(Reprinted from an article by Beulah Schacht, July, 1946)
In: DOG TOWN DISPATCH, Oct. 3, 1983. Vol. 1, No. 36, p. 1-2.
Special thanks to my cousin, Jim Corbett, for the loan of this issue of the Dog Town Distapch
From beer garden to amusement park, through depression and rain, Forest Park Highlands this year celebrates its golden anniversary after 50 consecutive seasons.
The idea for a beer garden and restaurant on the site of the old Johnson estate first occurred to gentlemen remembered only as the Rice brothers.
Financed by the Home Brewery Company, they opened the Highlands Cottage Restaurant in 1896. To attract further attention, they installed a horsedrawn merry-go-round.
Even that failed to keep the grove going more than one season and it was lost to the brewery, owned by the Stuever family which soon formed a company owned principally by the late Anton "Tony" Stuever.
A now yellowed and brittle copy of the St. Louis Republic of May 23, 1897, carried a small notice stating that Forest Park Highlands ("the finest and largest open-air enterprise in the West") was open for business.
Attractions offered were "10 new and novel features including a scenic railway." Admission to the grounds was free. On the stage of Col. John D. Hopkins' Vaudeville Theater one could see Comedienne Marie Dressler - 10 cents in the gallery, 20 cents in the balcony and 30 cents downstairs.
Where the Rice brothers failed. Tony Stuever succeeded and each year found new additions in the park.
"We had all kinds of celebrities on the stage," related Max Bitterlich, superintendent, who joined the organization in 1900 and has been an employee of the Highlands ever since. "I was just a kid when I started here and I remember when Marie Dressler jokingly gave me $15 for 14 kisses.
"The old-timers will remember Pipinta, the great dances, and The Girl With the Auburn Hair. I remember her, too. She dressed all in white and sang at an altar. While she was singing I was pumping the organ."
Others who performed before the 10-20-30 audiences were Sophie Tucker, Eugene Cowles, baritone; Della Fox, who originated the fishhook curl which graced many feminine foreheads for some time, and Charity Simpson, a Gypsy Rose Lee of long ago.
Both James J. Corbett and Jack Dempsey gave exhibition performances there. As Bitterlich said: "They came and went every week. You can't remember all the people who were here.
One of the greatest attractions to the horse and buggy trade was the band concerts, held in the pagoda built originally for the St. Louis World's Fair and moved to the park in 1905.
There were band concerts every afternoon and evening, and among the greats who performed was John Phillip Sousa.
The "thrill" rides of yesteryear, while not as speedy on the whole as those of today, were many times as dangerous.
Outstanding among them was the Loop-the-Loop installed in 1902. Dan Elie, who now operates the Tilt-a-Whirl, used to ride in the contraption to prove how safe it was, but there were many accidents.
People Different Then
"People were different then than now," who became general manager in 1926. (sic, something is missing here) "It didn't occur to them that it was anyone's fault but their own if they got hurt. Now we have to be very sure that the rides are safe, in good condition and, as nearly fool-proof as possible before we allow them to be used."
On the other hand, this generation would never stand still for anything as tame as "Hale's Tours." It was nothing more than a series of pictures which gave the illusion of movement while the customer sat in a chair.
The Highlands Cottage Restaurant continued until prohibition, which caused a great falling off of business in that concession. It had been housed in the Johnson mansion, a building now 125 years old, and after the law was repealed, it became the Penny Arcade - which is still going strong.
The organization changed hands in 1922 when Tony Stuever's health failed and he sold his interest to the late Ben G. Brinkman, but operation continued as before.
Depression a Real Test
It was during the depression, however, that the real test came. "We managed to keep just a half jump ahead of the Sheriff, like everyone else," Ketchum recalled.
It was during that period, in 1934, that both the Arena and Forest Park Highlands were sold to the Reorganization Investment Company for $848,560.
The struggle to keep above water for a few years was responsible for the introduction of Dollar Day, which long ago passed out of the picture.
For one buck you could spend an entire afternoon or evening at the park, riding anything you wished. The only restriction was that you get off after each ride and give the other fellow a chance.
Although depressions occur only occasionally, the Highlands, like other outdoor amusement parks, is always threatened by the weather, but the year 1915 offered the greatest hazard. Out of a 120-day season, 90 days were practically scratched off the calendar by rain.
In honor of this year's celebration, a new entrance to the park has been built at a cost of some $125,000. It's a far cry from the structure which faced the public from 1909 until early this year and a still farther cry from the modest little wooden affair put up around 1896.
"You know." Ketchum concluded, we often have elderly women come up to the office and tell us about the old days when they came here and that now they're bringing their great grand-children. I wonder what they think of the change."
Regardless of what they think of it, Ketchum insists that the new entrance is no longer an entrance - from now on it will be referred to as "the rotunda."
Added in 1983 by the editors of the Dogtown Dispatch:
For many years after the fair, the amusement park's bandstand was a huge Japanese gate structure from the World's Fair's Pike. Known as the "Big Place on the Hill", the Highlands was the City's largest amusement park and the scene of countless school picnics and pleasure jaunts. It boasted of two roller coasters, the "Mountain Ride" and the "Racer Dip," a merry-go-round, all sorts or rides, shooting galleries, swimming pool, dance ball room, a fun house, and a large picnic grounds. In its later years, the Forest Park Highlands suffered from a decline in business and met a tragic end when it was destroyed by fire in 1963. Its site is now occupied by the Junior College.
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