One of the many wonderful things about growing up in Duquesne was having Kennywood in our backyard. I’ve lived in many different parts of the country and have met many people who grew up in the Pittsburgh area. If in the course of conversation we discovered that we both had grown up in the Pittsburgh area, we would always need to define “where exactly” in Pittsburgh. To this day, I always say I grew up about 10 minutes from Kennywood Park. Without fail, those words to any Pittsburgher will immediately bring a smile to their face.
As passionate and proud that I am about being a Duquesne Hunky, the same holds true for being a Kennywood aficionado. As a child and even now, as an adult, I still feel that Kennywood is one of the most delightful places in the U.S. There’s something magical that happens to me when I enter the park. There is sensory overload immediately upon entering. Although the Turnpike has made way for Kennywood’s newest coaster, Sky Rocket, that familiar “clacking” sound of the Turnpike Model-Ts would greet you immediately up entering. The Turnpike ride came into existence in 1966, but I’m sure many of you remember being greeted by “Sally” at the Laff-in-the-Dark. Sally was the rather “big boned” animated hysterically laughing woman who was encased behind glass at the front of the Laff-In-The-Dark ride. I remember that when I was still Kiddieland age and size, she use to scare the “bejesus” out of me. I remember having a dream as a child that she escaped from her glass case and would chase me around Kennywood. Once I grew to Howdy Doody size, I conquered my fear and confidently strode past Sal and onto the ride.
Just beyond the Laff-in-the-Dark was the Old Mill. I have been researching the ride history of Kennywood and learned that the Old Mill was built over 110 years ago in 1901! The Old Mill has been rethemed several times since it first arrived in Kennywood. The first time it was converted was in 1906 when it became the Fairyland Floats. Its next metamorphosis occured when it was transformed into the Panama Canal in 1914, the same year the actual Panama Canal was opened. In 1956 it became the “Around the World Boat Ride” and remained as such until 1974 when it became “Hard Headed Harrold’s Horrendously Humorous Haunted Hideaway.” In 2004, Kennywood’s Grand Old Lady was once again changed and became “Garfield’s Nightmare!” According to the Kennywood Connection, the Old Mill might be changing once again in the near future. Regardless of the name, this ride has always been the ideal place for “making out” and was aptly nicknamed “The Tunnel of Love.” During the day, families rode into the Old Mill together, but by nightfall, the climate of the tunnel changed and young loves flocked to the ride to catch a few private moments. If those walls could only talk!!
From what I remember, just beyond the Old Mill stood a carnival game of chance. If I’m not mistaken, the object of the game was to knock down a stack of milk bottles with a baseball. Husbands, dads and boyfriends would plunk down their coins for a chance to win a prize. Although the prizes are now primarily stuffed animals, back when I was a kid, the prize was usually one of those glittery chalk statues. There were horses, sailor girls and other colorful choices depending on how well you did at knocking down the bottles. Unfortunately on that particular game, I never really was able to win much above some consolation prize of a whistle or some other cheap trinket.
Directly across from the milk bottle game was a large restroom. Now, one would not normally talk about “facilities” as a particularly memorable landmark, but this case is different. The restrooms had a large front porch, complete with rocking chairs. In addition, along the “lawn” at the front of the structure, wooden benches were lined up as a respite for weary parents and elderly patrons of the park. I remember this spot since it was where my mom would always wait as my brother and I used up any remaining tickets on the surrounding rides at the end of the day. We would run off to a nearby attraction and then return to Mom after we had ridden it. She’d parcel out just enough tickets for our next ride and continue to do so until we had finally exhausted all of the tickets or ourselves. At that point, we would always grab a box of popcorn from the concession stand and head home.
To the left of the milk bottle game stood one of my favorite spots as a child, The Penny Arcade. The penny arcade would hold my attention for the longest time. Although some attractions throughout Kennywood haven’t changed to any great degree since I was a kid, the Penny Arcade is almost unrecognizable today versus the pre-video game era. I would haunt the Penny Arcade with a pocketful of coins burning a hole in my pocket. Virtually every machine was mechanical, relying on gears, cogs, wheels, chains and our own strength in order to operate. Nothing was electronic as it is today, but it was none the less dazzling with the multitude of brightly colored and flashing incandescent bulbs on every game and outlining the walls and ceilings of the arcade itself.
There were so many fascinating machines that I was ready to drop my pennies into. Although I grew up with TV and Cinemascope movies, I would find the old nickelodeons mesmerizing. I’d drop my penny and slowly turn the crank to flip through the Kinescope photographs that simulated motion. There were mechanical Fortune Tellers to forecast your future, but truthfully, they always wore head scarves and reminded me more of a “stutta-bubba” wearing a babushka than a mysterious gypsy. I recall machines where I was able to drop two cents and get a photo postcard of a movie star. Granted, the assortment of stars was rather dated, but none-the-less, they were fun to collect. There was a machine that you could get a “lucky horseshoe” that had a penny in the middle of it and God knows, one could never have enough of those. An assortment of pinball machines dotted the arcade and one whole wall was devoted to skeeball. I remember there were machines that were even able to measure your “love level” and your “mood” using a series of lights. I guess it was like a vintage mood ring. When I think back, the games and machines in the penny arcade in the 50’s were about as “carney” and “hokey” as they could get. However, in masse, they created a fantasyland for this Duquesne Hunky. As a wee one, who was just about to leave Kiddieland behind forever, to be able to enjoy the adventures the arcade had to offer was irresistible.
My recollections of Kiddieland are somewhat vague. Since I was dependent on my parents for trips to Kennywood, I didn’t know Kiddieland that well since we didn’t visit often. Usually, we only visited three or four times each summer; once for the Duquesne Catholic School Picnic, then there was Slovak Day, Croatian Day and finally, Fall Fantasy at the close of the season. There are three rides in Kiddieland that I remember enjoying. I used to love those little hand cranked cars that moved around the track by hand pedaling them. There was also the Kiddie Old Mill that had little swan boats that my Mom and I would get into and drift through different Nursery Rhyme scenes. Lastly, I vaguely recall a live pony ride. It was at the very back of Kiddieland near the pavilions. I don’t remember a lot of details about the ponies, but I am certain that the “ride” existed. The one ride that I can’t recall if it was in Kiddieland or not was the “Little Dipper.” I recall having to drum-up an incredible amount of courage to ride this attraction, but once I did, I was hooked.
As summer nears and the season rolls on, I’m definitely planning on posting quite a bit more about Kennywood. From the swimming pool to the merry-go-round, from the rowboats to the circus acts, I plan on hitting all the highlights! As always, we’d love to hear your memories, so please…. comment away! In closing, please enjoy Kennywood’s traditional closing song since 1941. It was recorded by Yvonne King and the Alvino Rey Orchastra and is titled approriately, “Nighty Night!”……..