NBC
NBC

Oral History: Punky Brewster's Refrigerator Danger

NBC
NBC

Like a pint-sized version of the search to find Scarlett O’Hara for 1939’s Gone with the Wind, they came by the hundreds—a steady stream of little girls flooding casting calls in New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles. Be elfin, precocious, hit your cues, and you might wind up the star of a new primetime kids’ show on NBC titled Punky Brewster.

The story of an 8-year-old orphan abandoned by her mother and found by a cantankerous old apartment manager, Punky Brewster was not conventional network television fare. Paired with Silver Spoons in the fall of 1984, it was created to help satisfy a Federal Communications Commission mandate that early-evening programming be either news-oriented (60 Minutes) or somewhat educational. As a result, Punky’s adventures often involved the perils of sleeping pill addiction, missing kids on milk cartons, child molestation, or a rampaging serial killer. Barney this was not. 

Of Punky’s several run-ins with mortality, it was a second-season episode that aired on January 19, 1986 that stands as her most memorable. Titled “Cherie Lifesaver,” it involved a small child nearly suffocating to death in an abandoned refrigerator.

Laced with the show's surprising morbidity, it stands as a near-perfect example of the producers' ambition to inform their viewers—in this case, the rules of proper CPR technique—while disguising itself as a Grimm's Fairy Tale for a 1980s audience.

To celebrate the 30th anniversary of Punky’s infamous fridge incident, mental_floss asked some of the show's cast and crew to reminisce about what some fans came to view as a 24-minute mini-horror film about a dangerous antique appliance. Unlike most Internet references-to-be, this one was responsible for saving a life. 

I. PUNKY POWER

NBC

During the 1980s, NBC President Brandon Tartikoff had assembled a primetime schedule that had taken the network from last place to first: Cheers, Family Ties, Knight Rider, and Miami Vice had all been championed by the executive. Appointed at 32, he was the youngest network head in history.

Realizing that CBS’s long-running 60 Minutes was going to dominate ratings among adults in its 7 p.m. Sunday slot, Tartikoff decided to pursue another demographic: young children who had no interest in Andy Rooney. He approached Silver Spoons executive producer David Duclon and asked him to create a show that could be paired with the Ricky Schroder comedy. Tartikoff’s only suggestion was that the lead character be named after a teacher’s daughter, Peyton “Punky” Brewster, that he once knew in prep school. The rest was up to Duclon.

Rick Hawkins (Producer): It was really one of the first primetime shows geared especially toward children, and revolutionary for its time. This was the Reagan era of glamour, and David was a little like Charles Dickens, trying to show a different side of America from a kid’s point of view. From NBC’s perspective, dealing with the idea of an abandoned child—you know, that’s not a barrel of laughs.

Art Dielhenn (Director): I was an associate director on the pilot, which was directed by Jack Shea. He was busy with Silver Spoons. When it got picked up, David asked me to stay on. You’ve got one adult, a bunch of kids, and a dog. That’s challenging.

Hawkins: I think the premise came out of an actual story David read about a child who had been abandoned and left in the parking lot of a grocery store or mall. I think that kids have a primal fear of being left alone or losing their parents, but at the same time, it’s also what they long for. It’s why so many fairy tales are about being lost in the woods, and it’s why every Disney Channel show has kids missing parents or raising themselves.

Gene Doucette (Costume Designer): Punky, she was supposed to be a ray of sunshine. The main concept I got right off the bat, being as childlike as I was and am, is that grown-ups say “Why?” and kids say “Why not?” Where grown-ups wouldn’t put purple next to gold, kids use all of the colors in a 100-crayon box. A perfect example of that was [in the script] when someone asked her why she was wearing two different shoes, and she said “Why not? I have two different feet.”

Hawkins: Tartikoff said, “I want to do the kind of show I remember from my childhood.”

Cheryl Alu (Staff Writer): I remember early on TV Guide did a cover of Punky Brewster. It showed Punky reaching over Henry's shoulders and putting her fingers at the edges of his mouth, as if to make him smile. David Duclon felt this was, in a nutshell, the essence of the show. A little girl showing an old grouch how to find joy in life.

Dielhenn: When we started the casting process, it was very challenging. The character was written as so vibrant, so spunky, that you started to doubt the notion we could find an 8-year-old to pull it off. When Soleil came in, we realized we had found the impossible.

“Soleil” was Soleil Moon Frye, a 7-year-old neophyte actress who had been spotted by a casting director while visiting her older brother, Meeno Peluce, on the set of his NBC series Voyagers!. Frye was selected out of 1000 girls who auditioned for the title role.

Cherie Johnson (“Cherie Johnson”): Soleil and I actually went in together. I guess it was a chemistry read. I met her in the waiting room for the first audition. Being 6 years old, you meet a girl, and you’re friends already. To me, the show was just playing with my friend.

Dielhenn: Jack Shea and I were in the control booth when Soleil was testing. We both looked at each other and said, “Uh-huh.”

Soleil Moon Frye (via E!, 2000): Coming up in the elevator [to the audition], another little girl gets in and says “Don’t bother, I already got it.” I said, “No way, I’m going up there.”

Hawkins: Soleil was really gifted and had a great parental support system. They weren’t interested in her being a celebrity. They wanted her to have a normal life, and she was really grounded as a result.

Johnson: There was none of the child stigma stuff. Our stage manager would give money to whoever could stay on a Pogo stick the longest. We drove carts over to Johnny Carson’s studio. That was the hottest show. Cyndi Lauper let us on her bus. I think Johnny hated us.

Doucette: Before we shot the pilot, I was shown pictures of Soleil. What I did was go out and shop for some things, had sleeves cut off, dyed different colors, bought pins, came up with how she would wear her jeans, then presented it to producers. “This is where I want to go with Punky,” and they said yes to everything.

Johnson: David Duclon is my uncle. He was a lot like my father growing up. He created the show, but not for me to have a job. He just thought he’d use my name and that I’d be thrilled. I had a different idea. “Cool, my name is in it. When do we go to work?” He said he needed a real actress. After seven auditions, NBC finally said, “Give your niece the job.”

Hawkins: One of the interesting aspects of the series was that Punky’s best friend, Cherie, was African American, and no big deal was made about it. It wasn’t an issue. In the '80s, you had black shows or white shows or Spanish shows. I can’t think of another series where the lead and lead’s best friend were different ethnicities and it wasn’t addressed.

Doucette: We were about to go on camera. I don’t know what caused me to do [the bandana on the knee], I just did it. Or maybe what made me do that was that I think I was listening to the radio, one of Willie Nelson's songs came on ... And I thought, “I have to get a bandana on her.” It was one more little statement, living her life basically on the road.

Dielhenn: We were going to air starting Sunday night after football, which was interesting. For the first six episodes, we did two-part segments, each 12 minutes long. If football ran long, they could start with a shorter episode.

Hawkins: That way, the kids could still see an entire episode and the network could continue the rest of the night’s programming. It was pretty unusual.

Doucette: When we shot the pilot, they were about to trim her bangs. I said, “No, no, you can’t give her perfect little bangs.” The character had to do her hair by herself. She hadn’t been adopted yet.

Hawkins: I remember we got the real Punky Brewster to do a walk-on. I don’t know where her nickname came from. I think our Punky’s first name was Penelope, and if that’s your name, you’d welcome a change. It sounds like an aunt with stockings rolled up to her knees.

Doucette: Each time we got a script, I was there all night at NBC ordering pizza, sitting in the office and hand-painting [mismatched] shoes. Casey [Ellison], the boy [who played Allen Anderson], used to hide in my wardrobe room and play with cars and robots because he was surrounded by girls all the time.

Johnson: We ganged up on Casey. We picked on him.

Punky Brewster premiered on September 16, 1984, with a three-part story that saw the character squatting in an empty apartment with her dog, Brandon, before being discovered by Henry Warnimont (George Gaynes), the building’s superintendent. Eventually, Punky is adopted by the curmudgeonly Henry and proceeds to use her Technicolor charm to navigate some distressing subject matter. Quickly, Punky Brewster became synonymous with “Very Special Episode.”

Hawkins: All of this color and childlike humor was to balance out some of the darker aspects of the storytelling.

Dielhenn: I won the Scott Newman [anti-drug foundation] Award for the “Just Say No” drug episode with Nancy Reagan. A lot of those choices were made in the writing room. In directing, it was about, "How do you play against this intensity so it doesn’t feel so overwhelming?"

Hawkins: We did an episode where she gets lost in a cave, some scary supernatural stuff, and we found early on it didn’t work for the world of the series. It was grounded in reality. She didn’t have superpowers. She talked about Punky Power, but that was the positive energy she had, a belief in herself and her abilities.

Johnson: Soleil and I were watching when the [Space Shuttle Challenger] exploded [in 1986]. Soleil really wanted to be an astronaut. I remember they got Buzz Aldrin to be on the show.

Hawkins: The drug episode, the child molester—there was nothing going on in the world we didn’t address.

Johnson: Shooting it, we were never upset. Even the episode where my [on-screen] mom died, David was like, “I’ll give you $20 and take you to 7-11 if you cry.”

