One by one the hockey heroes skate up towards the camera from the far blue line, stop with a spray of ice just missing the lens, then announce their name and team. Finally, the last professional pumps his legs forward with the smooth motion of the others and stops in the same controlled fashion. But when he announces his name, I’m shocked to discover he’s no hockey player.
“Bill Shatner. Loblaws,” states the confident former Captain Kirk.
For those not familiar, Loblaws is a Canadian grocery chain. In the 1960’s and early 1970’s they had stores in Buffalo (primarily) and Rochester (maybe just one, but I lived next to it). It was an era before Wegmans went on supermarket steroids and totally dominated the market. Loblaws was Canada’s pride but eventually sold out to Bells Markets.
In 1975 Loblaws was a player – at least in my neighborhood – and no more so because it offered free NHL “Action Stamps.” They even provided a book to put the stamps in. My brother and I each filled a book. It was an exciting year for the hockey fans of Greater Western New York as the Sabres, led by the French Connection, were about to play themselves into the Stanley Cup Finals for the first time. It was the first NHL Championship to feature two non-“Original Six” teams. It would also signal the last time a pure Canadian roster would win the Stanley Cup. Indeed, the series featured only on American born player – Sabres defenseman Lee Fogolin, Jr., a native of Chicago, Illinois. The 1975 Stanley Cup Finals, though, might be most remembered for Game 3 in the Aud. Unseasonably warm temperatures caused the ice to fog up, but not before a bat (the mammal kind, not the baseball kind) strafed the skaters – at least until Sabres center Jim Lorenz slashed the flying pest with his stick. As far as we know, this was the first and only premeditated murder of an animal during an NHL game. Lorenz served no time in the box, but Rene Robert scored the winner in overtime, giving the Sabres their first Stanley Cup victory.
But before NHL Action Stamps, and when I still lived in Blasdell, Loblaws (along with other area supermarkets) gave away something of even greater value – free tickets to Fantasy Island. Each year at the end of school, we’d count our A’s, since for every A we got, we received Fantasy Island tickets.
Now, for those of you not familiar with the Fantasy Island of the 1960’s, and for those who think Darien Lake represents the epitome of Summertime fun, every school child’s dream was to get an A to get free tickets to Fantasy Island. Why? Because Fantasy Island would be the closest most of us would ever get to going to Disneyland way out in California. Remember, this was both before the creation of Disney World in Florida and before transcontinental air travel became the norm for working class families.
Ergo, Fantasy Island was a big thing.
But it wasn’t (and isn’t) the only thing. Jamestown (actually, Maple Springs) has Midway, Rochester (actually, Irondequoit) has Seabreeze and Canandaigua (yes, really, Canandaigua) had Roseland. As a minor, I went to all but Midway, but as an adult (as opposed to a “major”?) I did bring my kids to the Chautauqua Lake park. None of these fine places could measure up to the Erie County Fair (or even Crystal Beach), but it would be foolish to expect them to. They also can’t hold a candle to Darien Lake, but, if you’re like me, that’s a good thing.
Of all, though, Fantasy Island deserves the “hidden gem” label. Why? Two reasons. First, many people don’t know it’s still operating. That’s because the original park, which opened in 1961 shortly after Walt Disney opened his west coast theme part, went bankrupt in 1982. Under new ownership, it went bankrupt again in 1992. For two years the amusement facility was called “Two Flags Over Niagara Fun Park” until, after being purchased by Martin Dipietro, it regained its original name with a slight Dipietro twist. It’s now called “Martin’s Fantasy Island.”
The second reason is, unlike like most amusement park, Fantasy Island comes closest to mimicking Disney’s magic. What I remember liking the most about the 1960’s version of Fantasy Island wasn’t the rides – to tell the truth, I never liked rides anywhere – it was the various adventures offered by Fantasy Island. It had a little circus show that featured a real lion tamer with a real lion. It had a steamboat that chugged around a small island. It had a train that chugged around the entire park. Most of all, it had a wild west show that, at several appointed hours each day, offered a fine outdoor melodrama that always ended with a climactic shoot-out, where the good guy would always get the bad guy.
These were the exact same shows being played out multiple times during the day. Since we would generally spend the bulk of the day at Fantasy Island, my brother and I would clamor to go see the show again and again. It got to the point where I started to think it was make believe because the “dead” bad guys would always reappear again – fit as a fiddle – at the very next show.
It’s funny. Some kids imagined themselves the sheriff. Some kids imagined themselves one of the bad guys. Me? I imagined myself one of the stuntman. I really liked how they could pretend getting shot on the roof, die dramatically, roll down lifelessly off the eaves to the ground below, then bounce back up unharmed once the show was over. I wanted to do that, and I knew just the place to do it. Our house on Abbott Parkway had a raised patio in the rear and it presented a very easy – and safe – way to get to the garage roof. And the garage roof was just the right height where I was sure it would deposit my rolling body down without harm onto the soft grass below.
I never got the chance to try. Upon hearing of my plan, my brother immediately told my mother, who, shocked at my stupidity, immediately told my father, who, less shocked by my stupidity and probably secretly thinking it was a cool idea and why didn’t he think of it, immediately told me – carefully making sure my mother could see him tell me – to “not even think about it” and, just to be sure, “never go close to that part of the patio that led to the garage roof.” He made an exception, of course, when we had to paint the siding of the house above the garage roof.
In addition to daredevil ideas, Fantasy Island left me with many spellbinding trinkets. My parents bought me my first (and only) magic trick there. So enchanted was I by the magician’s disappearing/reappearing dime trick that I went up to him and insisted he tell me how it was done. I was old enough to know it wasn’t real, but not smart enough to figure out the trick without some help. He showed me how it was done, then he revealed his true trick – to get me to buy the prop that would allow me to entertain any audience of my choosing. Given the honest excitement I had for the trick, my father allowed the con and bought me the prop. For several weeks, I performed the disappearing dime trick for all my friends at school until it became old hat, whereupon I stuffed it in my “special” desk drawer. To this day, it remains there, (unless, since the desk is now in his room, my son decided to clean out its drawers).
Fantasy Island originated in an era dominated by westerns. Its theme recreated the boyish charm and innocence of white hats vs. black hats quite successfully. In a way, the “Old West” theme fit perfectly with the “frontier” motif so prevalent in our region (recall from Chapter 10, Greater Western New York truly represents America’s first frontier).
But, did you know you can find remnants of the real frontier of the old west only an hour or so south of Fantasy Island? For the story behind that, simply turn the page.
If you like this story, you’ll love Chris Carosa’s new book 50 Hidden Gems of Greater Western New York. Be sure to check out the book trailer on 50HiddenGems.com and sign up for the GreaterWesternNewYork.com newsletter so you can be the first on your street to find out when the book is published this fall.