Ask a dozen people what they miss the most about Crescent Park, in East Providence, Rhode Island and you'll probably get a dozen different answers. Meeting my future spouse while dancing to a Big Band orchestra in the Alhambra Ballroom. Stuffing my face with all-you-can-eat clam cakes and chowder in the Shore Dinner Hall. Showing the lady in the office my "Straight-A" report card and getting seven free ride tickets. Seeing the Three Stooges perform on the outdoor stage. Sadly, it's doubtful that anyone would say, "Riding the Pretzel". Its highly likely that anybody who visited Crescent Park between 1935 and 1963 rode the Pretzel or its later incarnation as Laff in the Dark. But it was a ride that most folks took for granted. It was the last ride on the midway, before the Tumble Bug. It was the ride that would startle the hell out of you, regardless of how many times you rode it. Fact is, the Pretzel was Crescent Park's first true dark ride. The park's first ride in the dark was an Old Mill, later rethemed the Rivers of Venice. It was followed by a large fun house and later, a castle of mirrors. But all three vanished by the late 1950s. The Pretzel survived. And the Pretzel  building stayed intact right up to the park's closing in 1977. When it first appeared on the Crescent Park midway in 1935, the Pretzel had the same classic, unassuming facade that the Pretzel Ride Company of Bridgeton, New Jersey installed on most of their dark rides throughout the East Coast. Two plywood cutout question marks were mounted on extreme ends of the building's facade. Smaller question marks were nailed into the swinging entrance and exit doors. A rectangular window was cut in the center of the facade. A mountain range was painted on the wall behind the cutout window. The four question marks and the mountain range were the only graphics visible to outsiders. That and the word "Pretzel" at the top of the facade. It's Easter Sunday, 1935. Ladies in their Sunday best dresses and natty dressed gentlemen in suit and  tie scratch their heads, wondering what's inside this strange building. A curious couple purchases tickets from a small booth in front of the building and slides into one of the six yellow cars, with the cast iron Pretzel logos mounted on the sides. An operator takes their tickets, and pushes a small button. The car surges ahead, crashing through the double doors and into pitch-black darkness. Before their eyes can adjust, they are greeted by the Pretzel's star character, Al-E-Gator, perched in his black box, ready to strike. A thin metal bar lifts Al's upper jaw and drops it. A loud wooden clap is heard just as the blacklight goes off. The couple is amused by this first stunt. After all, they had seen Al a good 20 feet in front of them. Little did they know that Al had lured them into a false sense of security. They giggle as the car weaves on an S-curve through total darkness. Suddenly, a fanged devil with an outstretched cape appears before their eyes. The Pretzel designers call him the Jersey Devil based on a mythical demon said to haunt the woods of New Jersey. The couple's giggles turn to gasps. Again total darkness, as the car heads toward the rear of the building. "There's got to be something ahead", the couple is thinking. The car takes a turn. "Whew", a sigh of relief.

Could this have been the Skeleton  that scared so many children, including the author in both the early Pretzel and later, the Laff in the Dark? It just may have been as it swayed and danced its way into our memory providing laughs forever.
But it's short lived. A dancing skeleton lights up, startling them nearly out of their seats. They catch their breath, their hearts pounding. There's still a long way to go. Fast forward to the late 1950's. The Pretzel  has been renamed Laff in the Dark. The facade now has four game trophy mounted animal heads: A tiger, zebra, lion and elephant. All have flapping jaws, as if they're laughing. The question marks have been removed and one of the park's artists, Len Minor, has painted what seems to be one hundred clowns on the back wall. The sturdy building, constructed of oak, has held up well. Park officials have purchased several new blackboxed stunts from a New Jersey company led by a talented designer named Bill Tracey. One of the stunts is a Native African pounding his spear in anger. Another is a cannibal women stirring a disembodied head in a pot. Finally, there are some circus-themed stunts such as an elephant and a clown head. They're all strategically placed throughout the building's four quadrants of S-curves. The idea is to keep riders off guard. All the original Pretzel stunts are still in place. The ever-durable Al-E-Gator remains the "set-up-man". The cutout window is still there. Onlookers lean against the facade railings hoping to get a glimpse of riders expressions as they emerge briefly from the darkness. There are still no sound effects, but a loud buzzer has been installed at the exit to give riders a final jolt and to alert the operator that he needs to stop the cars. Patrons continue to line up. Some are young children getting their first taste of a dark ride. Cable TV, videos, computer games and Pokemon are still decades away. So, to most kids, the Laff in the Dark is a memorable experience. A safe adventure.

