Savin Rock… Now and Then
Peter Franke’s Fun House
Through the re-creation idea of James Holt,, in placing these structures of where they once stood long ago in West Haven’s Savin Rock, to now in today’s time; also, credit to Marc Friedland in the sharing of his vast photograph collection and knowledge.
I hope to breathe life in these photographs through story form – of where these structures once were at Savin Rock, sometimes known as “Connecticut’s Coney Island.” Savin Rock is a place I heard stories of when I first came to West Haven… a place my husband was able to somewhat enjoy throughout his boyhood, but not in all its glory of what it once had been.
Savin Rock is a place that holds dear memories to many… of times once enjoyed and not forgotten!
Peter Franke’s Fun House
Visualize Peter Franke’s Fun House in its present-day location along the boardwalk near the grove house where the police station is located. Photo Credit: James Holt
Many people today never had the chance to experience Savin Rock but grew up on the stories they heard from their parents and grandparents. I fell in love with the ambiance of Savin Rock from all the stories I heard moving here in 1971, marrying a guy from West Haven. I’ve heard so many stories on Savin Rock, that at times I feel like I’ve walked down Beach Street and slid down that slide at Peter Franke’s.
Peter Franke’s Fun House Now (left) and Then. Phototransformation Courtesy of James Holt
Blueprint of Savin Rock showing the location of Peter Franke’s Fun House
Peter Franke was born Aug. 16, 1889, in Nettuno, Italy and immigrated to this country in 1904 with his parents; he was fifteen years old. The Franke family made its way to West Haven somehow, or either Peter came on his own as I didn’t find him listed any earlier than the 1930 census; he had married Mary Uriano in 1929.
Peter Franke (with tie) on the famous “spinning wheel”… in center right. The spinning wheel caused everyone to pile on, “often to see who could pile on last.” Kids pushed and shoved each off, in trying to be the last one on… and the wheel was actually wired for low voltage… giving you shocks on your backside… just enough to make you jump. The operator in the booth upstairs manually flipped the switch to send jolts… which created an afternoon of fun for both kids and adults.
Peter Franke’s surname upon immigration was “Franchi”… and somehow like many other name changes of our ancestors, his name was changed for various reasons… either for a better American status or because of misinterpretations entering America. My husband’s grandfather’s name was changed that way… it transposed from Gambino to Cambino.
In 1930 Peter and Mary Franke were living at 46 Summer Street in West Haven… they rented; the census listed Peter as a concessionaire owner and he was a naturalized citizen.
In 1940, Peter and Mary still lived at 46 Summer Street, but now owned their home. It seems the”popcorn” business was doing well for him. The census listed his home value as $2000; he only worked 20 weeks in 1939, and was unemployed for 26 weeks. The 1940 census listed two children, Anthony, age 17 and Lucille, age 8; Peter was now 51 and Mary was 45. The last listing I found for the Frank family in West Haven was in 1952.
It seems during WWII, Peter was required to register with the “Old Man’s Draft” as it was called. When the United States entered World War II, the new Selective Service Act required “all” men between the ages of 18 and 64 to “register” for the draft; it was held on April 27, 1942. Imagine that happening today… how many of you would be registering now?
Imagine “Peter Franke’s Fun House” still on Beach Street today as you stroll by… Photo transformation courtesy of James Holt
Having very little education, as most in those days, he was an entrepreneur, working hard to open his 1st popcorn stand in 1918, in the “then” White City; starting a business of preparing and packaging his soon-to-be-famous popcorn. It was Peter’s quality of popcorn, along with his personality that earned him enough to later open the 2nd stand on Beach Street. He must not have squandered his money, as he later opened, even more, stands throughout Savin Rock selling his original “Honey Boy” popcorn. He was quite ingenious enough to even invent and patent the machine which he used to cut the popcorn in its well known “block” shape… which most who frequented Savin Rock if only for a short time, will remember!
The “Fun House” was located on the corner of Summer and Beach… just near the Kiddy Rides
Before Peter Franke turned the famous “Fun House” at 555 Beach Street into his own in 1945/46, the building previously was The Wilcox’s Theatre, showing silent pictures. It was later listed as “the old skating rink”, still owned by the Wilcox Family when Peter purchased it directly from the Wilcox estate. The real name was American Arena Roller Skating Rink and was listed at 555 Beach Street, which eventually turned into Peter Franke’s Fun House. By 1948 Franke’s “Honey Boy” popcorn was listed in the city directory as a business, with the Surf Club parking lot listed at 583 Beach… just next door.
Peter Franke had a blank slate with the “old skating rink” – and he had a vision of how he wanted his Fun House to look.
