I’m really just leaving out more descriptive items like the difficulty of finding blacks to participate and creating a wooden protective cap with “curly hair” to make people believe they were hitting them squarely on the head.
The amusement park industry in the US at this time had serious issues with race, with many parks being flat-out segregated. This isn’t merely true about recreational facilities in the south, which Northerners often automatically assume would be involved. The south actually lacked in amusement parks compared to places like Pennsylvania and Ohio – not as many trolleys, not as many trolley parks, after all. Well known parks like Coney Island Cincinnati and Riverview in Chicago were segregated facilities into the 1960s. Perhaps it should be no surprise what can be inferred here.