A columnist of heart and mind

A columnist of heart and mind
Interviewing the animals at Children's Fairyland in Oakland. L-R: Bobo the sheep, Gideon the miniature donkey, me, Tumbleweed Tommy the miniature donkey, Juan the alpaca, Coco the pony

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

No Straight Lines And A Surprise Around Every Corner

(Above: The Blue Fairy telling stories and singing songs at Fairyland.)

In 1948 Arthur Navlet, owner of one of Oakland's largest floral nurseries, had an idea for a children's park on the shores of Lake Merritt that would be unlike any other - not a frenetic mini-carnival, but a safe, quiet, comforting environment where children could play at their own pace and on their own terms.
He took his idea to Oakland Parks Superintendent William Penn Mott, who immediately signed on, and the Lake Merritt Breakfast Club, which pledged its support.
To design the new park, which would be called Children's Fairyland, Mott chose architect William Russell Everett.
Everett built a tiny model of the first attraction, the Merry Miller Cottage. It was a perfect replica of a medieval English cottage, and he was delighted with the result.
But Mott was not. He didn't want realism; he wanted whimsy, a little nonsensical and out of kilter - the way a small child might view the grownup world.
Enraged by the criticism, Everett grabbed a baseball bat, smashed the model to smithereens, and stalked out of the room.
Mott and Navlet were sure that was the last they'd ever hear from him. But a week later, he returned with a new model. It was oddly twisted and had no square sides, and it was painted in outlandish colors.
"That's it!" Mott exclaimed.
Thus was born the principle that has ruled Children's Fairyland ever since - "no straight lines and a surprise around every corner."
Everett went on to achieve fame and fortune as the nation's foremost designer of miniature golf courses, using the ideas he first developed at Fairyland.
And Fairyland became the model for Walt Disney when he built Disneyland. He even hired away Fairyland's first director, Dorothy Manes, and its first puppeteer, Bob Mills, for his new park.
But I much prefer the original. For six decades, Children's Fairyland has been what Mott and Navlet intended it to be: an oasis of serenity in the midst of the big city, where little kids can run free and just be little kids.
And it's all beautifully documented in a new book, "Creating a Fairyland: 60 Years of Magic at Children's Fairyland USA" by Randal Metz and Tony Jonick.
Each page is packed with memories, including:
* 10-year-old Beth Werschkul, the very first Storybook Personality, who was Alice in Wonderland in 1960.
* Popo the Clown and his six-legged cow, who enchanted generations of children from 1958 until his death in 1981.
* Master puppeteer Lewis Mahlmann, who directed the Storybook Puppet Theater from 1967 until 2003.
* The Blue Fairy (real name: Jacqueline Lynaugh), whose songs and stories have brought fairytales to life for the park's pint-sized visitors for more than 20 years.
* And, of course, all the adorable animals who have lived at Fairyland over the years, from Emo the Saint Bernard, who used to haul kids around the park in his dog cart - a tradition that was carried on by his son, Jamie, and his grandson, Hondo - to the charming but naughty miniature donkeys Gideon and Tumbleweed Tommy - aka "the bad boys" - who get into mischief every chance they get.
(In the old days Fairyland used to hold an annual Aesop's Derby, featuring races between turtles and rabbits. This being real life and not myth, the rabbits always won.)
Metz and Jonick are the perfect people to write this book. A former Storybook Personality himself, Metz is the current director of the puppet theater.
And Jonick, who met his wife at Fairyland, has been a fan ever since he was a little kid growing up in the Fiji Islands, when he read about Fairyland in a "Dennis the Menace" comic book.
Chock full of priceless pictures, "Creating a Fairyland" is the next best thing to visiting the park itself. It's available at Fairyland's Magic Leaf gift shop, A Great Good Place for Books in Montclair, Laurel Book Store on MacArthur Boulevard or Spectator Books on Piedmont Avenue.
At 60, Fairyland looks better than ever. But the important things will never change.
Children are still warned not to cross the Magic Pink Line in front of the puppet theater because if they get any closer, the puppets will become frightened and run off the stage. (Although the cynical grownup in me suspects that the real reason is that the kids will see the puppets' strings.)
And I hope you've hung on to your Magic Key because it still works.

Monday, August 22, 2011


(Above: Mrs. Lacey's first grade class, El Rodeo School, 1951. I'm in the back row, second kid from the left. Standing between me and Mrs. Lacey is David Ansen, who grew up to become Newsweek's movie critic. Click on the picture to enlarge it.)

Last week, Phil Catalfo of Berkeley posted a message on his Facebook wall that struck a nerve with me:
"Special request to all kids returning to school in the next few days. If you see someone who is struggling to make friends, being excluded or bullied because they don't have many friends or because they are shy or not as pretty or not dressed in the most 'in' clothes, PLEASE step up. Say 'hi' or at least smile at them in the hallway. You never know what that person might be facing. Your kindness might just make a big difference in someone's life."
His words struck me because I, too, was bullied when I was young. Every morning, I woke up dreading having to face another day at school. I tried faking illness until my mother caught on and made me go anyway.
The worst part was the humiliation. I was so embarrassed, I stayed in the closet about it for years.
I was angry; but there was nothing I could do. My sole comfort was sitting in the back of the classroom and fantasizing about killing my tormentors.
Thank God I was living in a place and time where there was no access to guns. Otherwise, I might have ended up like those killers at Columbine. Trust me: Kids under pressure are incapable of making mature choices.
The scars lasted a long time. The experience turned me into a lonely, mistrustful person.
You'd think it also made me a more compassionate person, right?
Wrong. I was so pathetically desperate to fit in with the crowd that when the opportunity finally came to pick on someone even more vulnerable, I jumped at it.
He was a developmentally disabled boy named Barry. I don't know if he's still haunted by the memory of my cruelty. I sure am.
But there's a way out of this vicious circle: Turn over enforcement to the kids themselves.
At Park Day School in Oakland, for instance, on the first day of school every kindergartener is assigned a 6th grade buddy who escorts them to lunch, sits with them, and generally takes them under his/her wing. If a little kid is being bullied, he can go to his/her older buddy for help.
The little ones learn that big kids are their friends. And they excitedly look forward to the day when they'll be in the 6th grade and can mentor a kindergarten buddy of their own.
Even that dreaded childhood jungle, the playground, is kinder and gentler. If you spot someone sad, you're responsible for finding out if that kid is OK and how you can help, even if he or she isn't necessarily a friend of yours.
The result is a complete change in the campus culture. If you're in the first grade you might not pay attention to what a grownup says, but a fifth or sixth grader is the coolest thing on earth. And if that older kid tells you that bullying is totally uncool, you believe it.
That's the way the system operates at Park, but you can find variations at other local schools, public and private.
If your child's school doesn't have a similar program, tell your principal about it. It really works.
And teach your kids to be kind to each other.