   
The Pretzel facade was converted into two game stands in the fall of 1963: A Wheel of Chance and a Greyhound game. Both games were boarded up when the park closed in 1977. Built into the side of the Pretzel building was the Western Fun    House, known to many as the "Hotel". Much of this walk through occupied the interior of the Pretzel with only a small second floor added over the roof. The "Hotel" had a handful of static stunts, but was best known for its dark corridors, two tilt rooms and a mixed soundtrack of noises from a haunted house and Wild West. In March 1980, the "Hotel's" only guests were pigeons.
Its now November 1963, and the park's construction crew is hard at work converting the facade of Laff in the Dark into two games stands. They have removed all the Pretzel stunts and track from the inside of the dark oak building and cut a hole in its side. They begin to erect a two-story Wild West themed fun house for which the oak structure will serve as the first floor. Park officials were so impressed with the work of Bill Tracey that they had commissioned his company to design a state-of-the-art dark ride two years earlier. That ride is called the Riverboat (Editor's note: Click on the Riverboat story on the Article page). That past summer, Crescent Park's competition across the Narragansett Bay, Rocky Point Park, boosted its attendance by adding two of its won Tracey dark rides. Dom Spadolla, Crescent Park's designer is making paper mache cowboys and Indians. Assistant ride manager Ed Serowick is trying to keep his balance while hammering nails in one of the fun house's two tilted rooms. Crescent Park has been without  a walk through fun house for years, and park officials have realized that they need one to remain competitive The two new game stands will bring in money too. The Pretzel cars, tracks and stunts are carted up the midway past the 1895-circa Loff carousel. Nobody knows where they went from there.
Even the Riverboat, a well-known Tracey-designed dark ride, fell victim to the elements after the park closed.
It's late spring 1964 and a 10 year-old boy from East Providence makes the first of his traditional semi-annual pilgrimages to Crescent Park. As he's done for the past six years, he sprints down the midway towards his beloved Pretzel ride. To his astonishment, a spinning wheel of chance has replaced the animal heads. A real life game barker stands where the painted clowns stood. The boy hears gun shots, howling wind, and the sounds of a cattle stampede. He turns the corner to see a gun duel between two fake cowboys and an Indian ready to jump on people on the second level deck. They're laughing as they try to navigate two moving planks. The 10-year-old boy realizes that the alligator, the devil and the other figures aren't likely to be found inside this Western "Hotel". He struggles to hold back his tears. He doesn't want anyone to think he's a big baby.
Near the "Hotel" was the western train that passed a dragon in a cave. Another park probably would have claimed this Bill Tracey creation had some vandals not broken his jaw.

The wind whips off the bay on this early March day in 1980. The sun glistens on the deteriorating remains of Crescent Park. The park has been closed for just two seasons, but it looks more like ten. The two game stands that replaced the Pretzel facade has lost their luster to Mother Nature. The Western Hotel fun house is boarded up. Its "occupants" were sold off in the Shore Dinner Hall the pervious fall. Neglect and vandalism has taken its toll on the other attractions as well. A smokestack has fallen from the roof of the once-mighty Riverboat. A dragon in a cave stunt, designed by Tracey in the mid-1960's, peeks out towards rusty railroad tracks. But the original Pretzel building is still standing tall. A brief expedition through an open emergency exit doesn't turn up any remains of the Pretzel ride. Just some drawings of cactus and cattle along a creaky dark corridor of the closed Western fun house. How sad. After a long legal battle, a determined group of local residents saved Crescent Park's historical carousel. The city operates it in the late spring through early fall, while operators of backhoes and bulldozers develop the park's former midway. As I write this, a split-level ranch is going up on the site of the Crescent Park Pretzel                                                                

Now ask me what was my favorite ride at Crescent Park.
I think you know the answer.

This article C2000 By George LaCross and used with permission. All photos C2000 By George LaCross except where noted and used with permission. Laff Logos created by Bill Luca, layout by Bret Malone. Laff  In The Dark wishes to thank: Graham Trievel, Bill Luca, Joel Styer and finally, the author,  George LaCross for their help with this article. You may contact the author through the website. Laff In The Dark  is not affiliated with any of the Amusement Parks mentioned on this website, or in the pages contained within.  Entire page C2000 Laff In The Dark, the official website of the Dark Ride And Fun House Historical Society.
The Riverboat's most startling stunt was this eight-foot gorilla which also was the target of vandals until the author purchased it for $10 and restored it to its original splendor.
©2000 Laff In The Dark/www.laffinthedark.com