Playland, Rye, New York-The 1950s
The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly
By James L. Casale
In the 1950s, this iconic amusement park’s sights, sounds, smells, and adventures attracted people of all ages and still does. Add Rye Beach, Oakland Beach, Rye Pool, Oakland Pool, and a skating rink to this panoply of fun and games, and you know why people flocked to Playland like it was Long Island Sound’s Club Med.
Hoards arrived by the busload from everywhere, and it was always a summer camp destination for field trips. There was nothing like it unless you wanted to go to New Jersey. Who wanted to go to New Jersey?
Unfortunately, Playland was also the destination for ferries from somewhere in the Bronx. These faux pleasure cruises contributed mightily to the contamination of Long Island Sound. Other factors added to the disgusting water filled with contaminants, but in those days, regulations, if there were any, were ignored. But kids didn’t care and went to the beaches regularly. However, ignorance is not bliss; it’s dangerous and borders on stupidity.
I knew of several cases of kids who contracted polio. The poliovirus can be transmitted via contact with feces, which were regularly seen in the beach water along with condoms and other refuse. I know it was from the garbage dispensed openly by those Bronx ferries. How could this possibly go unnoticed?
Well, it was the 1950s, after all. Still, wasn’t somebody or some agency supposed to notice the potential for severe illnesses due to the conditions in the water? I noticed, and so did my friends, but Oakland Beach-our hangout- was too close to ignore. Maybe the exposure to debilitating bacteria forms contributed to my immune system. At the same time, other beachgoers suffered from a variety of ailments, including polio.
Harrison kids and everybody else from nearby southern Westchester County and elsewhere herded themselves to Playland like tourists to Bermuda. Playland and the beaches were a mere three miles from Harrison: It was close enough to ride your bike, hitchhike, or walk there. And we didn’t always have to pay our way to go to the beach. Given the dangerous conditions, admission should have been free.
There were two ways to get into our Oakland Beach hangout without paying. One was to jump over the stone wall onto the sand below, about a ten- or twelve-foot jump. But it looked like twenty feet to me. I was scared and never did it. Plenty of guys did it. My friend, Wussy Basso, jumped off that wall as casually as stepping off a curb.
A second way to enter our hangout beach was by paying to swim and dive at Rye Pool. Marco, Stevie, Friggsy, and I preferred the pure crystal water of the Rye Pool, where we could show off our limited swimming and driving abilities. If you paid to enter the pool, admission to Rye Beach through a tunnel was free.
We never stayed on Rye Beach because our choice of location was Oakland Beach on the other side of the fence. This is where we lathered our magnificent bodies-head to toe with baby oil and iodine, which helped set us up in the future for skin cancer. Again, it was the early 50s; what the hell did we know? We were too busy showing off in front of the girls by diving into that septic tank called Long Island Sound, bullshitting, and smoking those Lucky Strikes.
Occasionally, we would run full speed into the filthy water, dive under the puny waves, and then surface next to something that looked like a Baby Ruth, but it wasn’t. It was a human turd, a common site along with other waste from the ferries. My crew, Marco, Friggzy, Stevie, Marco’s brother Mike, Denny Citarella, and Bully, did not ever linger in the water. We merely used it to cool off and show off.
Overall, except for exposing myself to the sewage water and preparing my body for future skin cancer with the 50s sun lotion, my pleasant memories of hanging out and getting a dangerous tan. Still, it didn’t compare to what the rest of Playland had to offer.
On to the Boardwalk, the Rides, and Other Attractions
Do you remember your favorite treats, rides, and attractions if you have ever been to Playland? The orangeade machine that dispensed my favorite drink was always my first stop. The metal contraption that loaded fresh oranges then sent them reeling into a location that crushed them into the elixir of my dreams is tattooed to my brain. This drink saved me from overdosing on soda. It started my day on the trail of other sweets.
I devoured enough cotton candy to create a cotton candy cloud in the sky. How could anything that sweet and delicious not be a Charleston Chew, Goldenberg’s Peanut Chews, or a Clark Bar? How bad could cotton candy be? It didn’t weigh anything. It had to be almost zero calories and was always fresh because it was made right in front of you in that round whirling metal machine. Maybe it was organic!
The rides that attracted most of our crew were the bumper cars and the roller coaster. Did you ever wish your car was a tank and you could ram into those cars and drivers on the road that did something stupid? You know who I mean: The drivers who don’t know how to merge onto the highway, the ones at the stoplight who are playing with their phones and don’t see the green light, the ones with the stupid bumper and widow stickers that cover the entire back of their vehicle, and the cars driving under the speed limit. That’s what I was am thinking of when I was driving a bumper car and ramming other cars.
The roller coaster was a much more exciting ride because there was a hint of danger. And not everyone would ride it. When the ride ended, I felt a sense of accomplishment like I did when I used to jump across the apartment building roofs with Frankie Stagno, who also lived on Nelson Avenue.
We loved the Fun House, the characters who tried to guess your weight, and the photo booth. Remember the instant photo booth designed only for lilliputians where you proceeded to mug for the camera? I kept those photos for many years.
They say youth is wasted on the young, but this Harrison boy wasted no time enjoying a childhood that some kids only dreamed of. It was so good that I had no trouble remembering most of it. I only wish my friends were still here to remember it with me. God Bless America and the Town of Harrison. New York, and Playland.