Sunday, May 19, 2013

The Next Day of the Rest of My Life

“Today is the first day of the rest of your life.”

IMAGE: A map of Kings Island Amusement Park, as it appeared in 1973.

Mine was forty years ago last Sunday. We looked into that last week. The next one was forty years ago today.

The picnic grounds that later became known as an amusement park occupied a place east of the city. First known in 1867 as "Ohio Grove, the Coney Island of the West," it was later known as "Coney Island on the Ohio," and eventually just "Coney Island." Between periodic floods in the spring, and having extended the limits of its property, the Taft Broadcasting Company, which acquired the park by the late 1960s saw the need to expand the concept elsewhere. They found a plot 25 miles northeast of the city, near a little town known as Kings Mills. This explains the otherwise-inexplicable name of “Kings Island” for a theme park. Forty years ago today, I neared the end of one adventure, and began another, one that was to change my outlook on life, and on my self-image.

I had worked at the park briefly the previous autumn -- the "post-season" weekends, as they're called -- in the Rides department. I told them I had experience with canoeing, so they put me at a lake helping people get into and out of canoes. When the weather got too cold, they transferred me to the roller coaster. At the end of October, that was the end of that.

But I wanted more. They had a "Live Shows and Entertainment" department. The money was better, and one of my buds from high school, Chris "Seadog" Seipelt, was one of the animal characters. You know, those guys who walk around in the animal costumes and get their pictures taken with little kids and all that. "You should try out, Dave," he told me. "I'll even help you prepare the audition." He had this costume head which I wore as a prop, and with a 45rpm recording of Elvis Presley's "Blue Suede Shoes," I passed the audition with a presentation of "Bingo Learns to Dance." (Don't ask.)

And I was in.

The money was certainly better. And being in the Shows department had a certain caché that wasn't shared by, say, the ride operators or those who worked the food concession stands. Wearing jumpsuits for most of the day, the guys in our crew would go out for a half-hour or forty-five minutes in these costumes based on Hanna-Barbera cartoon characters -- Yogi Bear, the Flintstones, you know the type -- escorted by these girls known as "guardettes," who would do the talking (since we weren't allowed) and help arrange the kids for photographs. We also had a performance in "Hanna-Barbera Land" of "The Banana Splits Show," which was a fictional rock band composed of four animal characters, and a popular Saturday morning kids show at the time. We pantomimed to a pre-recording of the characters in action. Even as a rookie, I became renowned for my rendition of "Fleagle," the de facto leader of the pack. It was hot, it was grueling, it was two or three times a day, but it was worth it.

But the character for which I became best known, was "Templeton the Rat," from the Hanna-Barbera production of "Charlotte's Web." I actually learned how to make the character appear quite real. Once inside the costume, I would bend over slightly, with my head down, and bow my legs when I walked. That made the torso jiggle back and forth, and people actually could imagine seeing a live rodent trying to walk on his hind legs. I can still remember the uproarious laughter from the crowds as I walked away.

IMAGE: The Banana Splits, in an undated publicity photo.

I modeled for children's fashion magazines, and promotions for consumer products. But for all that, my greatest single achievement was being in a movie. After building Kings Island, Taft Broadcasting decided to build a sister park north of Richmond known as "Kings Dominion." They produced a fifteen-minute preview film to promote it in the Richmond area. Some footage was shot at Kings Island, after which the new park would be modeled, while other footage was shot at the construction site. The Banana Splits were the main cast, and I was "Snorky" the elephant, and the only rookie in the cast. We drove to Richmond to film some of it, and Dudley Taft (a descendant of President William Howard Taft) flew us home in his private jet.

Now, back to the ladies.