II. A CHILLY RECEPTION

By the end of its freshman season, Punky Brewster had finished in 64th place in the Nielsen ratings. It wasn’t a spectacular debut, but the show still managed to captivate kids ages 2 through 11. If they were tuned into television at 7:30 p.m. on Sundays, they were almost certainly watching Punky. If not, they were busy writing to her: The show received up to 10,000 letters a week.

Hawkins: We would get tons of fan mail, tons of kids writing to Punky asking for her advice or sending pictures.

Johnson: We’d get letters from jail. Those would get confiscated.

Doucette: Every letter was looked at and talked about. Kids came to trust Punky. They learned they could confide in her. Fortunately, but also unfortunately, we had hundreds of letters from kids who had no one else to tell they were being abused, hurt, sexually assaulted. So they wrote to Punky. All of those letters were turned over to the proper authorities, all taken care of by the main production office, so authorities could possibly investigate and find a way to help kids.

Hawkins: A lot of times, kids would talk about what they wanted to see Punky do. I’m pretty sure the idea came from David to have a contest and get kids to submit an idea. We’d pick one and build a story around it.

To engage viewers and promote the second season, the series aired a call for story submissions in September 1985. Kids had until October 20 to submit a premise for an episode, with the winner being flown out with their family on an all-expenses-paid trip to Hollywood. It was this appeal to viewers that would eventually lead to the show’s famous encounter with a refrigerator.

Hawkins: That turned out to be one of our most memorable episodes, yes.

Jeremy Reams (Contest Winner): There was an ad on the show. “Hey, send us your ideas!” That kind of thing. I was 7, and my sister was a couple of years older, and we watched the show religiously. She wanted to do it, and I’m the little brother, so I wanted to do it, too. So we sat at the kitchen table and thought about it.

Hawkins: It got kids into the process of finding ways to be creative themselves. It was about child empowerment in a world where, when you’re a kid, you have no control whatsoever.

Reams: My idea was, they learned about CPR in school. Then they’d get off the bus, and they’d see an elderly woman or someone who needed it. The fridge was just how they presented it.

Hawkins: That came out of research we had done where we learned an alarming number of kids had suffocated in an old fridge or freezer. The government had passed laws as early as the late 1950s to ban manufacturing a fridge you couldn’t open from the inside. But in low economic neighborhoods, the old ones were being tossed out in vacant lots. They lasted forever.

Reams: It was a long time before we heard anything, maybe a few months. I remember my dad answered the phone. It was like, “Remember that contest? Well, you won. We’re going to California.”

Dielhenn: I only vaguely recall the refrigerator. I don’t know whose idea it was.

Hawkins: You were just putting two and two together. If you’re going to teach CPR, where’s the story? Who’s going to need CPR? We didn’t want it to be Henry or Brandon.

Johnson: I don’t think there was anyone else. From the time I got the script, it was, “Hop in the fridge.”

Writer Stephanie Mathison is credited for “Cherie Lifesaver,” which involves Punky and friend Margaux (Ami Foster-DeFries) taking a hands-on CPR class from teacher Mr. Fulton (T.K. Carter). It’s a lesson that proves invaluable after Henry throws away his ancient refrigerator, which Cherie climbs into during a potentially deadly game of hide-and-seek. 

Hawkins: You want a fun fact? When we were looking to cast the teacher, we wanted someone dynamic and fun, a strong male influence for Punky. Jim Carrey auditioned. But it was almost a comic mania. It wasn’t quite suited for children.

Dielhenn: I remember, from a production standpoint, having to figure out how to make sure she was safe inside the fridge while still making it seem real.  

Johnson: The first time we tried it, we were using an oxygen mask and I had only so much time I could stay in there. Everyone was so afraid, but I loved it. It was like doing my own stunt.

Reams: When we went to watch the shoot, I remember seeing the fridge and going, “Wait, that wasn’t my idea. That’s not how I saw it going down."

Johnson: Eventually, David couldn’t take it. I was like, “No, I’m cool, I’m okay.” They wound up taking the back of the fridge off.

Doucette: We did approach major problems throughout the series that kids face, the dangers out in the world. 

Johnson: We had rehearsal and then we taped in front of a live audience. Kids were screaming, “Oh, no! Get her out!”

Hawkins: That show aired and the best reward I ever got was a phone call we got the next Monday afternoon. A woman from the Midwest called to say her husband worked for the power company, had been electrocuted on the line, and had fallen to the ground just as some kids were getting off the bus. They had seen the episode, ran over, gave him CPR, and saved his life.

Doucette: The fridge was handled delicately. Instead of kids living in fear, it was more about teaching kids to be careful what you do.

Reams: I had a little part at the beginning of the show. They had me sitting on the couch introducing it. “This is Jeremy Reams, he’s our contest winner.” Then the dog came over for 15 seconds or whatever.

Johnson: That dog was more professional than some veteran actors I’ve worked with.

Dielhenn: The dog was great. The trainers were great. He was named Brandon after Brandon Tartikoff.

Johnson: The dog had one double, a female named Brandy. I thought it was just those two, but later on someone told me there was one who passed away and they didn’t tell us so we wouldn’t get upset. Like how you’d replace a fish.

Reams: My class knew I was going to be on the show, but I moved away later on and no one knew about it until we took a spring break trip. Someone was in another hotel room. I guess they were watching a rerun. They said, “Is that you?” It’s never really come up since. It’s not really how you impress people.

III. PUNKY POWERS DOWN

By the end of its second season, Punky Brewster had failed to improve its standing in the ratings. While it was well-received by its juvenile audience, that wasn’t enough to sustain the expense of a primetime series.   

Hawkins: The expectation was never for us to beat 60 Minutes in the ratings. Everyone was really realistic. We had a lot of episodes planned.

Dielhenn: NBC liked us, the audience liked us. It seemed like we were positioned accordingly.

Hawkins: Brandon [Tartikoff] came to speak to David personally. It was a difficult decision for him, but he was running a network. It’s about ad dollars. He had to make a tough decision, and he did. No one took it personally.

What NBC lacked in ad revenue it made up for in merchandising: Punky prompted over 30 separate licensing deals and an animated series.

Hawkins: There was such a demand for merchandise, for mismatched shoes, for the Punky doll.

Doucette: Another reason they wanted to keep the character the same for a while was the doll and everything else. The company they hired to do the shoes totally blew the concept because what they did was, they wanted to sell multi-colored sneakers in pairs, which is not what Punky was doing. My concept, when I was asked, was to sell individual shoes—sell lefts and rights—and let kids pick what ones they want to match up. The apparel company, nobody got it.

Frye: It was a little bizarre going to the Toys"R"Us and right next to the Cabbage Patch doll would be my face looking at me.

Galoob

After 44 episodes on NBC, Punky Brewster moved to syndication, where it aired for another 44 episodes and two years before signing off in 1988. In the finale, Brandon and his girlfriend celebrate their canine nuptials. In the course of the show’s run, it was never explained why Punky’s mother had chosen to abandon her.

Hawkins: We tried to wrap our brains around what kind of parent can leave their kid. I know we talked about the idea of a mental illness involved with the mother, not being able to take care of herself or her child. I know Punky remembered things her mom told her, a song her mom would sing to her. But I don’t think there was ever any good time to bring her mother back.

Johnson: The last episode came during a writer’s strike. The dog wedding wasn’t intended to be a final episode.

Alu: I think we didn't find out we were canceled until after the final episode was shot. In other words, we didn't know that the final show of the fourth season was the final show of the series. But then, who’s to say a dog wedding isn't a fitting exit? 

Hawkins: For a certain age group, Punky was a formative role model. I was at the eye doctor the other day and she was asking what shows I’ve done. Out of Carol Burnett, Welcome Back, Kotter, and everything else, it was, “Oh, my God! Punky Brewster!” She got teary-eyed about it.

Doucette: I’ve never been involved with a bunch of people who tried so hard to look at things from a kid’s point of view, teach them values, try to teach them lessons, and get them to be excited to be kids. There was a lot of care involved.

Dielhenn: She was a little like Annie and kind of an extension of Our Gang. It was great to have a female lead. There was one boy, three girls, and that was a great role model for girls at that time.

Johnson: I’m 40 years old and people are still tweeting me about it all the time. “If Punky Brewster taught me nothing else, it kept me out of a fridge.”

Traumatic License: An Oral History of Action Park

In the summer of 1983, Action Park—a collection of water-themed amusement rides installed over a ski resort in the rural town of Vernon, New Jersey—debuted their newest attraction. Dubbed the Cannonball Loop, it seemed to obey the laws of cartoon physics, with a steep enclosed slide feeding a 360-degree turn at the bottom. The idea was that a park attendee would climb into the mouth of the ride some 50 feet off the ground, get hosed down to reduce friction, and then speed through the tube like a chambered bullet, clearing the loop and emerging at the other end into a shallow pool.

