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Remembering Belmont park

Belmont Park was magic. From the moment you walked through the front gate, you were hooked and reeled right in, your senses assaulted by the whirling rides, yummy odours, screams of the roller-coaster riders and the loud, unsettling cackle of the park's unofficial mascot: the Laughing Lady.

BRAM EISENTHAL, Special to The Gazette

Published: Saturday, October 11 2008

People still remember her today, 25 years after the Cartierville amusement park called it a day. The 1.52-metre papier-mâché figure of a fat, dark-haired, garishly made-up lady - "la grosse femme" - laughed eerily on a recorded soundtrack for 50 years. Moved from place to place around the midway, often found just outside the Magic Carpet ride, the Laughing Lady, or Laughing Sal, looked a lot like your crazed Aunt Sybil.

I remember great rides - though I admit I was always too scared to embark on a death-defying journey on the Cyclone, which until 1946 was the world's tallest and fastest wooden roller coaster, sending riders in open cars hurtling over the tracks at more than 100 kilometres per hour.

You could ride through a terrific Haunted House, once known as Laff in the Dark, where your car veered back and forth on a track in darkness and you were confronted at intervals by goosebumps-raising props and memorable characters like the giant Tiki Gods and the Shiverin' Indian. Or walk through the Magic Carpet on switch-boards that blew air up your pant legs, then through a tilted, dizzying kitchen and exit by way of an unexpected roller slide (the "magic carpet"). There was also the Whip, a reference to how your insides churned into whipped cream every time you rounded a corner; and the Wild Mouse, where you died a little, inside anyways, every time your tiny car took a turn on narrow tracks situated high enough in the air to matter.

Summer 1980: Belmont Park boss Paul Pappas (left) with clowns Nestor and Patof, flanking master of ceremonies Jean Simon. 

Summer 1980: Belmont Park boss Paul Pappas (left) with clowns Nestor and Patof, flanking master of ceremonies Jean Simon.

COURTESY OF PAUL PAPPAS

Then there were the games: I never could solve the mystery of the Milk Bottles. A strongman stand compelled you to swing a hammer to send a weight to the top of a pole and ring the bell and the cutest girls appeared around that one, I noticed. The nearby casse-croûtes made great burgers, hot dogs, fries, pizza and the wickedest candy apples and cotton candy imaginable - although I learned fairly young that eating hot dogs and then rushing onto the Whip was not a good idea, at least not if you wanted to attract the cutest girls.

During the 1930s, '40s and '50s, circus entrepreneurs like Pete Kortes mounted "freak" sideshows of hirsute ladies, armless wonders and assorted others; and stunt performers like the human cannonballs, the world-famous Zacchini brothers, made appearances here. (In 1955, on discount days, the price of admission to the park was a dime for adults and a nickel for kids; by the late 1950s, 800,000 people visited annually.)

Belmont Park was our Coney Island. Built in 1923 and a popular family destination for 60 years, it was struck down by the wrecking ball not long after it closed on Oct. 13, 1983. For me, the view from the Lachapelle Bridge, connecting Montreal Island to Chomedey, still provokes a gush of nostalgia but it has changed: Today, condos perch on the bank of the Rivière des Prairies.

There has been just one book written on Belmont Park, Les Saisons du Parc Belmont (Les Editions Libre Expression, 2005), by Montreal author Steve Proulx who in 1998 watched a movie in which Geneviève Brouillette played a bearded lady appearing at Belmont Park. "I wondered if it really existed, with this 'tent of creatures' shown in the film. Then I discussed Belmont Park with people older than me and I became fascinated by it - and how it still exists in the minds of so many persons. I wanted to document these memories about this lost place before they disappear completely."

Belmont Park was magic. From the moment you walked through the front gate, you were hooked and reeled right in, your senses assaulted by the whirling rides, yummy odours, screams of the roller-coaster riders and the loud, unsettling cackle of the park's unofficial mascot: the Laughing Lady.

BRAM EISENTHAL, Special to The Gazette

Published: Saturday, October 11 2008

Proulx was born in 1977 and never had the chance to see the place himself. "It is most strange," he confided. "Even though I never went there, after doing all the research for the book and having all the facts and details, down to a map of the site, engraved on my mind, I feel like I was there many times."

Those of us who were there, however, will never forget it.

"I was a Gazette newspaper boy in Montreal in 1957," Toronto writer Bob Carswell told me. "As a youngster, my earnings from that job often financed my trips to Belmont Park, though I am guessing my first visit there was in 1949 with my parents. I also worked there one summer as the kid who set up the two Coke bottles that people threw baseballs at in order to win a prize. I remember the laughing fat lady near the entrance and, for the older crowds, the dance hall at the far end, right next to the river.

