Thursday, March 5, 2015

Old Chicago

I spent the first 13 years of my life growing up in Bolingbrook, Illinois, a suburb just southwest of Chicago.

Nowadays Bolingbrook is a teeming little metropolis all its own, but when I was a kid growing up in the 1960s things were very different there.  Of course it was MUCH smaller, less populated, comprised of just a couple of tract home subdivisions, very modest pre-fab starter homes for young baby boomers looking for some elbow room to raise their families.  The (then recently completed) Eisenhower expressway, or Interstate 55, provided a fresh new artery to and from the city for commuters, and my parents were one of those young couples looking to take advantage. Both born and raised in the city of Chicago, they decided it wasn't where they wanted to raise my 2 older sisters and I.

Looking back it was a good call on their part. In 1962 my parents had themselves a brand new split-level ranch with a grassy yard (eventually), and I got to have a pretty idyllic early childhood in most respects, free to roam unsupervised from an early age. We had plenty of friends since Bolingbrook was a planned community and everyone was moving there for more or less the same reason. in fact at one point they couldn't build schools fast enough so they started busing students to nearby Romeoville until they could catch up.
But I'm getting ahead of myself.

By 1965 there was growing interest and local pressure to incorporate Bolingbrook into a municipality. Among other benefits, it would secure funds from the county, taxes to provide the residents there with their own schools, police, and fire departments. Up until then they were still reliant on nearby Lemont, which was a bit far for comfort.  Incorporating was a big step but it marked the official beginning of our small village.  My mom was one of the first trustees and organized the town parades, my dad became one of the first of a handful of uniformed cops, then later a volunteer fireman.  They were innocent and formative years and we got to enjoy the best of them, even as we watched the town grow around us. By the early 70s new subdivisions were popping up seemingly overnight, like mushrooms in a cow pasture. More schools, even our first shopping plaza with a Zayre (the Wal-Mart of its time), an A&P grocery store, a Walgreens, ..and Bolingbrook's first fast food burger joint; Mr. Quick.  We still had to drive to Romeoville or Downers Grove if we wanted to go out to the movies, but hey; if you had a color TV and good reception you never had to leave your house.
It was suburban utopia.

Then around 1973 somebody had the idea of building the world's first indoor amusement park.

I'm not exactly sure who's responsible for this, nobody is saying now.  A group of venture capitalists or retail developers perhaps, I just know it wasn't anybody living in Bolingbrook.  Bolingbrook just happened to be where they decided to build it, right on a huge tract of secured open farmland at I55 and Rt 53. Location, location, location! 

At first blush an indoor amusement park sounds like a GREAT idea, especially in the mid-west where we get ice and snow and sometimes just lousy weather.  We already did have a few amusement parks in the Chicago burbs like Adventureland, Kiddie Land, Santa's Village, but they were a drive away and only open during the summer. This place would be super close and open year-round! For most, certainly the kids, it was a 'win-win'.

But there were problems with the world's first indoor amusement park.
For starters, it wasn't terribly park-like. It turns out when you shoe-horn a bunch of amusement park rides into an indoor space the size of an airplane hangar it doesn't leave much room or natural light for any greenery. It was a cavernous artificial environment of steel and concrete, with a dome at the very top center, a single rim of windows circling the top of the ceiling and rotunda. That was the only natural light, the rest was artificial industrial lighting. Practical, but not very warm and inviting. 
One of the major things to consider in this scenario is what happens when all of these steel thrill rides and screaming kids are placed in this expansive enclosed environment. The resulting mind-numbing echo that creates, and the irritating din that constantly reverberated throughout the place was enough to flay your nerves. Clearly, they didn't consider the acoustics in a place like this. And who is going to say to their kid; 'honey, I know you're excited but don't scream on the roller coaster. it makes daddy's ears bleed.'
So to help the parents and grown-ups out they decided to put a full bar in the park, a beer garden where folks could sit down and drink alcohol while their kids could go run around and scream.  What's not to like?
Now, to get to the amusement park area in the center you had to navigate a gauntlet of about 100 boutique stores that completely surrounded the park inside, walking all the way around back to get in.  Okay, I get it. I realize it was a clever way to show shoppers all the wares Old Chicago's stores had to offer, even if a family just came for the rides they might be drawn into a cute little shop or two along the way. Marketing, right? The problem was that most of these boutiques stood unoccupied and vacant after Old Chicago opened, the monthly leases being high enough to keep store owners wary of investing in space there.  And because the overall motif of the mall area was based on vintage Chicago storefronts, complete with period looking lamp posts and park benches, the ersatz and completely windowless environment of the mall made the whole place seem like a movie sound stage. Especially if one glanced up to see the fake overhead lighting and unfinished ceiling. The impression it gave was not at all friendly, in fact it was a creepy feeling you had to shake off by the time you got to the rides.
And as if all this wasn't enough, the massive building itself suffered from cut corners, to save money and make deadlines. There were structural issues, electrical problems, water leaks.  The place was brand new but was already becoming infested with rats and mice from adjacent farmlands.

