Fun Houses at Savin Rock
Two iconic fun houses, Peter Franke’s Fun House and Death Valley Days Funny House was once located alongside West Haven, Connecticut’s beachfront at Savin Rock Amusement Park… famous, but now long gone.
When I moved to Connecticut in 1971, after marrying a Westie (West Haven resident)… I was intrigued by all the stories I heard about Savin Rock. My husband’s mother, along with many aunts and uncles told me stories… and they had many stories! It was uncle, Johnny (Cambino)…. more well-known as King Cambo, who told the most colorful stores; he had even raced at the local West Haven Speedway. I’ve heard so many stories through my forty-nine years of marriage, that at times, I’ve often felt like I had even had lived there!
My husband is the last generation to enjoy what had remained, and lucky enough to have enjoyed his boyhood there, but not in all its full glory of what it once was.
One of the first attractions, that peaked my interest, was the many stories of the “famous” Laughing Lady that sat high above The Death Valley Funny House. Anytime she was mentioned at Grandma Minnie’s kitchen table, you’d hear Grandma’s famous “ohhh”, and how she loved listening to Laughing Sal’s cackling laugh. Grandma Minnie’s daughter, Catherine, often told of how her father would pile all the kids in the car on Sunday afternoons and head to Savin Rock for ice cream… parking near the laughing lady just so “mama” could listen. From all those stories, it seems Grandma Minnie was the only one who loved to listen to that voice!
The Death Valley Funny House was actually built on-site by Savin Rock carpenters using blueprints bought from the Philadelphia Toboggan Company. The PTC company is still in business today… selling amusement rides since 1904.
It was in 1937 when the Death Valley Funny House first appeared on Beach Street in the upper part of the Grove at Savin Rock. A dastardly Skull and Crossbones loomed high above when it first opened, but that facade only lasted about a year before being removed… due to many thinking how sinister looking it was for a fun house. 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 their new attraction…. Laughing Sal… who would soon loom high on the second floor. Little did they know at the time, that “Laughing Sal” would bring people from far and near to hear her cackling voice… some mesmerized… while many kids cringed in their parents arms.
I found no actual money figure listed for the purchase of Savin Rock’s Sal, but I did find that in 1940 another laughing Sal was bought for $360 dollars… so give or take a few dollars, that might have been about the 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 likely reflects that many didn’t survive from 1938… especially hearing of how many Savin Rock’s rides were just trashed in the local dump.
The front of the “New” Death Valley Funny House in 1938 soon unveiled a glass box waiting to house their new attraction… and Harold soon installed Laughing Sal on the waiting platform he’d built just for her. Paper mache “Sal” stood about 6′ 10″… a big lady, who often was referred to as fat, but always smiling, showing her toothless grin! A record player sat hidden under the platform to play the 78’s that echoed her laugh… 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 forth, while waving her arms. The record echoed out her famous “laugh”… which was literally heard 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.
Oh how I wish I could transport myself back to see “Sal” in her heyday!
Many cousins have told of how they didn’t even like riding past the park as young children… hearing that voice echo out… making them cringe and cover their ears; Sal’s cackling voice was what you heard over everything else, scaring the young, as well as the old. While I was never able to hear the original “laughing lady“… I was treated to seeing and hearing a faux several years ago when a rented “Sal” was brought to the Savin Rock Old Grove park for their annual Savin Rock Festival… and yes, you could hear her pretty much all over the park! It was told how she was guarded 24 hours a day by the local WHPD… locked up in a cell at night… ensuring her safety!
From asking… or more like badgering my husband with constant questions of what was inside the Death Valley Funny House… “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 could not walk straight across, no matter how hard you tried… the slanted floor made you struggle to even walk before ending up, piled against the wall. Often jets of air blew up at you through holes in the floor, and if the girls wore a dress… it was a constant struggle for them in keeping their dresses from flying up… at every step they took!”
Everyone loved the “Magic Carpet Ride” at the Death Valley Funny House! You can see the chute door of The Magic Carpet ride directly under Funny House. This photo, courtesy of James Hold, was imposed on the now Savin Rock boardwalk showing where it originally once stood.
