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Just as there are a handful of oceanside parks remaining in America, so there are only a handful of lakeside American amusement parks left. Where real estate values on any body of water drove out most of 1,500+ plus American amusement parks during the 1920s, Canobie Lake Park still sits by the lake, clean, beautiful, and thriving. Gary Kyriazi pays a visit.
“My parents were dreaming about owning a park during their days working the large arcade at Palisades Park,” says Carl Berni, Canobie Lake's general manager. Indeed, the venerable Palisades Amusement Park on the cliffs of New Jersey overlooking the Hudson River and New York's Manhattan, was a hotbed of talent, drive and entrepreneurship, making the park a leader in the industry. Of course, Palisades Park also succumbed to soaring real estate values, closing in 1967. Today its former site holds among the highest priced condominiums in East New Jersey, with their breathtaking views and easy access over the Hudson River to Manhattan.
But Berni's parents, Anthony “Nino” Berni and Laura, along with their friends Claude “Lou” Captell and his wife Stella, Kazmir “Kas” Ulaky and his wife Rita (Stella's sister), left Palisades Park during its prime in 1958, taking their hard-earned knowledge and skill to what at that time was a lakeside park that may otherwise have become another statistic. Their contributions to the amusement industry were significant: Nino's Great Uncle August Berni had started his career with an organ company, supplying organs for carousels. Claude Captell's father built Boston's Revere Beach Lightning rollercoaster, designed by the legendary Harry Traver. Claude himself designed the overhead electrical system for bumper cars.
In a serious roll of the dice, the three couples bought Canobie Lake for $450,000 from the Holland Family, who had purchased the park from the Massachusetts Northeast Street Railway Company.
The railroads and trolley lines that mushroomed in America during the early 1900s, and their new “trolley parks” which gave the lines welcomed revenue on weekends, offered nothing short of a trip to paradise for the hard-working (60+ hours a week) Americans and immigrants. In 1902, the brand new Canobie Lake Park astounded its trolley-riding visitors with an electric fountain, athletic field, bandstand, two restaurants, bowling, penny arcade, photo booth, airplane swing, carousel, figure-eight rollercoaster and boating on the lake. Imagine your first visit to Walt Disney World today, and that was a visit to Canobie Lake then.
Canobie Lake Park grew as the rest of the American amusement industry did. As the trolleys gave way to automobiles, lake swimming was replaced by the 250,000 gallon swimming pool (drained and refilled with lake water daily), the penny arcade led to Skee-Ball and other games of chance, the gentle rides grew into time-honoured thrill rides like the Whip and the Dodgem, and the figure-eight was replaced by the 1936 Greyhound, known today as the Yankee Cannonball. Post World War crowds flocked to Canobie Lake Park to see and dance to such greats as Glenn Miller, Tommy Dorsey, Benny Goodman and Frank Sinatra.
Along came television, continued freedom and increased choices for the automobile-buying Americans, and Canobie Lake Park was up for sale by 1958. Enter the three families from Palisades Park. “It was a major risk,” says Carl Berni, “but when we bought Canobie Lake the amusement industry was already in our blood.” The task ahead of them was considerable.
“The most important thing after we purchased the park,” says Laura Berni, Carl's mother and still a leader in Canobie Lake, “was improving the infrastructure and getting the park in shape. We had to do that before we purchased any new rides.” Gravel walkways, constantly washed away with the rains, were replaced with pavement, existing rides needed overhauling, and buildings needed upgrading. “It was a labour of love for the three families.”
Carl Berni himself got his feet wet (literally) running the fish pond for 50 cents an hour. “I worked every summer at the park,” he says, “learning something new every year, every day. Running an amusement park became all I knew.”
With the refurbishing done at breakneck speed, the Berni's, Captell's and Ulaky's now faced the major rule of owning an amusement park – add something new every year. “That was tough,” says Carl Berni, “getting the money for something new, but it was always worth it, and we always did a little bit better each year.” To augment the existing Whip, Circle Swing, Dodgem, Carousel, Fun House, Dark Ride, Arcade and, to this day what is one of America's smoothest and best out-and-back wooden rollercoasters, the Yankee Cannonball, the families subsequently brought in the Scrambler, Calypso, Crazy Cups, Wild Mouse, Tilt-A-Whirl and Flying Scooters, the last two from the couples' former workplace of Palisades Park.
What kept the three couples particularly busy was food service and gifts, which before their ownership were operated by concessionaires. Equally challenging was the couples' decision to continue to provide name entertainment for patrons, leaning particularly towards the increasingly lucrative rock-and-roll market. “Booking name rock acts was always worth the investment,” Carl Berni insists. “Once we got really lucky, we'd booked Sonny and Cher in the fall when they'd only had one minor hit, but by the time summer rolled around I Got You Babe was number one in the nation. The park was overflowing.” Another memorable booking was The Beach Boys. “They tried to come in through the front gate for their gig, but the ticket sellers didn't recognise them and wouldn't let them in without a ticket. My father came out to settle the argument and they told him 'Hey, we're the Beach Boys!' My dad said 'I don't care what beach you hang out at, to get in here you have to buy a ticket!'”
To listen to the survivors of the original three couples – Carl Berni, his mother Laura, and Claude and Stella Captell's son Ray – express their experiences and knowledge is like hearing a powerful, vital, symphonic ode to the amusement industry:
“The lake has helped keep the park up all these decades. In the amusement industry, you can't go wrong with water.”
“We've got great managers working for us.”
“You get nervous when it rains, of course, but you also get a lot of confidence with experience.”
“How do you bring this type of business into the future? In a word: family.”
“And Canobie Lake Park is known for its family feeling.”
“It's not about the rides. It's about the family.”
“There are four generations in this park.”
“And we were fortunate to be a family of innovators. It's worked out beautifully.”
“Rule Number On in this industry: Thou Shalt Reinvent.”
The park today, covered with a canopy of New England pine trees and laced with shady walkways and benches, is a breathtaking tour through a 106-year-old park that has maintained its relaxing, trolley park feel, while offering the necessary thrills to keep the kids happy. Still evident among the rides is the terminal of the trolley line, now within the park, and one of the huge stone pillars marking the park's original entrance.
2008 marks the 50th Anniversary of the Bernis, Captells and Ulakys leaving Palisades Park to purchase Canobie Lake Park, and after half a century, it's still business as usual.
“A couple of new flat rides, otherwise nothing too major this year,” Carl told me. “We're replacing our Hrubetz Round-Up with the Zero Gravity from Dartron, and replacing our Crazy Bus with the Fantasy Boat from Satori. Also, we're putting more money into our food stands.”
I asked for some final words of wisdom from the learned and experienced Carl Berni; in particular, is it enough just to be the best and most beautiful lakeside amusement park in the nation?
“No, it's not,” he said. “We have to continue to make it work. The public is very discerning, and it keeps us on our toes. With all there is to choose from – megaplex movie theatres, indoor/outdoor sporting arenas, FECs – their expectations are very high.
“We have to continue to 'wow' them.”
Gary Kyriazi is the author of The Great American Amusement Parks, A Pictorial History, and has been a researcher and writer for the amusement industry for more than 30 years.