In spite of all this, Old Chicago officially opened to the public on June 17th 1975.
I should add; by that time my folks sold their home in Bolingbrook and moved the family to Channahon further South on I55. My mom continued to work for the village and my dad spent the last couple of years there as the police & fire commissioner, but they saw the writing on the wall and sensed it was a harbinger of things to come. It was time to leave.

Old Chicago's opening was a big deal in the local media with TV commercials featuring a dramatic exterior helicopter shot of a showgirl, precariously perched atop the buildings' dome, tap dancing.

PR stunts like this were captivating but it was evident early on the place struggled for business. The attraction to the amusement park had a grand enough start but crowds tapered off pretty quickly.  I suspect partly for the reasons mentioned earlier, but also Marriott's Great America (now Six Flags) had opened for business that following Summer. Although it was way up in the North burb of Gurnee, it was a sprawling and ambitious theme park that immediately overshadowed any thrills Old Chicago could offer.  And of course Great America was very green and park-like, enough to make Old Chicago seem even more bleak by comparison.  They tried adding more rides but that didn't seem to help much.
The amusement park at Old Chicago was even used for a scene in Brian De Palma's 1978 movie 'The Fury' featuring a tragic ride incident caused by telekinesis. Prescient, because quickly there were real accidents occurring, fires, and even fatal injuries.  A high-wire trapeze artist fell to his death in front of a watching crowd. It's like the place had a curse.
The boutique and gift stores weren't taking hold so the constant atmosphere of the shopping mall was ghostly and ominous, with long stretches of shuttered vacant storefronts.   They realized they had to diversify somehow to bring in more money, so they started staging and promoting rock concerts in the amusement park.  The problem there was that it wasn't an accommodating enough venue for any respectable band to play.  Old Chicago would get bands like The Willie Aames Band (the kid actor from TV's 'Eight Is Enough'.  ..yeah, I know), or Gary U.S. Bonds, or Dolenz, Jones, Boyce & Hart, which was comprised of half of The Monkees.
Not exactly Fleetwood Mac or Aerosmith.  Not even close.

Old Chicago officially closed its doors in March of 1980, just 5 years after opening.  The rides were sold off to other amusement parks and what stores they had closed for good.  For a few years other developers tried to do something with the gigantic building.  A movie sound stage, a casino, a business complex, .. but nothing proposed came to fruition for one reason or another and in 1986 the entire place was bulldozed. The world's first indoor amusement park was completely erased from the local landscape as if it had never been there, rather unceremoniously, like an embarrassing secret swept under the rug. An auto auction lot now occupies the same space, the only remaining vestige being its address; 200 Old Chicago Drive.

In fact, if you go on Wikipedia and look up Bolingbrook, Illinois and its history, absolutely no mention is made of Old Chicago, not even a footnote about 'the world's first indoor amusement park'.
.. They do mention Bolingbrook's park district having the nation's first 'wave pool' in 1982,
.. They even mention Drew Peterson as a notable resident.
Drew Peterson!!
.. like it's okay being associated with a psychopathic wife-murdering cop,  just please don't say anything about that fucking indoor amusement park.
What a cross to bear ..


dan ledwig said...

I know you've got the history right, and the whole thing is pretty pathetic in retrospect, but as a kid it was mesmerizing. All I can remember is the old skool style of the place, and it seems all those goofy stores were occupied (of course they weren't). A huge mistake of the developer was in not having any magnet stores-Sears, Marshall Field, etc. The store I do remember the most was the tobacconist that had a real live cigar roller on site. They beat the cigar boon by about 20 or more years!

Edison Girard said...

I remember wanting to hang out at Marshall Brodien's Magic Shop every time I was there. It was right near the entrance to the ride area.

And you're right, the high rent didn't help but the lack of any major stores to anchor the shopping mall really hurt their business model.

Metropolitanite said...

Excellent job. Very readable. Very thoughtful reflection and presentation of the time and place you're describing. I enjoyed it, and would like to "Share" it, though there are a couple of words that don't have a G rating that my "Friends" need. Thanks for blogging this.-- Peggy D.