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The Ups and Downs of Belmont Park

Bellmont Park - Image by Ian Dryden
Bellmont Park

They’ve taken the cars off the Ferris wheel and started re-painting them so that they’ll look good when the buyers from the International Association for Amusement Parks come around. They’ve locked up the arcade booths and junk food concessions. Broken glass, air compressors, and beached plastic whales from Kiddie Land now litter the “funway” between the Scrambler and the Himalayan Carousel. Even “Earthquake,” the 75-foot high, 2,800-foot long roller coaster, stands mute against the horizon, somehow ominous in its shroud of silence. Belmont Park, the old-style amusement park at the end of Mission Boulevard, has closed its gates. After 50 years of service to sailors, tourists, and teenyboppers, it has fallen victim to a modern American malady – obsolete by reason of unprofitability.

Belmont Park was not San Diego’s first amusement park. On July Fourth, 1913, “Wonderland” opened in Ocean Beach to an assembled throng of 20,000, one-third the population of San Diego. On hand to help celebrate the event were mayors, brass bands, and fireworks displays from Italy. Wonderland had the biggest rollercoaster on the West Coast, a giant water slide/boat ride, a Japanese tea garden, a casino that could seat 650, and even a menagerie that included bobcats, bears, ostriches, and 350 monkeys.

Wonderland lasted two seasons. In 1915, the Panama-Pacific Exposition in Balboa Park drew the crowds away. Then high tides in January, 1916 washed out the sand from under the rollercoaster. The ride was closed and the park began a gradual shutdown. The menagerie was moved to Balboa Park where it became a part of the new Zoological Garden.

In 1922 the Spreckles Company acquired extensive land holdings on the sand spit known as Mission Beach. Three years later, they opened a new amusement park out there on the sand. The Mission Beach Amusement Center (Belmont Park) included a new rollercoaster, once again the largest on the West Coast, and the biggest indoor swimming pool. In 1934 the company donated the park to the city via the State Park Commission. They thought it would be a good way to promote real estate and summer rentals in the Mission Beach area. The State Park Commission delayed transfer of the title until 1937, at which point it approved a 50-year lease for the city to run the amusement center.

The city immediately tried to sublease the park to one Ernest Pickering, a concessionaire. But Pickering balked at having to sign a lease that would require spending $1,200 a year in upkeep. In 1938 Mr. Pickering died. In 1939 the Governor signed a bill releasing all state claims on the park, and the city settled out of court with Mrs. Pickering who sold her interest in the unsigned lease back to the city for $10,000. The city then spent an additional $30,000 to upgrade the park before going out to look for another concessionaire. They decided, however, to keep the “plunge,” the larger than Olympic size, heated indoor swimming pool, under city management. For the rest, they found an endless series of managers willing to run the rides and attractions. The city made the lease attractive by offering a hefty percentage of the profits (75-85 percent).

Wayne Dailard won a lease in 1940 which he sold to Larry Finley in 1944. Finley stayed around for the scandal of 1945 when Mayor Knox was accused of being the silent partner of taxi-cab tycoon Joe Green (who owned two restaurants at the amusement center), then sold his interest in the park to Warner Austin in 1947. In 1954 James Mitchell and John Ray got hold of the lease. That was also the year that the rollercoaster caught fire and had to be closed down.

In 1955, Ray sued the city to compel them to make improvements in the park; the city countersued charging Ray with failure of upkeep. The following year the Grand Jury recommended that the city take control of Belmont Park, but everybody managed to ignore that suggestion, and, after agreeing to drop their suits, Ray and the city sat down to discuss new ways of raising revenues. One suggestion was to turn the Mission Beach Ballroom into a roller skating rink.

In 1957, unable to make necessary repairs after three years, the Mission Beach Coaster Company, owners of the rollercoaster, declared bankruptcy and it was sold to Ray’s Mission Beach Amusement Company. Shortly thereafter, Ray announced its opening. In 1963, Ray got a new 15-year lease sans James Mitchell. He announced in 1967, a $100,000 expansion program for the south parking lot area, bringing in a dozen new rides and attractions. Two years later, he died. His widow sold the lease to William D. Evens.

