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Oh, what a ride

Opened 50 years ago, Pleasure Island didn't last long, but the memories live on

The Moby Dick ride's white whale was a signature attraction at Pleasure Island, the Wakefield amusement park modeled after Disneyland. The Moby Dick ride's white whale was a signature attraction at Pleasure Island, the Wakefield amusement park modeled after Disneyland.
By Robert G. Pushkar
Globe Correspondent / June 25, 2009
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A solitary sign, “Pleasure Island Road, Exit 42’’ along Interstate 95/Route 128 south, and a short road of the same name at the ramp’s end are the only public reminders that remain of the sprawling theme park once marketed as “Disneyland East.’’ Today, Edgewater Office Park, nestled among woods and ponds and surrounded by marshland, claims most of the space.

But there is a wave of nostalgia lately as those who worked at or visited Pleasure Island mark the anniversary of its opening 50 years ago this week.

“Just the fact that we were in ‘Disneyland’ in Wakefield, who’d ever envision such a thing?’’ Ken Saunders asked recently. As park announcer, Saunders, of Whitinsville, spoke to visitors over the public address system, announcing times and locations of events at the park.

Pleasure Island briefly turned Wakefield into a turnstile for celebrities. Fess Parker (TV’s Davy Crockett), Ricky Nelson, and the Three Stooges lent star power to opening day. After the Show Bowl, an outdoor amphitheater, was added the next season, successive summers found Troy Donahue, Fred Gwynne, Duke Ellington and his orchestra, Ella Fitzgerald, Dinah Washington, Dave Brubeck, and Gene Krupa entertaining on stage.

During its 11 seasons, from 1959 through 1969, Pleasure Island drew hundreds of thousands of New Englanders and tourists from all over. Visitors stepped back in time into the Western City or the Chisholm Trail Show, or mingled with pirates at Kaptain Kidd’s Pirate Cove.

Young children petted animals in Baby Animal Land or steered Jenney cars (scale-model replicas of the 1911 Cadillac) over a fixed course. The Old Smokey Line, a narrow gauge excursion train operated by Edaville Railroad, took passengers through a mile-long loop over bridges and around manmade waterways.

“You could hear the whistles around town,’’ said Wakefield resident John Peach. The 80-acre park also featured Engine City, a climb-aboard museum with a collection of vintage trains.

Wakefield native Priscilla Hendrick worked 10 seasons at Pleasure Island as an entertainer and freelance artist, performing in western-themed melodramas at Diamond Lil’s Saloon.

“I used to get six pies thrown in my face daily at one point,’’ she recalled. In her off-hours, she baby-sat children of guest artists.

Robert McLaughlin of Wakefield, an electrician and novice historian, has just published a book, “Pleasure Island,’’ that gives a new perspective to the theme park and how it developed.

Four years earlier, Disneyland had opened as America’s first theme park. Disneyland’s first vice president and general manager, C. V. Wood, envisioned theme parks around the country. McLaughlin believes that Pleasure Island evolved “right out of the Disney playbook,’’ due to Wood’s involvement.

Gloucester’s William Hawkes, publisher of Child Life magazine, met Wood, and that was the catalyst for the development of the first theme park in the east. They partnered with Cabot, Cabot and Forbes and other investors to raise the $4 million to build on land zoned for industrial development.

“Hawkes was the dream man, and Cabot, Cabot and Forbes had the resources to make it happen,’’ McLaughlin said.

Other key players in Pleasure Island were the exhibitors and concessionaires who paid construction costs and a fee to set up shop. Hood Dairy Co. built the 4.5-acre Hood Farm, and Pepsi Cola operated the saloon. Wakefield Town Clerk Mary K. Galvin, at age 16, held her first job as waitress at the Hood Barn. She remembers being paid well and treated well, and she cherished the people she met.

“I made friendships that I still have today,’’ she said. “I have a huge photo of Hood’s Barn in my living room.’’

Bob Harmon, an actor and Arlington native, was hired the first season as Dangerous Dan. “I supplied my own horse. I think they paid me more for my horse than they paid me,’’ he said. He robbed trains, sold snake oil, and created mayhem, all in fun.

Actors performed their own stunts as they went along, staging fights, jumping off trains, and rolling down hills, “winging it,’’ Harmon said. His character roles so impressed the Stooges’ Moe Howard that the slapstick comic invited him to Hollywood to audition for movie roles.

Herb Sauve of Hampton, N.H., an alum of Rex Trailer’s “Boomtown,’’ donned his Indian costume, and on a whim, auditioned for acting roles. Over six seasons he played Kaptain Kidd, Chief Thunderbird, and an Indian fighter.

During one staged fight on the saloon’s roof, he struggled with a fellow actor for a shotgun. “When my partner grabbed a gutter to break his fall, the gutter bent, and it was filled with water. Water just poured into his boots. I was holding on to him and trying to keep a straight face to keep from laughing.’’

Pleasure Island tested emerging business concepts about America’s taste for hands-on, interactive involvement with fantasy entertainment. However, such amusement enterprises were venturing into uncharted territory at the hands of enthusiastic but impatient novices.

McLaughlin recalled a conversation with cofounder William Hawkes, who, near the end of his life, donated virtually all park records to the author. Hawkes lamented the fact that the project “was too much of a rush.’’ Had they put the money in the bank and built it more slowly, Hawkes believes, the outcome would have been different.

Pleasure Island Inc. filed for bankruptcy after the first season. Over the next decade, three different owner groups could not sustain profitability.

The park closed in 1969.

“I knew it was coming,’’ Sauve said. “I could see the handwriting on the wall.’’

Priscilla Hendrick, however, wasn’t attuned “to much of the politics behind the scenes,’’ she said. “I thought it was going to be there forever.’’