While hubby knew what to expect upon exiting the Fun House… it was always exciting to sit on that designated bench… to only have it suddenly drop… sending you swirling down to land on a burlap bag… hence your “magic carpet” ride! It was the type of ride that made you want to quickly…do it again… but in order to do that, it cost the price of admission again… unlike Peter Franke’s inside slide… as long as you could walk up the stairs over and over, you could slide all day!
In reading the memories of Harold Hartman… “As you walked into the main area, a skeleton slid down a pole, seemingly to head directly at you… but always unexpected… and then you’d hear the shrieks of the girls as he flew toward them. At the same time of the skeleton flying toward you, a horn also blasted to make you jump and scream! You exited Death Valley by riding out on a magic carpet type conveyor… back outside to hear “Laughing Sal”…. still laughing at you!”
The only time the “laughing lady” stood silent… 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 were 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 time of the year… to others, they anxiously awaited those sounds to start up once again.
While everyone always thought “Laffing Sal’s” voice was a woman, and the “one” original record may have only been when she was first purchased in 1938… but most likely the voice remembered 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 began closing, the orange-haired lady with the famous red polka dot dress and combat boots… was supposedly stolen! I’m sure there were many clamoring to buy pieces of Savin Rock, either for themselves, or other amusement parks, or 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 interesting 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 to me! Whether she was secretly sold or stolen… we’ll 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 heard!
A 1971 Hartford Courant article reads: “The “laughing lady” of Savin Rock has found a new home in Westbrook, N.H. after years in exile as a displaced person. She still wears a warm smile, but no longer brings chuckles by her uproarious laughter. Grinning broadly from the back shelf of the Westbrook antique shop… her new owner, Al Schultz, claimed people recognized her immediately.”
“Sal hadn’t changed since her life of fame in that high glass box over the entrance to a Savin Rock fun-house of distorted mirrors and slanting rooms of spine-tingling chills. To many, she was a distinct personality in her own right. Homey, with one tooth missing, her long brown hair was fashionably curled and wearing 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 of paper mache, with a face 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… being advertised for two weeks, with many Savin Rock collectors 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 fun-house was built near Wilcox’s Pier”. Sam Applebaum and Dick Guerrera, known as Dick Gray, the local fight promoter, built the fun-house, which was torn down July 15, 1968, in the second phase of reconstruction.
At the time the Laughing Lady was removed, she was 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”… and “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’s 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 people 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 unusual to find it playing on our TV. Hmm, maybe Perry Mason could team up with Nancy Drew and find Savin Rock’s Laughing Lady?
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 in West Haven, CT. to hear that 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 sat along that famous boardwalk.
After your magic carpet ride ended at Death Valley Days… you were then ready to walk further down Beach St. toward the corner of Summer and Beach where you could spend the rest of the afternoon in Peter Franke’s Fun House… where his famous motto was… “Save your last nickle for Peter Franke’s!”
Sadly… many people today never had the chance to experience Savin Rock, but instead grew up on the stories told by their parents and grandparents. I fell in love with the ambiance of Savin Rock from all those very stories! I heard so many stories on Savin Rock, that at times I felt as if I also had walked down Beach Street to hear Laughing Sal and slid down that very slide my husband so enjoyed at Peter Franke’s.
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 their 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’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 misinterpretation upon entering America.
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; seemed the”popcorn” business was doing well. The census listed his home value as $2000; he made his living by only working 20 weeks in 1939, while being 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.
Having very little education, as most in those days, Peter was an entrepreneur, working hard to open his 1st popcorn stand in 1918… in the “then” White City area of Savin Rock. He began his first business with just a simple idea… 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 a 2nd stand on Beach Street. He must not have squandered his money, as he later opened more stands throughout Savin Rock selling his famous “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!
Whenever 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… did you have a favorite?
Franke’s granddaughters remember helping to place the eyes and bows on the popcorn packages at Easter. It was always fun to help grandma behind the counter and be a part of the excitement. The popcorn was cut into squares on the stainless steel table behind the counter, where everyone gathered to watch. Before Peter Franke turned the famous “Fun House” at 555 Beach Street into his own in 1945/46… it previously began as The Wilcox’s Theatre, showing silent pictures. It was later listed as “the old skating rink”, and 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 also listed in the city directory as a business, with the Surf Club parking lot listed at 583 Beach… just next door… many remember the Kiddy Ride area also nearby.