“We had five codes on the PA system,” recalls Mark, a college student who spent one summer working as a relief man in the park. “Code One was a call for the manager. Code Two was for the ride supervisor. Code Three was for a relief man. Four was the emergency call-up for the two security guards, and Code Five meant Mr. Evens was on the property. That meant everybody jumped.”

Bill Evens is the owner of the Catamaran and Bahia hotels as well as numerous other properties in San Diego and around the state. Originally, when he purchased the Belmont Park lease in 1969, he’d hoped to tear it down and put up a new hotel. “It would have been a great location for an ocean-site, bay-frontage hotel, of which there is not one on the Pacific coast,” he recalls wistfully. “Unfortunately there was just too much opposition. People didn’t want it.”

Faced with the ownership of an amusement park he didn’t want, Bill Evens did the best he could. He started cutting costs. One of the first things he did was to get rid of the individual concessionaires and the old midway carnies who had been hustling there for years, and replace them with young students, ex-cons and transients. He aggravated the high rate of turnover among his hundred or so employees by providing them with long hours on short pay. “Weekdays we worked ten hours, twelve on the weekends for two dollars an hour,” says Sol, who worked the park two summers ago. “We spent most of our breaks either getting drunk at La Cantina, which is a bar just outside the north gate, or otherwise toking up under the rollercoaster or behind the bumper car pavilion. There weren’t a whole lot of ride operators who were sober all the time that I recall.”

One was park employees could supplement their meager incomes was through regular searches for wallets dislodged from customers pockets on the Rollo-Plane, Swissbob, Sky-Diver, and other “shake-em-up” rides. There was also the rollercoaster operator who, after a group of sailors had taken the ride, would remove the red-and-white shirt that marked him as a park employee and try to get a bet going that he could ride the front car standing up. After showing them his stuff, he’d collect and pocket the wager, sometimes as much as $20.

In the spring of 1973, about 36 of the park employees walked off the job with the Service Employees Union. Most were fired. Mark remembers the tensions that followed in the wake of that walk-out. “Everybody was told, I remember that I was told to warn people not to talk to union organizers, on or off the job. The word was passed that anyone seen talking to a union organizer would be fired. I was told to tell this to all my ride operators and also to tell on any of them that I discovered conversing with any union person. Belmont Park put out a lot of literature attacking the union… This was just around the time of that big summer riot.”

As with any beach-front attraction that brings together large numbers of teenagers, Belmont Park has had its share of fights, disturbances, and Fourth of July trashings. But the granddaddy blow-out of them all took place on July First, 1973. La Raza Productions, a Chicano group, had organized a benefit rock concert for the children’s breakfast program in southeast San Diego. The radio had been advertising $2.50 tickets good for half-a-day’s rides plus admission to the concert.

Between seven and ten thousand mostly black and Chicano young people arrived at the park that day. Most had not purchased their tickets in advance. While La Raza Productions set up a booth to sell the combination tickets, the park continued to sell regular half-day tickets at the main entrance, not bothering to explain to people that these tickets would not get them in to the concert. To make matters worse, ticket sellers continued selling tickets right up to five minutes of six, the time the half-day tickets became invalid. A former Park employee describes the scene from there.

“People were getting very rowdy and complaining, so the concert people opened up the concert for free, but by that time there were cops inside the park, just crawling all over, and people went kind of nuts .One of the guys was up on the rollercoaster, on the platform there, where you did all the controls, and people started shooting arrows at him from the archery range. One of the workers got stabbed, a mechanic. The manager, this woman, I forget her name, who was just like a very old painted lady, she was punctured in her left breast by a dart that somebody threw at her during this melee. It was pretty insane.” Eventually one hundred riot equipped police were able to clear the area despite rock and bottle throwing. Seven people were arrested.

