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Long Story Short: Goodbye, Fantasy Island; hello, crows

2/24/20



 

Gone? Wow!

A fond childhood memory for many area residents born after 1949 has bit the dust. Fantasy Island announced last Wednesday that it’s permanently closing. “Despite significant effort and a great deal of investment in infrastructure, rides and new themed areas,” a statement by Apex Parks Group reads, “we have not seen an improvement in operating results.”

 

Of course, that could be because the company ran the place into the ground, cutting staff and entertainment, charging for parking, and allowing rides and attractions to fall into disrepair. Now, the rides are being sold off, without any chance that the park will be rescued, as it has been in the past.

 

A brief trip down memory lane

Let’s go back to the beginning. I was nine when the park opened in 1961, the perfect age to be awed by its novelty acts, rides, fairytale decor, and attractions. Even before the park opened, local kids were primed with anticipation by the hour-long Fantasy Island TV show, 9 a.m. Saturday mornings on WGRZ, Channel 2. Hosted by Buckskin Joe (Fantasy Island general manager Clyde Farnan), it featured characters from the parks’ much-loved Wild West Show: Marshall Rick, Annie Oakley, Little Bo Peep, Cactus Pete, and Black Bart (business manager, Harvey Benatovich). And guess what: when you went to the park you could actually see and talk to these TV stars! At that time, when they staged the western shootout show, all the kids were deputized with tin badges.

 

Throughout the years, the park featured marionette shows, Tarzan the lion-tamer, musical acts, Can-Can dancers, magicians, high wire walkers, and trained chimps. If all that wasn’t enough, there was a stage coach ride on which—if memory serves me (and it may not)—as a young couple were flirtatiously tussling, the driver took out his pistol and impassively shot the boy dead, his body falling off the coach into the dust. “See, that’s what happens if you don’t behave,” my father counseled me as I sat terrified into silence. Those were the days.

 

A lifelong impression

As an adult artist, I recently created an installation titled The Artist’s Dream for an interactive art event in Medina, NY called Play/Ground. What people didn’t know was that the impetus for the work—which featured a modified room that produced an optical illusion—came from an early attraction at Fantasy Island called The Magnetic Mine. Clearly, it left an impression. Speaking of leaving impressions, in the late 1970s, the park began running a series of TV commercials whose earworm catch phrase—"Fun, Wow!”—still occasionally pops up in conversation among older locals.

 

In 1982, the park went into bankruptcy. Charles Wood, who owned StoryTown USA near Albany, rescued it, and in 1989 he sold it to International Broadcasting Corporation, then bought it back again when that company entered bankruptcy in 1992. Martin DiPietro bought the park in 1994, renaming it Martin’s Fantasy Island. He sold it to Apex in 2016, and regular visitors say it declined rapidly from there.

 

Hail Mary pass

Recently, in an interview to promote his new movie Sonic the Hedgehog, Toronto-born actor Jim Carrey reminisced fondly about spending summers in Buffalo, citing Fantasy Island and the Tarzan show as fond memories. Area fans have been tweeting desperate pleas for Carrey to save the park for future generations. The actor has not responded, so it looks like this local attraction will be relegated to fond memory status, along with Crystal Beach Park and the smaller Glen Casino Amusement Park in Williamsville.   

 

 

Something to crow about

I love my hot tub.

 

My wife was the one who originally wanted it fifteen years ago, but she quickly lost interest, and now I’m the only one who uses it. It’s a Softub, energy efficient and easy to install, but it still seems like an extravagance. Truth is, I’m addicted. I estimate that I use it about 340 days of the year, nearly always very late at night, the last thing before bed. You might wonder what I wear in the tub in these cold winter months. The answer is earmuffs. The eight-foot dash from the door to the tub and back is a bracing experience I both dread and relish.

 

The Birds

While that image is burning into your brain, let me tell you what happened last Tuesday. I was in the tub about 2:30 a.m., reading Rachel Maddow’s book Blowout with my LED flashlight. The sky was overcast, rendering it gray rather than black. At some point I heard the cawing of a couple crows, which seemed strange, since birds usually quiet down at night. This continued for a while, then a few more joined the chorus.

 

Subsequently, I heard an unfamiliar and mildly alarming sound, which I thought might be an animal disrupting the winter tarps covering our planters. But the strange noise was actually coming from above. It was the sound of thousands of crows flying in formation, so many that it blackened the grey sky. It was like a scene out of Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds.

 

With hundreds of them directly overhead, my first impulse was fear of bird poop, a concern borne out by the appearance of my car the next day. Most of the birds roosted so tightly on a very large maple tree behind my house that in the dark it looked like the branches had regrown their summer foliage. The cacophonous cawing sounded like a menacingly jeering mob. I don’t mind admitting that I felt a little vulnerable there in my earmuffs.

 

The showdown

They don’t call an assembly of crows a murder for nothing. The origin of that name is unclear, but it likely has to do with them being scavengers. Seeing crows clustered around an animal corpse, our forebears envisioned them as murderous scoundrels preying on their victim. Laying in my hot tub, I wondered whether I looked dead. There’s a lot of folklore involving crows. Based on an old wives’ tale, Hitchcock had them pecking out people’s eyes. So, there I was, squinting at this rabble of screeching birds, when it occurred to me that I had a potential weapon—my flashlight. I had no idea if it would have any effect, but I took aim at the tree and hit the on-button.

 

It was as if I fired a shotgun. All but a small percentage of birds abruptly took flight, triggering a thunderous fluttering and cawing sound. I picked off the remaining clusters, shooting-arcade style. Two or three stubborn crows necessitated extended beam blasts, until they too gave up and flew off. The tree was bare again, as the cawing faded into the distance.

 

Fifteen minutes later, they returned. I waited until they were good and settled, then fired again, this time with the rapid-flash beam. The powerful light ray scattered them en masse. Another ten minutes, and a third round, but there were fewer now. Crows are very smart animals, capable of learning. They have been observed in nature using simple tools. And, it turns out, they can remember your face. They have been known to take revenge on people who piss them off. This is no joke; you can read about it here. I just hoped they couldn’t see my face in the dark.  

 

Why Buffalo?

You might be wondering why crows are massing mid-winter around parts of Buffalo. Short answer: no one knows for sure, but there are educated guesses. Cities provide illumination, which offers crows protection from owls, their primary predator. Concrete, asphalt, and lights provide more warmth than open fields, and cities have taller trees to perch on than farmland. Tuesday also happened to be the night before our neighborhood garbage pickup day. Trash cans were out, and crows know humans waste incredible quantities of edible food. Then too, humans feed some animals, such as pets and songbirds. It’s all crow food to them.  

 

It turns out that upstate New York is a favorite winter stopover for crows. Most are migrating from northeast Canada through New York, to roosting areas in southwestern Pennsylvania. But crows are very sociable, so homegrown birds join migrant murders for one big annual caw-fest. Buffalo doesn’t even have the worst of it. Auburn, New York, has had murders as large as 100,000. Some cities have crow dispersal plans in place prior to their arrival. These can involve fireworks, recorded crow distress calls, lasers, dead crow effigies, those sorts of things. But that carries its own risks, because instead of one tightly clustered annoyance, you can end up with a widespread nuisance.

 

Epilogue

Wednesday night, I lay in my hot tub, light cannon at the ready. Nary a caw was heard. Apparently, I had singlehandedly vanquished the crow plague the night before.

 

Or perhaps they just moved on, as crows do.

 

Long Story Short is an opinion column by artist and educator Bruce Adams, a longtime contributor to Buffalo Spree.

 

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