Action Park owner Eugene Mulvihill enlisted his teenaged son, Andy, to test it while it was still under haphazard construction by a squad of welders. “There wasn’t really any engineering,” Andy tells Mental Floss. “It was just trial and error.” Andy agreed to test it while wearing his hockey equipment. He was fine. Others were not. “The problem was if the momentum didn’t keep you on top of the wall, you’d fall three or four feet to the other side on your face, breaking your nose or your teeth.”

The Cannonball Loop would be open only sporadically over the next 13 years, a perpetual work-in-progress that mirrored the state of Action Park itself. From 1978 to 1996, up to 20,000 people a day from the tri-state area would flock to Eugene’s oasis, which emphasized a ride-at-your-own-risk philosophy that earned it the nicknames “Traction Park” and “Class Action Park.” Speeding at high velocity down cement slides, boozy guests would try to push their limits—and Mulvihill would let them. Bodies flew off rides like crash test dummies; skin was peeled off in layers. It was not uncommon for guests to see bloody and bandaged patrons being driven across the grass in carts equipped with EMTs and stretchers. A total of five fatalities were reported, creating a mythology that danger lurked around every water-soaked corner.

If you were a reckless guest, sometimes it did. Most all of the rides at Action Park could be navigated safely, but “My dad’s whole idea was to do an amusement park differently, not where you just got strapped in and twisted around, but one where you controlled what was going on," Andy says. "You can have an awesome time, but you can also hurt yourself if you don’t use good judgment."

To understand how Action Park not only survived but thrived with a business philosophy out of Mad Max, Mental Floss spoke to well over a dozen former employees and guests who recalled an environment of fun, sun, and tending to broken bones at the most intense amusement park ever constructed.

I: THE ACTION NEVER STOPS

In the mid-1970s, Eugene Mulvihill and several investors backed Vernon Valley/Great Gorge, a ski resort located in Vernon Township, New Jersey. When Mulvihill became the sole owner, he decided to expand the property’s operations into the summer by building water rides that would take advantage of the steep mountainside acreage and help drive business year-round.

In 1976, two years before the park officially opened, Mulvihill debuted the area’s first summer ride: the Alpine Slide, a cement raceway distributed by amusement operator Stig Albertsson that allowed guests to careen down the mountain in cement troughs while riding a tiny cart that let them control the speed. The Alpine Slide would account for hundreds of injuries over the years.

Jim DeSaye (Park Security): The Alpine was on a big hill, not a little baby hill. It’s basically you on a sled on a concrete track. And there is nothing keeping you on.

Andy Mulvihill: That was one my dad bought from a manufacturer in Europe. There had been a couple installed elsewhere, but not a lot.

Bill Benneyan (General Manager): At that time, the ski industry was going through some tough years. You needed to be able to use your land the other half of the year.

Chris Ish (First Aid): It was really tricky. You had to have skill and balance to stay on the track. If you pulled back on the brake, the cart would kick to one side. If you’re on a flat stretch, that’s no problem, but if you’re coming up on someone and brake too fast on a curve, you’re falling off of it.

Greg Gianakis (Guest): There were these stupid little sleds that had handles for adjusting speed that never did anything.

DeSaye: Basically, people would think, “This is an amusement park. I can’t get hurt here.” And they would go flying down the track, brake too hard, and then fly into the woods or into the rocks.

Therese Mahler (Ride Attendant): The Alpine had the reputation it had because if you fell off the cart and didn’t land on the grass, the momentum would carry you for a while and you’d get these disgusting-looking, oozy wounds from the friction burn.

Ish: The cart would come out from under you and then you’d just slide over this fiberglass track. It was like a rug burn.

Mahler: We always gave a little speech at the top. “You’re responsible for controlling the speed and balance of your cart.” Over and over again.

Corrine Zimmerman (Ride Attendant): When you shifted your weight wrong and went sliding down, it took several layers off your skin and your whole body and the cart would go flying off. We had staff positioned along the track to keep an eye out for that sort of thing. It was harder to spot people when it got dark.

A guest descends down a water slide at Action Park in Vernon, New Jersey
Joe Shlabotnik, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

Al Rescinio (Guest): It wasn’t like you were armored going down this thing. You’re wearing a T-shirt and bathing suit or shorts. You didn’t know how unstable these little carts are the first time you go on them.

Thomas Flynn (First Aid): The primary ingredient in those tracks was asbestos, by the way.

DeSaye: People would bounce off. That’s why we called them Gumbys. Down in first aid, at the end of the night, you’d be having pizza and inevitably someone would come in looking like they had a giant burn from head to toe.

Benneyan: It was the Action Park tattoo.

Ish: You wouldn’t want to cover that up because it would just ooze. We’d use a disinfectant spray on it.

Flynn: I remember that ... I can’t believe we used it, actually. It was like 70 percent alcohol and 10 percent iodine. Imagine spraying 70 percent alcohol on a rug burn. We’d spray these dudes down and take bets on who would do the craziest dance. They would run out of first aid like we had just set them on fire.

Gianakis: The Slide was just under the chair lift that took you to the top. People would spit and throw things at the people below them.

Ish: When we’d have collisions, those would be the more severe injuries. You had control of the brakes and could go as slow as you wanted to. You could have a mom with a kid in her lap going down at a slow pace. The only problem was if someone was going fast going behind you. People were catching up to each other all the time.

Gianakis: They’d tell you not to, but my friends and I would make trains. A guy would wait like 100 yards down where the attendant couldn’t see and then we’d just ram into them.

Zimmerman: If someone was hurt badly enough, first aid would come with a sling they could put people in. They’d use the cart to push them down the slide. It was the only way to get them down.

Mahler: We used to have carts we didn’t let guests ride. I don’t really remember why, but it might have had something to do with the brake.

Zimmerman: Those were like an engineering anomaly. For whatever reason, they would go down the hill faster than the others. We kept them because we didn’t want to let customers ride them, and because the staff liked to go really fast.

Mahler: My friend Jason rode down the Alpine and got horrible slide burn over his arms and legs. We took a photo of him in first aid and mounted it on a piece of wood so people would see it. Like, “This could happen to you.” But they were already committed at that point. They had ridden a chair lift up and there was only one way down.

DeSaye: A lot of times people would be too drunk to get on the ride and the attendants would tell them that, and they’d just get belligerent. That occurred daily.

Rescinio: I was 19 or 20 years old. When you’re that age, you laugh it off. It wasn’t until I became an attorney that I realized these rides could be extremely dangerous.

The Alpine Slide eventually lived up—or down—to its reputation when park employee George Larsson Jr. rode it after work hours on July 8, 1980. Flung from the track, he hit his head on a rock, fell into a coma, and died several days later. The New Jersey State Department of Transportation found that nothing was wrong with the ride. “The ride didn't injure Larsson. It was a rock 25 feet away that hurt him,” park spokesperson Wesley Smith told reporters. “This is an action park where people are doing things physically to themselves. Their situation is not totally in our control.”

The accident made local news in New Jersey, foreshadowing the controversy over the park and its relaxed oversight of attendees that would last for nearly two decades.

Benneyan: It was actually the beginning of the water park industry. Gene didn’t think he was inventing the industry, but he was putting together pieces of the puzzle.

Joe Russoniello (Director of Marketing): Gene was way ahead of his time in terms of what we were developing. The Wave Pool, the Tarzan swing, the rapid rides, whatever it was, he was doing it early on.

Flynn: Were the rides engineered for maximum safety like they are today? Absolutely not. They were designed where, as the slogan went, “You’re at the center of the action.”

John Keimel (Supervisor): People called it Traction Park, “Where you’re the center of the accident.”

Benneyan: The whole idea of Action Park in the 1980s was identified in the marketing. You’re in control of the action. That was a pretty out-there concept. It was a really neat fulfillment of all these backyard fantasies.

Alison Becker (Guest): You would inevitably see someone get severely injured every time you were there and you just assumed people got injured at every water park. We lived out in the sticks. This was just water slides put on the side of a mountain.

Mulvihill: I don’t think my father necessarily understood the liabilities of running a park. It was not sophisticated. If he went to an amusement park conference and liked someone’s idea, he’d ask them to build it, even if they had never built it before.

Russoniello: Gene wanted it to be really exciting and wanted to break the rules as much as he could. And there weren’t many rules and regulations to break back then.
 
 

The ski lift takes visitors to the Alpine Sled
Joe Shlabotnik, Flickr //CC BY 2.0

Benneyan: Gene was a fascinating guy. He had investments in cancer research. He assembled the largest wine cellar in North America. He worked with partners to build a robotic parking garage. It was all kinds of things. He was always pushing for something new and different.

DeSaye: What Gene did was allow a certain amount of responsibility for each person. There were injuries, but ski areas have a ridiculous number of injuries. Nobody was telling you to drink and get on a sled doing 70 miles per hour.

Flynn: There was a high degree of personal responsibility. Individuals needed to make smart decisions on what they did and didn’t do on rides. Gene’s whole idea was: you controlled your own fate.

Benneyan: Gene’s delight was in people having fun. To do that, he wanted to push the limits. And in order to do that, everything was going to be bigger, faster, or some other superlative.