“If you unbalance the Ferris wheel, especially that one, because it’s so old, it’ll start backing up on you,” another former park employee recalls. “What can happen then is that the footrest can catch on the back of the boarding ramp and tilt the car, just sort of flipping you out flat on the concrete. I saw that happen once. The only way you can stop that from happening is as soon as it starts backing up, you immediately yell for everybody that works around there to haul their ass over. Then you throw the motor on full to slow down the backing and you have the people just hang off the thing, so that between the motor working against it and the hanging bodies on the lattice-work, you should be able to slow the reverse down enough so people don’t get caught on the ramp.”

For years worried parents have been warning their children against the dangers of the rides at Belmont Park, and teenage romantics have challenged each other with stories of death and disaster. In truth, the only recorded death at the park was that of a sailor who threw himself off the rollercoaster in a late-50s suicide. In 1967, two kids were4 injured when a safety door gave way on the Sky-Diver, a kind of Ferris wheel with cabs that flip upside down and turn on a free axle. One 13-year old girl was left in serious condition with head injuries, a broken left wrist, and a broken right leg. In 1971, three 14-year old National City girls were injured when the Sky-Diver cab in which they were riding came loose of its support. Luckily, they were close to the ground at the time. In 1968 inspectors closed the rollercoaster for six weeks when the timbers supporting it were found to be oil-soaked and deteriorated. New timbers were brought in.

Beyond the park’s two full-time mechanics, the only outside agency responsible for checking on park safety has been the Elevator Section of the Division of Industrial Safety for the State of California. The agency’s inspections were something less than frequent. One or two investigators would go down to Belmont for a day “at least once every year” to eyeball the situation and look for physical defects. According to one of the agency’s supervisors, more frequent or detailed inspections were unnecessary, and he blamed Hollywood disaster movies for turning everybody into nervous nellies.

During daylight hours, Belmont has traditionally attracted families and younger kids (for 75 cents admission or $ 3.75 a day) while the night has been given over to sailors and teens. This, along with a general lack of upkeep, has created an atmosphere of friendly sleaziness, a cotton candy and Quaalude kind of ambiance that combined the best of Main Street, Disneyland and back-street Tijuana.

In 1974, Belmont tried to play to the night crowd by opening an entertainment center, the “Belmont Palace,” in the old bumper car pavilion. Unfortunately, the acts booked there never quite drew the crowds hoped for. Among the better shows staged at the “Palace” were Lassie the Wonder Dog, Shari Lewis and her puppets Lamb Chop and Charlie Horse, and in the spring of 1975 (“Live from Saigon!”) Crazy Dog, a Vietnamese rock band that could do nearly exact reproductions of Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison and other dead American pop stars.

In 1973, after a series of heated meetings with the Mission Beach residents and shop owners opposed to the “noisy eyesore,” the San Diego City Council unanimously voted to grant a new 20 year lease on the park, in the hope that it would continue “to thrill young and old alike for many years to come.” Unfortunately, Bill Evens refused to sign the new lease, but there were no other concessionaires willing to step forward, since 85 percent of nothing is still nothing.

This past fall Belmont Park closed for the last time. Evens told the city he might try to keep it open part-time, but then, about a month ago, let them know that there was no way he could continue to operate it. He blames the closing on his “rising insurance costs, utilities, and the rise in the minimum wage.”

Harpo owns a vegetarian food stand on Ventura Place across the street from the amusement park. He’s sitting out front dressed only in a pair of shorts and a curly gray beard, watching a dog standing on a surfboard on top of a pickup. “The merchants around here will be glad to see that place go,” he says. “It won’t hurt business, ‘cause we still have the beach, the boardwalk, and the Boulevard. Mostly they’ll be glad to be done with the noise pollution.” Then, smiling crookedly, he shakes his head, “Of course, they’re only a handful. That place has brought laughter to millions.”

On March First, the San Diego City Council will hear recommendations for possible use of its Belmont Park property. The Department of Parks and Recreation is working on a proposal to maintain the plunge, the carousel, and the rollercoaster while converting the rest to green space. Other proposals, including one from the “Magic Mountain” theme park conglomerate will also be aired at that time. Concerned citizens, carnies, teens, roadies, and rowdies are invited to attend.

