“Palisades has the rides… Palisades has the fun… Come on over.
Shows and dancing are free… so’s the parking, so gee… Come on over.”
Suppose, just for a moment, that you might want to take an elephant water-skiing.
(No, don’t ask why. That’s a question for another time. Just go with it.)
Okay. So you’ve got the elephant. You’ve got a body of water big enough for it – the Hudson River.
Oh, and you happen to be on 30 acres that span Cliffside Park and Fort Lee, in southern Bergen County, not far at all from the river – but the direction to the river is less east than it is down. Straight down a jagged cliff. (It’s not called Cliffside Park for nothing.)
So your next steps are obvious. You attach some pontoons to a motorboat, and once that’s ready you lead the elephant down the windy path on the steep rocky slope of the Palisades, through the trees, until you get to the river’s edge. And then you just get the elephant up onto the pontoons, lock it in place, pose a bathing-suited showgirl next to it, and drive off down the river.
Piece of cake.
“Palisades from coast to coast, where a dime buys the most.
Palisades Amusement Park. Swings all day and after dark.”
That escapade, which happened in the mid-1950s, was the brainchild of Sol Abrams of New Milford, who was Palisades Amusement Park’s publicist from 1949 until it closed in 1971.
Mr. Abrams was born in 1925, and he is no longer the fireball that he once was. Still, when he talks about the park, which was not only his livelihood but also his passion, he visibly regains energy. He has a story of stories about the park, and any stories he’s forgotten, his grandson, Avi Schneck of North Caldwell, remembers.
The park, which first opened, under another name, in 1898, never was a Disneyland; it was, from all reports, not obsessively scrubbed; it did not use cutting-edge technology; it was not an aspirational vacation site, to be visited only infrequently. It was not even particularly wholesome. It was open to all comers who could afford its moderate prices, it attracted a cross-section of people from across New Jersey and New York, cutting across class and ethnic lines to do so, and it drew heavily on the sideshow culture of the carnivals that traveled this country during the last century.
It thrived on spectacle, and Mr. Abrams was a master at imagining and then implementing outrageous shows.
Mr. Abrams, one of five siblings, was born in 1925, and grew up in an eight-bedroom house in the east Bronx, his grandson said. His father, Mayer, was born in Poland and came to America as a young child. Mayer Abrams loved gardening, Mr. Schneck said; the father and son would walk around their urban neighborhood and the father would quiz the son about the identity of each tree, shrub, and weed they passed.
The family owned a farm in Monroe, in New York’s Orange County. Mayer Abrams sent his son there during his senior year in high school – family lore has it that the father caught the son smoking cigarettes and feared for his future. He also saw it as a way to keep his son safe from the draft. “Sol loved it,” Mr. Schneck said. “He loved feeding the chickens and milking the cows – he’d wake up at 4:30 in the morning to feed the chickens.”
Mr. Abrams graduated from high school in 1943, but he did not go straight into military service. Despite his father’s plans to keep him out of the war, Mr. Abrams was desperate to enlist, but, ironically, the army did not want him. His eyesight was abysmal. “He was so dedicated to the United States that he wrote letters to Eisenhower and to all the other generals, pleading to be let in,” Mr. Schneck said.
Eventually Mr. Abrams’ private campaign worked. He was allowed to enlist, but by then it was 1945, and the war had ended. He was assigned to Bolling Air Force Base in Washington, where he worked on the base’s newsletter. He rose quickly, becoming first its public relations director and then, two copies later, its chief editor. “He kept every copy he ever worked on,” Mr. Schneck said. “He had fun with it – he knew he was entertaining people.
“He discovered his niche.”
After his discharge in 1948, Mr. Abrams went to NYU, where he earned a degree in public relations. At first he worked as a pr consultant, shuttling from job to job, but his obvious passion for Palisades Amusement Park, and his genius at coming up with stunts to promote it, soon led to a full-time job there.
By then, Palisades Amusement Park was owned by Irving Rosenthal, another true character. “He was about three feet tall, and very demanding,” Mr. Schneck said, again retelling family lore. “He had a real Napoleon complex. He was always dressed very nicely. Very expensively.” His wife, Gladys Shelley, was a lyricist and composer. It was Ms. Shelley who came up with the park’s jingle, a tune that anyone who was sentient by 1971, when the park closed for good, has permanently encased somewhere in his or her mind.
Sol Abram’s job was to promote the park, and he did it in increasingly outrageous ways. “The park was the essence of fun, and he was the king of publicity stunts,” Mr. Schneck said. “He’d be quiet, and then he would just look at two things, and put them together, and say ‘Oh, that’s possible. I just have to work it out.’ And then he would.”
Some of the stunts were quiet; maybe it would be more accurate to call them marketing devices.
Take the hole in the fence around the park.
Dr. Mark Docktor of Tenafly, who grew up in Fort Lee, remembers that hole fondly. He and his friends would sneak into the park; because they were locals, and knew about it, they felt special, territorial, proud of their insider knowledge.
In fact, according to Jill Schneck of North Caldwell, Sol Abrams’ daughter, that hole was her father’s brainchild. “He did it so that people could get in free, have the thrill of getting something for nothing.” Sometimes her father would stand by the hole, welcoming people as they climbed through it. Because, of course, “they still had to pay for the rides.”
Even the rides were not the park’s main source of income, Mr. Schneck said. Most of the profit came from fees paid by the concession owners, who sold food.
Once they were inside the park, visitors had a choice of entertainments. There were “the classic carnival rides, like the Ferris wheel,” Mr. Schneck said. “It was a huge old wooden wheel, inherited from the park’s previous owner. You’d get stuck up on the top there with your girl – it would be really sweet.
