These days, you won't hear any singing commercials for Marshall Hall Amusement Park. If you could, they would probably be very short and out of tune, and end with "Taps."
Once the belle of southern Maryland, Marshall Hall now is 102 years old, aged and cracked and wobbling on its last legs. Paint is peeling on its midway facades. There's no money to maintain the rides that used to spin and twirl and scramble your brains.
It'll be closed next year and taken over by the goverment, but before that happens it's a bonanza for nostalgia buffs yearning for bygone days - when amusements didn't need fancy themes to package their foolishness.
Imagine riding the thrill-of-a-lifetime roller coaster, courting your sweetie in the fragrant gardens or losing your shirt at the arcade slot machines.
During its heyday - roughly 1940 to 1970 - Marshall Hall was a fantastic wonderland that drew thousands from Washington and Baltimore to this Disneyland on the Potomac. Three times daily, the Wilson Line deposited 3,000 visitors at the riverside gate after a stop across the water at George Washington's Mount Vernon home. Locals used to come out for the 9 p.m. run just to watch the fashion show arrive under blinking lights.
Once inside, the adults would make a bee-line for the cinder-block building that held the one-armed bandits lined up like rowhouses. The kids would be loosed with a handful of quarters to stuff into bowling machines or waste on sugar highs of cotton candy and ice cream. The elderly would be content to watch the shenanigans from park benches since, as one recalls, "It was a lovely place to sit and do nothing."
Andalways there were crowds, great masses of yelling kids who rode the rickety Wild Mouse and banged each other silly on the dodge 'em cars. At first they came from the families of southern Maryland farmers, from wealthy tobacco planters and horse breeders. Later appeared the suburbanites who wanted a quick history lesson at Mount Vernon before succumbing to the lure of the amusement park.
"The cars'd be backed up half a mile one way and as far as you could see the other way," says Samuel Lynch, a park employee for 15 years and currently the conductor of the Frontier Railroad. "It was so packed that you could't walk around, let alone do your work."
What changed this idyllic scene was a host of calamities brought on by Uncle Sam and a new breed of superlick entertainments parks. In 1974 the Interior Department purchased the property to stem further development that could destroy the scenic view from Mount Vernon. In 1976 the Wilson Line ceased its stopover at Marshall Hall, cutting of the main route for thrillseekers from the city.
The opening of Busch Gardens and Kings Dominion sucked away the bulk of the once-formidable crowds. There was no way a creaky wooden coaster could complete with corkscrew scream machines like the Loch Ness Monster and the Rebel Yell. "The theme parks played havoc with us," sums up Margaret Addison, manager of Marshall Hall.
So the aging seductress dropped from sight, to live its last days in obscurity. Nowadays barely 500 visitors cross its turnstiles on a weekend afternoon. The mammoth rollercoaster has been shut down since a tornado last year split the skeletal structive into pieces. The horses on the carousel were long ago auctioned off after the merry-go-round's engine fell apart.
Marshall Hall is going to seed as quietly as your spring squash.
And yet it still remains a grande dame of an amusement park for anyone who appreaciates ten-cent pinball machines, squeaky dumb rides like "Laff in the Dark" and enough corny booths to ler you forget the sticky summer for several hours of cheap thrills.
For three dollars at the gate you ride as often and as many rides as your innards can stand. There are no tickets and certainly no mobs. The selection's no Coney Island, but there are enough fair-type twisters and scramblers to satisfy most maniacal dare-devils.
The more sedate folks can take a burlap bag to the top of the slide and glide down the waves of blue plastic. The Frontier Railroad chugs around the park carrying its passenders on a mellow five-minute ride. You get a complete tour of the devastated roller coaster, the remains of a ski lift ride, the winding fence filled with honeysuckle and a lot of beery picnickers waving at the train.
What's best may be the air-conditioned arcade where prices are frozen in a pre-inflation decade. While D.C. bars offer three-ball machines at a quarter a throw, Marshall Hall has some vintage five-ball jobs that go for a dime. There's none of the new math scoring of 10,000 points on any bumper toss; you advance your score one point at a time on the ancient contraptions.
Another ten cents will animate any number of 50-year-old arcade games of shooting, hitting or shaking. Squeeze the handle and see if your kisses rate "lukewarm" or "red hot lover"! Ask Granny of the "Grandma's Predictions" machine for your fortune on a bubble gum card! Many devices are priceless antiques - Marshall Hall turned down an offer of $3,500 for Granny not long ago.
Outside, you can stroll in virtual solitude under the shade trees near the river. The original house of William Marshall I still stands, built in 1690, a half -century before Mount Vernon. Legend has it that Washington wanted the Marshall property but didn't get there before Marshall snapped it up. Washington had to settle for the colonial spread across the river.
While you can pack away all the standard foods at any baseball stadium, the concession stand has seen better days. The 50-cent sign advertising soft ice cream has been Xed out to read 40 cents. Where once there was a rainbow's choice of snow-cone flavors, now only two choices are featured on any one day. "Well, yes, it gets kind of monotonous," murmured the girl at the counter.
Granted, it's better to forewarn those who like their entertainment fast-food style that they may be put off by the somewhat sad, somewhat sleazy condition of Marshall Hall. A motionless ferris wheel is not a pretty picture. And you must sit gingerly on the park benches worn rubbery by the years.
Remember it thrived in an earlier age. Like Glen Echo before it, Marshall Hall could'nt keep up with the tastes of the seventies. So experience the old-fashioned grandeur before it's laid to rest. This year, Marshall Hall hangs on until Labor Day.