Jul 12, 201012:00 AM
The Editor's Room
Weekly Commentary with New Orleans Magazine’s Errol Laborde
Errol Laborde: Life as a Roller Coaster: Remembering the Beach
Melancholy is not much of a come-on for getting people to want to go to amusement parks, but 27 years ago this summer New Orleanians were, in large numbers, doing so for that reason. They were visiting the Pontchartrain Beach amusement park because they knew it was doomed.
Announcements had been made that the summer of '83 would be the amusement park's last. Suddenly many locals had flashbacks to their early days at “the Beach,” as it was commonly called. Located along the Lakefront, across from the eastern end of the UNO main campus, the park’s midway was a place where teens could enact the sort of being-seen ritual now practiced at malls or in the stands at high school football games.
By its last years, the smell of grilled onions wafting from the hamburger stands were no longer a part of the sensory experience. The burgers by then were pre-cooked and as flavorful as the cardboard carryall containers. To a generation, the Beach was not what it used to be, but like memories of Christmas and Mardi Gras, the amusement park could never be what it used to be, not so much because of the ways it had changed as because of the ways that we had. By '83 several generations were seeing the playland through the gauze of nostalgia.
Consistent through the Beach's history was The Zephyr, a classic roller coaster made picturesque by the white wooden latticework structure over and through which the track ran. Watching the roller coaster ascend the highest peak and then swooshing downward was a thing to do while driving along the lakefront on a summer evening in hopes of a breeze.
Each June on Flag Day, the heat seemed to conquer as the city's Boy Scouts gathered at one end of the park and then marched –– some might say ambled –– en masse along the midway toward the beach's stage. In return for listening to a few patriotic speeches, the scouts were granted free entry to the park’s rides. The concept, however, was better than the experience because for each ride there was a long line of scouts. When possible, the number of revolutions per ride was shortened to quicken the scout flow.
In earlier days, the stage was the site of nightly circus acts including (on at least once occasion) a mounted horse that leaped from a high platform into a pool of water far below. Harry Batt Sr., the Beach's founder, was a master showman who in the 1950s had a hunch and invited an upcoming rock 'n' roller named Elvis Presley to the Beach's stage.
For some New Orleanians, the memories did not reach as far back. Until 1964 and the passage of the Civil Rights Act, the park was segregated. Like many Southern public places, the Beach went through an uneasy transition after the law was passed. Lincoln Beach, a nearby amusement park built for blacks, suffered too as its clientele moved to the other Beach. Neither park would last.
Amusement parks in the earlier days of urban America were usually built on the edge of town where the land was less expensive. By 1983 the town had spread. To the Beach’s landlord, the Orleans Parish Levee Board, the land had become very valuable. Developers had hopes of building a lakefront condominium complex there. After Harry Sr. died, sons Harry Jr. and John Batt tried valiantly to keep the park open, but the forces were against them.
Other than sentiment, what drew crowds to Pontchartrain Beach during its last years was thriller rides. The Batts installed the Ragin' Cajun, a high-speed roller coaster with a corkscrew path that made the old Zephyr seem tame. "Iron parks," as places such as the Beach were known in deference to the roller coaster tracks, could no longer compete with the new generation of theme parks, including the Disney places and Six Flags. Besides, the Beach faced an extra challenge: In 1984 there was going to be a World's Fair in town, something else to take business away. The time had come for the Beach's last ride.
Twenty-seven years later, and the Beach site is now the location of a research park. The condominium proposal never materialized. The Batt family legacy includes a dentist, a Broadway performer and a former New Orleans City Councilman. And the word "zephyr" is still part of local summertime culture in the form of a baseball team, named not after the roller coaster but the Rocky Mountain winds near Denver from whence the franchise relocated to New Orleans.
In June 1994 the old Beach setting was used to stage a re-creation of the Normandy Invasion on the occasion of the D- Day’s 50th anniversary. Make-believe American soldiers stormed the sands of Lake Pontchartrain while long abandoned beach buildings served as a French village from which pretend German snipers fired at the advancing troops.
Once more there was fantasy along the shore as Pontchartrain Beach faced its final battle.
Krewe: The Early New Orleans Carnival- Comus to Zulu by Errol Laborde is available at all area bookstores. Books can also be ordered via e-mail at email@example.com or (504) 895-2266)
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