Sunday, August 19, 2012

Reopened Santa's Village feeds nostalgia

Chicago Tribune
Steve Johnson - Tribune reporter

4:46 PM CDT, August 14, 2012

It is probably not accurate and certainly not provable to say Phil Wenz willed Santa's Village back into being. But it's not a crazy thing to believe either.

After the northwest suburban amusement park closed in May 2006, Wenz helped organize the auction of the assets. He kept an office on the premises and served as administrator of the property, which quickly maneuvered to rejoin the wild prairie, plants growing around and into those assets — rides, vehicles, and the vaguely Seussian buildings— that hadn't been sold.

“Mother Nature took it back over,” Wenz recalls. “There were weeds all over the property. The buildings were empty. It was basically a ghost town. And it was one of those things where that, of anything, was very sad to see.”

He did historical research to write a picture-heavy book, “Santa's Village,” from Arcadia Publishing's “Images of America” series. He contributed the foreword to another, Christopher Dearman's “Santa's Village Gone Wild!” a self-published, not-as-racy-as-it-sounds collection of former employees' reminiscences about backstage doings at the park during its decades as a hotbed of teen employment and, therefore, teen behavior.

And more days than not — 200 a year — Wenz still spent a couple of morning hours putting on makeup, gluing on one of the $1,500 white beard-and-wig get-ups he carefully maintains, surrounding himself with the foam padding, the red suit, the belt, the boots.

And he went and made his corporate and charity appearances as “Santa from Santa's Village,” just as he'd been doing since making his first appearance there in 1986, at age 23. He did so even when the place seemed most likely to remain on the lengthening list of shuttered independent parks, their vintage charm no match for video games or the mega parks that can advertise ferociously, usually touting something like a new roller coaster named after a blockbuster movie character.

Wenz, now 49, knew that story line from the Chicago area alone: Riverview Park, its memory guarded like an heirloom in Chicago, is now a shopping mall, police station and college campus south of Lane Tech High School. Adventureland, in present-day Bloomingdale, now hosts the Scottish Rite Cathedral, a headquarters building for Freemasons. Kiddieland, in Melrose Park, held on longer than the others, but not long enough to avoid turning into a Costco.

All of them have a powerful pull on people's memories, testament to the way these fantasy lands make themselves larger than life. East Dundee, however, is not the North Side of the city or even Melrose Park. Located, roughly speaking, midway between Schaumburg and corn fields, it's a place where retail chains can find the space to build big boxes almost anywhere. And so the land sat there, even as Wenz did not.

“With this park, even when it was closed, the name never died,” says Wenz. “We did tons of book signings. There was a lot of legwork we did just to keep these opportunities open, to keep the name before the public.”

Now there is, once again, a park bearing the “Santa's Village” name operating on the property, like some ridiculous thing you whisper into Santa's ear that somehow turns up under the Christmas tree. And Wenz, once again, spends his early mornings getting into character in his office above the gift shop and spends his days in Santa's House in the park, greeting a new generation of visitors to the place, which first re-opened in late 2010. It's been renamed “Santa's Village AZoosment Park” to reflect a focus on younger kids and the live animals brought in by new owner Jason Sierpien, who had his own memories from working there as a teenager and again during the last season the park was open, when it contracted with him to supply the animals.

The iconic Snowball ride isn't there anymore, a carousel in its place. The Polar Dome ice arena, which used to host Blackhawks practices, is now home to an indoor battlefield in Paintball Explosion, a separate business that occupies half of the almost 40-acre property, including most of the area that was devoted to older-kid rides in the later-years land expansion of the first Santa's Village.

Still, to Wenz, enough things are the same that “it's kind of a deja-vu-type thing in many ways, and there's also times that it's like the park never closed. It just got a makeover,” he says.

“People thought, ‘Phil's got this pipe dream.' Well, here I am sitting in Santa's Village once again.”

It is an unlikely story, says Pam Turlow, and that's why she chose it to end her own book, “The Cotton Candy Road Trip,” a chronicle of visits to more than 40 such vintage parks across America.

The Elmhurst resident was spending a hot July morning touring the reborn park in its second full summer of operation, remembering the visit she made last September to bring her book full circle from her first park visit, to Kiddieland at the start of the season (2009) that would be its last.

In the book, which Turlow published herself (Amazon and, she called the Santa's Village rebirth “a type of Christmas miracle.” Parks close quite a bit; rarely do they reopen.

Sitting on a bench by the entrance during her follow-up visit, she describes Santa's Village as “a beautiful representation of the Santa-themed park from the '50s. The architecture is Tyrolean, but yet it's bigger-than-life. It's Tyrolean from a little kid's eyes.”

She's wearing little ferris-wheel earrings, specifically the Wonder Wheel from Deno's Wonder Wheel Amusement Park at Coney Island in New York City, says Turlow, 49, a voice actor who has been nominated for top awards in audio book reading.

Storybook and Santa themes were big when the new highway system led to a boom in roadside attractions in the 1950s. Santa was especially good because he has all the name recognition of a licensed character without those pesky licensing fees.