Mulvihill: Gene didn’t ever want to see anyone hurt ... His goal was to build a participation amusement park that was very unique and super fun and where there were certain risks. Individuals needed to be personally responsible for their behavior at the park.

Rescinio: You can ski off a mountain and into a tree if you’re not paying attention. It’s really nobody’s fault but your own.

Mulvihill: The best comparison is with skiing. With skiing you need to be responsible for how fast you go, staying out of the woods, not hitting another person, no jumping in the air unless you can handle it.

Russoniello: Gene wanted something on the cutting edge to bring new and exciting experiences to people. Back then, people wanted that.

Mulvihill: People who had been to other amusement parks were trained to have a certain experience. When they went to Action Park, they could jump off cliffs, drive race cars, and swing on ropes, and I don’t think they could quite believe the freedom they were given. 

That sense of freedom was often tested by park-goers, who came from the tri-state area and paid frequent visits to the park's many beer stands.

DeSaye: There were bars throughout the park, which is something when you’re surrounded by rides requiring dexterity.

Ish: The park was not real good about cutting people off.

Becker: My parents were very Catholic and very “safe,” but I remember my mom sipping wine at a picnic table while we went on all these rides, so it was like she was getting a break, too.

Andy Fiori (Guest): You were definitely able to buy beer and walk around with alcohol in the park. It was an open-container policy. Alcohol was very prevalent.

Mahler: If you had three or four beers and you’re in the hot sun all day, you might be judgment-impaired.

Mulvihill: We once had a group of bodybuilders come in and start throwing lifeguards into the pool. We had to call the police. Guys were just aggressive. They were feeling their oats.

DeSaye: The Vernon police were awesome. They were used to it. We once called them to a fight with 20 people here. It was some gang thing that was so violent, people were hitting each other with bricks from the cobblestone walk. They were hell-bent on hurting each other. The cops had to bring the dogs.

Gianakis: They might throw you off a ride, but they would never throw you out of the park.

DeSaye: It was the Wild West. Fights every day. Guys would come in from the city, think we’re bumpkins, and want to take over. I saw a chair lift attendant hit a guy in the head with a shovel because he didn’t like something he said.

Flynn: The park did these Gladiator Games, basically a take-off of American Gladiators. And one of the Gladiators on payroll beat the crap out of one of the patrons using those bopping sticks. So the guy comes back with a dozen friends to fight six of the Gladiators. It was a melee, a riot of 40, 50, 60 people. Everyone responded—food service, lifeguards. It was ridiculous, the amount of wounded we took in from that. People were nuts.

Mulvihill: I can’t tell you the number of people who would jump into the water, start to drown, get pulled out, and then we’d ask if they knew how to swim. They’d go, “Nah, I don’t. I figured the lifeguard would pull me out.” That is just insane.

Gianakis: Basically, there was real Lord of the Flies stuff going on in this whole park.

II: ACCIDENTAL TOURISTS

Although Action Park had its official opening on July 4, 1978—complete with a Dolly Parton lookalike contest and a tobacco-spitting competition—it would be several years before Gene Mulvihill’s resort expansion began attracting a steady flow of attendees. To stir up interest, Mulvihill ordered construction of more attractions, including the park’s most infamous and most mythologized monument: the Cannonball Loop.

Mahler: It was the first thing you saw when you walked into the park. It was open very rarely. Basically, you’d hear people screaming all the way through until they landed in the pool at the bottom. They’d skip a little bit, then stagger around for a second before walking away. 

DeSaye: It was a giant metal tube on a tower with a 360-degree loop and people would go shooting out of it.

Fiori: I didn’t really think a person could go through a 360-degree loop.

Becker: It was like a Hot Wheels track with a friggin’ loop in it. No human should do that. I never saw it open. It was like a relic of a more dangerous time.

Ish: It was in operation while I was working there. I’m not sure about the story of the dummy, though.

Mahler: The story was they sent a dummy down and it came out in pieces.

Rogers: They filled up one of those maintenance man jumpsuits with sand bags and the first one came out with no head.
 

Keimel: It seemed like a crazy thing to try. It was so vertical. What happens when someone gets to the top of the loop and doesn’t go all the way around?

Benneyan: You could look at it and know there was something iffy about it.

DeSaye: What happened was, they sent employees down it. The first one smacked his face and his teeth got knocked out. The second person came out all cut up. When they went in, the first guy’s teeth had gotten stuck inside and cut the second guy.

Ish: It was completely dark in the tunnel. You had a sensation of being upside-down and right-side up and then the next thing you know, you’re on your back in the shallow pool looking up at the sky.

Mahler: We had to weigh people at the bottom to make sure they weren’t too light or too heavy. They wouldn’t get enough speed to clear the loop. We didn’t want an Augustus Gloop kind of situation.

Ish: The problem was that people would sometimes get stuck and no one thought to put an escape hatch in it. So people wound up crawling in a couple of times to rescue someone until a hatch was put in.

Mahler: It was just so obvious something could go terribly wrong here that I think it got a level of scrutiny from management that other rides didn’t get.

Mulvihill: We operated it for a couple of weekends and then shut it down. Then we’d leave it alone for a year or two and try to reopen it, and it just never worked. Maybe one in a 100 people would smash their face, but that’s too many. Maybe if it was one in 1000.

DeSaye: We called it a monument to stupidity.

Although the Loop was a bust, Action Park continued building out, offering three distinct plots—Waterworld, Motorworld, and Roaring Springs. The turning point, according to Andy Mulvihill, was buying commercial ad time on television in and around New Jersey. Suddenly, the park and its rides—including the Wave Pool, a mechanical wave machine that could produce a 40-inch tide that was introduced in 1981—were filling up. That year, park attendance exceeded 1 million people paying $14 million in admission fees.

Mulvihill: The first couple seasons were so-so, and then we discovered commercials. The market really responded and we couldn’t handle all the people coming in. It was getting packed.

Fiori: I still remember that commercial. “The action never stops at Action Park!” They were kind of like used car commercials: not very well-produced, but very recognizable.

Mahler: There wasn’t really anything else to do in Vernon. We were 45 minutes from the nearest mall.

Gianakis: It was the place to go. My friends and I would come from Long Island, leaving at four in the morning, getting there when the park opened, and leaving at night. It was like taking your dog to the dog park. As soon as the car pulled up, the doors would be flying open before you even parked.

Ish: The Wave Pool was commonly overcrowded. They didn’t limit the number of people in the pool. It was just a sea of heads bobbing up and down.

Mulvihill: We bought the Wave Pool from guys who had built them before and provided us with filters, chlorination, and told us capacities. They were as expert about it as you could be.

Fiori: The pool would encourage body-surfing and stuff like that, which doesn’t help when there are a bunch of people crashing into each other. You’d go through cycles of small waves, then bigger ones. 

Gianakis: I used to be a really good swimmer, and even I couldn’t deal with the Wave Pool. I remember it being huge at one end, almost like a beach, and then it got deeper and deeper where the waves were. You’d be afraid to get too close to the massive fans underwater.

Flynn: Part of the problem was depth. The very shallow end was fine, but the further out you went, it probably got to be about 12 feet or so. And there was the unpredictability of man-made giant waves. That plus the size of the pool created a recipe for disaster.

Mahler: The Wave Pool had like eight or 10 guards on duty at all times. I think they would log like 30 saves a day.

Flynn: If you wanted to become a good lifeguard, you got a job at the Wave Pool.

Mulvihill: This was the New York market, and people did not know how to swim. We’d pull hundreds of people out in a weekend.

Gianakis: I cracked my head on the ladder [trying] to get out one time. I was bleeding all over the place.
 
 

Action Park guests enjoy the Wave Pool attraction
Joe Shlabotnik, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

DeSaye: The problem with the Wave Pool was that it had people screaming for help who didn’t need it. And then when someone really needed help, they’d be under water for five minutes.

Ish: It was harder than swimming in a pool. You’re swimming uphill on the back of waves. It could easily catch people off-guard and tire them out faster than normal.

Mulvihill: With the Wave Pool, we could not see the bottom because the water wasn’t clear enough. We kept adding chlorine. The question became: Why operate it if you can’t see the bottom? Well, you can’t see the bottom of a lake or ocean where people swim, either. It doesn't mean you shouldn't let people go in the ocean.

Ish: We had a big problem of people taking the attitude that they bought an admission ticket and should be able to go on any ride and then get in over their head because they can’t swim.

Zimmerman: Someone once dove into one foot of water. That is not the fault of the park.

Flynn: The first season I was there, we used to do rotations with a staff of six. And I started seeing wristbands in addition to the regular admission wristband, a pink wristband with “CFS” written on it. I go to the top of two big cliff jumps and talk to one of the lifeguards who is letting people jump off, and say, “Hey, man, what’s with the pink CFS wristband?” He told me it meant, “Can’t F***ing Swim.” They jump 30 feet in, sink, get dragged from bottom, and tagged so they didn’t jump in again.

Ish: The problem was not the lifeguards. It was asking them to guard an overcrowded pool.

