Savin Rock… Now and Then: Death Valley Funny House

Savin Rock: Now and Then

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!

Death Valley Funny House

new Death Valley top

It was in 1937 when the Death Valley Fun House first appeared on Beach Street in the upper part of the Grove, at Savin Rock, in West Haven, CT. The dastardly Skull and Crossbones loomed high above, but that only lasted about a year before being removed, due to many thinking it was too sinister looking for a fun house. In 1938 the facade was redone and Harold Hartman, the “chief of maintenance” at Savin Rock, was sent to Messmore Theatrical Products, a theater prop company in New York City, to pick up the new attraction…. Laughing Sal.

The Death Valley Fun House was actually built by Savin Rock carpenters from blueprints bought from the Philadelphia Toboggan Company. The PTC company is still in business today and have been selling amusement rides since 1904, although mostly only wooden coasters sold today. If you’ve ridden the Boulder Dash Coaster at Lake Compounce, you’ve ridden a PTC ride.

Death Valley Laughing Lady

Today in 2017, this is the site where you would find The Death Valley Funny House… with kids still playing there! Photo Credit: James Holt

While I found no actual money figure listed for the purchase of Savin Rock’s Sal, I did find that in 1940 another laughing Sal was bought for $360 dollars… so give or take a few dollars, that would be the about going price of when she was purchased. In regards to what a Sal would go for today, in good working condition… one was sold in 2004 for $50,000! Quite a profit, but that reflects as to how many who didn’t survive from 1938?

When I came to Connecticut in 1971, after marrying a Westie, I was intrigued by all the stories I heard about Savin Rock. My husband’s mother and siblings told me many stories, as did Steve’s uncle, Johnny Cambino…. more well-known as King Cambo; he even raced at West Haven Speedway. I’ve heard so many stories through my forty-six years of marriage, that at times, I often feel like I was there!

One of the first attractions, that peaked my interest, was the many stories of the “famous” Laughing Lady. Anytime she was mentioned at Grandma Minnie’s kitchen table, you’d hear her famous “ohhh”, and she’d tell you how she loved listening to her laugh. Grandma Minnie’s daughter, Catherine, often told me how her father would pile all the kids in the car on Sunday afternoons and go to Savin Rock for ice cream… and park near the laughing lady just so “mama” could listen. From all the stories I’ve heard, it seems Grandma Minnie was one of the only ones, who loved to listen to that voice!

laughing Lady

The famous Laughing Lady!

Many cousins have said how they didn’t even like riding past the park, as her voice echoed out as they drove by; it was that cackling voice that you heard over everything else… often scaring the young as well as the old. While I never was able to hear the original “laughing lady“… I was treated to seeing and hearing her several years ago when a rented “Sal” was brought to the Grove for a Savin Rock Festival; and yes, I could hear her pretty much all over the park! It was told that she was guarded 24 hours a day by the local WHPD to ensure her safety and locked up in a cell at night for safe keeping!

New Death Valley

The skull and crossbones were removed a year later and the glass case with The Laughing Lady replaced it

The front of the “New” Death Valley Funny House in 1938 now had a glass outer box waiting to house their new attraction…. and Harold installed Laughing Sal on the waiting platform he’d built just for her. Paper mache “Sal” stood about 6′ 10″… a big lady often referred to as fat… and always smiling, showing her toothless grin! A record player sat under the platform to play the 78’s that echoed her laugh throughout the park; a stack of records playing over and over. What everyone must have thought when she was first turned on!

Sal was mechanically structured… she didn’t just stand there glaring at you, she bounced around in a polka dot dress, moving back and forward, and waving her arms while the record played to echo that famous “laugh” all throughout the park.

Whenever you walked by, who couldn’t resist a look up at the “fat” lady with the orange hair, large floppy hat, polka dot dress, and the space between her teeth… who laughed continuously from early morning… into the wee hours of the next day when the park began shutting down.

From asking, badgering my husband constant questions of what was inside… “The laugh followed you into a darkened hallway of faces that lit up, laughing at you as you walked into a mirrored fun house room and maze. From there you walked into the “tilt room” where you couldn’t walk straight across… the slanted floor made you struggle to even walk. Often jets of air blew up at you, and if the girls wore a dress, it was a constant struggle in keeping their dresses from flying up, in every step they took!

In reading the memories of Harold Harman… “As you walked into the main area, there was a skeleton that slid down a pole, almost coming directly at you… but always unexpected; you often heard the shrieks of the girls as he flew toward them. At the same time of the skeleton flying toward you, a horn blasted to make you again jump and yell. You exited Death Valley by riding out on a magic carpet type conveyor… back outside to hearing “Laughing Sal”…. still laughing at you!

