Danceland and the Excelsior Amusement Park (Part One)
Memories of A Vanished Era
“Who is the Mystery Girl? See her attempt a daring, thrilling, and sensational parachute jump into Lake Minnetonka at 4 PM Sunday. Bring the whole family. Come early. Plan to spend the day. Acres of amusements.”
— Advertisement in the Waverly Star Newspaper, Summer, 1933
Jim O’Leary was lured to the Lake by advertisements like the one above, and also by the fact that Excelsior Amusement Park cut its entrance fee to three cents per day during the height of the Depression. “We used to hitchhike to Excelsior Amusement Park for the same reason, more or less, that our young now go to the mall – girls, girls, girls, or boys, boys, boys. Marion Borell and I hitchhiked there once, but we ran out of money after the first half hour,” O’Leary remembered.
Casey McPherson remembers living next door to the park in the fifties and sixties: “the park was a hangout for families and kids, but also for teenagers and sometimes gangs, guys with motorcycles and matching jackets.”
LakeMinnetonka.com’s “Skipper” saw the park as it reached old age in the late sixties and early seventies. “My friends and I would sneak onto the old freight train as it slowed down on the way to Excelsior,” he said. “I remember the train came through Deephaven at about 8 AM on Saturdays. If you ran fast enough you could catch a ride into Excelsior on one of the sugar beet cars. We’d get off just before it stopped – about one block from the park.” If he and his friends managed to avoid the caboose men, who were always patrolling the train looking for kids and bums, the next obstacle was to sneak into the park without being noticed. “The park had a fence around it which ran all the way down to the water, but where it met the water there was a small hole – we used to crawl under the fence at this point. The trick was to carefully time your entrance, because near this hole was a little choo-choo train ride, and it was best to sneak under when the little train was going the opposite direction from the fence, so the ‘conductor’ wouldn’t see you,” he laughed.
Excelsior Amusement Park was officially born in 1924, when Fred W. Pierce, Sr. of Detroit, MI, made a proposal to the village council of Excelsior to support the building of a new amusement park on land adjacent to where the docks stood. Completed by 1925, the park opened for the first time on May 30, 1925. At the time, streetcars took citizens from Minneapolis out to Excelsior, and there was always a flood of visitors each summer. The streetcars shut down in 1932, and were replaced by a bus line from Hopkins. The Excelsior Amusement Park always opened Memorial Day weekend and closed the weekend after Labor Day.
Most people who saw the park remember the Cyclone, Excelsior’s wood-built roller coaster, the cars creaking up the slopes, dropping like a rock on shaky pillars amid the screams and laughter of a million sun-bleached riders. The Cyclone was like the backbone of the park, stretching out about halfway down its length, offering excellent views of the lake, and thrilling drops down toward the crowds below. But there was so much more to this park. Upon entering through the main gate and buying your tickets at the ticket booth, you were presented with a multiple array of options. There was the ferris wheel, which lit up the sky at night, its squeaking seats taking you up high above the crowds and noises. There were real inboard boats that you could rent for a short spin on the lake, or, if you were too young for the real thing, there was a simulated, mechanical boat ride for the kiddies at the water’s edge.
There was everything a kid could want to eat, too: hot dogs, pop corn, sno-cones, cotton candy, and soda pop, just to get started.
Getting back to the rides, there was “The Whip” which took riders for a herky-jerky trek around an oval track. If you had just eaten and wanted something tamer, nothing beat the old carousel, an original old early twentieth century ride, featuring a wonderful double roller music box that played waltzes and John Philip Sousa marches on an Artisan Band Organ. There were bumper cars that had metal poles connecting to the ceiling, and every now and then things got a little more exciting as sparks came showering down on the hapless rider from the ceiling connector above.
Another destination at the park was the Fun House. It had an assortment of goofy rides like a huge horizontal circular spinning platform which sometimes flung kids off and into the padded walls on the sides, or the spinning tunnel that turned as you walked through, taking away loose change and other items.