Zimmerman: My friend that worked with me on the Alpine was also a scuba diver and he eventually got switched to Waterworld. He had to go diving for bodies in the deeper water set-ups.

DeSaye: I witnessed a couple accidents there. It wouldn’t be a good day when it happened. The police would come and inspect the ride and there would always be an investigation. It’s no different from someone drowning in a pool.

Ish: The lifeguards were always very shaken up by it.

Mulvihill: I pulled a dead guy off the bottom of a pool once. I heard over the radio there was a code red, which is life or death, and showed up a minute later. The lifeguards were doing a search of the pool at Roaring Springs. Sometimes guys would jump off and swim underwater and make it so you couldn’t find them. There were a lot of false alarms, but the lifeguards seemed convinced someone went down. EMTs were there and tried resuscitating him, but it didn’t work. The guy didn’t know how to swim. Why he jumped off without knowing how to swim, I don’t know. It goes back to personal responsibility. I was 17. I was shattered.

The drownings led to increased scrutiny by local media over the park. In 1986, the New Jersey Herald reported [PDF] that 110 injuries were logged for the summer 1985 season, including 45 head injuries and 10 fractures. That figure grew to 330 for summer 1986. The paper’s reporter, Evan Schuman, also charged that the park was allowing teenagers under the age of 16 to supervise rides and asking those [who were] underage to go home when inspectors from the Department of Labor came. The park denied the allegation.

DeSaye: The local papers hated the place.

Ish: I never saw any of the stuff from the paper. Where I think the confusion comes in is that we had kids working there but they weren’t lifeguarding or operating equipment.

Zimmerman: There were kids working there, sure, but they couldn’t operate rides. On the Alpine, those guys would be putting carts onto chair lifts or fixing carts. They weren’t able to have any interaction with the lift itself.

DeSaye: We hired 14-year-olds for general services. No way did they supervise anything. But I can’t tell you if there was or was not a time when 20,000 people were in the park and someone went, “Crap, we don’t have enough employees. Take these kids and give them shirts.”

Rogers: Kids basically ran the park. It was high school. The seniors were their bosses.

Mahler: It was like any place that hires a bunch of teenagers. There were a percentage of people who were lazy, lackadaisical, and not paying attention to what they should be paying attention to. But I really feel that aspect of it was exaggerated. I do remember incidences of people being kind of drunk at work, but as soon as someone in authority found out, they put the kibosh put on it and it was not allowed to continue.

Rogers: I don’t really think any of the employees were drinking. If they did, I don’t think they were wasted.

Flynn: One thing that doesn’t really get covered is how the park would take advantage of low-cost overseas labor, basically flying in kids to take summer jobs from Europe. These kids would live in little hovels, little condos, party like rock stars every night.

Keimel: Yes, there was a large contingent of foreign workers; people from the Dominican Republic.

Flynn: The kids did the best they could. When you are 16 or 17 years old and given minimal training, and it’s summertime, you’re interested in a bit more than just letting people go down a slide. Safety protocols could be little lax at times. But most people would be doing bone-headed things, like going down slides backwards.

Rescinio: I went there and like any kid, I didn’t file a report when I got injured. For every injury they reported, there were probably 10 or 20 that weren’t.
 

Guests ride down a raft at Action Park
Joe Shlabotnik, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

Mulvihill: I would say I am a guy who is not a big believer in over-regulation by government, and neither was my father. So when they would put various regulations out there in reporting injuries, we would be very careful about complying.

DeSaye: The inspector would come in and say, "You don’t have enough lifeguards, blah, blah, blah. We’ll give you a warning this time.” They’d be there for a while then go and things would go back to normal.

Flynn: The complexion of clientele, maybe 20 to 35 percentage of the patronage were non-English speaking. Were they fully and adequately informed of the risks? Probably not. There was probably an opportunity to improve a certain population’s awareness of risk.

Ish: It’s a rural area. The local fire and ambulance is volunteer. They were not happy to show up a couple of times a day to get people and take them to the hospital. The park decided they were right and so they bought an ambulance to use themselves.

Mulvihill: We absolutely owned an ambulance. We also made donations to the town. We donated one ambulance. We would strain their services and we wanted to have a good relationship with the town and so we’d try to help them out.

DeSaye: For the most part, it was people doing stupid things they shouldn’t have done. And even after they’re warned, they keep doing it again and again. And eventually that comes back to bite you.

Mulvihill: We had a good relationship with a doctor in town and would bring him certain types of injuries without going to the hospital. It was sort of an early urgent care center.

Ish: We had maybe 100 calls on a busy weekend day. Maybe three or four of those were something serious. It was not as many as the newspaper articles would have you think.

Keimel: They had these little propane-powered golf carts that the medical personnel would ride in. You could fit a stretcher on the back.

Gianakis: They were like little mini-ambulances.

Becker: I remember seeing a kid in the golf cart who was busted open and gushing blood. Someone was holding a towel to his head.

Ish: If something was serious, like a cut or something we bandaged, we’d fill out an accident report and forward it to the liability people. Anything from a sprain on up. We’d put people into splints for X-rays, but true broken bones were not that common. It was more sprains and dislocated shoulders.

Ultimately, the park would log a routine series of injuries and a total of five reported fatalities. In addition to the 1980 death of employee George Larsson Jr. on the Alpine, 15-year-old George Lopez drowned in the Wave Pool in 1982. On July 30, 1982, Jeffrey Nathan, 27, died seemingly after being electrocuted and suffering cardiac arrest during a trip through the White Water Kayak Experience. The state's Department of Labor found no fault with the ride, although there were “intermittent” electrical shorts noted.

On August 25, 1984, 20-year-old Donald DePass drowned in a pool in the park’s Roaring Springs area. And in 1987, 18-year-old Gregory Grandchamps died in the Wave Pool, with a Park representative alleging that Grandchamps had “food in his mouth” when he was retrieved from the water. The estates of Larsson, Nathan, and Lopez received six-figure settlements. While the incidents were in line with the inherent danger of any given water park—from the 1980s to 1997, 176 total deaths were reported in 125 parks across the country—Action Park seemed to garner more notoriety than the rest.

Keimel: We were always surprised there weren’t more lawsuits, but the word was Gene had good lawyers and made things go away.

Mulvihill: We fought everything tooth and nail to make sure no one was filing frivolous lawsuits.

Rescinio: They defended everything very aggressively. Their stance was that people assumed all responsibility when they chose to go on the rides. That was their basic defense, assumption of risk. That is a legal defense.

Mulvihill: Like my father, I believe in personal responsibility. People get hurt or die skiing all the time.

Rescinio: You go down a slide and assume the risk. OK. You may get hurt. I would argue you do not assume the risk the ride is improperly designed and will throw you in the air and on your tailbone.

Benneyan: There are 20,000 people in attendance. People are going to have injuries. You’re in control of what you choose to do. Disney’s perfect? Disney’s not. They have their own ambulances. It’s not uncommon to have first aid staff.

Russoniello: We did a number of surveys, and what people liked was the thrill and excitement. They felt they were participating in the park instead of just sitting on a ride.

Rescinio: I represented a woman who went down the Alpine Slide in 1988 and got injured. And they have signs that say “Ride at your own risk,” but what if [the riders] don’t understand what those risks are? If the rides are not properly designed, is that a risk you’re willing to accept?

Litigating personal injury lawsuits became an operating expense for Gene Mulvihill, who found that fighting allegations of park malfeasance or offering small settlements was manageable. Unbeknownst to most people, however, was the fact that Mulvihill had actually been “insuring” himself, telling state regulators that the park was covered by a phony firm called London and World Assurance, Limited. Mulvihill entered into a plea agreement in 1984 and received a suspended sentence for the deception [PDF].    

DeSaye: They were self-insured, to their own detriment.

Rescinio: I was always suspect about the self-insurance thing, in the sense it was not financially-backed in the way a real insurance company would be backed. If they really got hit, they wouldn’t have the reserves to pay it. Geico has billions, maybe $500 million in case something happens. They can weather it.

Mulvihill: I think my father tried to hire really good lawyers to defend the company and to minimize costs. He got insurance with a shell company, effectively self-insurance, which people have moved to today, but he got in trouble for that [at the time].

DeSaye: Most of it was minor. Road rash. Concussions. Some broken bones. Of course, there were the deaths.  

Rogers: Someone died on the kayak ride, and that’s when my mother told me, “You’re not working down there.”

Gianakis: They had electric fans underwater making rapids so you can use the kayak, and exposed electrical wires were under the water. The guy falls under the kayak, steps on the wire, gets electrocuted.

Mulvihill: One day there were a few people in there, and a couple of them passed out. One of them didn’t start breathing and there was talk of shock. The guy who died did nothing wrong. He didn’t have a heart attack, though we had a lot of those. The state seized the pumps and could find nothing wrong. The guy did nothing wrong.

Zimmerman: That was the only one that felt like the stupidity of the park. To shield ourselves from the horror of that, we called it the Fryak.

