If You’ve Got History, Flaunt It!

I visited an amusement park the other day.  I won’t name it, because I’m going to rake the management over the coals.  They do deserve a good coal-raking, though!  This is an older amusement park, with large sections of it that are delightful relics from the 1950s.  They had hand-painted signs, miniature golf, sky rides, ferris wheels, and real wooden roller coasters.

But now, in a desperate attempt to compete with the “big” amusement parks, like Six Flags and Kings Island, new owners are ripping out the old stuff and installing new rides to appeal to “modern” tastes.

It’s going to kill them.  They don’t have the money or the space to do what they want to do (the place is on a little peninsula), and it can’t really be expanded.  And what they’re losing in the bargain is one of the last historic amusement parks around.  It’s not just the owners who are losing what they have.  We all are.

The problem is that it is very difficult to compete with those bigger corporate parks, and, frankly, I don’t visit those.  I have no desire to lose my lunch on a metal coaster that takes me upside down three times.  The older wooden coasters are much more fun and much harder to find these days.

I have a huge problem with people throwing out their history in a desperate attempt to seem hip and with the times.  Sometimes it’s that very history that makes them hip.  There’s nothing particularly historic about Kings Island, despite their “Coney Mall.”  I’d love to shake the new owners of this historic park and tell them that what they’re ripping out is what makes them unique.  I doubt they’d listen.

Take another example.  I’ll name these folks because I have nothing bad to say about them.  Zaharako’s is a great ice cream parlor in Columbus, Indiana that knows its niche and exploits it brilliantly.  For years, the place was in a state of disrepair.  The old man who owned it was enthusiastic enough, but he couldn’t maintain it.  I heard that he died, and I feared the worst.  I was wrong.

A new owner purchased the building and lovingly restored it.  Zaharako’s beautiful orchestrion (a mechanical organ/orchestra, from the early 1900s) was lost.  The owner found it, bought it, restored it, and put it back exactly where it had been.  The skylight was restored.  Pressed tin ceilings were restored and replaced, even to the point that the new air conditioning system uses vents carefully matched to the original ceiling tiles.  The original soda fountain completely repaired and restored (beautiful onyx!)

When you walk into Zaharako’s today, it’s as close to walking into a 1900s-era ice cream parlor as can be replicated.  You want attention to detail?  They even have paper straws.  Not this plastic stuff.  Paper.  The way it used to be.

A lot of people would have counseled the new owners to be as cheap as possible, throw in some soft-serve ice cream machines, and to cut costs to the bone.  They could have done that, and if they had, the place would be closed now.  After all, Zaharako’s is right around the corner from a Dairy Queen.

Dairy Queen is what it is.  Zaharako’s is something different, and they know it.  Zaharako’s has a historic ambience that is their greatest strength.  It doesn’t hurt that their food and ice cream are outstanding as well.

Was it a crazy dream?  Nope.  I’m happy to report that the place is filled to overflowing on most weekends, to the point that I couldn’t get a table on a recent visit.  That’s unfortunate, but it’s a nice problem I’d prefer to have.  I’ll get down there again on an off-time, and I’ll have them crank up the orchestrion.  I don’t care how many times I’ve seen it… it’s still cool.

Another historic place that does things right is the Capitol Theatre in Rome, New York.  While Zaharako’s is in a fairly healthy metropolitan area, Rome is, well, an economic disaster.  I could go on and on about things that have been done poorly in Rome.  Worse, many of their key industries have packed up and gone away.  The place is full of lovely, but often empty, buildings.

The Capitol, I’m happy to say, is not among them.  I’m always amazed to see giant old theaters that are still running the way they were designed.  I once spoke to an architect who told me his main job was rehabbing old theaters: “Nobody sees movies anymore, especially in single-screen theaters, so you gut these buildings like a fish and turn them into music venues.”  It was one of the saddest things I have ever heard, and the obnoxious echo of it still stays with me.

The Capitol is already a music venue, because it always was.  It is also a stage venue, because it always was.  It was designed for these multiple uses. Movies?  Yes, they do them as well, on a large screen.  Low-power cheap xenons bulbs or wimpy DVD projection?  NEVER.  The Capitol uses old-fashioned carbon-arc projectors, everything in 35mm.  Absolutely stunning pictures.  Someday they’ll get a 16mm working.

Art Pierce, owner of the Capitol, is smart enough to know what he has.  You won’t be seeing Transformers 3 there.  That’s not a tragedy, since all the multiplexes are running that.  On the other hand, the multiplexes are not running classics in beautiful 35mm.  And you’ll never see a stage production of Arsenic and Old Lace at a multiplex.

The Capitol has managed to become a regional theater with varied programs, and it’s working for them.  They have embraced their history and it’s paying off.  It’s one of the best-run historic theaters I’ve ever seen.

I have a soft spot in my heart for people who are determined to do things properly.  I took a lot of guff for some of my decisions on the Dr. Film pilot (many people wanted it to be 30 minutes with only film clips, but I wouldn’t allow it.)  I think the public is a lot smarter some of the cynical marketers think.

I have to feel that way.  It would drive me crazy to live in a world with only Dairy Queen and Transformers 3.  I don’t mind the easy choices so long as we have something else once in a while…


12 thoughts on “If You’ve Got History, Flaunt It!”

  1. Yes! The history I crave and pursue and preserve is that of family but I am so happy when I learn of other types of true preservation – how sterile this world would be if it all becomes “modern” and we lose the flavor and variety of the past.

  2. I still remember seeing the first run of a little film Star Wars at the old Eastwood on Pendleton Pike. Not a historic place but a wonderful theater. Single screen i think. Try the hundred year old hot dog stand in downtown Fort wayne with coke served in glass bottles. Then for fun stay at the Lombard house and in Carol’s room. The candy counter at Butt’s Drug in Corydon is interesting too.

    1. The Eastwood was great and long-missed. Haven’t visited Fort Wayne’s hot dog stand, but thanks for the plug! Lombard House is great. Need to try the place in Corydon. Schimpff’s in Jeffersonville is a great candy place, too…

  3. It never fails to amaze me that people – like the new owners of the amusement park – feel it’s necessary to change for the sake of change and to try to clone, as much as they can, the other parks. They can’t compete with those giants, nor, as you point out, should they.

    You’re right – it won’t make it – it’s neither here nor there. An adherence to the vintage aspects of such a place and the if-it-ain’t-broke-don’t-fix-it, just-keep-it-going attitude WOULD have served them very, very well.

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