In the days when girls wore dresses and petticoats and didn’t “put out” on dates for fear of appearing to be the “wrong sort of girl” there was a place in the Funhouse to take them. It was a special spot where a hole in the floor allowed sudden bursts of air to come shooting up from below, enough to lift the dress of the girl and providing a Marilyn-Monroe-movie-like experience for couples.
But for those guys who lusted after the REAL movie stars, there were the Penny Arcades.The old men who ran the games inside – ring tosses, shooting gallery, pinball machines, etc. – seemed to have a knack for finding JUST the right kind of prize suitable for a nine year old boy who hit the bulls eye – a genuine cheese cake glamour shot, complete with cleavage, of a dead or over-the-hill Hollywood film star: Marilyn Monroe, Rosalind Russell, Rita Hayworth – in glossy black and white, ready to tack up on the bedroom wall when your mother wasn’t looking. Yeah, those old men knew what the kids wanted…
“Birdie with a yellow bill, hopped upon my windowsill, cocked a shining eye and said, what did you do after you ate the banana-split?” – Axel Torgeson
When mom actually took the kids to the park, it was often on a special day for kids. Probably the most memorable day for kids of the fifties was “Axel Day,” a day when the number one television star (according to the kids) made his official appearance, driving up in an old jalopy car to the cheers of literally thousands of children. To the first part of the baby boomer generation, Axel Torgeson totally RULED. Every t.v.-watching, cartoon fan under four feet tall in the Twin Cities region watched the afternoon show on WCCO-TV, “Axel and his Dog,” featuring Axel and his friends, Carmen the Nurse, Towser the dog and Tallulah the cat, the latter two known to kids by their paws, which they saw on the screen. Axel came out once each year to Excelsior dressed in his traditional striped shirt, pants with suspenders and silly hat perched way up on his head, sporting a big bushy black mustache and spouting the silliest things out of his mouth to the kids, in his memorable “Scanda-hoovian” accent. He immediately made new friends everywhere he went, and he could usually be seen with a gaggle of kids following his every step. Axel Day ran from 1955 to 1959, and featured free rides, prizes and of course a lot of live entertainment. This great man died of cancer on April 13, 1966, a very sad day for the children of the Twin Cities.
In 1968, because of safety concerns, all of the cars on the Cyclone had to be completely rebuilt, down to the wheel assemblies, so that only the trim and some of the original outer frames remained. New safety bars were added to each car as well. The features of the amusement park were starting to show their age however. Rides creaked, the facades of the buildings looked shabby, and a cursory glance around the place seemed to confirm the inevitable: the park was dying. The last gasp of life was squeezed out during the summer of ’73, when the Pearce family, still the owners, decided to close it down. The last day of operation was on the weekend after Labor Day, 1973, twenty-nine years ago this month — closed forever.
Smelling a dead carcass, the vultures began to circle in. On July 20, 1974, an odd assortment of body parts –equipment, signs, benches and some rides — that were still salvageable were sold in an auction. The carousel went to the new amusement park, Valley Fair, near Shakopee. The merry-go-round building went to Victoria, Canada, where it served as a horse ring before burning down in 1990. The once-mighty old Cyclone was not even this lucky. It was completely dismantled and destroyed.
Today, a row of restaurants and condominiums occupy the place where the park once stood. What they have managed to replace physically can never replace the memories we have of a once magical park that called to us every summer from the shores of Lake Minnetonka.
I want to thank everyone who helped me make this article a reality: to Daniel Gabriel, who has written so much about life along the Lake and what it was like growing up here and who has freely given up much of his time and writings so that I could pilfer through both his written and spoken words; to Dave Yorks, who patiently answered my many detailed questions; to Chris Osgood for helping me out; to Casey McPherson for giving up some of his time and answering my questions, to the Minnesota Historical Society for various archival photo images, and to the Skipper, who steers this web site. He also allowed me time to answer questions, and spent many hours putting my photos and text online. Lake Minnetonka Online is fortunate to be under his command.
What actually happened when the Rolling Stones came to Excelsior? Find out in the next installment of “Memories of Big Reggie’s Danceland.”
Visit The Beachcomber’s virtual hut at: www.SnyderConcepts.com.