Tube City Almanac

June 30, 2005

30 Years Ago: A Hot Time at Kennywood

Category: default || By jt3y

It was a hot and sticky June day in the Mon-Yough area. By mid-afternoon, temperatures were in the 90s. If you were looking for relief, it was a good day to take in a good movie. Unfortunately, there weren't any.

The McKee Cinemas on Fifth Avenue (the old Memorial Theater, which had recently been chopped into two smaller movie theaters), was featuring a mediocre movie starring Burt Reynolds, Ned Beatty, Jerry Reed and (believe it or not) Art Carney called "W.W. and The Dixie Dance Kings." (This was post-"Deliverance" but pre-"Smokey and the Bandit.") It was also playing at the Rainbow Theatre out in White Oak. The Eastland Twin had what it billed as a great family movie --- "Benji" --- and another movie that was decidedly not for the kiddies --- the Warren Beatty-Goldie Hawn sex comedy "Shampoo."

If you weren't willing to suffer through "Benji," Burt or Beatty, it was a great day to go to Kennywood, which had just installed a new water ride called the "Log Jammer" at a cost of more than a million dollars. The ride (more than a quarter-mile long) took 10 months to build and held more than a half-million gallons of water altogether. It was Kennywood's most expensive investment since the park's owners had purchased the land from the Kenny family four years early.

If you could stand the long lines at the Log Jammer, you were virtually guaranteed a good, thorough soaking, and since the Kennywood pool had closed several years before, it was your only opportunity to get good and wet in the park.

Not surprisingly, Kennywood was packed that day; besides people looking to "beat the heat," Keystone Oaks and Mt. Lebanon school districts were both holding their annual picnics.

The Log Jammer was at the northwest end of the park. To get there from the midway, many people crossed the Kennywood lagoon and hung a right turn in front of the "Ghost Ship." To the younger kids, it was just another dark ride, but to their parents and grandparents, it was the old Kennywood dance hall.

The Kennywood dance hall --- in Kennywood parlance, the "Pavilion" --- was one of the first structures erected after the park opened in 1898. The two-story enclosed structure featured a celestory with screened windows and a ceiling of rugged, exposed beams.

But its Victorian details were looking decidedly old-hat by the 1930s, and though the Great Depression meant Kennywood couldn't buy many new rides, it could invest in its buildings. Indeed, park management credited the Pavilion with keeping Kennywood open during the Depression; people couldn't afford to play games or buy ride tickets, but they could stand around and listen to music, or dance with their sweethearts.

So, the Pavilion was substantially remodeled and updated into the current Art Deco style, just in time for the so-called "golden ages" of both big bands and network radio. During the 1930s and '40s, live dance bands did national broadcasts from the Kennywood dance hall, via the Sun-Telegraph's radio station, WCAE, and the Mutual Broadcasting System.

Dozens of nationally-known band leaders and singers played there, including Benny Goodman, Rudy Vallee, Ozzie Nelson, and Les Brown "and his band of renown." Lawrence Welk did a week there in 1938, while playing at the William Penn Hotel in Downtown Pittsburgh. (It was the same summer that someone coined the term "champagne music" to describe his bouncy, inoffensive melodies.) Bandleader Tommy Tucker, who employed a then-unknown arranger named Gerry Mulligan, was a regular at the Kennywood Pavilion.

For a long time, Kennywood refused to allow "swing music" to be played at the Pavilion, for fear that it would attract the wrong element, but that restriction was eventually relaxed. Smoking was strictly forbidden; so was alcohol. (And so, for a long time, were African-Americans.)

The war years were good years, and the Pavilion was modernized again. It hosted soldiers, sailors and Marines in town for training or home on leave, and was busy nearly every night. But with the end of the war came a new threat that would ultimately end dancing at Kennywood: Television.

Pittsburgh's first station, WDTV, signed on at Channel 3 in 1949. Soon, instead of going out to Kennywood to dance in the evening, people were staying home to watch the tube. Then, too, tastes in music were changing. The big bands were in decline, and would soon be eclipsed by rock 'n roll.

In 1954, Kennywood converted the Pavilion into a fun house called the "Enchanted Forest." A few years later, it was gutted and a "dark ride" was installed. Passengers boarded little tram cars and rode through various "spooky" attractions. It would be remodeled twice more, and in 1967, was themed as something called the "Ghost Ship" --- a sort of haunted pirate ship. A California Gold Rush themed ice cream parlor called "The Golden Nugget" was built into one end, and another ride called the "Road Runner" occupied part of the massive old dance hall.

