If the cheerily painted rides at Memphis Kiddie Park were flavors, the rockets splashed with white stripes and shooting stars would be orange Popsicle. And the Little Dipper roller coaster, sleek and silver: peppermint.
Probably sometime during the history of the pocket-sized amusement park, an enterprising Hansel or Gretel has tried to lick the lollipop-red planks of the ticket booth and gotten a tongue full of splinters. After all, everything else has happened here ticket forgery, two-hundred-pound "children" trying to squeeze into tiny-tyke rides, and angry dads invoking their Constitutional right to take their shirts off in public.
The excitement began in1952, when Stuart and Lanny Wintner simultaneously opened the children's park and gave birth to one of its first customers.
"Their son was born the day they put up the merry-go-round," says ticket taker Dorothy Sommers. "She was at the park when she went into labor pains." Stuart died a few years ago, and Lanny, who still owns the park and the Memphis Drive-In across the street, lives in Florida.
Sommers, 70, has worked at the park for thirty years. Her booth is padlocked in front, and barely a week goes by when some counter-high chap solemnly asks if she can ever leave.
The carousel music has yet to drive her bonkers. When she goes to bed, tinkly versions of "Greensleeves" and "The White Cliffs of Dover" play in her head.
"I never ran a ride," says Sommers, who insouciantly dashes out the back to talk with friends when the boss is away. "Nobody ever asked me if I wanted to learn."
Her favorite ride? "The boats, I guess. I look at the boats all day long. I'm stuck in my booth, so I don't see much that goes on around here."
Sometimes manager Mike Kissel calls to check up on Sommers. If she answers, he knows she's not off eloping with the pony car operator or anything.
Kissel goes to great lengths to keep his clientele whose average age is four happy. Last year, he painted the cars on the Kiddie Park Speedway camouflage and re-christened it the Outback Buggy Ride. The patrons had been throwing fits about which color car they wanted to drive, holding up the line so there actually was a line.
Nature makes its own demands: Though practically plunked down in a crevice under the highway, the park also abuts a stretch of urban wood. On the pristine putt-putt course, which replaced pony rides in the early 1960s, territorial squirrels torment serious miniature golfers in the park's annual tournament, knocking balls off the green. And on the kiddie railroad, engineers have had to hit the brakes, climb out, and wake a groundhog napping on the tracks.
The afternoon engineer's street name is Santa. His time card says "Santa." Ask him his real name, and he spits nails through his curly white beard: "I don't give my name to no-body."
Santa was hired on the spot. "He was a gift," says Kissel. "We have a rule here that guys can't have real big beards. I said, "You are the exception.'"
Back in the day when his beard was red, Santa used to work in a bakery. He's still a bit disconcerted by celebrity. "I look in the mirror and see myself," he says. "You might see me different."
When Santa drives the train around the park, kids wave and yell "ho, ho, ho." But he doesn't let them hug him, because he knows the old Hug Switcheroo Scam ticketless parents sneak on the ride while their brood is squeezing Santa.
The park closes for the season on September 30, and the rides are dismantled. But not to some young minds. Sommers says that parents have driven disbelieving children out to the park in winter, so they can see for themselves it was all a mirage. Laura Putre
Memphis Kiddie Park, 10340 Memphis Avenue (216-941-5995), is open 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Sunday through Thursday, till 9:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday. Admission is free; ride tickets cost $7.50 for 10, $14 for 25.
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