“Rosenthal didn’t put any money into it,” he continued. “It was shabby when they got it. It was the rustic look they wanted. They felt that people wanted to go to a place that looks like people have been there, that it has some age to it.”
There also were a few roller coasters, most of them wooden classics, including the Cyclone, named after the prototype in Coney Island, which Irving and his brother Jack Rosenthal had built. “It scared everyone,” Mr. Schneck said. “At first it cost a penny a ride; later it went up to two cents.”
When Mr. Rosenthal bought the park, it also included a huge saltwater pool, filled with filtered river water. (Don’t think about that one too hard, and assume that the filter worked well.) A giant machine made waves. “My grandfather wanted adults to come in and sit by the pool, and let the kids run off with the pocketful of change they’d saved up all week,” Mr. Schneck said.
The park had paddle boats, and other fairly slow, standard carnival rides.
And then there was the Tunnel of Love.
“It was a classic,” Mr. Schneck said. “It was a long ride in a two-person carriage. It took you through scenes with hearts, in dim lights. You’d take your girl there and make out.” Riders couldn’t do much more than kiss, he added; “There was a bar covering you up to your waist.”
It was a favorite ride for young couples at the end of an evening, he added. “You take this slow-moving ride, holding hands – it was very 1950s – and your parents would be outside, waiting for you, fuming, knowing exactly what you were doing.”
In fact, his grandfather proposed to his grandmother, Zelda, outside the Tunnel of Love.
His grandmother was a realtor; she was the ever-present parent, the one who brought up the family’s three children while her husband was out at work. This was not her world. “I’m sure that when he proposed there, my grandmother was thinking, ‘Really? The Tunnel of Love?'” Mr. Schneck said.
Mr. Abrams ran all sorts of pageants. “He would go to women with infants, and say, ‘Do you want to be part of this?'” Often, they would. Infants would be entered in races to see which one crawled fastest. That was called the Diaper Derby. “There would be 20 babies, screaming, and people would take bets on how fast they could go,” Mr. Schneck said. There would be beauty pageants for women, for teenagers, for young girls. “Little Miss America, Miss Polish America, Miss Who-Knows-What-Else,” his mother added. “And Buffy and Jody from ‘Family Affair'” -the youngest children on a popular sit-com – “were the emcees for Little Miss America.”
“My grandfather was responsible for bringing in all the one-hit wonders of the time,” Mr. Schneck said. “He would escort them through crowds of people trying to get their autographs, trying to touch them, and they loved it.”
The park also attracted famous people, as famous as Jackie Kennedy and her children. Eddie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds announced their engagement there. Even William Shatner showed up. Bruce Morrow – Cousin Brucie – ran a rock’n’roll show there, which featured many of the hottest names of the 1950s and ’60s, from Frankie Avalon, Fabian, and Bobby Rydell to the Young Rascals, Petula Clark, and the Lovin’ Spoonful. Disk jockey Murray the K emceed there as well. All of that was done under Sol Abram’s watchful eye.
And then, once the promotion or the contest or the parade or the stunt was over, Mr. Abrams had to write it up – and then he would have to drive it over the bridge to the news outlets in New York. It was decades before press releases could be faxed, much less emailed.
When you ask people who grew up in other parts of the country, you find that often they too had heard of the park. Mr. Abrams had the foresight to advertise in comic books – the park had a relationship with DC Comics, Harvey Comics, and Archie Comics, and often those companies’ heroes, including Superman, would make guest appearances; others would lend their names to rides, particularly for small children. Eventually, the Tunnel of Love, which lost its appeal for teenagers, was repurposed for kids, and renamed for Casper the Friendly Ghost. (The friendliest ghost you know!)
Parking always was a big problem. The park had small lots, which were not adequate; eventually, it bought lots further away and shuttled visitors in. But still there was not enough space. Park guests would park all over Fort Lee and Cliffside Park, and that, understandably, would enrage the towns’ residents. And there still was not enough space. At times, the road that led south from the George Washington Bridge to the park, and then south from there nearly to the Lincoln Tunnel, would be packed with would-be park patrons trawling unsuccessfully for someplace to leave the car.
The park became unpopular with the people who lived nearby. And then eventually it got old. Times and tastes changed. What had been appealing shabby became visibly threadbare.
“There was a time for everything, and its time was over,” Mr. Schneck said. In 1971, Irving Rosenthal sold it to the developers who built luxury high-rise apartment buildings; Winston Towers grew on the ground where the Cyclone and the Tunnel of Love once had stood.
The closing was sudden and unannounced. “Irving felt he had to take the deal, and he did not consult with the staff before he made the decision,” Mr. Schneck said. “My grandfather felt betrayed by someone he had worked so hard for.”
After the park closed, Mr. Abrams continued working as a publicist. He and his family belonged to the New Milford Jewish Center, and then to the JCC of Paramus. He had been and continues to be deeply connected to the Jewish community, and a resolute Zionist. In fact, his grandson said, his grandfather always has kept kosher, so he could not eat much at the park. “He’d go across the street to Hiram’s” – a famous hot-dog stand in Fort Lee, both then and now – “but he’d only eat eggs.
“His mind was American, but his heart was Jewish,” Mr. Schneck said, and some of that sensibility translated itself to the park, in its family-friendliness.
Palisades Amusement Park has been closed for decades now; the last generation of children who remember it are closing in on late middle age. But it truly is a mythic place; ask anyone who was there and you see it. You see it in Avi Schneck, whose only connection to it is vicarious – he is 27 years old, and was born far after it closed. You see it in Sol Abrams, who is roused to animation when he talks about it.
“Ride the coaster… get cool… In the waves in the pool.
You’ll have fun… so… come on over!”