Fiori: I would say some of us were kind of blissfully unaware of that. I would hear things like that, like an urban legend, but it only makes it cooler at that age. You don’t wrap your head around the consequences. It could’ve easily been you stepping on a loose electrical wire in water or hitting your head on the Alpine.

Zimmerman: It gets back to people taking personal responsibility for their own actions. Before you paid admission, you saw a sign that said, “Participate at your own risk.” People didn’t take it seriously. That’s not the fault of the park. It’s your arrogance thinking you won’t get hurt.

III: A SLIPPERY SLOPE

Action Park’s headlines did little to dissuade visitors from making the trip. Attendance remained strong into the 1990s, bolstered by a number of attractions in which no fatalities were reported but the morbidly appealing risk of bodily injury remained in play.

DeSaye: There was a whole big section called Roaring Springs with cliff-diving, man-made rivers, rafts, speedboats. Of course, people got hurt. I put you in a little speedboat with 20 other speedboats and you’re going to crash into the docks or into other people. People would bump into one another and gas would go into the water.

Keimel: There was a sheen of oily residue over the water.

Gianakis: If you freaked out and shut down the throttle, the front of the boat would just dive in. Water would be flying over the top and fill where you’re sitting. I’m surprised more people didn’t sink.

Keimel: The Tarzan swing was just in the middle of the woods. They put a dam in a ravine and made a pool out of it.

Fiori: It was like a 25-foot drop. If you didn’t let go, you’d just swing back and fall into the woods.

Gianakis: They had these tubes you’d go through. They were pitch black, like slides. And in the middle of the tube, there's a right angle you don’t know is coming. Your head would just smash against the far wall. Then the tube just dumps you out, 20 feet above water. You don’t know what’s going on.

Ish: In the Springs, they wanted to maintain the natural aesthetic of a swimming hole and made the decision not to paint the bottom of the pool. It was clear water, but the bottom was dark, and you couldn’t see a person if you had to. It was eventually painted white.

Benneyan: People would be at the edge of a cliff, bragging about jumping, and then suddenly realize they don’t want to do it. They’re stepping forward, backward. There are hundreds of people there, all screaming. It was like being in a football game.
 

Guests at the Mountain Creek resort contemplate jumping
Mountain Creek, YouTube

DeSaye: Roaring Springs came from these gorgeous spring-fed streams from the top of the mountain, but the water was ice cold. But in Motorworld, it was a giant swamp. There were fish and snakes in the water. You did not want to tip over.

Ish: There were never any snake bites. They never swam after people. They kept to themselves.

Keimel: There were snapping turtles. When the sign said to stay in the boat, it meant stay in the boat.

Flynn: There’s one ride that doesn’t get a lot of attention. It was the Aqua Skoot. It was probably a 40-foot high slide, with the slide itself made of metal rolling pins. The patron would bring a heavy plastic cart up five or six flights of stairs and then the attendant pushed you down and you’d shoot across the water kind of like a skipping stone.

Keimel: If you go to a warehouse and see people pushing crates down rollers, that’s essentially what it was. There were these rigid plastic sleds that went down meat rollers. We called them that because people were the “meat.”  

Gianakis: I remember one time there was a hornet or wasp’s nest underneath the thing at the top. Four of us in a row ended up getting stung by wasps, freaking out, and going down in the carts, sliding down on our asses on metal rollers which are hot beyond belief because it’s summer. But they didn’t care and I didn’t care.

Keimel: They had these grand prix racers, and the mechanics would take them off Motorworld and race around the park. I even heard stories of them taking the grand prix cars on some of the roads, which I never witnessed, but you’d see on the ground where they left rubber marks.

Flynn: The cars were not terribly unsafe by themselves. But you mix the line for the ride with a beer stand and suddenly you have the ingredients for major motor vehicle accidents. 

In the summer of 1997, employees were disheartened to see that Action Park had shuttered for the season. The problem: Gene Mulvihill’s expansive business interests had forced his Great American Recreation portfolio into a bankruptcy filing so complex it took up 20 feet of a shelf in a New Jersey court storage room. Action Park would be a casualty of unrelated real estate deals that had gone sour. Great American Recreation was $47.9 million in debt, including $3.8 million owed as a result of lawsuits against the Park.   

Rescinio: They were successful for a long time because they had done calculations that showed, hey, leave the park as-is, bring in the money, defend the cases, have a good attorney, and rely on the odds that more often than not they’re going to win. [Rescinio’s client, who suffered injuries on the Alpine in 1988, lost her case on appeal.]

Flynn: In 1996, it seemed as busy as it ever was.

Mulvihill: My father was in and out of a million different businesses. He got caught up in real estate, got funding from a hedge fund, then the hedge fund went broke in six months. He wound up selling the park to Intrawest, which got rid of half the rides and made it safer and smaller.

Benneyan: Intrawest’s big focus was real estate. They were not in the water park business. They got an operating management contract and we became bystanders.

DeSaye: I think the world just changed around it. From 1982 to 1990, though, that place was the sh*t.

Ish: There was a comradery. People would get together after work.

A group of Action Park visitors poses for a photo with the Cannonball Loop behind them
Joe Shlabotnik, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

DeSaye: The more I think about it, the more fond I am of it.

Flynn: After hours, there was tons of drinking. We’d have big end-of-season parties by the lake.

Becker: It was fun to see people wipe out, get rug burns. I think it’s a product of being from Jersey, liking that kind of humor.

Flynn: If you saw the movie Adventureland, you’ve seen Action Park. It was exactly like that.

Mahler: I’m in my mid-40s now and made some of my best friends there. Some of them are still close friends and we still laugh about some of the things that happened. We spent all this time together at work and then we hung out afterwards. You met people from other high schools. I was kind of an arty kid, and without the internet, it was harder to find your people. That was one of the places I started to find them—other arty weirdos.

Today, Action Park is no more. After Gene Mulvihill spearheaded a reacquisition of the property in 2010, he passed away in 2012. In 2015, Andy Mulvihill and his family sold their remaining financial interest in what is now known as Mountain Creek, with several of the rides either shuttered or redesigned with mandatory safety equipment. Over the years, the contrast between today’s sterile amusement park experience and Gene’s renegade approach to thrill rides has made Action Park an urban legend. 

Mahler: The place had this reputation for being completely lawless, and that’s fun to talk about, but it wasn’t really the case.

Mulvihill: The guys currently operating the amusement park, the guys that bought us out four years ago, lost three rides that had been there for 40 years. The state said they’re not safe. Why say that after 40 years? I don’t know. Maybe it’s just knowing how to manage bureaucracy that wants to control people’s lives.

Ish: It appealed to your sense of adventure. You could get some bumps, bruises, and scrapes and talk about them. People would come out sore. It was an active day, and sometimes people would later translate that into a dangerous experience.

Flynn: It was the 1980s and the amusement industry was in its infancy. It was an organic experience.

DeSaye: There was never any malicious intent on the part of the people who ran the park. Never.

Benneyan: Gene had the best of intentions. He wanted to show people a really good time.

Russoniello: People in the industry would go, "Oh, Action Park. Scary." And those same people would come up and ask to try the rides—especially the Alpine.

Fiori: There was no waiting in line. You just ran around and went right on the rides. As a kid, you could do it all multiple times a day.

DeSaye: If you went to Action Park more than once and didn’t get hurt, you weren’t doing Action Park right.

Mulvihill: You’d just see crazy stuff as a kid in Vernon that you’d never see any other time. Guys smooching with their girlfriends in the woods, someone beating someone up. It made life exciting.

Becker: I think a lot of it is this pre-internet mythology. No two stories kind of line up, so people really are chasing the truth. There was a very small group of people who experienced this very odd thing, and now it kind of lives on as this living, breathing rural myth.

Mahler: I was in Mexico at a bar with a friend and a couple came in on their honeymoon. The woman was from Brooklyn and we got to talking about Action Park. She pulled up her shirt and showed me a scar and told me, “That’s from the Alpine Slide.”

DeSaye: It was the one place to really push your limits. Ninety percent of my friends have scars from the park, a broken arm from the park. It’s like a medal of honor. You had a sense of bravado, like, “I went there, I did this.” People would go there just for that.

Mahler: I’m being 70 percent serious when I say it was the best job I’ve ever had in my life.

Gianakis: It was the greatest park ever. I’ve been to Disney, I used to go to Great Adventure, I’ve been to Magic Mountain, and nothing has ever compared to this park. You knew what you were in for and it delivered. And as beat up as you got, as many bandages as you had on, as soon as you got back in your car, you went, “Oh, I can’t wait to get back here.”

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Dan Witkowski
Oral History: The Strangest Super Bowl Halftime Show Ever
Dan Witkowski
Dan Witkowski

January 22, 1989: The San Francisco 49ers edge out the Cincinnati Bengals 20-16 to become the National Football League champions at Super Bowl XXIII at Joe Robbie Stadium in Miami, Florida. It was a thrilling game, tied at the half—a Super Bowl first—and decided only in the closing moments with a successful pass from 49ers star quarterback Joe Montana. There was enough action to keep any football fan’s mind occupied for days.

