Monday, September 20, 2021

One More Ride: Interview with Paul Ruben

Back in 2019, I sent emails and Facebook messages to a number of living coaster enthusiasts from the early days of that hobby's development for a piece I intended to write here on Parkscope. I had many theories and questions to ask: we don't always understand how fandoms develop and evolve (or one might argue, metastasize). Earlier in 2021, Paul Ruben, one of the subjects of my interviews, passed away at the age of 84. He had been actively travelling up to the pandemic, taking coaster trips and seeing the world through parks across the globe. Lots of people have surpassed his track record, but Ruben's influence was felt far and wide. He wasn't necessarily a loved figure in the hobby by a lot of people I knew, but he was important in a way few others were. 

PAUL RUBEN: First of all, I visited parks and rode coasters since I can remember, about 5 years old I rode my first, the misnamed Giant Coaster at Crystal Beach outside Buffalo. Old parks, which had been built around the turn or the last century at the end of trolley lines, become valuable suburban property as the nation grew. As an adult, in the 1950s I began to see these parks demolished and coasters bulldozed to make way for shopping malls and condominiums. I thought coasters would soon become extinct and began photographing them. I had edited my high school newspaper so know how to write, and sold a few photos with words to our local penny saver newspaper.

ME: You had started working with Charles Jacques Jr back in the 1970s on Amusement Business Journal before (?) ACE was in existence - how did you get in contact with him? 

PR: I read somewhere that Amusement Park Journal had begun publication, tracked Charlie down, told him I was traveling to San Jose on business, and asked if he would like a story from the region. Turns out Arrow Development was then located in the next town, Mountain View, and he asked me to write about them. He wanted more stories, so I became Associate Editor and wrote extensively about whatever park I would be visiting, and about it’s history. It was great training for what would come.

ME:  Do you have any memories of the first writers in mass media who wrote about coaster enthusiasm (e.g. Robert Cartmell, Marion Clark)?

PR: I knew Bob Cartmell well, as well as Gary Kyriazi, who wrote The Great American Amusement Park. I now have Gary as a contributing writer to Park World. Didn’t know Clark. Cartmell was an art professor at SUNY Albany, very intrigued by the art of wooden coasters, where form follows function. He wrote an art piece for me when I edited RollerCoaster! Gary worked awhile in sales for Arrow.

ME: When and how did you first come in contact with the founders of ACE? What were your thoughts about the organization?

PR: I joined as soon as I heard of them. I’m member 392. I thought it was a great idea, because most people know about their local park but have little knowledge of others. Turns out there are now major theme parks within a short drive on nearly every metropolitan area, and this was a good way to find where there were other coasters.

ME: Do you have any specific memories/thoughts on any of the founders (Greenwald, Brashears, Munch) or other notable old-timers in the hobby (like Marie Miller)? 

PR: Richard Munch is a stand-up guy, but Brashears and especially Greenwald had ulterior motives for forming the club (NOTE: I also reached out to Roy Brashears at the same time, and it would be fair to say there was a mutual feeling that each other had motivations beyond just going on rides. Given that this is intended more as a tribute, I've omitted that.). Marie was fun, a little crazy I thought, but now I’m her age and still like to ride. She just knew how to have fun. I’m up to having ridden 889 different coasters as of last week, not that I’m compulsive.

ME: Given how close you were with NCA/APCI (NOTE: Charles Jacques started two early amusment park related clubs in the late 60s/early 70s and was an early president of the NCA, the still existing National Carousel Association), did you perceive ACE at the time as a competitor or as complementary? What led to APCI's dissolution?

PR: I was not a member of NCA, but I was very active in APCI, organizing at least one of their conventions and writing for APJ. Charlie, a retired attorney, was more interested in writing, self-publishing, and selling his books about amusement parks. Since APCI was his creation, he chose to end it soon after I began to edit RollerCoaster! for ACE. We still exchange Christmas cards.

Unlike Charlie, I had planned a book about roller coasters using my photos, but I didn’t want to self-publish. I had a book outline and wrote the first chapter, but I wanted a contract to complete it. For awhile I had an agent, but found out there was not a significant market for a coaster book, or we never found a book editor who thought it was a money-making idea.

ME: How did you get involved with WYNCC (Western New York Coaster Club)? I've heard the suggestion that the regional clubs like it and GOCC(Greater Ohio Coaster Club)/MACC (Mid-Atlantic Coaster Club)/etc were complements to ACE often by ACE members. Is that an accurate depiction?

