End of a Park Fit for the King

Reefal Wosilewski, left, and Peter Torcik prepare a section of the Revolution roller coaster at Libertyland to be moved.
Reefal Wosilewski, left, and Peter Torcik prepare a section of the Revolution roller coaster at Libertyland to be moved. (By A.j. Wolfe -- Commercial Appeal)
By Theo Emery
Special to The Washington Post
Monday, August 7, 2006

MEMPHIS -- During hot summer nights in the 1970s, the Memphis fairground would close down to the strains of "Goodnight Sweetheart," but neighborhood residents sometimes heard the rumble of the roller coaster, the Pippin, long after the gates were locked.

The rides kept running and the lights stayed on for a special customer, Elvis Presley. He would rent the park, bring family and friends, and ride the roller coaster in privacy around and around the wooden track.

The Zippin Pippin, as it was later renamed, is silent now. Libertyland park closed to the public last fall and has not reopened. This is only the third summer in generations that the Pippin has not clattered over its tracks. The park's historic Grand Carousel is dark, its painted wooden horses stabled behind locked doors. The other rides and attractions have been sold and are being trucked away piece by piece.

The padlocking of Libertyland angered some Memphians, who fought to keep the park open and get the Pippin and the historic carousel off the auction block. In the end, the city claimed the carousel, and two Nashville collectors with a traveling museum bought the coaster in June.

"Memphis has become a little less unique, a little more generic," said Steven J. Mulroy, an assistant professor of law at the University of Memphis. He acted as spokesman for the group Save Libertyland and was elected county commissioner last week.

The carousel, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, will likely turn again. Preservationists are looking for a new home for it, such as the zoo or the Children's Museum of Memphis.

The future is less certain for the Pippin. Stephen M. Shutts, 42, came to the June auction with his business partner, musician Robert Reynolds, hoping to buy just the Pippin's lead car -- Elvis's favorite -- for their traveling museum, the Honky Tonk Hall of Fame & Rock-N-Roll Roadshow.

They were not allowed to bid on just the car, so they decided to try for the entire roller coaster. To their surprise, they had the winning bid: $2,500. Now, they are trying to figure out what to do with the coaster.

Shutts, a former Elvis impersonator, recently visited the park to inspect his new acquisition. Shutts said he would love to find a corporate partner that would pay to move and operate the Pippin in Memphis -- or at least find a preservation-minded park owner that would keep it intact elsewhere.

"It should be preserved," Shutts said. "I'd love to see it stay in Memphis. It would make a lot of people happy. But if it goes to somewhere in Tennessee, I'd be almost just as happy."

The park opened as Libertyland in 1976, but it dates to the early 20th century, when the huge midtown property was a racetrack and the site of an enormous regional fair.

After the state outlawed betting on horse races, 24 acres of the fairground was converted to an amusement park in 1923. The Grand Carousel and its hand-carved horses were considered a national treasure. Fans of the Pippin came from miles around.

After he became too famous to easily go out in public, Elvis would rent the park so he could ride the bumper cars and the Pippin uninterrupted. The park got a facelift and reopened in 1976 with a new, patriotic name, and the Pippin became the Zippin Pippin.

But Libertyland never thrived, according to the Mid-South Fair, which ran the park and the eponymous fall fair. In nearly 30 years, the park turned a profit in just four, losing about $600,000 annually in recent years. The board decided to close it last fall.

"There just wasn't anybody who could come up with any ideas or enough money to save it," said Billy Orr, the fair's general manager.

The city is looking for other uses for the property. While there are several proposals for the site, "the city is not interested in having a theme park of any variety," said Cynthia Buchanan, director of city parks.

"The long and the short of it is that its time had come," she said.

The closure of the park left an unexpected void in midtown Memphis. Just about every Memphian has a Libertyland story, park supporters say.

Tammy Fondren came of age with a Libertyland season pass in her pocket. The Pippin's rumble was her summertime soundtrack, and she saved up for her wedding ring with money she made counting gate receipts.

"This is home. I've literally been coming and going here since 1976," Fondren said.

On a recent hot summer morning, Libertyland was a forlorn ghost town. The sign had come down from above the front gates, leaving a ghostly outline of the letters. Trumpet flower vines choked the suspension bridge leading to Tom Sawyer's Island. Ornamental fish swam in the canals, but the water was green and clogged with leaves.

Power tools whined as a worker disassembled the Paratrooper, and the Dragon Wagon and the Little Fender Bender were already gone.

The closure upset 9-year-old Leanna Ritter, whose mother, Mary, worked summers waxing the tracks for one of the park rides. Leanna said she cried herself to sleep when she heard Libertyland had closed.

As she sat outside the park, squinting in the bright sunlight, she mused: "I wonder what Elvis would think about them taking this place down."

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