Children’s Fairyland Turns 56, applies for medicare…
Nestled in a wooded grove not far from the gangs of ducks & geese that troll Oakland’s Lake Merritt is Children’s Fairyland, a haven for lil’ people and the lucky parents & guardians that can accompany their kiddies. Tomorrow it just so happens is Fairyland’s 56th birthday, and although the wee ones still smile whle riding the train and eating a corn dog, one can see the wear and tear that the years & over 10 million visitors have brought upon the park. Proposals to use public funds are currently ciculating that hopefully can restore some areas of the park like the creepy & currently closed Thumbelina Tunnel to it’s original opening day shine.
Considered the first theme park exclusively for children in the country,(if not the world), it was built with $50,000 raised by various local organizations and business donations. 6000 people were admitted on opening day, admission being from 9 to 14 cents, depending on your age, and your guides were apparently a glamorously garbed Munchkin-esque couple, (actually two local married midgets). Children could even mail a letter postmarked at the Fairyland Post Office.
Lore has it that Walt Disney himself soon came through Mother Hubbard’s Shoe and picked up some ideas and inspiration for his much more ambitious theme park that opened in Anaheim a few years later. But there’s no doubt that Oakland’s came first, and was definitely still in Walt’s scheming mastermind when in April of 1952, he submitted his first vague plans for a similar Souhern California ‘Fairy Land’ to the California Parks and Recreation Commision.
Today, Disney is of course a diversified multi-national conglomerate, while our humble Children’s Fairyland is run off donations to a struggling local non-profit. Even with no marketing budget, the site consistently features a multi-cultural mass of happy kids scrambling up and down the many paths, and the concrete stairs of it’s numerous attractions from 10 am until at least 4pm daily, (a lil’ later on weekends). Located in Lakeside Park, it’s a neighbor of the beast at 699 Bellevue Ave, Oakland CA. Look for the big shoe… and keep on clicking if you’d like to help out or learn a lil’ more history of this jewel with it’s on Jolly Roger pirate ship, in an oft overlooked urban oasis of the East Bay…
The brainchild of an Oakland civic booster and nurseryman, Arthur Navlett worked with parks director William Penn Mott Jr to create the 10 acre storybook atmosphere with it’s kitschy Old Mother Goose themed entrance way. They contracted an architect Russell Everitt, who drew the sketches that were realized and now magically dot the winding wooden paths.
Over the years many a Bay Area child has made Fairyland the tableau for some imaginative excursions. Actor Tom Hanks recalls visiting as a kid, and even comedian Chris Rock was spotted taking his kids there a summer or so ago.
In 1956 Fairyland added Open Storybook Puppet Theater, and at 50 years running is the nation’s longest continuing puppet show… don’t let anyone say we ain’t got puppet shows around here folks. The shows are produced by Lewis Mahlmann, Fairyland’s “master puppeteer”, whose spent almost 40 years behind the scenes, and at one tme even trained Frank Oz ( Yoda, Grover,etc). In the 1960’s Oz was a member of San Francisco Bay Area Puppeteers Guild whose members were known to work at Fairyland.
In addition to the puppetry , through October 30th an all-youth cast performs a rotating list of plays like Red Riding Hood: Lost in Fairyland, Ohana Means Family & Cuoi, the Boy in the Moon. The new Wonderland Players (who are alumni of the Fairyland Children’s Theatre programs) also do special performances on occasion.
Another first for Children’s Fairyland is he system known as Fairyland Talking Storybooks and Magic Keys. Attendees can purchase these Magic Key upgrade with their admission and listen to prerecorded stories at each attraction, like the Three Little Pigs set. This system of reusable keys was developed by a local TV host by the name of Bruce Sedley whose voice would get worn down telling the same popular tales at the park all the time that he eventually went on & sold the concept to other zoos and theme parks.
In 1994, to insure Fairyland remain a viable public attraction, a public/partnership agreement between the City of Oakland and Oakland Children’s Fairyland, Inc. resulted in Fairyland becoming a 501 (c) (3) nonprofit organization, ID#94-3209054. While the City of Oakland owns the property and pays utilities the nonprofit organization manages the operation, volunteer programs, and restoration of Children’s Fairyland. Here’s a photo from contractor Ace Architects of some of the recent restoration work & renovations paid for by voter measure approved funds.
You can only visit if you have kids with you, but if you don’t have wee ones and want to see what the hub bub is about, volunteer opportunities are abundant, including helping with the annual end of season Jack O’Lantern Jamboree this fall. Other regular programs incorporate need for artists , actors, puppeteers and horticultural volunteers.
call (510) 452-2259 or visit http://www.fairyland.org.