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Bellmont Park - Image by Ian Dryden
Bellmont Park

They’ve taken the cars off the Ferris wheel and started re-painting them so that they’ll look good when the buyers from the International Association for Amusement Parks come around. They’ve locked up the arcade booths and junk food concessions. Broken glass, air compressors, and beached plastic whales from Kiddie Land now litter the “funway” between the Scrambler and the Himalayan Carousel. Even “Earthquake,” the 75-foot high, 2,800-foot long roller coaster, stands mute against the horizon, somehow ominous in its shroud of silence. Belmont Park, the old-style amusement park at the end of Mission Boulevard, has closed its gates. After 50 years of service to sailors, tourists, and teenyboppers, it has fallen victim to a modern American malady – obsolete by reason of unprofitability.

Belmont Park was not San Diego’s first amusement park. On July Fourth, 1913, “Wonderland” opened in Ocean Beach to an assembled throng of 20,000, one-third the population of San Diego. On hand to help celebrate the event were mayors, brass bands, and fireworks displays from Italy. Wonderland had the biggest rollercoaster on the West Coast, a giant water slide/boat ride, a Japanese tea garden, a casino that could seat 650, and even a menagerie that included bobcats, bears, ostriches, and 350 monkeys.

Wonderland lasted two seasons. In 1915, the Panama-Pacific Exposition in Balboa Park drew the crowds away. Then high tides in January, 1916 washed out the sand from under the rollercoaster. The ride was closed and the park began a gradual shutdown. The menagerie was moved to Balboa Park where it became a part of the new Zoological Garden.

In 1922 the Spreckles Company acquired extensive land holdings on the sand spit known as Mission Beach. Three years later, they opened a new amusement park out there on the sand. The Mission Beach Amusement Center (Belmont Park) included a new rollercoaster, once again the largest on the West Coast, and the biggest indoor swimming pool. In 1934 the company donated the park to the city via the State Park Commission. They thought it would be a good way to promote real estate and summer rentals in the Mission Beach area. The State Park Commission delayed transfer of the title until 1937, at which point it approved a 50-year lease for the city to run the amusement center.

The city immediately tried to sublease the park to one Ernest Pickering, a concessionaire. But Pickering balked at having to sign a lease that would require spending $1,200 a year in upkeep. In 1938 Mr. Pickering died. In 1939 the Governor signed a bill releasing all state claims on the park, and the city settled out of court with Mrs. Pickering who sold her interest in the unsigned lease back to the city for $10,000. The city then spent an additional $30,000 to upgrade the park before going out to look for another concessionaire. They decided, however, to keep the “plunge,” the larger than Olympic size, heated indoor swimming pool, under city management. For the rest, they found an endless series of managers willing to run the rides and attractions. The city made the lease attractive by offering a hefty percentage of the profits (75-85 percent).

Wayne Dailard won a lease in 1940 which he sold to Larry Finley in 1944. Finley stayed around for the scandal of 1945 when Mayor Knox was accused of being the silent partner of taxi-cab tycoon Joe Green (who owned two restaurants at the amusement center), then sold his interest in the park to Warner Austin in 1947. In 1954 James Mitchell and John Ray got hold of the lease. That was also the year that the rollercoaster caught fire and had to be closed down.

In 1955, Ray sued the city to compel them to make improvements in the park; the city countersued charging Ray with failure of upkeep. The following year the Grand Jury recommended that the city take control of Belmont Park, but everybody managed to ignore that suggestion, and, after agreeing to drop their suits, Ray and the city sat down to discuss new ways of raising revenues. One suggestion was to turn the Mission Beach Ballroom into a roller skating rink.

In 1957, unable to make necessary repairs after three years, the Mission Beach Coaster Company, owners of the rollercoaster, declared bankruptcy and it was sold to Ray’s Mission Beach Amusement Company. Shortly thereafter, Ray announced its opening. In 1963, Ray got a new 15-year lease sans James Mitchell. He announced in 1967, a $100,000 expansion program for the south parking lot area, bringing in a dozen new rides and attractions. Two years later, he died. His widow sold the lease to William D. Evens.