"But," Carswell stressed, "do not forget ... the No. 17 streetcar ride from Garland Station, where it met the 48 to Montreal West and the 65 going downtown. It was the trip untold numbers of people took to Belmont Park."

Paul Pappas, 78, also enjoyed Belmont Park a lot, so much so that in the 1980s, the established Montreal restaurateur went from running the park's food concessions and parking lot to buying Belmont Park with partners Bill Capstick, Ron Cotton and Spiro Gavaris. Its previous ownership group was led by Jacques Gauvreau (son of J. Romeo Gauvreau, who purchased the park in 1929 from its four founding partners). Charles-Émile Trudeau, lawyer, wealthy entrepreneur and father of future prime minister Pierre Elliot Trudeau, had also been a minority partner prior to his death in 1935. His son actually sat on the board for a time in the 1960s.

"I initially got involved because they needed someone with experience to run the concessions," the generous and gentlemanly Pappas said over lunch recently. "Then, since I already had over $100,000 of equipment, like popcorn and candy floss machines worth nothing on the street, I figured it made sense to become an owner." Pappas's group rented the park in 1980 then bought it in February 1981.

As owner of Premier Concerts with Roy Cooper, Pappas was also one half of a leading impresario team of the time, bringing the top American jazz, blues and Broadway entertainers to Montreal, and he recognized the value of bringing talent to Belmont Park to perform at an outdoor auditorium by the river. He booked such artists as Martha Reeves and the Vandallas, Pierre Lalonde, René and Nathalie Simard, Michel Louvain, Renée Martel, Myriam, and clowns Nestor and Patof - as well as a very young Céline Dion.

Belmont Park was magic. From the moment you walked through the front gate, you were hooked and reeled right in, your senses assaulted by the whirling rides, yummy odours, screams of the roller-coaster riders and the loud, unsettling cackle of the park's unofficial mascot: the Laughing Lady.

BRAM EISENTHAL, Special to The Gazette

Published: Saturday, October 11 2008

Unfortunately, Pappas couldn't stem the park's decline, which had begun the year before his group took over.

In August 1979, a seat on the ride Parachute Paratrooper broke loose and fell eight metres to the ground, seriously injuring two children and striking a blow to the park's safety record. In fact, a recall notice from this particular ride's manufacturer never arrived, Pappas recalled.

Then, about a week later, a double whammy: Quebec provincial police officers raided the park and shut down seven of its games of chance (15 were also shut down following a raid at La Ronde), asserting that illegal gambling was taking place. Pappas and his partners sued the city of Montreal and won "settling for $115,000 in damages. ... but the negative publicity really hurt us."

The park, which had averaged more than 500,000 visitors annually during its later period, suffered a major lag in attendance. The damage was done. Belmont Park's 1983 season would be its last, the owners' $1.8 million investment down the drain, and my favourite rides and the Laughing Lady merely memories.

Actually, the "grosse femme" suffered the unkindest end of all, Pappas revealed. Kept in an employee's garage for years, she was unceremoniously chucked out after the garage was flooded. No laughing matter, to be sure.

`` The  Matterhorn’s cars screeching past their peeling, painted Alps scenery is surely the reason my head permanently tilts to the left and, boy, the memory of the Haunted House, your car smashing through the plywood entranceway into total darkness, before being assaulted by spring-loaded ghosts. `` For just $5… you could ride any pike-provoking ride all day long. Oh, how I miss childhood!``

Documentary film-maker Ezra Soiferman, 36, visited the park as ``a mere lad``. ``Belmont Park represented the days before kids were hypnotized by video games and sucked into the internet. I cherish the non virtual, ultra-visceral memories of over salted popcorn and bashing my nose into the greasy vinyl padding of a bumper car’s steering wheel. I haven’t been to an amusement park for years, but it wouldn’t surprise me if today’s bumper cars have cute little airbags to protect the precious modern child and stave off lawsuits.``

Norm Klein 48, a one time Chomedey boy now residing Côte St. Luc, was one of the 500 employees, approximately 80 per cent of them students, employed at the park for several years in the late 1970s. `` I worked as a break-man, relieving the game employees during their breaks, and I loved the job because I got to work at all the different games. …The atmosphere at Belmont Park was great and I will never forget it.``

Personal trainer Anna Duncan recalled the intimate, carnival-like atmosphere. ``I remember seeing a guy with tight leopard shorts, a muscular build and a snake around his neck. I’d never witnessed such a thing before. My favorite ride was the whirling teacup and saucer; and I also remember their annual Italian Day, where my family and I would participate in races and prize was spaghetti

© The Gazette (Montreal) 2008

 

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