But in the new millennium, Turlow's 44 park visits included only two Christmas-themed parks, the East Dundee attraction and Santa's Workshop/North Pole, at the foot of Pike's Peak in Colorado. A third still operating is an unrelated business also called Santa's Village, in New Hampshire's White Mountains, dating to 1953.

Vintage amusement parks retain such a powerful hold on people, she says, “because you have a lot of your firsts at an amusement park. First dates are quite often at amusement parks. You remember the first time you rode a particular ride, how scared you were, and then you tackled it,. you know? In some ways, it's like little microcosms for life.”

What she learned in her park-themed journeys is “that these places are amazing bits of often mid-century history that shouldn't just be razed and forgotten, that it really takes some amazing people to run the parks,” she says.

While Wenz does his Christmas-in-July duties, Turlow, Sierpien and general manager Don Holliman — also rehired from among longtime staff — walk around and talk about the provenance of rides, plans for the future and whether they'll be able to open the shuttered water park, another late Santa's Village addition, its tubes and sluiceways still visible in the valley to the immediate east.

“This year, it would have been fantastic,” says Holliman, referring to the heat that lures people to water parks and had kept attendance down at the amusement park.

The new Santa's Village exists on, roughly, the footprint of the original, founded by California developer Glenn Holland in 1959 because he thought the Chicago area was the right place to expand from his two Santa's Villages in California (both closed).

“The park today is geared more to 2- to 10-year-olds, like it was in the very early days,” Wenz says. “From 1959 through about '66 to '70 was always for the smaller kids. In the '70s they kind of put in bigger rides and it became more of a rounded family park. By the mid-'80s to '90s they put even bigger rides out here, like some roller-coasters. It kind of changed the demographics a bit.

“Today it's back to its original roots, with the buggy brigade: the moms, the dads, the grandmas, the grandpas and the smaller children. Also the landscaping is either the best or second-best it's ever been,” going back to the very earliest days, he says.

The older-kid, Coney Island section of the park has now been incorporated into the Paintball Explosion side of the property with a kind of grace that belies such battlefield names as “Biohazard” and “Mutiny.” Original signage — “Santa's Slide,” “Dundee Bomb Pop” — decorates the paintball fields. The old bumper car building is used for cover, as are a lot of the structures from Arcade Alley, the games of chance. An old plane that kids would sit in on a ride is plugged, nose-down, into the ground.

“That elf is original,” adds Journey Kerchner, Paintball Explosion's general manager, who claims the business is gaining a reputation as one of the top paintball venues in the U.S. “It's every paintballer's dream to play in developed properties.”

Dearman, who grew up in Elgin and now is a reporter in Wisconsin, says he wrote his book because of the immediate and interesting response to a Facebook posting he put up about having worked at Santa's Village as a teen.

“I started contacting other people, interviewing them,” he says, and he eventually fashioned the book as an oral history. He won't say how many copies he's sold (Amazon and, but he was able to live for a year off the proceeds, he says.

“The reaction was fantastic. Some people were scared off by the title: ‘You're gonna be ruining my childhood,'” they'd tell him. “The ‘Gone Wild' part does scare some people off, but it's basically a love letter to the park.”

In addition to tales of employee theft, romance and intoxication, “it's got the nostalgia and the feel-good stuff too,” Dearman says.

“These local parks, it's not like Great America, these big huge things that can be overwhelming,” he adds. “My mom worked at Santa's Village when she was a kid, and she took me there every year. When you get older you just yearn for those nice memories from when you were young.”

Back in Santa's Village, Star Jets, a longstanding ride that didn't sell at the auction, has just gotten new paint this year, and it looks almost new. The other original rides are Kringle's Convoy, a mini-train made of cars done up like the cabs of semis, and the firetruck, which tours visitors around the grounds.

“The nostalgia was obvious from the beginning,” says Sierpien, 36, who grew up in Carpentersville and remembers visiting both Santa's Village and Kiddieland as a child. “But a lot of those buildings were built in 1958. It's not easy. It's a constant battle.”

He points to one modestly sized building. “That's one of the tiniest roofs here,” he says, “and that was 20 gallons of paint. “It's kept us really, really — maybe a little too — busy.”

Now the battle is to get the word out, let people know that there's still a park like this in the area that people can visit for less than $20 at the gate.

At the Kiddieland auction, Sierpien bought the Kiddie Whip and the Midge-o-Racers, boosting his park's offerings and hoping to lure devotees of that place to his, about 30 miles to the northwest.

“So where are the hand cars?” Turlow asks, referring to a ride that had been auctioned off.

“Georgia,” says Holliman.

“Florida,” Sierpien corrects.

“Georgia,” Holliman says again.

“Georgia, you're right,” says Sierpien.

Turlow, for the sake of a photograph, is allowed onto the Kiddie Whip in abject violation of the size restrictions. She looks ecstatic.

“Thank you so much,” she says, after exiting. “I have not gotten to ride that particular ride since I was 5 years old.”

After the ride arrived from Kiddieland and he first looked at it, Sierpien says “a panic set in that we had gotten ripped off.”

“I said, ‘Wait a minute. This is not the same ride I remember. It was much bigger.'”

Then, of course, he realized that he was remembering it from the perspective of a child.

Steve Johnson
Copyright © 2012, Chicago Tribune
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