“We had five codes on the PA system,” recalls Mark, a college student who spent one summer working as a relief man in the park. “Code One was a call for the manager. Code Two was for the ride supervisor. Code Three was for a relief man. Four was the emergency call-up for the two security guards, and Code Five meant Mr. Evens was on the property. That meant everybody jumped.”

Bill Evens is the owner of the Catamaran and Bahia hotels as well as numerous other properties in San Diego and around the state. Originally, when he purchased the Belmont Park lease in 1969, he’d hoped to tear it down and put up a new hotel. “It would have been a great location for an ocean-site, bay-frontage hotel, of which there is not one on the Pacific coast,” he recalls wistfully. “Unfortunately there was just too much opposition. People didn’t want it.”

Faced with the ownership of an amusement park he didn’t want, Bill Evens did the best he could. He started cutting costs. One of the first things he did was to get rid of the individual concessionaires and the old midway carnies who had been hustling there for years, and replace them with young students, ex-cons and transients. He aggravated the high rate of turnover among his hundred or so employees by providing them with long hours on short pay. “Weekdays we worked ten hours, twelve on the weekends for two dollars an hour,” says Sol, who worked the park two summers ago. “We spent most of our breaks either getting drunk at La Cantina, which is a bar just outside the north gate, or otherwise toking up under the rollercoaster or behind the bumper car pavilion. There weren’t a whole lot of ride operators who were sober all the time that I recall.”

One was park employees could supplement their meager incomes was through regular searches for wallets dislodged from customers pockets on the Rollo-Plane, Swissbob, Sky-Diver, and other “shake-em-up” rides. There was also the rollercoaster operator who, after a group of sailors had taken the ride, would remove the red-and-white shirt that marked him as a park employee and try to get a bet going that he could ride the front car standing up. After showing them his stuff, he’d collect and pocket the wager, sometimes as much as $20.

In the spring of 1973, about 36 of the park employees walked off the job with the Service Employees Union. Most were fired. Mark remembers the tensions that followed in the wake of that walk-out. “Everybody was told, I remember that I was told to warn people not to talk to union organizers, on or off the job. The word was passed that anyone seen talking to a union organizer would be fired. I was told to tell this to all my ride operators and also to tell on any of them that I discovered conversing with any union person. Belmont Park put out a lot of literature attacking the union… This was just around the time of that big summer riot.”

As with any beach-front attraction that brings together large numbers of teenagers, Belmont Park has had its share of fights, disturbances, and Fourth of July trashings. But the granddaddy blow-out of them all took place on July First, 1973. La Raza Productions, a Chicano group, had organized a benefit rock concert for the children’s breakfast program in southeast San Diego. The radio had been advertising $2.50 tickets good for half-a-day’s rides plus admission to the concert.

Between seven and ten thousand mostly black and Chicano young people arrived at the park that day. Most had not purchased their tickets in advance. While La Raza Productions set up a booth to sell the combination tickets, the park continued to sell regular half-day tickets at the main entrance, not bothering to explain to people that these tickets would not get them in to the concert. To make matters worse, ticket sellers continued selling tickets right up to five minutes of six, the time the half-day tickets became invalid. A former Park employee describes the scene from there.

“People were getting very rowdy and complaining, so the concert people opened up the concert for free, but by that time there were cops inside the park, just crawling all over, and people went kind of nuts .One of the guys was up on the rollercoaster, on the platform there, where you did all the controls, and people started shooting arrows at him from the archery range. One of the workers got stabbed, a mechanic. The manager, this woman, I forget her name, who was just like a very old painted lady, she was punctured in her left breast by a dart that somebody threw at her during this melee. It was pretty insane.” Eventually one hundred riot equipped police were able to clear the area despite rock and bottle throwing. Seven people were arrested.

