Pontchartrain Beach Memories
Pontchartrain Beach Tickets
(Ashleigh Austin's Personal Collection)
Streetcar: Ride and Seek
Pontchartrain Beach - 15 years later
By: Errol Laborde
Used by Permission
Once was enough on the Wild Maus. After the little cart I was belted into made a few innocent turns along its track, it suddenly began to accelerate, pushing my head back as though gravity had delivered a punch. Speeding, speeding, faster, faster, the cart was jetting toward the end of the track where the faint sight of the New Orleans skyline was in the distance. A headline was in the making: “Boy Peeled Off Hibernia Bank Tower After Being Hurled Across Town.”
I would live to write about it only because right at the track’s edge the Maus made a quick, sharp turn to the left and then sped in another direction, racing toward another edge but always turning just in time.
Some people were more squeamish about rides at the old Pontchartrain Beach Amusement Park than others. I belonged to the “more” category. I never did ride on the Ragin’ Cajun, having a lifelong resistance to rides that turn me over full circle. I did ride the Zephyr roller coaster several times, always with apprehension, but usually enjoying it more than I anticipated. Once, I even went back for a second ride on the same night.
It doesn’t seem possible that the amusement park has been closed 15 years this month. The season of ‘83 was a melancholy one. Old-fashioned amusement parks had become outdated in the era of the slick theme parks. New Orleanians were flocking to Disney World where a new development, EPCOT Center, was going to open a year later. The next year was going to bring competition to New Orleans as well – the ‘84 World’s Fair. An amusement park just couldn’t compete.
What comes to mind most vividly when I think about “The Beach,” as New Orleanians most commonly referred to the amusement park, is the midway. Remembering it 15 years later, it occurs to me that the midway always was about memories. It was not something experienced for the moment but for the past. When I walked it in ‘83, I remembered it from years earlier when the smell of fried onions would drift from the burger stand and when the ultimate in beach kitsch, a towering clown’s head, stood at the entrance to the fun house. I remembered marching along the midway with the Boy Scouts each Flag Day, thousands of boys lured to a patriotic cere-mony by the promise of free rides after the speeches were done.
Another generation remembered different males in uniforms. During the war years, the Beach was a pastime for fly boys from the nearby naval air base looking for love and thrills along the midway, some, having found both, getting cozy on the Ferris wheel.
One ride that transcended the generations at the Beach was also my ride of choice: the Bug. While some of the thrill rides were leased by the amusement park, the Bug was one of the original possessions of the Batt family who owned the park. The ride cleverly provided just enough thrills and jostling while still compensating for the wimp factor among its passengers. Riders sat in a train of round cars, each painted to look like the link in some sort of centipede. Within each car, passengers held on to the rim of a fixed metal wheel in the center. The Bug raced along a track that had its ups and downs and a few fast turns but nothing like the smash-face horrors of the Wild Maus.
By Labor Day weekend of ‘83, even the Maus was tamed. The culprit could be seen in the very skyline into which the Maus always seemed to be taking a plunge. The city in the distance was changing; the population was shifting. A member of the Batt family once lamented to me that in the early days theme parks were built on the outskirts of towns, where the land was cheap, but as the cities expanded they absorbed the outskirts, and land values shot up like the Zephyr racing up its track. The times just weren’t right anymore.
There were fireworks during that last weekend as the Beach buffs gathered for their last bout of making memories. My nostalgia supply was already overflowing, including thoughts of those long summer weekend nights when parents would put the kids in the back seat of a Chevy and go for a ride along the lakefront. The path would eventually parallel the Beach, where the car would be slowed enough so that we could watch the Zephyr slowly making its climb toward that highest peak. Like good drama, it would gradually build to a crescendo. As the lead car reached the top, it would begin to point downward, preparing to lead the other cars in the sudden swoosh to the low end of the tracks. Riders would inevitably raise their arms to absorb the full force of nature, and there would be a chorus of yells as the Zephyr plunged toward the bottom. “Crazy people!” my mother would always say, and we all agreed.
In its lifetime the Beach provided many badges of honor, including that one day I too would be among the crazy with arms extended, reaching to the summer night sky.
August 1998 - Vol. 32 - Issue 11 - Page - #3211
Reprinted by Permission.
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Special thanks to Errol Laborde at New Orleans Magazine
for the use of his super article!
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