Like thousands of Western New York kids, I spent a large portion of my summers at Crystal Beach. I took my report card to Loblaws for free ride tickets; I went on Class Day, South Buffalo Day and Nickel Day. In college, I hung out at dumpy cottages with low ceilings and high rents and drank some disgusting concoction called jungle juice. There was Molson Export, live music and an occasional fistfight. If you were dumb enough to step into the road with a beer in hand, the unsmiling Ontario Provincial Police (OPPs) were there to give you a free ride to the station.
The Crystal Beach of my memory was noise and excitement, bright lights and adventure. It was golden sand, too hot to walk on, French fries with vinegar and the giant Ferris wheel. It was the roller skaters in the big ballroom, the dancers frozen in concrete on the parapet wall overlooking Lake Erie and the raunchy vending machines in the men’s room.
For a mere 25 cents, one could buy cologne, a comb or even a condom. I can tell you from personal experience that the combs tended to break the first time you used them. Makes you wonder about the quality of the other items.
Then, in 1989, after over 100 years, the park closed. It seemed like overnight the big rides were shipped off to strange and faraway amusement parks. My childhood memories were auctioned off to the highest bidder. Gone was the scary fat lady from Laff-in-the Dark, the garbage can with the talking lion head and the big neon clock on top of what we called “the hill.”
There is a gated community there now, a place of cookie-cutter Victorian-style homes that the locals refer to as the Vinyl Village. It is called the Crystal Beach Tennis and Yacht Club, although I have yet to spot a yacht on the premises. The little community outside the gates is quiet now, with lots of boarded-up storefronts.
Several years back, when my kids were still little, I took them to one of the last remaining stores from my youth. “BEAS GAG GIFTS, NOVELTIES AND SOUVENIRS” was located on Derby, just down the street from the old park. The place was a shambles with old records and books piled in the corners and shelves filled with cheap glassware, plastic radios and used toys. There was a box full of five-and-dime gag gifts that fascinated my children. The boys liked anything that involved bodily functions and inappropriate noises.
“I’m in the middle of getting organized,” said the storekeeper, an old woman with hair dyed the blackest black I had ever seen. “Are you Bea?” I asked. “Course I am,” she snapped.
I told her that I used to come there as a boy and look over all the great stuff she used to have. She smiled. “It was a real heyday back then. The kids would come over from the cottages and buy up every sheet I had for those crazy parties.” “Toga parties?” I offered. “Yeah,” she sighed.
“You know when the park closed,” she continued, “they invited me. My family’s been here for over 50 years, so they invited me. They closed the park to everyone but workers and their families and special guests – like me. We rode the rides all day for free.”
She looked at me like it was the first time she’d seen me. “Remember the train?” she asked. “The engineer let me sit up for the final run. I had the last ride on the Crystal Beach Train.”
I shuffled the kids out the door and I don’t think Bea noticed us leave.