In defence of Luna, and the Dark Park.

In which I demand the reinstatement of all Luna Parks in Theme Park Theory and Design.

I‘m very grateful again to my missus for digging up an essential research source, being the program for an exhibition Luna Park and the Art of Mass Delirium. Held at The Museum of Modern Art at Heide in 1998, it catalogues responses to Luna Park St Kilda by mid 20th century painters Sidney Nolan, Joy Hester et al. alongside current visual artists. The art itself is not that appealing to me, but the included essays show how ignorant I am of the entire history – as are the people that claim to teach theme park design.

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Jennifer Phipps, a curator at the NGV, takes up the history of the Melbourne artists and park and makes many points, a few of which I can summarise here. In the wartime 1940’s, St Kilda housed American soldiers, about which the general consensus was they were ‘over paid, over sexed, and over here’. The park, ‘browned out’ as a war precaution, was filled with soldiers attended by young girls looking for a thrill, perhaps getting more thrill than the one they expected. Like all of Coney Island in New York, Luna Park was at the time considered a seedy place – both in Melbourne and Sydney. (When I asked my old dad about Sydney Luna, he would just say it was filled with ‘yanks and whores’).

Given the facts of the ‘Brown Out Murders’, it was a valid point of view, if unfortunate.

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The painters had a mixture of admiration and horror for the park, which they saw in the context of the war. Nolan, generally in favour of the vitality of the park, conflated the lines of the roller coaster with the tracer lines of ack-ack guns and produced designs for the ballet Icarus where the boy falling from the sky equaled the coaster in descent. But Hester painted a darker image of woman prone on the ground, the victim of a leering Luna face.

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In my own vocabulary, these painters were working with the light/dark modern/mannerist Orphic principle of the parks – the ‘mass delirium’ identified by the exhibition. There’s more context for why Disney, an artist, held such a revulsion to American parks as they were in the 1940’s and attempted Jekyll and Hyde surgery for his own land.

Ian McDougall, adjunct professor of architecture at RMIT, provides a masterful history of theme park architecture which should be mandatory reading for any study of park design. He describes what is very likely the prototype of the theme park in the circa 1550 Gardens at Bomarzo. Here are dragons and monsters, and the inscription that it’s sol per sfogare il Core … a bit like Just For Fun. He describes the 1968 study Learning From Las Vegas by Brown & Venturi, a significant work in which the pop art of the Strip was documented and became valid and worthy of inclusion in academic built environment design.

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I was most taken with his account of the 1978 book Delirious New York by Rem Koolhaas that sets out the history of Coney Island, the 1939 World’s Fair, and NYC itself as an ongoing battle between light and dark. At one point the struggle is written as directly waged between Salvador Dali and Le Corbusier – both armed with Dali’s Paranoid Critical Technique. It’s not hard to find a naughty copy of the book online, and you have to read it before you can really understand the history and mentality of Luna Parks wherever they came to be.

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For me the message is good – there is a body of theoretical work, unfortunately unknown or denied by the practice where ‘imagineering’ has been set up as the whole reason. There is no justification for editing history to start in 1955 – that simply marks a reaction to what was there before. The reaction requires explanation, and that can be found as far back as 1550.

It all needs to be given some long trousers, and perhaps it’s something that I can do.

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An Orphic view of the fun fair.

In which Disney’s desire to expunge Mr. Hyde from Dr. Jekyll’s fun fair is argued to be flimflam.

I’m grateful to my missus for David Younger’s Theme Park Design book, which turns out to be a long and deadly serious text. Seeing as you can have physics textbooks with colour pictures and multiple fonts, it feels as if theme parks are being presented here as no laughing matter.

From it I find that my ideas on narrative have been embarrassingly naïve. Just pretend I didn’t write any of it thank you. The discussion of theme park storytelling is long and embattled, with the Europeans somewhat skeptical and the Americans doubling down. It also depends on the era you’re talking about.

Younger has a nomenclature for design eras, very Disney-centric like everything in the book. But to my way of thinking, it starts too late in the history

‘Traditional’ is the design category for the original Disneyland, immersive and thematic. As Disney became more involved in edutainment the real world became more important, and a ‘presentational’ style downplayed theming in favour of clean and simple lines that kept out of the way. In this scheme Fantasyland is traditional, while EPCOT is presentational. When the luster of big science wore off in the 70’s, the ‘postmodern’ style began to tease and mock the earnestness of these formats – as in the early Disney California Adventure.

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Trylon and Perisphere, with the helicline walkway. 1939.

But I think both presentational Tomorrowland and traditional Fantasyland have lived side by side from the very beginning. The two styles also represent something much older – the ‘ying and yang’ of the world fairs which had a light (inspirational, educational) side matched with a dark (exotic, disturbing) side. It seems fair to say the Trylon and Perisphere of the 1939 New York fair are ‘presentational’, as is the Eiffel Tower. Disney would never had allowed Salvador Dali’s Dream of Venus on site (although they did collaborate on a film) but the dark rides of Fantasyland are informed by those of the Amusement Zone.

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How much was Disney inspired by Elektro the Moto-man to create an improved robot of President Lincoln for the 1965 fair? Did he take notes at Frank Buck’s Jungleland? To what extent did the 1939 model ‘city of tomorrow’ presume the model ‘community of tomorrow’ 30 years later? Did the idea for a main street leading to a central hub already exist?

But was Disney involved at the ’39 fair at all?

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Mickey cartoon for the Nabisco Pavilion 1939 World Fair

Yes, deeply at many levels. And when Disneyland was in financial trouble he first wrote to the companies who had been at the fair for the same kind of sponsorship. They turned him down, but responded when a financial man made serious deals – and Monsanto et al. were on-site, plugging their wares.

Disneyland is in many aspects a small copy of a world fair, mixed with copies of European pleasure parks. It did not spring solely from his imagination.

You can argue that Theme Parks have to start somewhere if you’re trying to keep a document under a page count, or that world fairs are not strictly theme parks. But I can’t base my understanding of the design without tracing the ancestry.

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What was Disney’s point of difference?

The main change he brought about was his desire that the dark, unpleasant aspects of the traditional fun fair be expunged so that children could be safe at his park from dirt of all kinds. Pinocchio illustrates his feelings on the matter.

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Pleasure Island, where unbridled libido is rampant.

The fun fair was a place for adults, where children would be corrupted – turned into jackasses. They were indeed messy and corrupting places filled with more adults than children. That’s the point. Parks are an opportunity for Bacchanalia – the ecstatic, the liberating, drunken and drugged outburst of enthusiasm required by society to keep strong urges in a contained context.

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Still from “Speedy” c.1929 There children mixed in with the adults, but not as expected.

But in 1958 The Saturday Evening Post still counted four adults to one child in Disneyland. The ‘Orphic’ view (as in, that traditionally ascribed the legendary poet Orpheus) is that civilization requires balance with madness, Apollo and Bacchus – and the world fairs had this not by intent, but by demand of their audience. Disney was one man trying to impose his tidyness on the nature of things.

Cutting the dark side of the fun park from the light side wasn’t ever really possible, and lead only to an undeserved historical distaste for the earlier Bacchanalian ‘Luna’ parks. If you can’t climb up, then push down. A ride such as Snow White’s Scary Adventures is just a ghost train with IP attached.

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I argue all of this because I can’t see a logical reason my own city’s park to be cut out of design knowledge. More on that later.