PR: Not really. I co-founded WYNCC with Greenwald at a meeting midway between Niagara Falls and Rochester, where we lived.

I was concerned that ACE had not published RollerCoaster! in over a year despite the fact we were paying for it. I was giving slide talks about roller coasters to civic groups, one of Greenwald’s friends contacted me, and we met to bemoan the lack of ACE publications and decided to form WNYCC in the absence of ACE. I soon learned Greenwald wanted to sell T-shirts to everyone in the club, then he was hunting for female members. We had a falling out when I discovered that during an early WNYCC convention he was pocketing money and accused him of doing so. Soon after the founding I attended an ACE convention, complained about the lack of publication, and I was asked to edit it. I refused twice, but agreed the third time, set up a staff of contributors, and edited it for four years. Near the end Park World came into existence and I contacted them. I sold them an article, they wanted more, and put me on retainer. All of a sudden I had a second part-time career, which blossomed after I retired from my first career. I had been in charge of lens design at Kodak, having designed optics for their many cameras and other products.

These days, while still a member, I’m no longer active with ACE. They are enthusiasts. I work with those in the business, but I’m still enthusiastic about parks and rides. For Park World I just returned from a 19-day 2,200 mile tour of Southeastern parks, collecting information for articles and news items, and riding at every opportunity. Flying out Friday to another park, then more a week later.

ME: Park World has had a highly successful run while magazines like Amusement Business and Inside Track have not. What do you attribute that success to?

PR: Inside Track was a one-person enthusiasts’ publication, and it was too much for one person to do.

AB just didn’t attack enough advertisers.

Park World is part of Datateam Business Media Ltd, England’s largest publisher of trade magazine. They have 40-50 different titles, but Park World is one of their most successful. Much to my dismay, they sell the front cover, and about half the magazine is glossy full-color ads. I think it is both colorful and more readable than its competitors. We write about a fun business, so the copy is often breezy.

PR: You were an amateur photographer before you started writing, per your interview with Season Pass. Have you considered doing any digitization of classic prints?

Season Pass? Don’t even remember doing that interview. I was interested in photography as a youth, started doing photos for my high school paper, then edited their sports page, eventually edited the paper. In high school I was good in math and science, good in English, and had to make a career decision. I went where the money was, into engineering. I learned there was a degree offered in Optical Engineering at the University of Rochester. Graduating, I soon learned lens design and have 41 patents on optical systems. But I always enjoyed writing and photography, and amusement parks, and eventually created this job as North American Editor for Park World. I tell people, find something you like to do, find someone to pay you, and now my job feels like a 52-week summer vacation. If I wasn’t writing I’d have to pay my way into the parks.

Not sure what you consider classic prints. I have about 18,000 color slides of roller coasters and amusement parks in my archives, now photograph with digital cameras. But I don’t digitize prints unless I need one for publication.

ME: The only other question I have for now: Long intro to something that can probably be wrapped up in a couple sentences I know, but I want to cover the bases. The industry has changed dramatically since you were first involved as a hobbyist obviously, from enormous growth in Asian and European markets to the 1980s liability insurance crisis to seeing a burst of North American regional theme park construction and subsequent maturation and M&A phase of the industry's life here. You yourself have, I'm sure as we all do in aging, changed to some degree as you've been able to monetize your interest in parks through Park World and transitioned into communicating with industry figures rather than the enthusiast community. Having encapsulated that 40+ years as best possible in few words: Do you think it is better, worse, or simply "different" to be an park guest, enthusiast, etc now than it was in the 70s? Both in the objective sense and the "If you could trade every Wanda park for Idora/original Elitch's/whatever to come back" ways. 

PR: Remember, I go back to the ‘40s. Since then, liability laws have necessitated a safer industry, but I sure do miss the old fun houses where girl’s skirts were blown with air jets and dark rides where things jump out at you. The advent of computers have made rides operate more efficiently. I appreciate family-operated parks with an interesting variety of attractions and mature trees, but today’s modern parks overall are much better. (The old Elitch's was a more comfortable park, but the new one has better rides except for the wooden coasters. Old Steeplechase park was dirty but fun. New Luna park is almost antiseptic. ) I just wish there was more originality, plus pay parking is offensive. You don’t pay to park and shop in a mall, so why should one be expected to pay for parking in a remote location just so you can patronize the adjacent park? Offer free parking and add the cost to the entrance price. Obviously, I’m unskilled in marketing.

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