Pre-Disneyland Victorian Fun at Chutes Park Los Angeles
by, 01-18-2012 at 07:55 PM
While doing research for Walt and the Promise of Progress City I was struck at the amount of empirical data that Walt and his team collected as part of the creative process. Walt and his team spent a lot of time in the field studying how others did business. From the book:
"Once Walt became focused on building an amusement park, he began to study everything he could about the subject. He visited dozens of parks to see what worked and what did not. On one trip with Art Linkletter, they visited Tivoli Gardens, built in 1843 in Copenhagen, Denmark. Linkletter said, “As we walked through it, I had my first experience of Walt Disney ’s childlike delight in the enjoyment of seeing families and in the cleanliness and the orderliness of everything. He was making notes all the time about the lights, the chairs, the seats, and the food.” Linkletter asked Walt what he was doing and Walt replied, “I’m just making notes about something that I’ve always dreamed of, a great, great playground for the children and the families of America.” Walt liked how Tivoli Gardens was kept clean, was decoratively lit with popcorn lights outlining the buildings, and had outdoor entertainment. It was a park for both adults and children."
It was not uncommon for Walt to be found hanging out at some of the local amusement parks. He would spend hours observing how the children interacted with the activities.
"In doing his research he often visited the Bradley and Kay amusement center at La Cienega and Beverly boulevards in Los Angeles. During his frequent visits, he observed how the children used the facility. He knew the owners, Dave and Bernice Bradley, and was constantly quizzing them about their operations. He wanted to know how the rides worked, what people ate, and how people lined up in the queues. Bernice Bradley remembers, “Our park was very tiny. There was a carousel, a little train ride, and another little boat ride for children…Walt was out there almost every day, sitting on the end of the bench, watching how children enjoyed the rides.” She added, “He also talked to a lot of the children, which is what he enjoyed the most. He challenged them. ‘How was that horse you were riding? What color was it painted? Did you like it?’” Another nearby park where he could often be found was Beverly Park in Beverly Hills also owned by the Bradleys. Walt also visited Coney Island, Knott’s Berry Farm, Travel Town in Griffith Park, the Los Angeles County Fair, and Oakland’s Fairyland. His team studied fairs, zoos, and even Forest Lawn Memorial Park cemetery in Glendale—at the time the most popular tourist attraction in the Los Angeles region before Disneyland was opened.
This week, I would like to revisit one of those great, now lost, Los Angeles theme parks that predated Disneyland. These parks inspired Walt Disney. He knew he could do it better. With the help of noted amusement park historian Richard Harris, this is the story of one such park. We are about to visit Chutes Park.
According to Richard, more than 65 years before Walt Disney would build Disneyland in Anaheim, Downtown Los Angeles would be the site of its first major 35-acre amusement park. At the height of its popularity, Chutes Park would feature attractions such as a roller coaster, a water slide, a large man-made lake, and a small miniature railroad.
Let’s let Richard take it from here.
Chutes Park started off as a trolley park. Trolley Parks started in the 19th century along (or at the end of) their streetcar lines in some of the larger cities. The streetcar companies created trolley parks to give people a reason to use their transit systems on the weekends. They usually consisted of a picnic and recreation area and would feature events such as dances, concerts and shows. Some parks also had swimming pools, carousels, Ferris wheels, roller coasters, sports fields and boat rides. The parks were the precursors to amusement parks as we know of them today.
One of those companies was the Los Angeles Improvement Company, who owned the Second Street Cable Rail Road Company, that consisted of 1.6 miles of road. In December 1899, the company acquired the old Washington Gardens site at Main and Washington Streets near downtown Los Angeles, and in August 1900 they unveiled plans to create an amusement park on 12 to14 acres. A Los Angeles Times article reported that the new Washington Gardens would offer fun galore.
The highlight of the plan was to be Paul Boynton's Shoot the Chutes Ride, named for an inventor and world-renowned diver who had built similar attractions on the East Coast. Boynton's toboggan-like boats began their ride from a 75-foot tower and had descended down a 300-foot greased wooden ramp skipping across a lake at the bottom. An on-board ride attendant then pulled the boat back to the ramp.
This is video of a similar Chutes type ride at Luna Park in Coney Island, 1903
J.P. Newberg built the first of this type of amusement ride in 1884 down the side of a hill at Watchtower Park in Rock Island, Illinois. This ride was copied over and over and "Chutes" rides were to be found at many amusement parks throughout America, and even became the name of several amusement parks in the United States. While the original form of the ride is largely obsolete, modern log flume rides like Splash Mountain work on similar principles.
