Sol Abrams of New Milford and Palisades Amusement Park were born for each other.
The park closed in 1971. Mr. Abrams, who died on April 15 at 89, had many decades of a very good life after that, but it was the park that defined him.
The Bronx-born Mr. Abrams was the park’s publicist from 1949 until it closed. As we described in a long story in this paper last June 13, he was the mastermind behind such stunts as a water-skiing elephant.
This is how we described it last year:
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 spanned 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.)
|Sol Abrams proposed to his wife, Zelda, at the Palisades Amusement Park’s Tunnel of Love.|
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.
Mr. Abrams ran all sorts of pageants. “He would go to women with infants, and say, ‘Do you want to be part of this?,'” his grandson, Avi Schneck, said. 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. Disc 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.
Mr. Abrams had a career before he fell in love with the park.
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 Field 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.”
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 continued to be deeply connected to the Jewish community, and a resolute Zionist. In fact, his grandson said, his grandfather always 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.
Much of that was thanks to Sol Abrams.
Mr. Abrams is survived by his wife, Zelda; their three children, Jill Schneck of North Caldwell, Sue Finkel of Raleigh, N.C., and Gary Abrams of Centerville, Ohio, and six grandchildren.
Palisades Amusement Park is survived by memories.