A dark ride was another good way to get out of the sun on a hot day, and that's just what people were lining up for at 12:15 on the afternoon of June 19, 1975, when Harry Henninger Jr., assistant manager of the park, smelled smoke at the rear of the Ghost Ship.

Kennywood was always paranoid about fire, and Henninger, ride manager Sandy Kalla, and ride workers quickly evacuated a half-dozen people from the building. The park fire alarm sounded, and Kennywood workers came on the run from stands and rides all over the park, carrying fire extinguishers. They might as well have brought sno-cones and thrown them at the blaze. The dry 75-year-old wood was prime kindling, and all of the false ceilings and layers of gimcrackery gave the flames plenty of places to travel. Within minutes, the roof of the Ghost Ship was engulfed in flame.

Firefighters from Duquesne, West Mifflin, Munhall and Whitaker were soon on the scene. Then the flames jumped to two rides in Kiddieland --- the Kiddie Whip and the merry-go-round. The heat was soon blistering the Calypso and the Satellite as well. Plastic signs on nearby concession stands began melting. Black smoke bellowed above the Mon Valley and could be seen for miles around.

It quickly became apparent that there were more fire engines than there were hydrants, so Duquesne Annex firefighters began suctioning water out of the Kennywood lagoon.

Kennywood employees helped man hoses and passed out cold drinks to firemen as more than 2,000 visitors stood and watched. (Not everyone stopped to watch the fire. Many people kept riding --- because Kennywood kept the rest of the park open.) A Duquesne firefighter collapsed from the strain of the 90-degree heat and the fire, and was rushed to McKeesport Hospital. The massive firefighting effort brought the blaze under control by 3 p.m., but it couldn't save the Pavilion, which had collapsed. The fast-moving fire caused more than $400,000 in damage.

Yet no sooner had the embers cooled than Kennywood workers were on the scene, repairing the damage to the Calypso and Satellite. As soon as insurance investigators had picked through the rubble of the Pavilion, the wreckage was cleared away and the area re-opened. Within days, the area had been landscaped and grass was planted.

The following year, just in time for the American Bicentennial, the area was turned into a plaza with a fountain and a new entrance to Kiddieland. At the south end of the old Pavilion property, a cafeteria-style spaghetti restaurant was created. And the old Kennywood dance hall --- from its glamorous past to its spectacular finish --- quickly faded into memory.

(Photos: Ralph Pittner and Irv Saylor, The Daily News).

(Sources: Charles J. Jacques Jr., Kennywood: Roller Coaster Capital of the World (Natrona Heights, Pa.: Amusement Park Journal); Robert Austin, "Kennywood Begins Cleanup," The Daily News, McKeesport, Pa., June 20, 1975, p. 1; "Fire Destroys Former Dance Pavilion, Rides at Kennywood," The Daily News, McKeesport, Pa., June 20, 1975, p. 17. Various Internet sources.)

Your Comments are Welcome!

I was the manager of #2 Parking Lot. The lot was
located behind the Jack Rabbit. Most of the responding emergency crews came into the Park thru
#2 Parking Lot to gain access to the fire area. It was a very hot day!
It was very sad to see the buildig burning that so many had great times in when it was a the Dance Hall, a walk thru haunted house and last/but not least The Ghost Ship. It was great that no one got hurt!
Joe Lovasic - August 05, 2006

Well, it’s been 32 years and I have gone from a 20 year old kid into a 52 year old man with terminal cancer. So I’m going to admit it. This is the first and LAST time I will EVER say this ANYWHERE. I started that fire. My god it was completely accidental. But like I said, I was a stupid kid. There was a gimmick in there that was a skeleton sitting in an outhouse. When your car would go by it would close the door. On a dare from my friends, I lit up a pack of matches (ironic I am dying of lung cancer now. karma I guess) and tossed it in before the door closed. Christ you could smell the smoke before my car even got out of the ride. I am sorry. Glad none was hurt.
(Name redacted) - January 25, 2007

Pretty sad that you are such an a—hole that you need to “confess” to a fire that was determined to be electrical in nature just so you could get attention.
It's Me - July 31, 2008

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