by Paul R. Spitzzeri
There are no doubt very large crowds of visitors today at Disneyland, Knott’s Berry Farm and Universal Studios, as well as other regional attractions and leisure spots today as the year comes to a close and 2019 dawns. Today’s highlighted artifact from the Homestead’s collection takes us back over a century through a negative showing two women and a young boy posed in front of a new attraction of note at New Luna Park in Los Angeles.
Taken on 31 December 1911, the photo shows the trio in the front of the expansive entrance to “Nemo’s Trip to Slumberland,” a $75,000 roller coaster theme ride based on the popular “Little Nemo in Slumberland” cartoon strip drawn by Windsor McKay and which debuted in the New York Herald in October 1905. McCay was said to have been inspired by recollections of themes of discovery and exploration in the exhibits at the World’s Fair in Chicago in 1893.
The series featured Nemo (“no one” in Latin) a young boy whose vivid dreams took him on all kinds of adventures until he woke up snug in his bed. King Morpheus of Slumberland summoned Nemo each night to be the playmate of his daughter, but Nemo was always distracted from this duty by his excursions to strange places with unusual characters and remarkable situations. Here is a web site that displays in full color the “Little Nemo in Slumberland” strips, which ran until the end of 1926.
The “Nemo’s Trip to Slumberland” ride was part of the remaking of New Luna Park, which, in turn, was known as Chutes Park and, prior to that, Washington Gardens, situated on a 35-acre tract between Washington Boulevard and 21st Street and Grand Avenue and Main Street south of downtown Los Angeles. This site has been mentioned in several posts here, including the Chutes Park baseball stadium, the Los Angeles Auto Show of 1929, and others.
David V. Waldron opened Washington Gardens on the property during the height of Los Angeles’ first boom. In October 1873, the Los Angeles Herald reported that Waldron planned improvements including a dance hall at an expansive grape arbor and a roller skating rink so that Washington Gardens would be akin to the well-known Woodward’s Gardens in San Francisco, which opened in 1866.
In 1887, Waldron auctioned off many of the contents of his enterprise and leased the Gardens to a pair of gents who reopened the resort to highlight their ostrich farm. One of these men, Edwin Cawston, went on to open his own ostrich farm at the boundary of South Pasadena and Los Angeles and which became a renowned tourist attraction and retail outlet for products made from ostrich feathers.
By the end of the 19th century, however, it was evident that neither Waldron’s Washington Gardens or the newer version of Cawston and Fox was quite the success envisioned by its entrepreneurs. In August 1900, the Los Angeles Times reported on a new proposal for about 12 acres of the property, but first noted that
Anybody who lived here in the 80s can remember the neglected wilderness cornering on Main and Washington streets . . . Standing inertly under some dejected-looking fruit trees was a weather-beaten semi-roadhouse . . . [and a visitor could] through the dust and sunshine . . . look [out] at a few ostriches strutting haughtily about a small enclosure, and if the human biped made the most of his opportunity he gave the feathered biped an orange, plucked from an adjacent tree, and watched its torturous progress from the bird’s mouth to its digestive apparatus. It was a joy not soon forgotten!
The Los Angeles Improvement Company, however, had grand plans and an accompanying map showed the ambitious plans for what was named Chutes Park, including a lake with a pebble beach; a 4,000-seat theatre; “Zoological Exhibition Grounds;” a Japanese Village and Tea Garden; recreation grounds earmarked for baseball, football, bicycle racing and other sports; a scenic railway around the site; a carousel; animal displays; and a chutes ride, popular in the area, with boats speeding down a ramp into the lake and then pulled by chain back to the top.
The park wasn’t built exactly as the map indicated, but it did have a smaller theater for vaudeville and music performances; a zoo; games of chance; circus acts; roller coasters and other rides, in addition to the Chutes; and a baseball park where the Los Angeles Angels of the Pacific Coast League played. Despite all the efforts expended and the advertising and promotion put out, Chutes Park lasted about a decade.
In late 1910, the Thompson-Snow Amusement Company, the first dedicated entertainment entity to operate the facility, took over and was said to have spent some $200,000 on renovations to the park, which was dubbed Luna or New Luna Park. About half of this was on the centerpiece attraction, “Nemo’s Trip to Slumberland,” which was initially pegged to cost $50,000 and take 80 days to build. Not surprisingly, the final cost was on the order of $75,000 and it took five months to complete.
The massive ride took up the entire length of the Main Street side of the facility and was said to be the biggest attraction of its kind in the world at 720 feet long and over 100 feet at its peak. The track for the scenic railway was about 1 3/4 miles and a large team of artists. gardeners, engineers and others, as reported by the Times “have made the interior a fairyland of beauty and droll surprises.” Illumination from 6,000 lights would allow portions of the ride to be seen from substantial distances.
A new Japanese village, dubbed “Tokio;” a Hungarian orchestra with a Polish conductor; a revamped zoo with a monkey house and aviary; a new miniature railway, carousel, roller coaster, restaurant; and other features were included in the renovated park. The chutes ride also redone on the model of one at Coney Island. In fact, the manager, F.P. Sargent, was said to be a Coney Island veteran and “a live and extremely high-voltage wire.”
On 10 June 1911, the park opened with an anticipated attendance of 15,000. Yet, it was reported that, a little over a week later, there were 31,000 persons who visited the facility and, on the 4th of July, 55,000 people were said to have attended. Later reports indicated that new cars had to be added to the Nemo ride to accommodate the demand. A month after opening, another attraction, “The Fairy Gorge,” and expected to cost $25,000 was announced and an open-air ice skating rink was in construction, as well.
Despite the initial success and the excellent promotion, Luna Park did not remain in operation long. In September 1912, the property was leased for eight years to a syndicate of black investors who formed the Luna Park Improvement Company with intentions to make the park one for black people who were otherwise denied access to many places of leisure and entertainment. The park did open for that purpose for a brief period and there were boxing matches between black fighters.
At the end of 1912, however, a deal was made to build Chutes Park for baseball purposes, as noted in another post here, while a portion of the site was devoted to circus performances. As another post detailed recently, the site also housed the Los Angeles Auto Show, including the one in 1929 at which a massive fire decimated the show.
Interestingly, there was a revival of sorts of the Nemo character when the animated film Little Nemo: Adventures in Slumberland and which had Mickey Rooney as one of its voice actors was released in Japan in 1989 and the U.S. three years later, though it performed poorly at the box office.
There is, however, no connection between the Slumberland nemo and Andrew Stanton’s character in the popular 2003 Pixar film. Still, it is notable that there was a “Nemo’s Trip to Slumberland” theme park ride in 1911 and a “Finding Nemo Submarine Voyage” attraction at Disneyland which opened almost a century later.