First published in The Record, Aug. 19 2018
This man has an amusement park in his basement
Up at the top of the cliff, near the swimming pool that smelled like the sea, away from the bumper cars and the carousel and the Jet Star roller coaster, there was a hole in the fence to heaven.
Vince Gargiulo and his four buddies knew about the hole, and they believed no one else did.
Has any boy ever possessed a secret more exciting?
To sneak along that fence until you reach the gap, to hear the girls inside screaming from the roller coaster, to smell the root beer and the vanilla waffles and the sizzling frankfurters, to peek around the fence for security guards and cops and, seeing none, dart into Palisades Amusement Park in a blind sprint on a hot summer day and to hell with the 65 cents admission?
This, friends, is how a good memory gets made.
“That was our first thrill, sneaking into the park,” said Gargiulo, 65, who was a teenager in the mid-1960s when he first tried it. “I mean, it’s in my brain. Colors everywhere. Lights everywhere. Smiles everywhere.”
Gargiulo never imagined memories like these might someday fade. He never thought he would become the person primarily responsible for keeping them alive.
Or that all these memories would someday take over his basement.
Palisades Amusement Park sat atop the cliffs for which it was named, straddling the border between Cliffside Park and Fort Lee. Like the three amusement parks at Coney Island, its more famous competitors, Palisades provided a scenic summer escape for millions of people from New Jersey and New York.
Between the sweeping views of Manhattan, the latest rides and appearances by popular entertainers like Cousin Brucie, Tony Bennett and Gladys Knight, the park became a star in the consciousness of New Jersey’s Baby Boomers that still shines nearly as brightly as the Beatles playing "The Ed Sullivan Show" and Neil Armstrong planting his boot on the moon.
“Anybody who has played, visited, or even been touched by this magical kingdom retains the glow from a very special relationship,” Bruce Morrow, who performed for years as Cousin Brucie, a disc jockey who dominated New York's radio landscape in the mid-1960s, wrote in an essay about the park.
Unlike Coney Island, which declined in popularity in the 1960s, Palisades Amusement Park remained successful until 1971.
Then it closed. The park’s owner, Irving Rosenthal, sold the park’s 38 acres for $12.5 million, and developers built condominium towers on the land. To people Gargiulo’s age, the last generation who loved the park, the loss came as a shock.
“To me the park was always going to be there,” Gargiulo said. “It was there when I was born, it was going to be there when I died.”
Memories feed an obsession
Gargiulo’s first plan to re-create the park wasn’t much of a plan. It was 1977, and he owned a record store in the borough of Palisades Park. He was hanging around with a friend, and together they started reminiscing about the amusement park, how the boat ride sat just inside the main entrance on Palisade Avenue, how the mini golf course sat to the left and Kiddie Land to the right.Palisades Amusement Park
“We started drawing this on a piece of loose-leaf paper in pencil, and every time we remembered something, we’d draw it in,” he said. “After a few days we had a pretty good map of the park.”
The map was detailed, but inaccurate. From memory, Gargiulo knew that when he stood in the doors to the penny arcade he could see all the way down the midway to the pool. But in his sketch, the view was obscured by the Cyclone coaster.
He'd hoped to include the map in a little pamphlet about the park that he’d hand out for free to his record store customers, but not if the map was wrong.
So Gargiulo went to the library in Cliffside Park. They had no information on the old amusement park. Next he tried Fort Lee, where the librarian produced three articles from
“The goal was still to figure out how accurate the map was,” he said. “But five years after closing, neither town had any information about the park itself. None!”
He dug some more, starting with newspaper stories going back to the park’s founding in 1898. Eventually the pamphlet became a 180-page book about Palisades Amusement Park published by Rutgers University Press, and later a full-length documentary narrated by the noted filmmaker Ken Burns.
Gargiulo founded the Palisades Amusement Park Historical Society. Then he began tracking down bits of the park itself, including five cars from the Cyclone coaster, a street lamp from the parking lot and the grave marker for King, a motorcycle-riding lion who performed at the park until 1953.
“I tried to get all these things saved,” he said.
None of it prepared Gargiulo for this summer, when a not-so-miniature version of Palisades Amusement Park invaded his house.
Adventure in miniature
Gargiulo lives in a comfortable split-level home near the Ramapo River in Mahwah. Inside the front door sits miniature recreations of a Palisade Amusement Park ticket booth and the park's famous sign, which once blazed across the Hudson River.
But walking down a half flight of stairs into the basement, one begins to realize the magnitude of Gargiulo’s current dilemma.Palisades Amusement Park
There, occupying every flat surface, sits a dollhouse version of nearly the entire park. On his stereo rests a miniature hamburger stand, complete with cans of soda in the refrigerator and glasses on a shelf, down by the clerk’s knees. An HO-gauge railroad, based loosely on a real one from the park, sits on a pinball machine. An end table supports the bumper cars; the coffee table holds a mini mini-golf course.
The only visible floor space left in the basement is a narrow track of beige carpet running to the bathroom.
“It’s huge,” Gargiulo said.
The playset was constructed by Joe Prisco, a longtime employee of the amusement park. After Prisco died in 2006, his massive model moldered in his son’s backyard shed in Little Egg Harbor, Gargiulo said.
Prisco’s daughter-in-law, Luz Quinones-Prisco, offered the whole shebang toGargiulo, who felt obliged to take it. Collecting all the pieces and carting them to North Jersey required two trips in a rented pickup.
Even as he did it, Garguilo said, he worried about the scale of the project.
“My friend said, ‘You may have taken on an albatross here,'" he said. “Because it really is more than I had anticipated.”
The plastic Prisco used to simulate waves in the saltwater swimming pool has broken off. The windmill in the mini golf course still spins, slowly, but many of thelights don't work. The cassette deck that once played organ music for the carousel is missing.
Gargiulo hopes to fix everything he can, then find a museum or library interested in placing the pieces of the model on permanent display.
“My job isn’t done until I can relocate everything I own to someplace where it will be around for a century or two,” he said. “I may just be idealistic in saying that. But that’s what museums are for.”
In the meantime, Gargiulo gets to enjoy his new life as proprietor of the biggest Palisades Amusement Park since the real one was torn down 46 years ago. On a recent visit to his basement, he plugged the mini golf course into a socket.
As the windmill started to spin, he giggled.
“Isn’t that amazing?” he said. “The level of detail is incredible.”
A visitor noticed a gap in the fence surrounding one of the Ferris wheels. Unlike the gap Gargiulo once sneaked into, this one is secured by a tiny plastic lock.
“It has a padlock? Really?” he said. “I never noticed that.”