The only time the “laughing lady” stood silent, as frozen in time, was in the deep of winter when snow blanketed the park. For a few months, the rides were closed, the midway attractions boarded up and the voice of the park wasn’t heard. If there were tracks through the park, they were of kids trampling through the snow… and wishing for summer to hurry up. To some, that was the best sleeping times of the year… to others, they anxiously awaited those sounds to start up once again.

laughing lady voice Frank cosenza

The voice of the Laughing Lady

While everyone always thought “Laffing Sal’s” voice was a woman, and the “one” original record may have been when she was first purchased in 1938… but most likely the voice you remember was of Frank Cosenza. He and his partner, Joe Marcucci, were a comedy team around the New Haven area and often performed a skit about the laughing lady; it was because of that skit, that Frank was asked to record Sal’s famous laugh when the original record began wearing out.

So Where is the Laughing Lady today…

Hartman reported that in 1966 when the park finally closed, the orange-haired lady with the famous red polka dot dress and combat boots… was stolen! I’m sure there were many clamoring to buy pieces of Savin Rock, either for themselves, other amusement parks or to re-sell as a piece of history. There are several stories passed through the years on her quick disappearance…. and I’m sure everyone has heard them! The one I found most often was of how a traveling antique dealer from New Hampshire spirited her away in the middle of the night. Sounds like a case for Nancy Drew! Whether she was secretly sold or stolen… we will never know… unless you happen to come upon her in some supposedly, out of the way, New Hampshire bar… where it’s been rumored she has been seen.

In 1971, The Hartford Courant ran this story

Laughing Lady Found AUG 22 1971 Hartford CourantThe article reads: The “laughing lady” of Savin Rock has found a new home in Westbrook after years in exile as a displaced person. She still wears a warm smile, but she no longer brings chuckles by her uproarious laughter. Grinning broadly from the back shelf of the Westbrook antique shop, her new owner, Al Schultz, claims people have recognized her immediately. 

She has not changed since her life of fame in a high glass box at the entrance to a Savin Rock funhouse of distorted mirrors and slanting rooms of spine-tingling chills.  Too many, she was a distinct personality in her own right. Homey, with one tooth missing, her long brown hair was fashionably curled and she wore the latest wide-brimmed hat covered with red poppies. 

Folks recall her arms moved up and down and her head nodded from side to side to accompany her bold, risque laughter. Although her clothing is new, it is copied from her original lace jacket, mesh gloves, and red beads. She stands a busty three feet tall on shorty squatty legs with only her carved wooden pointed shoes visible beneath a quaint checkered dress. 

Made by paper mache, her face is slightly pocked and florid. Her painted blue eyes are smeared as if tears have caused the paint to run. The new owner said he bought her at Dean Mitchell’s auction at the North Haven Grange. She had been advertised for two weeks and many Savin Rock collectors were eager to buy her. A date is burned into the wood inside her hollow body, which reads “11-21-22”  Savin Rock West Haven, Connecticut.

Carl Giannotti, executive director of the West Haven Redevelopment Agency, recalls her fondly. “She arrived, as nearly as I can remember somewhere in the thirties when the funhouse was built near Wilcox’s Pier,” he said. Sam Applebaum and Dick Guerrera, known as Dick Gray, the local fight promoter, built the funhouse, which was torn down July 15, 1968, in the second phase of reconstruction.

At that time, the Laughing Lady was removed as the personal property of the owner, Mr. Levere, who owned between 15 to 20 acres of Savin Rock, according to Giannotti. Levere’s son, a West Haven attorney, expressed surprise that the Laughing Lady had turned up in Westbrook. Believing her to be built by The Philadelphia Toboggan Company, Edwin Levere said as far as he knew, “she had been sold to an amusement operator, and was in an out-of-state amusement park.” “Not For Sale.”

Whatever her past history has been, her new owner is sure of one thing. “She isn’t For Sale”, he says firmly. In fact, he is planning to give her a well-deserved place of honor as a focal point in a new antique museum he hopes one day to build. “You’d be surprised at the number of persons who see her and the stories she brings to mind,” he says adjusting her bonnet. “Yes Sir, she’s quite a lady.”

On many older black and white shows, if you listen close enough… you’ll hear that famous “laughing lady” voice, as she was a regular in many movies and sitcoms which featured amusement parks. While I’m not going to list every show a “laughing sal” has been featured, and there is a list online… I will say there is an episode of Perry Mason… The Case of the Laughing Lady… how ironic in that so-named episode! I actually rewound it back a few times just to hear her laugh again and again…. just because! My husband is a big Perry Mason fan, so it’s not usual to find it playing on our TV. Hmm, maybe Perry Mason could team up with Nancy Drew and find our Laughing Lady!laugh lady bike park FIXThe “Laughing Lady” immortalized at the Savin Rock Bike Park


What words today bring to mind in describing that famous laugh… “cackle, scary, petrifying, frightening, terrifying, loud? If you need a laugh fix… head over to the Savin Rock Museum to hear that famous laugh made famous in Savin Rock. If you’ve never been to the museum, you’re in for a treat… and a walk back in time as to what once was on the boardwalk, that you walk today.


Want to read more, click….  Savin Rock… Now and Then

© 2017, copyright Jeanne Bryan Insalaco; all rights reserved

About Jeanne Bryan Insalaco

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1 Response to Savin Rock… Now and Then: Death Valley Funny House

  1. Donna Stellato Lee says:


    Liked by 1 person

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