These girls who accompanied us came from the Guest Relations department, and were hired for their poise, composure, and -- oh yes, their bodaciousness. In fact, they were just about the hottest babes in the whole park. Not only that, but they were the nicest girls you could ever wanna take home to Mama. Most of the guys in the crew were working their way through college, and a few were pretty sure of themselves, especially when it came to the ladies, these ladies in particular. They struck out more often than not, at least at first, which surprised me at the time. After all, high school was nothing like this. I mean, there were rules, you see. You dated within your predestined social class, and never ventured outside of it. There was this one guy -- Tom, I think his name was -- and he told us that he could use every cliché he could think of and still win over the object of his affection. And it actually worked.

There were plenty of opportunities for Tom, of course, and anyone else so bold. We were young, it was summer, and after working hard, we would play hard. There were parties two or three nights a week, just the Characters and the Guardettes. Unlike them, I was not so bold. And one of the first things I learned, is that the girls liked me best for that reason, that I wasn't constantly on the make, which is why they named me "Character of the Year" in an informal poll. Even so, I dated quite a bit that summer, but I usually went for the younger ones, figuring that was all I could, uh, handle. The guys would get on my case for chasing "jailbait," a term someone actually had to explain more than once. I had no idea what they were talking about. I was far from losing my innocence that summer.

But it didn't matter. You see, I could still remember getting beat up by the kids in the neighborhood only ten years earlier. I was physically bullied all through high school. But that summer, for the first time in my nearly nineteen years of a so-called life, I knew what it was like to be ... popular.

IMAGE: George Clooney, yeah, that George Clooney. I knew his dad, sort of.

One week, "The Nick Clooney Show" was broadcast from the park. That was a local variety and talk show back in the 1970s. My buddy Terry and I actually met Nick after work. He was walking around in the park, and against my protestations, Terry called out, "Hey, Nick, over here!" And we talked shop for about five minutes. One day, he brought his family to the park, including a twelve-year-old boy named George. Nick has since gone on to hosting old movies on the American Movie Classics channel. His son has enjoyed a measure of success as well, or so I'm told.

I can still remember getting off work at 7:30 in the evening, and going out into the park with a buddy, or a girl I was trying to impress. I remember going on the Alpine Sky Ride as the sun was setting, watching the big band play at the head of the fountain under the fake Eiffel Tower, and being one of the "plants" in the audience for the girl singers. I remember watching the fireworks every evening at ten.

Most of all, I remember never wanting it to end. But it did. We all went off to college, or wherever we were going. Some of my pals went up to Miami University, located in a bucolic college town known as Oxford, northwest of the city. Sometimes when I was there on the weekend for a party, I'd call up my friend Mary Margaret. No, she couldn't join me that night, she was studying. She always liked to study on the weekends. I was disappointed, of course, but I shouldn't have been. I later found out she married a classmate of mine, just after graduating from college.

One of the popular kids. And so it goes ...

I managed to work at the park for one more summer, but it wasn't the same. I found my only-recently-former girlfriend suddenly "pre-engaged" to some creep who spent three months tormenting me, when he wasn't pretending to be my buddy. He knew how to be everybody else's buddy too, bringing porn films into the trailer where we took breaks. (I and one other guy usually left.) I spent the first half of the summer upset that things weren't the same. Why didn't time stand still while I was at college? Where was the magic? And who let all these ***holes in here? I stayed in touch with some of "the gang" for several years afterwords. I am still in touch with two of the guys; one a Catholic priest in Cincinnati, the other a real estate appraiser in California. I have not spoken to any of the girls since leaving Ohio more than thirty years ago.

It must be a very different experience now. Young women now join the young men behind the costumes, and the last time I checked, the characters were from the "Peanuts" comic strip ,which can't be nearly as much fun. But most of all, they probably don't get away with half the stuff we pulled off. We had this thing we did to initiate the new girls who escorted us, something called "the squeeze play" ...

I think Frank Sinatra said it best: “Life is like the seasons; after winter comes the spring.” In the summer of 1973, I learned that there was life after high school, a world without labels assigned to you, but ones you made for your self. It's hard to believe today, that such a thing would never have occurred to me. I also learned that nothing in this world lasts forever. You wait long enough, something changes. People move on, life goes on.

And so did I.

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