Archive for June, 2012

Catch the H Train

When it comes to amusement parks, everyone loves a thrill! The mere mention of Coney Island, Disneyland, or even the local county fair conjures up images of exciting rides lit with multi-colored lights, midways and their resident barkers, peanuts and cotton candy, and hours of fun for young and old.  Houston—like many other cities— has had its own share of amusement parks, from Luna Park at the beginning of the last century, to Playland Park, Peppermint Park, and Astroworld, the latter having been leveled to a massive vacant lot in 2005-06. This last Memorial Day, Landry’s Pleasure Pier amusement park held its gala opening in Galveston, having been built in the same location as the original 1940s-era Pleasure Pier (which was leveled by Hurricane Carla in 1961) and the Flagship Hotel (devastated by Hurricane Ike in 2008).

Then as now, the main allure for these parks is in the rides that carry its occupants up, down, forwards, backwards, and sideways, sometimes at breakneck speeds. Indeed, there are things that never change, but what has evolved is the technology of the attractions. True, the traditional carousel or Ferris wheel can still be found, functioning much as it did a hundred years ago, but for the thrill seeker, today’s state-of-the-art rides are a whole different beast. Perhaps the most unique among this new breed are the 4-D motion simulator rides that are programmed to shimmy and shake in tandem with projected images, robotic figures, and even a gust of wind or water spray for additional effect. Disney’s Star Tours, and Universal’s Simpsons and Spiderman rides are prime examples of this, with perhaps the best of them all being the Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey attraction at Universal Orlando’s Islands of Adventure theme park. In this, riders sit four to a bench, and are moved along, tilted, turned, and flipped upside down, all while viewing a succession of live animatronics and filmed footage. The end result is an experience far above anything else I have waited in line for—and for the record, note that you will wait anywhere from 45 minutes to several hours to get into this ride. Yes, it is that popular.

In all fairness and In full disclosure, I should mention that I am a shameless and unapologetic Harry Potter junkie. I’ve read all the books and seen the movies multiple times, listened to the books on tape (preferring Steven Fry over Jim Dale, although both are superb narrators), and have been a longtime follower of Pottercast (an excellent podcast helmed writer Melissa Annelli). And, yes, I have my calendar marked for September 27, this being the release date for The Casual Vacancy, J.K. Rowling’s first post-Potter novel. That said, the Potter Universal ride excels largely for its technical brilliance—its subject matter is icing on the cake.

Clearly, much has changed in the arena of amusement park rides over the last hundred years, and it would naturally be assumed that the evolution of 4-D is a recent one. That such innovation dates nearly as far back as the dawn of film itself is revelatory, not only to the timeline of amusement rides but to motion pictures as well.

Author H.G. Wells, who had penned the visionary novel, The Time Machine, applied for a patent in 1895 in collaboration with Robert Paul. The patent was for a stationary ride that rocked back and forth while audiences watched a projected image, thereby creating the time travel illusion from his futuristic novel. They eventually abandoned the project due to its excessive cost.

The 1900 Paris exposition featured two rides that built upon that idea. The first, the Cinéorama, simulated a balloon ride, with occupants standing on a raised platform, while images were projected below. The setup consisted of ten synchronized projectors that threw a 360-degree image onto a circular screen, which measured 30 feet in height and 330 feet in circumference. Meanwhile, the Lumière Brothers’ Maréorama simulated an ocean voyage as seen from the bridge of the ship.

Then in 1904, a patent was granted to inventor William J. Keefe for a ride with an open-sided rail car that ran on tracks around a circular screen with projected images. The patent was shared with Fred W. Gifford, a Kansas City magistrate of whom he had approached for financial backing, and Gifford’s friend, George C. Hale. They unveiled their attraction at the St. Louis Exposition that same year.

George Hale was a fireman with a flair for mechanical engineering who had already invented and patented a number of devices employed in fire fighting. He may have either heard of or seen the Cinéorama or Lumière Brothers ride during a visit to Paris in 1900. In 1905, he applied for a patent for his “Pleasure Railway,” which created the illusion of travel in a rail car. This concept, which originally utilized two rail cars, was later streamlined into a single-car ride, and served as the basis for his “Tours of the World” attraction.

Hale's Tours of the World

Hale’s Tours of the World in Galveston, circa 1906. Photo courtesy of the Rosenberg Library, Galveston, TX

Hale’s Tours was simple in execution. The stationary car featured oversized screens in the front and rear, designed to fill the periphery vision of its passengers. Moving footage from far-off lands was projected on the screens, giving the illusion of a traveling tour through such places as Tokyo, Switzerland, Lourdes, Frankfort, and Ceylon. A variable-speed belt and roller system underneath the car would create the vibration and clickety-clack sound of railway wheels against the track, and air could be blown through the cabin to suggest movement. In addition, the car could pivot on its longitudinal axis, allowing it to sway from side to side as if actually moving. For audiences of the day, the effect (even with the black and white film) was quite convincing.

It comes as no surprise that Hale’s Tours and Scenes of the World was quite successful, with its peak from 1905 to 1907. At one point, it was reported that there were over 500 individual Hale’s Tours operating across the United States. Its appeal declined as the decade drew to a close, with the last one being shuttered sometime around 1912.

This raises an obvious question pertaining to this column… Did Houston have one? With 500 attractions spread across the nation, it would seem quite possible for one of Hale’s rides to appear in the city, however, I have come across no records of it in during that time.

However, there was one in Galveston.

Electric Park was to Galveston what Luna Park was to Houston—a source for entertainment for residents and visitors alike. It opened to the public in May 1906 with a 5-foot-tall aerial swing, a roller coaster, carousel, Ferris wheel, shooting galleries, fireworks, and other diversions—including Hale’s Tours of the World. As popular as the park was, it lasted only a few years, and was largely demolished in the fall of 1910. A set of photos from the Galveston Rosenberg Library clearly shows the Hale’s attraction, with patrons milling outside of the building. A detailed article on Electric Park can be found on the library’s website: http://www.rosenberg-library.org/collections/gthc/online/exhibits/electric/electric.htm

While the Galveston Electric Park and Hale’s Tours are long gone—razed in the same name of progress that took Astroworld, Luna Park, and many other area amusement parks—the technology that they were build upon has continued to evolve. It is very possible that the patrons of Hale’s Tours were just as enthralled by it as modern audiences are of the Disneyland Star Tours ride over a century later. The train may be different from the one in 1906, but for the passenger, the rush is still the same. It is quite probable that some of those patrons would return for a second ride on Hale’s train, or even a third. After all, the repeat experience has always been part of the fun of an amusement park.

And, yes, when I was at Universal Orlando, I rode the Harry Potter ride twice. I would have gone a third time… but I ran out of time.

Reference for this blog is from the article, Hale’s Tours: Ultrarealism in the Pre-1910 Motion Picture by Raymond Feilding, 1957, originally published in the Smithsonian Institution’s Journal of History, and from Electric Park Meant Electric Excitement for Galveston’s Tourists, www.rosenberg-library.org.
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Cinema Houston celebrates a vibrant century of movie theatres and moviegoing in Texas’s largest city. This weblog is a companion to the Book, Cinema Houston: From Nickelodeon to Megaplex (University of Texas Press, 2007), and website, www.CinemaHouston.net.

David Welling is a writer and artist who lives in Houston with his wife and two children. His lifelong interest in movies (and the places that show them) led to the writing of Cinema Houston, which included fifteen years of research, and its subsequent website.