“If you unbalance the Ferris wheel, especially that one, because it’s so old, it’ll start backing up on you,” another former park employee recalls. “What can happen then is that the footrest can catch on the back of the boarding ramp and tilt the car, just sort of flipping you out flat on the concrete. I saw that happen once. The only way you can stop that from happening is as soon as it starts backing up, you immediately yell for everybody that works around there to haul their ass over. Then you throw the motor on full to slow down the backing and you have the people just hang off the thing, so that between the motor working against it and the hanging bodies on the lattice-work, you should be able to slow the reverse down enough so people don’t get caught on the ramp.”

For years worried parents have been warning their children against the dangers of the rides at Belmont Park, and teenage romantics have challenged each other with stories of death and disaster. In truth, the only recorded death at the park was that of a sailor who threw himself off the rollercoaster in a late-50s suicide. In 1967, two kids were4 injured when a safety door gave way on the Sky-Diver, a kind of Ferris wheel with cabs that flip upside down and turn on a free axle. One 13-year old girl was left in serious condition with head injuries, a broken left wrist, and a broken right leg. In 1971, three 14-year old National City girls were injured when the Sky-Diver cab in which they were riding came loose of its support. Luckily, they were close to the ground at the time. In 1968 inspectors closed the rollercoaster for six weeks when the timbers supporting it were found to be oil-soaked and deteriorated. New timbers were brought in.

Beyond the park’s two full-time mechanics, the only outside agency responsible for checking on park safety has been the Elevator Section of the Division of Industrial Safety for the State of California. The agency’s inspections were something less than frequent. One or two investigators would go down to Belmont for a day “at least once every year” to eyeball the situation and look for physical defects. According to one of the agency’s supervisors, more frequent or detailed inspections were unnecessary, and he blamed Hollywood disaster movies for turning everybody into nervous nellies.

During daylight hours, Belmont has traditionally attracted families and younger kids (for 75 cents admission or $ 3.75 a day) while the night has been given over to sailors and teens. This, along with a general lack of upkeep, has created an atmosphere of friendly sleaziness, a cotton candy and Quaalude kind of ambiance that combined the best of Main Street, Disneyland and back-street Tijuana.

In 1974, Belmont tried to play to the night crowd by opening an entertainment center, the “Belmont Palace,” in the old bumper car pavilion. Unfortunately, the acts booked there never quite drew the crowds hoped for. Among the better shows staged at the “Palace” were Lassie the Wonder Dog, Shari Lewis and her puppets Lamb Chop and Charlie Horse, and in the spring of 1975 (“Live from Saigon!”) Crazy Dog, a Vietnamese rock band that could do nearly exact reproductions of Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison and other dead American pop stars.

In 1973, after a series of heated meetings with the Mission Beach residents and shop owners opposed to the “noisy eyesore,” the San Diego City Council unanimously voted to grant a new 20 year lease on the park, in the hope that it would continue “to thrill young and old alike for many years to come.” Unfortunately, Bill Evens refused to sign the new lease, but there were no other concessionaires willing to step forward, since 85 percent of nothing is still nothing.

This past fall Belmont Park closed for the last time. Evens told the city he might try to keep it open part-time, but then, about a month ago, let them know that there was no way he could continue to operate it. He blames the closing on his “rising insurance costs, utilities, and the rise in the minimum wage.”

Harpo owns a vegetarian food stand on Ventura Place across the street from the amusement park. He’s sitting out front dressed only in a pair of shorts and a curly gray beard, watching a dog standing on a surfboard on top of a pickup. “The merchants around here will be glad to see that place go,” he says. “It won’t hurt business, ‘cause we still have the beach, the boardwalk, and the Boulevard. Mostly they’ll be glad to be done with the noise pollution.” Then, smiling crookedly, he shakes his head, “Of course, they’re only a handful. That place has brought laughter to millions.”

On March First, the San Diego City Council will hear recommendations for possible use of its Belmont Park property. The Department of Parks and Recreation is working on a proposal to maintain the plunge, the carousel, and the rollercoaster while converting the rest to green space. Other proposals, including one from the “Magic Mountain” theme park conglomerate will also be aired at that time. Concerned citizens, carnies, teens, roadies, and rowdies are invited to attend.

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