But the next morning, all anyone wanted to talk about was Elvis Presto.

In one of the most unusual halftime presentations in the 50-year history of the event, the NFL commissioned a 1950s musical revue, led by a magician dressed as Elvis Presley who performed “the world’s largest card trick.” It was also, by the estimate of at least one soda company, the world’s largest eye exam: Coca-Cola and NBC presented the entire spectacle in 3-D, urging the show’s 54 million households to pick up a pair of disposable glasses at their local distributor. (They also cautioned that if the effect didn’t work, your lack of eye coordination meant you might need to see an optometrist.) The end result was a curious blend of retro-kitsch performance and a 1980s version of interactive television.

To understand how this uneven mix of magic, music, and carbonation came together, mental_floss spoke with several of the producers and creative partners behind “BeBop Bamboozled,” including the magician who created it, the man whose Elvis was heard but not seen, and the soda marketing genius who turned a 3-D glasses shortage into priceless publicity. As it turns out, Katy Perry's Left Shark has nothing on fire-eaters in poodle skirts.

I. OUT OF THIN AIR


The story of 1989’s Super Bowl begins in 1986, when the NFL started soliciting proposals from entertainment production companies to plan for halftime shows in the years ahead. In addition to fielding presentations from Disney, Paramount, and other massive entities, the league heard from a man in Minnesota named Dan Witkowski. A veteran stage illusionist, Witkowski owned MagicCom, a small business focused on increasing revenue for companies by being “disruptive" and encouraging them to think outside the box.  

Dan Witkowski (Founder, MagicCom): I was looking to sell some network specials, but I would get laughed off. I thought, “Well, what’s bigger than a special? What has a built-in audience?” By going after something big, it would put us on the map. So I went after the Super Bowl.

Jim Steeg (Senior Vice President of Special Events, NFL, 1979 to 2005): Basically, we had the same people producing the halftime show over the years. By the time we did Up with People for a second time in 1986, we decided we wanted to bring in different producers with ideas for the halftime show.

Witkowski: I have something I call the Pretty Girl Theory: Everybody thinks somebody else is calling the pretty blonde to go out on a Saturday night, yet there she sits at home. People are just intimidated to make calls. I wasn’t.

Steeg: We were looking to book people for the 1988, 1989, and 1990 shows. We brought in probably six or seven different producers, and Dan was one of them. He called us.

Witkowski: Obviously, he got a lot of calls. But what I did was put the problem ahead of the pitch. And the problem I presented to the NFL was this: How do they take something big and make it even bigger by attracting more people? Historically, the halftime show meant it was time to get up and get a sandwich.

Steeg: I agreed to meet him in New York and hear him out.

Witkowski: I think he was intrigued about the magic idea. I didn’t give him an idea for a specific type of show, but I told him we’d welcome the opportunity to give an official presentation.

Steeg: [NFL Commissioner] Pete Rozelle only sat through a couple of them. He sat through Dan’s.

Witkowski: What the NFL did that tripped us up was when they requested a written outline sent in advance. It’s like trying to describe a cartoon. You can’t do it. You need visuals and sound. I had one of those projectors for a slide show. But it was in their rules, so I sent everyone there a leather-bound folder with a padlock on it. I had the key. They couldn’t open it until I arrived. I got calls from secretaries saying, “They’re going nuts. They’re trying to pick the locks.” It caused a big stir.

Steeg: Dan kind of wowed everybody at the meeting. He made a bowling ball appear out of a suitcase. It got things rolling.

Witkowski: He remembered that? The funny thing is, I had to do a performance in Nebraska that same night. I couldn’t get out of it, so I had to carry the bowling ball and the suitcase through Kennedy Airport. I got in line at security, put the ball on the conveyor belt, and was immediately surrounded by guards who wanted to know where it had come from.

Steeg: What we decided to do was have him co-produce the 1988 pre-game show so he could get some experience and learn the math. It was important for him to understand the logistics and the magnitude of the Super Bowl.

Witkowski: What I basically presented was the idea of hooking the audience through their involvement. At the time, we had developed a technique that would have allowed us to distribute millions of game cards through McDonald’s with a mechanism that could be triggered by holding them up to the TV screen at a certain point. It would reveal an image. I can’t go into details on how it works, but that was the essence of it.

John Gonzalez (Director, NBC): I recall going to the NFL offices in Manhattan for the first presentation about the magic show. I was excited about it, realizing it would be a challenge in the middle of a huge football production to shoot live magic and not give any of the tricks away. To figure out the correct angles, we were going to have to do it in a very controlled, very planned-out manner.

That planning would eventually grow complicated by another influence over the halftime proceedings. With Witkowski pitching Steeg and the NFL on a magic-themed, participatory show for the 1989 game, the league was also being courted by a more established partner: Coca-Cola, who would wind up becoming the Super Bowl’s first sole sponsor that same year. The company had been working on a promotion involving 3-D glasses with a twist: a California company, Nuoptix, had developed a process where an image would be clear (not distorted or blurry) to a viewer not wearing the cellophane lenses.

Michael Beindorff (Vice President of Marketing, Coca-Cola, 1978-1992): Steve Koonin, who runs the Atlanta Hawks now but worked for Coke back then, came to me with the idea for 3-D glasses. He brought the whole Moonlighting idea to me.

Steve Koonin (Vice President of Sports and Entertainment Marketing, Coca-Cola, 1986-2000): I met Terry Beard from Nuoptix on an airplane. He was a sound guy, a member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, and had invented what was called stereoscopic 3-D. He sent me a demo of it. Basically [by covering one eye with a dark lens, which you can do using sunglasses with the video below], it slows down one eye and tricks the brain. It’s the Pulfrich Effect. At the time, Moonlighting was the hottest show on TV, and I called the producer, Glenn Caron, and sold him on the idea of doing the season finale in 3-D. He loved it. We made 26 million pairs of glasses and wound up on the front page of over 200 newspapers.

Beindorff: They had actually written a script, but then the writer’s strike happened, and the whole deal fell apart.

Koonin: We’re sitting there paying rent on warehouses across the country full of glasses. We had taken over a Kleenex factory in Mexico to make them.

Beindorff: We were still excited by the idea of the 3-D. For its time, it was very well-done. We went to the NFL and NBC with the concept of doing the halftime show in 3-D.

Steeg: Coke was our partner at the time. We were always in constant communication.  

Beindorff: Really, the whole strategy behind the Super Bowl partnership was to launch a campaign around the fact that people were switching from sugary drinks like Pepsi to Diet Coke. It was intended for Diet Coke to surpass Pepsi as the number two drink.

Gonzalez: I first heard it as a rumor: “We might do it in 3-D.” I was excited about the idea, but wondered, “How would we do that?”

II. ELVIS PRESTO


In the summer of 1988, Witkowski had no idea Coca-Cola would come in at virtually the last minute with their 3-D promotion. Instead, he and Steeg tried to hammer out what his stadium-sized magic show was going to look like.

Jack Barkla (Production Designer): I think Dan initially had the idea of a 1950s retro drive-in theater, with dancers carrying picnic baskets onto the field. They’d sit down and pull a ripcord in the basket that would turn them into inflatable cars.

Witkowski: We knew we were going to have a magic theme. Whether it was contemporary or Medieval was all flexible during the presentation. The whole 1950s thing was pretty big at the time. Baby Boomers were trying to relive their youth, so we hooked on that.

Steeg: These things evolve on a daily basis. Whatever we discussed at the pitch meeting wasn’t what wound up happening. There is no, “This is what it is.”

Barkla: There was also something to do with pizza, large colorful slices of pizza being moved around by various people.

Witkowski: There was another illusion where the concept was, as everyone came into the stadium, we were going to take a Polaroid picture that would be developed by the time they got to their seats. At random, one was going to be selected, brought down to the field, and asked to hold up their photo. Everyone else held up a card under their seat, and the whole audience would form a pictogram of the audience member selected. But we realized we didn’t have time to bring people down to the stadium floor for the pictures.    

Steeg: Everything about it was big. I remember we had a press conference at the Grand Hyatt Hotel in New York to announce it, which was unusual. No one had ever announced a halftime show before.  


Coca-Cola

Witkowski: For some reason, we had Oscar-Mayer around. They came forward and wanted to supply lunch for all of the dancers. As a kind of joke, I said, “Okay, but I want to ride shotgun in the Wienermobile.” Sure enough, it showed up.

Witkowski would eventually settle on a trick that involved the audience using an “Applause-o-Meter” to pick one of four giant cards in the stadium, with the selected card's edges made up of held-up seat cushions. What he needed now was a master of ceremonies—someone to guide the audience and lead the melody of classic pop songs.

Steeg: Elvis Presto, yes. We felt it was a novel thing that got a lot of play. Who is he? What is he?

Witkowski: It was divine inspiration. [Laughs] I think once we settled on the 1950s music, it was natural to make Elvis Presley the lead magician. It was a nice play on words. We also had the Magic Wandas, who were his back-up singers.

Barkla: I had nothing to do with that.

