Modern-day amusement parks are a full-scale assault on the senses, with rides zooming past at breakneck speed, the scent of fried food in the air, and happy screams punctuating cheerful carnie music. But despite their high-tech roller coasters, they're hardly a new phenomenon. In the 18th and 19th centuries, European “pleasure gardens” teemed with live entertainment, fireworks, dancing, and games. Mechanical rides came to the fore with the debut of the Ferris wheel at the 1893 Chicago World's Fair. And Walt Disney really set things into motion in the '50s with his then-futuristic Disneyland, an attraction that proved so lucrative that today you can't toss a cotton candy clump without hitting a theme park.
To most people these parks are merely a fun way to kill an afternoon. But to others, they're a fascinating and revealing cultural phenomenon. Do bumper cars and roller coasters really unearth hidden facets of our psyche? The answer can be found at “Amusing America,” a comprehensive exhibit curated by Bay Area history and culture writer Ink Mendelsohn that starts a two-year run at Pier 45 this week.
The nostalgic show-and-tell explores how amusement parks contributed to American culture and brought unlikely companions of all ages and backgrounds together. Mendelsohn's inspiration was her belief that “the everyday life of a people is as much the stuff of history as the noisy great events: war, politics, economic cycles.” Certainly an armchair historian would find plenty to investigate at “Amusing America,” which includes approximately 500 photographs (many culled from defunct local venues like Playland at the Beach and Woodward's Gardens), colorful murals, interactive displays, and unusual pieces of memorabilia — including the weird old penny-arcade machines from the Musée Mécanique (how we've missed you, Laughing Sal!).
The pictures are charming and the ephemera priceless, but there's an ulterior motive behind the display: It's the first for the new San Francisco Museum and Historical Society, which hopes that showcasing its publications and programs at one of America's most visited sites (Fisherman's Wharf) will grease the skids for the Society's plan to open a San Francisco City History Museum in the now-unused Old Mint building.
I can't say if sweet snapshots of ladies in '30s-style Eleanor Roosevelt hats chowing down on ice cream cones or those of dusty coin-operated fortune-telling machines will create a groundswell of support for a civic gallery. But there's more to “Amusing America” than just nostalgic kitsch.
“The American historical journey is traveled not only on the broad highway of cataclysmic political and military events,” Mendelsohn writes via e-mail, “but on the garden path and the front porch; the sandlot and the schoolyard; the living room and the meeting hall; at the fair or the amusement park; on city streets and in your own backyard.” With its enchanting glimpse into the past, “Amusing America” shows free spirits how the fun began.