Peter Franke had a blank slate inside with the “old skating rink”… and he had a vision of how he wanted it to look. Peter Franke’s Fun House quickly became listed as the – Biggest – Best in New England – and Peter became known as The Pop Corn King!
Peter Franke (in tie) sprawled out on the spinning disk, with Harold Hartman on his the right.
Walking into the Fun House was through a narrow hallway, possibly with arrows on the sidewalls directing you… and even though it was a short walk, it was your first acquaintance in the “Fun House“… and the zig-zag floors made you walk funny, then a little dip of a wave in the floor continued to keep you off balance before entering the main open room. Hubby remembered 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… and no one ever thought about it not being there one day!”
Peter Franke’s Fun House was good old-fashioned entertainment!
Promotion Day was big with the locals at Savin Rock… many in my husband’s family often talked about how their parents gave them 50 cents to spend the day enjoying rides… going a long way in the 1930 and 40’s. That was a time when parents didn’t have to walk hand in hand with their children… they were safe alone… and often they had someone who worked down there to look out for them. Everyone in town had family who either owned a ride, worked there or knew many who did… it was safe.
Walking inside was the same experience for everyone… first hearing the sounds of screams and shrieks of excitement… popcorn smells all around… whistles and bells signaling you that it was time to jump on the spinning disc… and if you had been in there more than once, you knew what the sounds meant… feeling anxious to ride everything at once! 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 those jolts… which created an afternoon of fun for both kids and adults.
Once past that short walkway in, and depending on what you wanted to do… you now had your choice of 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 double slides” seemed to be where everyone headed first!
The well-remembered “skirt blower” was only fun if you were on a date, and the girl possibly wore a poodle skirt… the “skirt blower” always looked to poof up her skirt when she walked over the air spots. Think of the image that Marilyn Monroe made popular in that white dress! Al Nachand was the “behind the scenes” guy who blew air up unsuspecting girls dresses… Franke’s eye in the sky!
These double slides are similar to how hubby 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.)
My husband’s favorite first stop inside was always one of those double “tall slides”… looming straight down from the top of the highest floor. After grabbing a burlap bag, he began the long climb up the stairs, all the way up to the top square cupola of windows… at nighttime, you could view the lighted park, but only for a quick minute before you’d hear someone yelling at you to hurry up and move on. He remembers several humps on the slide down… two rather big humps, with the first one often making you leave the slide, while a smaller one toward the bottom slowing you down… and if you didn’t keep your hands inside on the bag, you ran the risk of a friction burn… you learned quickly if you thought you were a tough guy! Eventually, you slid into the left-behind burlap bags against the wall… left for cushioning… but you best scramble quickly out of the way of the riders behind you… and I’m sure there were some pile ups… intentional or not!
There were no time limits on the slide, you could slide all day if you wanted to climb those stairs over and over… just the one-time small price of maybe 25 cents to get in. Where else could you spend the day for one quarter?
The “room of mirrors” was probably fun for awhile, but how many times can you look at yourself as fat…. skinny…. stretched…. or wavy… it was probably more entertaining to the younger kids. I remember rooms of mirrors like that at carnivals and at times I thought I’d never even find my way out.
Inside another area of that great room was the huge “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 hadn’t been lucky enough to 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” was another walk and fall… as you tried to make 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 back out into the great room… everything was situated in that one open room.
Being a “southerner”, transplanted to West Haven when I married in 1971, I’ve relied on my husband’s memories, and the famous “blue book” written by Gil Johnson and Bennet W. Dorman, where many “Westies” shared their memories.
Sadly by 1966… Savin Rock was pretty much winding down…. and from stories told, most of Savin Rock’s rides were hauled away in dumpsters… not many had the insight, or the want to save anything… but every once in awhile today, you’ll read how someone’s grandfather saved a few bumper cars, or who still have their souvenirs won from the shoot and throw stands.
Even today, there are many locals in the area who still remember the sound of Laughing Sal, the lights on the midway, the Magic Carpet Ride, and the taste of the Honey Pop-Corn at Franke’s Fun House. The last generation is dwindling… leaving the new generation to only imagine, and be in awe of what once graced the shoreline of West Haven, CT.
More Savin Rock stories and photos can be found here at https://everyonehasafamilystorytotell.wordpress.com/category/savin-rock/
© 2021, copyright Jeanne Bryan Insalaco; all rights reserved