Riverview remembered

From 1904 to 1967, every kid's dream stood at Western and Belmont avenues.

Riverview, billing itself "the world's largest amusement park," was a 2 1/2-mile midway lined with 33 rides, game booths, arcades, funhouses, refreshment stands. Ordinary city buses -- or in earlier years, trolleys -- would drop you at the front gates, painted patriotic red, white and blue, a worthy stand-in for pearl.

There were, of course, those privileged kids who lived close by. "A whole group of us -- girls and boys -- would walk up there and spend the whole day," says Louise Jablonski, now a resident of Norwood Park who grew up near Western and Armitage avenues. The anticipation grew as they walked north on Western, she says. "When you saw the parachute drop, you knew you were almost there. We had so much fun there."

"Riverview was a gigantic part of the life of Chicago for many years," says Chuck Schaden, who hosts "Those Were the Days" broadcasts on numerous local radio stations, and edits Nostalgia Digest. Schaden says it was a shock to most people when it closed. "Riverview was one of those things you thought was always going to be there."

To celebrate the park and its place in Chicago mythology, Chuck Wlodarczyk, sometimes called "Mr. Riverview" in recognition of his expertise, will host a salute to the 30th anniversary of Riverview's final year. A night of nostalgia, "Riverview Remembered," starts at 6:30 p.m. Saturday, May 10, at the Gateway Theatre, 5216 W. Lawrence Ave. "The program will be something special," says Wlodarczyk.

Wlodarczyk, 60, a Jefferson Park resident, has been doing Riverview shows since 1971, when, working with Schaden, he put together a program of slides and photos of the park that he and his uncle had taken over the years. The 395-seat Talman theater was packed within 10 minutes of opening, and another crowd waiting outside had to be turned away. Wlodarczyck remembers hoping that "no one from the Fire Department shows up."

"It's nostalgia, pure and simple," Schaden says about Riverview's current popularity. People remember it as a place that was fun, safe and easy to get to. "Going to Riverview was an occasion, not an event, like going to Disneyland," he says. "It was not unthinkable for a family to go four to six times in a summer."

Park visitors bought tickets for each ride, and small change went a long way, even in the '60s when Jablonski and her friends were going. She said she never needed more than $5 for the whole day, and "even if you didn't have any money, you could go and have a good time."

Schaden agrees. "If you went to Riverview and had $1 in your pocket, you were a king," he says.

Riverview may well have been the happiest product of urban renewal the city has yet seen. Wlodarczyk, in his 1977 pictorial history of the park, "Riverview: Gone But Not Forgotten" (still in print from Riverview Publications, 5246 N. McVicker, Chicago, IL 60630), says it was built on the site of a garbage dump by Wilhelm Schmidt, whose family owned the park throughout its 64-year existence. On July 2, 1904, Schmidt opened it as the German Sharpshooter Park, a hunting preserve, with targets set up on an island in the river and deer roaming in its woods.

In 1906, after hearing complaints of "nothing to do" from wives and children of the sharpshooters, Schmidt commissioned a carousel from the Philadelphia Toboggan company. The carousel, with its 70 horses handcrafted by Swiss and Italian woodcarvers, was the third largest ever built.

"The Riverview carousel is operating today in Six Flags over Georgia," says Wlodarczyk. "It's still called the Riverview Carousel, and they built a completely brand-new building for it that resembles the original building."

Another early attraction, erected in 1910, was the Eyeful Tower, a tower more than 200-feet high, with an elevator to carry visitors to the top and a city panorama. In 1937, it was rebuilt as the Pair-O-Chutes, the first free-fall parachute ride ever constructed and a city landmark until the park was demolished.

But the Bobs -- "the world's fastest roller coaster" -- was the heart and heart-stopper of Riverview. It went up in 1924, and the ride, for those who remember it and love such things, is still the ultimate.

The secret of the Bobs thrill was in the engineering. It was all steel, says Wlodarczyk, each seat on its train weighed 900 pounds empty, and each train had 11 separate double-seater cars, coupled fore and aft to the others. At full speed, it probably topped 65 miles per hour, Wlodarczyk says. He added that Carl Jeske, who ran the Bobs for many years, told him the coaster had, on warm days, gone as fast as 95 miles per hour.

Wlodarczyk explained that most coasters have flat wheels, but those on the Bobs were flanged, that is, they had a raised rim on one edge. This, and the single-car trains, gave them greater stability and flexibility so they could accelerate going around the curves rather than slowing down and losing momentum as today's coasters do. "That's what was unique about this coaster," says Wlodarczyk. "It was rough, but it wasn't brutally rough. It was a well-engineered ride."

Jablonski agreed with Wlodarczyk. "It was the best," she said. "When you went up that first hill, you were looking straight up at the sky."

Rick Reeder, a Skokie resident who grew up in Rogers Park of the '50s and '60s, has his own memories of the Bobs. "Oh yes, I went on the Bobs and threw up," he says. For the adolescents of Chicago, he believes, the Bobs was something every 12-year-old had to do, a "ride of passage."

The Bobs was the park's attendance barometer. It averaged 7 million to 8 million riders per year, and 300,000 repeat riders. A good day for the Bobs meant a good day for the park.

You could also go to Riverview and have a great time without the bone-breaking jolts and psychic unraveling of roller-coaster rides. Two ferris wheels, one of them oversized; Aladdin's Castle, a funhouse with a hall of mirrors, dark passages and rolling barrel walk; a kiddieland of small rides for the younger crowd; bumper cars; or the Chutes, long, flat boats that slid down a toboggan slide into a pool, offered different kinds of thrills. Wlodarczyk says the Riverview management purposely kept the Chutes' landing pool a murky brown color, so people wouldn't realize the bottom was merely 5 feet down at its deepest.

Schaden likes to say that though he never rode on the Bobs because of his religion -- "I was a devout coward" -- what he did like, being a movie fan, were the penny arcades. There, for a penny, a machine would sell you a postcard photo of a movie or Western star or some sports heroes. Schaden says those penny cards are selling for $1 or more to collectors these days.

Reeder liked the games. When he graduated from Mather High School, his class had to use the Lane Tech auditorium, which was right next to Riverview. After the ceremony, he says, "We said goodbye to our parents and went to Riverview."

At the ring toss, he recalls, "I won a bird. A real parakeet. There I was, dressed up for graduation, carrying around this bird in a big jar." It remained the high point of his graduation until the bird died a few days later.

Riverview was scheduled to reopen for its 65th season on May 10, 1968. The license had been purchased, the sign erected, but then, says Wlodarczyk, a major stockholder died. Between problems with the estate, offers to buy the park, and other pressures, Bill Schmidt, grandson of Wilhelm, announced on Oct. 3, 1967, that the park had been sold for 6.5 million dollars, and would not reopen.

"That 6 1/2 million would not even rebuild the Bobs today," says Wlodarczyk.

He finds that the people who come to his Riverview shows are generally "people who've been to Riverview, who worked at Riverview, and enjoy the 'good old times, the good old days.'"

Despite all the flash, all the hype, or even the world's biggest, fastest, or longest roller coaster, Wlodarczyck says, modern theme parks just don't have Riverview's friendly fun or community spirit. "There's no place you can go today that will replace Riverview."

Tickets to "Riverview Remembered" are $8 at the door. For more information, call (773) 763-3558.

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