Some of the other attractions in this amusement park were to include a Merry-go-round, Shooting Gallery, Bowling Alley, and a Japanese village and tea house. There would also be a kids playground with pony rides and goat carts, a zoological building, a 4,000-seat modern theater for vaudeville plus fields for baseball and football.
The Chutes Theater was among the first of the new attractions to open when it was used for vaudeville shows (by December 1900). The following summer a fishing pond, a small circus, daily hot-air balloon rides, the Catalina Marine Band and a small railroad that followed the outer perimeter of the park joined the rides and theaters. A newspaper article from September 1901 said 7,000 people had visited the park on Labor Day.
The facility was state-of-the-art for its time period; its merry-go-round was electric powered at a time when most competitors were still using horse drawn equipment. The engine that pulled the boats back up from the lake to the tower was electric.
The name 'Chutes Park' was applied to the baseball park, which opened around 1901, and was the original home of the Los Angeles Angels of the Pacific Coast League as well as the Vernon Tigers. After the ball games, a gate in the center field fence was opened and the fans were to be allowed to enter the theme park.
By October of 1903, the operators of the park had announced they would spend up to $40,000 to build a steel-framed figure-eight roller coaster. It would replace the hot-air balloon rides on the south side of the park near Main Street and Washington Boulevard. Within three years, the roller coaster and the water slide were in place.
By 1907, the park basically had the look it would carry until its end. Within the 10-foot wooden fence that surrounded the park were the major rides, animal pens (including a seal pond), the two-story Chutes Restaurant, a cigar store, a dancing school, skating park, a billiards hall, and a photo studio. There were other features like Tony Ryder's Monkey Circus. One of his animals was half chimpanzee and half orangutan, which did many difficult feats. Also included was Sheik Hadji Tahar's Famous Arabian Horsemen, Billikin's Temple of Mirth and the Cave of the Winds (in which those who entered met sudden gusts of wind).
In the end, none of that would be enough. Faltering gate receipts prompted the sale of the park to new owners in October 1910. They promised to spend $200,000 - about five million by today’s standard - to upgrade the park and add new attractions.
On June 10, 1911, Chutes Park had reopened as Luna Park, sharing the name of the hugely successful facility at Coney Island in New York. The most successful new attraction was Nemo's Trip to Slumberland, named for "Little Nemo in Slumberland," a popular comic strip of the time about a boy with magical powers who fights evil through his surreal dreams.
Does that swing ride on the right remind you of anything?
The record shows that 16,000 people had turned out for opening day. They came to see Dick Stanley and Hoxie's Congress of Rough Riders and Wild West Show. Others were likely drawn to see Madame Schell's Ferocious Lions or the diorama of the battle between the Monitor and Merrimac. But it was the 600-foot-long Nemo ride that drew the longest lines. Riders looked out and saw tunnels - anything from panoramic vistas to dark chasms - as they climbed and descended. It could accommodate more then 30,000 people on a weekend.
Other changes came to the park. A diorama depicting the sinking of the USS Maine in Havana Harbor (the start the Spanish-American War) replaced the Monitor and Merrimac. On the Fairy Gorge ride, people rode large washtubs down a hill.
The new owners wanted to bring more kids to their park, so they built a Niagara Falls-themed attraction and Children's Half Acre filled with slides and smaller rides. For whatever reasons, it didn't work. Luna went downhill faster than the Nemo ride and the park was sold again in September 1912 to a group who wanted to turn it into an attraction for African American customers, but that new concept never opened. By 1914, all the buildings and rides had been torn down.
The site was sold to British film pioneer David Horsley, who operated a zoo on the site for a time. Horsley built the first movie studio in Hollywood. Today, most of the site of Chutes Park is a parking lot for the nearby L.A. Mart.
Fascinating stuff, isn't it?! 65 years before Walt built Disneyland, a Victorian era theme park was growing in Los Angeles. Would you have had the nerve to shoot the chutes?
This weekend, I'll be hosting a special presentation called Mineral King: Walt’s Lost Last Project at The Walt Disney Family Museum in San Francisco (January 21). I'll host past Disney CEO and Museum Founder Ron Miller and architect David Price to discuss the innovative (and now-forgotten) year-round mountain resort that was one of Walt’s last major projects. This fascinating program gives context and detail to a remarkable and imaginative destination resort project and explain the forces and opposition that led to its ultimate abandonment. Illustrated with rare images, art, photos, archival documents, and film clips; this program offers insight into Walt’s vision at the height of his final career phase.
Sam is the author of Walt and the Promise of Progress City, an amazing book that explores how Walt Disney—the master of fiction—was determined to bring new life to the non-fiction world of city design and development and, in doing so, fundamentally improve the Great American way of life. Walt and the Promise of Progress City is available today on Amazon.