Bill Bell

Another Pleasure Islander has been flushed from hiding. I'm writing at the persistent behest of Beth Moreton Anderson, whom I met at PI in the summer of '62. The attached picture shows me at the control panel of The Wreck of the Hesperus, one of the two "dark rides" at the park and, coincidentally, the one adjacent to Beth's souvenir shop. But more about that later…

I graduated from Reading High in 1962, applied for, and got a job at Pleasure Island. The pay was a resounding $1.10 an hour. What I didn't realize at the time was that many of the staff only got $1.00 an hour, and the 10% premium was for the more physically demanding positions. (Or maybe it was a gender issue… we'll never know.) In any event, I was assigned to operate the ominous sounding "dark rides."

There were two basically identical rides, a Western-themed one called The Old Chisolm Trail and an undersea/nautical themed one called The Wreck of the Hesperus. I started on the former and moved to the latter for no apparent reason that I can recall. The dark rides were not actually dark, but were illuminated with black lights to show off the fluorescent paint on the scenery inside. It was all static displays with recycling tape tracks for sound effects. The sounds, except for the background music, were roughly synchronized with the arrival of cars at certain points and triggered by switches in the entrance and exit doors and at several points inside the rides. Memorable examples were the piano music/gunfight tape that ran whenever a car pushed open the saloon doors inside the Old Chisholm Trail and King Neptune's deep-voiced dire warning of "Beware ye who have desecrated my kingdom" as cars exited The Wreck of the Hesperus. Still, with cars going in and coming out every few seconds, it seemed like incessant droning to those of us who were there for eight-hour shifts. Eventually, I think, it stopped registering and just became something in the background - like a grandfather clock in your home that you don't notice until it isn't chiming.

The rides were an OSHA nightmare as far as passenger and, especially, operator safety was concerned. The 220-volt "live" rail that powered the cars was fully exposed. The rail was always "hot" inside the ride and intermittently "hot" in the loading and unloading area. The control panel consisted of four buttons that applied power to the sections of track in the loading and unloading area. With a little practice, an operator could move the cars smoothly along the track; stopping them so people could get out, then moving them past the barrier so that the next group could clamber aboard. You had to pay attention to several things at once when it was crowded. Sometimes the cars were balky or lurched suddenly (particularly when the controls were affected by rainy weather) as passengers were getting in or out, but people seemed to take it in stride and I don't recall anyone ever getting hurt. (The most dangerous time, when wet weather posed a danger of short circuits, was ironically when people were the happiest to be going inside where it was dry.) Once the passengers were settled in their seats, the operator moved the car forward until the live rail inside the ride took over.

Once people were inside the ride, everything was supposed to be on autopilot. At least, that's how it was supposed to work. Strange things could - and did - happen. Sometimes cars lost power and died, and the next car along would wind up pushing them through. The cars moved at walking speed, so the impact was minimal. But mechanical problems were to be expected, and the maintenance crew did a pretty good job of keeping things up and running. We soon learned, however, that passengers - particularly teens of the male variety - tended to disembark and damage the scenery or hop from one car to another as a sort of daredevil thing. We generally had three or four operators on a shift: one to operate the control panel, and the others to manage traffic and help load or unload cars as needed. Often, one of us would either ride in the car (usually sitting on the stern behind the passengers) with a potentially rowdy group or simply go inside and wait for them at the places where people usually got out or caused trouble.

Needless to say, we took this damage control duty very seriously. Right. Sure we did. We also went inside to check out the couples or to scare the wits out of people when things were slow. We would settle into a static display and look like part of the scenery, wait until just the right moment, and suddenly move towards the car like some demented creature out of a 1930's horror film. And, oh yes, we never gave a thought to the exposed high voltage rails in spite getting some pretty numbing shocks from them. To compound the situation, on hot days the operators would carry water pistols and ambush each other. Water and high voltage electricity… hmmm, it's a wonder nobody got seriously hurt.

Back to the attached picture: You will note my dashing bright red clothes and the hand of another operator holding one of the aforementioned water pistols in the foreground. All I can say about the clothes is that we were told to wear bright colors and nautical-looking things. We were pretty much on our own and added little "sailor" touches like using a piece of rope for a belt. Sneakers, with their insulating rubber soles, probably saved our lives but were simply what everyone wore at the time and fit the theme. We were not issued any costumes, so I am forced to admit that I must actually have owned this outfit. Perhaps because of my sartorial elegance, I spent another season at Pleasure Island as a boat captain and pirate. Marty Graham details this experience extremely well in his posting, and captured all of our best lines. I remember Paul Balzotti, and used to fence with him as part of the "show." We used some old epees that, as I recall, didn't have any safety buttons on the ends. Paul would gradually force me onto the dock and, from there, (you guessed it) into the water. Some days I went in six or eight times. (I wonder what my mother thought I was doing to the clothes, how mud got into my undershorts, and why my sneakers were always wet…)

I was somewhat reminded of this experience in the mid-1970's during a trip to Disney World when my wife and I took the jungle boat ride in Adventureland. The boat operators started their spiel with "Keep your hands and arms inside the boat. The sharks are always looking for a handout," and continued on to use many of the same lines that we had thought to be "ours" at Pleasure Island.

No commentary would be complete without a few words about our symbol and mascot Moby Dick. Moby was supposed to make hourly appearances during my time at The Wreck of the Hesperus, but he was also racking up some sick time. By the time I was hauling boatloads of happy tourists to Treasure Island, Moby had become progressively more mechanically challenged. For some pretty extended periods, sightings were as rare as, well, seeing a white whale. As I recall, poor Moby also developed a form of Reedy Meadow dermatitis from the algae in the water and took on a faintly green hue prior to his annual fall cleaning.

Pleasure Island brings back lots of fond memories. The staff would stand at the back or sit on the rear fence for the evening shows. Ricky Nelson put on a great show in the summer of '62. Billed as a special event, it was memorable for more than the music: the Lord Wakefield cut up and sold one inch squares from his bedsheets, and that tidbit got a lot of play in the local newspapers and had our parents wondering what would become of our generation. But some of the "lesser" shows were fabulous as well. I particularly remember Tex Beneke and what was essentially the remainder of the Glenn Miller Orchestra (to include the Modernaires), and went to every show for a week. I still think of those balmy summer nights in the PI "Show Bowl" every time I put on a Glenn Miller CD.

And did I mention that I fell in love at PI in that summer of '62? Unfortunately, we drifted apart in college so it only qualifies as a "first love," but one that might very well have lasted had communications then been what they are today.

The website is wonderful. Keep up the good work and, oh yes, sign me up for a reunion!

Best regards, Bill Bell

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