Pretzel ride Crescent Park
     Believed to be Rhode Island’s very first single-rail dark ride, the Pretzel was installed in a new, large rectangular building in 1935.

Like many Pretzel dark rides of 1930s, it carried the Pretzel name on the façade along with Pretzel logos and question marks. It also had a cut-out window that gave riders a brief reprieve from the darkness.
     Not much is known about the very first stunts except for the hand-carved wooden alligator head displayed in a black box. As riders passed the head, it snapped its jaws – the movement being driven either by a floor lever or a cable rigged up to a double door. A tiny red light bulb lit up when the gator’s jaws opened. There’s some debate on the origin of the stunt – some say it was carved by Looff, Jr. long before the dark ride arrived and may have originated in Rivers of Venice.
     Others say it was a Pretzel stunt, possibly a forerunner to the papier- mâché Al E. Gator figure. The wooden alligator head in the Crescent Park Pretzel was similar in size and design to the Pretzel Amusement Ride Company’s papier mache stunt “Al E. Gator” in Sylvan Beach Amusement Park’s Laffland dark ride. (right) Around 1940, the Pretzel name on the top of the facade was painted over as the ride was renamed Witch Cave. But in 1951, under new park ownership, the ride got a total makeover inside and out. The new Laff In The Dark was a gem. Park co-owner Arthur Simmons went to great lengths to give the ride curb appeal, purchasing four “laffing” animal heads: a zebra, lion, tiger and donkey from Messmore and Damon’s “Under The Big Top” collection, and mounting them on the façade. He then purchased a half-dozen new stunts from Animated Display Creators and installed them in black boxes to compliment the existing stunts inside the ride.
     The ADC stunts included an African warrior pounding his spear, a skirted, hula-dancing hippo and an elephant balancing on a ball. The classic Pretzel logo cars were repainted taxi cab yellow. Over time, Simmons had park painter Minor continue to jazz up the façade using his magic brush to give bodies to the animal heads and illustrate what appeared to be 100 clowns waiting in line for the ride. The busy, but colorful façade stopped midway-goers in their tracks including this writer at age three in 1957. At first glance, I thought it was a shooting gallery and I was fearful that my grandfather was going shoot the friendly-looking animal heads as he did the metal ducks at an actual Mangels shooting gallery further up the midway earlier in the day. But when I saw the bright yellow cars entering and exiting the building, I knew this was uncharted territory that I had to explore. My grandparents reluctantly took me for a ride, launching my love affair for dark rides, especially Pretzel dark rides.

Below: A mounted zebra head from Messmore and Damon’s “Under The Big Top” collection greeted riders on a former dark ride, location not known. Coincidentally, the Crescent Park Laff In The Dark had a similar zebra head mounted near its entrance, although park painter Len Minor completed the illusion by illustrating a body below it.
     If Laff In The Dark were operating today, dark ride devotees would be flocking to Crescent Park in droves to ride it. In my humble opinion, it set the standard for a classic dark ride. I believe it exceeded the typical Pretzel installation of 350 feet of track and one and a half minute ride time. The winding track made its way through four quadrants on the spacious floor. It was pitch-black inside except when a stunt lit up and made your heart skip a beat. It had no interior walls, so with more than one car running, you could see flashes of light in the distance and hear the screams of startled riders. If you looked close enough you could see the sparks from the track wheel resembling fire flies on a hot summer’s night.
     Over the years I had a childhood obsession with Laff In the Dark which required two tickets (20 cents) to ride. In 1963 at age nine, I rode it ten straight times while my grandfather played a wheel of fortune game next to the ride. Tickets were half-price that day so my grandfather bought me 20 and told me “to keep riding it until you wear the seat of your paints off.” Clearly, he had his fill of me ranting about it during every waking hour of that scorching summer. The ride operator kept shaking his head in disbelief every time I got off an exiting car and ran up front to board the first car in the queue. On my tenth ride he buried his head in the control panel! When my Pretzel marathon ended, I believed I was the most fortunate kid in the world. My grandpa wore a big smile on his face too. He had won himself a table lamp at the wheel game while I was riding!

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