Peter Franke’s Fun House – Biggest – Best in New England
In walking into the Fun House, you first walked through a narrow hallway, possibly with arrows on the sidewalls directing you… even though it was a short walk, it was your first acquaintance in the “Fun House“… the zig-zag floors making you walk funny, then a little dip of a wave floor to continue keeping you off balance before entering the main open room. Hubby also thought there might have been jets of air around as you walked… but these are memories of over 60 plus years. We all remember differently, and like he tells me… “it wasn’t like I could go there all the time, money wasn’t freely given to kids for that.”
The Pop-Corn King!
Anytime you walked by Peter Franke’s… you smelled popcorn about the time you heard the woman in the popcorn booth calling out… “get your honey popcorn here!” Packages of colored popcorn in blocks of white, yellow or pink were lined up on the counter… so what was your favorite?
Walking inside was the same experience for everyone… first hearing the sounds of screams and shrieks of excitement… anxious to ride everything at once… popcorn smells all around… whistles and bells signaling you that it was time to jump on the spinning disc… and if you’d been in there more than once, you knew what the sounds meant… and feeling anxious to do everything at once!
The well remembered “skirt blower”
Most of the times you went, it was either in the summer as a kid, or later on with a date. And if you were on a date, the girl could have possibly worn a poodle skirt… then the “skirt blower” poofed up her skirt when she walked over the air spot. Think of the image Marilyn Monroe made popular in that white skirt!
Al Nachand was the “behind the scenes” guy who blew air up unsuspecting girls dresses. He was Franke’s eye in the sky!
Once past that short walkway and inside, and depending on what you wanted to do… you had your choice of either sliding down the tall slides, the crazy mirrors, the rolling barrel, or the spinning disk… have I forgotten any? One site mentioned an attacking gorilla, but hubby didn’t have a memory of that! If you remember, let me hear from you!
Heading up the stairs for the “tall slides” seemed to be where everyone wanted to go first – the “spinning disk” was off to the side. The back stairs shown are most likely to the exit.
My husband’s favorite first stop inside was always one of the “tall slides”… double slides from the top of the building… so after grabbing a burlap bag, he began the long climb up the stairs, all the way up to the top square cupola of windows… and at nighttime, you could view the lighted park, but only for a quick minute before you’d hear someone yelling at you to move on. He remembers two big humps coming down, with the first one usually making you leave the slide, while the third small one toward the bottom slowed you down; if you didn’t keep your hands on the bag, you ran the risk of a friction burn… you learned quickly! Eventually, you slid into the left burlap bags against the wall… like a cushion. There were no time limits, you could slide all day if you wanted… just the small price of maybe 50 cents to get in.
These double slides are similar to how they were remembered inside the Fun House… walking up one long flight of stairs with your burlap bag in hand. It was a quick ride to the bottom, where you had to scramble out of the way of the riders coming right behind you! I’m sure there were some pile ups…. some planned and some not. (I’m told recently, from someone who worked there, that on the original slides at Peter Franke’s, the stairs were on the right side for you to climb to the top.)
Photos were taken in front of the crazy mirrors inside Peter Franke’s. Photos courtesy of Marc Friedland
The “room of mirrors” was probably fun for a few times, but how many times can you look at yourself fat…. skinny…. stretched tall…. or all wavy! It was probably more entertaining to the younger kids. I remember rooms of mirrors like that at carnivals and there were times I thought I’d never even get out of the room.
Inside another area of the great room was the “spinning disc”… jump on and try to find your inner sense of gravity to stay on…. if not, you were flung off into others that couldn’t stay in the center. It doesn’t sound logical to me that you could stay on for any length of time as there didn’t seem to be anything to hang onto. I’m picturing arms and legs flying all over… wonder how many kids got smacked in the mouth?
The “Rolling Barrel”
The “rolling barrel” was just another walk and fall as you made your way through the barrel. Once you went through enough times, you learned quickly how to maneuver yourself through without falling. It didn’t lead anywhere, just out into the room… everything was situated in that one great room.
Being a “southerner”, transplanted to West Haven when I married in 1971, I’ve relied on badgering my husband for his memories, thumbing through that famous “blue book” by Gil Johnson and Bennet W. Dorman, and reading comments in piecing together this story on Peter Franke’s Fun House.
Peter Franke died June 16, 1958
In 1966, Peter Franke’s was still standing… all closed and boarded up. If only I had arrived in West Haven a few years earlier, I could have seen it with my own eyes! I’m sure kids snuck in there and enjoyed a few “free” last slides before being discovered. I can’t blame them… I would have too! As the “statute of limitations” has run out now… feel free to comment below if you were one of those kids!
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