Witkowski: We cast a guy who had played Elvis on Broadway. He had a very good look and had the moves down. Alex Cole, who had been a back-up dancer on Solid Gold, was his choreographer. And he wouldn’t have to sing. That was all prerecorded in New York.

Jody LoMedico (Vocal Performer, “Elvis Presto”): I had been performing since the 1970s, singing and doing commercial jingles. Someone once told me I sounded like Elvis, and it devastated me. I was never an impersonator.

Witkowski: We went to the Elvis estate. I felt that rather than it be a surprise for them, they would want the courtesy and an opportunity to respond. They couldn’t have been nicer and did it for minimal consideration.

LoMedico: A vocal contractor I knew said she had heard I did a pretty good Elvis. I had been trying to destroy any kind of resemblance to him. You want to be your own person. But it was the Super Bowl, so I was all in. We went in there and sang and sang and sang this seven-minute piece. "Devil in a Blue Dress," "Rock This Town," Stray Cats stuff, everything. I was there probably seven hours. When we were done, I couldn’t talk.

Witkowski: We had Donald Pippin, a Broadway legend, doing all the music.

LoMedico: When they saw me sing, they liked me so much they asked if I wanted to come to Florida and lip-sync my own voice. But I couldn’t be out of town for three weeks for rehearsal and everything else for $1500. They said, “Most people do this for free.” Well, your dancers, these kids from universities, they live to be on television. Great for them. No disrespect. Not for me.

While Witkowski tried to assemble a complete Elvis, Barkla and choreographers were thinking of how best to stage a production on something as volatile as a football field. Only cars made of plywood would be allowed on the grass.

Barkla: The grass in Florida is very different from the grass in Minnesota. It’s like moss. It doesn’t take much to destroy the surface.

Steeg: It’s about protecting the field, and also about what you can move on 100 yards of grass.

Barkla: They’d bring truckloads of dirt and grass seed on the field and dump it. I remember asking one of the NFL guys, “Doesn’t that change the height of the goalposts?” Because you keep raising the ground. He looked at me like no one had ever considered the question before.

III. SHOWTIME


As the clock wound down to perfect an elaborate show full of visual effects, dancers, and a stadium-sized card trick, Witkowski was dealt two of the worst hands possible: His in-person Elvis was about to split, and Coca-Cola was about to introduce a new dimension in frustration.

Witkowski: The guy playing Elvis suddenly had an opportunity to go shoot a commercial in Japan that was going to be very lucrative. We made a mutual decision to recast. My first thought was Alex, since he was essentially the other Elvis’s choreographer and knew a lot of the moves.

LoMedico: The guy who did Elvis—whoever you are, I wasn’t a fan, man. Doing Elvis at that time with anything was just hokey. Maybe in Middle America, but the East and West Coasts were done. It was Elvis and The National Enquirer. It was corny.

Alex Cole had roughly 10 days to learn a complex routine involving dancers and illusions with a hollowed-out jukebox and an electric guitar that materialized out of thin air. At the same time, NBC and Witkowski were struggling to cope with the late addition of 3-D.

Gonzalez: We both understood the sudden importance of the 3-D overlay and all the money it represented. The NFL and the executives at NBC didn’t interfere, but they did say, “This represents a whole lot of valuable promotion, so we need to make it work.” In the final week, the focus largely went away from the magic and onto re-blocking for 3-D.

Witkowski: We recorded the audio track before the 3-D element came into play, so we decided that because of time, we would edit what we had and work with it from that standpoint. We knew the magic would suffer, knew the event would be a bit corny, but felt people would watch.

Barkla: The input we got was way late in the game. That was very frustrating. If it hadn’t been so late, things would’ve been better than they were. It’s typical corporate stuff. The people making decisions didn’t have a clue as to how the whole thing worked.

Gonzalez: The choreographers had been planning their part of the show for months. To tell them two weeks before, “Throw it out, make everything counterclockwise rotational,” was not what they wanted to hear.

Witkowski: We thought of some effects where girls would appear to float outside the image of your TV set and had some other levitating effects. But with the 3-D process, things had to be in constant motion left to right to separate the field of vision for the effect to work. In many ways, the 3-D fought with the way to present magic, which was to keep a continuous camera on something so you’re not cutting away.

Steeg: To do the 3-D, everything had to move left to right. It was basically a mind trick.

Gonzalez: Fearing that the 3-D on the field would be less than what was expected, I went to my bosses at NBC with a request to spend additional funds on some animations. There are three or four spots in the show where we independently developed some effective use of the 3-D apart from the action on the field.

Koonin: Kevin Costner came up to me at a [pre-game] party in Miami. He said, “Hey, I hear you’re the 3-D glasses guy. Want to comp me a pair?”

With a pre-taped introduction by a wry Bob Costas (“This is the single proudest moment of my life”) and a 3-D Diet Coke commercial, “BeBop Bamboozled” got underway. Elvis Presto appears to materialize out of a jukebox; dancers defy gravity by leaning against parking meters horizontally; 102 custom-made Harley-Davidson bikes engulfed the margins of the field.

Gonzalez: Bob Costas was hesitant about pre-recording the opening. “Trust me,” I told him. “I need to do this to guarantee some effective 3-D effects.” We watched it together in the controlled environment of the studio and it looked quite good.

Barkla: Of course, we didn’t wind up using the inflatable cars. Those might have cost $3000 to $4000 each.

Witkowski: I remember in the planning stage, we had some early computer effects that showed how 2000 people would be moving on the field. That was unheard of back then. You could have 200 people fall over and it wouldn’t even be noticed.

Barkla: The question was, how do you get things on and off the field? You have to be able to set it up and dismantle it very quickly.

Presto's inciting of the crowd to "pick a card, concentrate real hard" left most viewers befuddled: the Applause-o-Meter led to the King of Hearts, one of four giant cards on the field and a choice Presto predicted. Because of the camera movements, it was also one of the few illusions actually picked up by the broadcast. 

Witkowski: I will say the card trick is not nearly as effective as what we had anticipated.

Steeg: I don’t think everyone got the card trick. You had to think about it.

Barkla: There was one master box for power, and it was at the 50-yard line. All the skyboxes would need wires running out of it. The place where we stored all the sets underneath wasn’t wired and it wasn’t lit at all. I found that really strange. We were running electric lines all over the place to get power.

Witkowski: We didn’t have theatrical lighting. In magic, you adjust it depending on how the performers are moving. Here, the lights were either on or off. We couldn’t rely on that. Everything was out in the open.

LoMedico: I think I made the right choice [not appearing on camera]. When I saw it, I thought, “Mmm. This isn’t working.”

Witkowski: I would say that Alex, as Elvis, didn’t have the right look. But he didn’t have the opportunity to practice, either. With magic and its complexities, it’s hard to just drop someone in.

LoMedico: The stuff sounded good in the studio. Everyone was really happy. But when it got on the air, whatever they did with the sound processing, somebody mixed that improperly.

Gonzalez: You get one rehearsal Friday night to try to put it all together, and the crew, the best in the business, was excited and cooperative. The next time the camera crew saw it was live at halftime.

IV. OVERTIME


With an estimated 120 million people tuning in, Super Bowl XXIII was a resounding success. Despite some complaints that the card trick made little sense, news media responded favorably to the 3-D effects. This was presuming the viewer had the glasses: Because Coke had only made 26 million pairs, many had to share or go without.

Koonin: There wasn’t time to make more. If it had cost the consumer money, yes, they probably would have been disappointed. But this was about getting past Pepsi. It was just a fun stunt.

Barkla: It was the beginning of a time when the shows got more inflated and slicker.

Witkowski: I remember being interviewed after. Apparently, I was dancing in the stands with the dancers.

Steeg: I think it was a good show. It was just so hyped. People were expecting this Pixar 3-D animation thing. It was just a halftime show.

Beindorff: We got a huge uptick in sales that month. And that went on for some period of time, though you can’t attribute it all to the Super Bowl. We also had George Michael.

Witkowski: Coke was kind enough to send us binders of all the press after the game. I think it was $60 million worth of promotion. It was confirmation that we were successful in creating something people were going to talk about.

Beindorff: I got a call a year or two ago that Diet Coke finally surpassed Pepsi as the number two drink. It took a while.

Steeg: The only one you’re concerned with is the Commissioner, and he [Rozelle] was happy.

Witkowski: Jim said to me, “You’ll reap the benefits of this for years.” And we have. MagicCom has been very successful. I appreciate that the NFL took a chance on the little guy.

Steeg: The next year was the 40th anniversary of Peanuts. They approached us and wanted to get involved, and we liked that.

Gonzalez: If you were to pick a halftime show that would be designed for the rotational 3-D effect, I don’t think it would be something that demands the precision and accuracy of a magic show.

Steeg: We experimented. We took chances. With the Super Bowl, it’s very easy to just say no. We rolled the dice.

LoMedico: At the time, I lived in the Poconos with no cable and had to watch it with rabbit ears. The whole thing was kind of a letdown.

Barkla: I didn’t watch it. I don’t like football.

All images courtesy of Dan Witkowski.

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