Louis Armstrong, Glenn Miller, the Dorsey Brothers….they were regulars at Lakewood Park. Radio stars Rudy Vallee, Vaughn Monroe and Paul Whiteman broadcast live from Lakewood. Frank Sinatra and Doris Day were merely backup singers with the Big Bands. As the Big Band era faded and Rock ‘n Roll emerged, the “Lake” was one of the first places to catch bandstand favorites such as Bill Haley, Theresa Brewer and Dick Clark.
This is the story of Lakewood Park, a 70-year journey as thrilling as the amusement rides within it. From its World War I beginnings as a picnic site for weary coal miners to the raucous ethnic festivals of the 1970s, Lakewood served as a popular leisure time mecca for the people of Northeastern Pennsylvania and beyond.
Unlike many corporate amusement parks, Lakewood was owned and managed by the same family from 1916 until its closing in 1984. Today, the Park’s original carousel is housed in a museum in Grand Rapids and its magnificent ballroom has been burned to the ground by vandals.
The 88-acre park, situated 2 hours north of Philadelphia in the heart of Pennsylvania coal country, was the brainchild of the Guinan brothers. Sons of an Irish immigrant miner and his wife, Richard and Daniel Guinan became entrepreneurs at an early age.
Richard, after spending time as a boy in the mines, opened his first business driving a coffee and tea cart around the Mahanoy City area. With the help of his bookish brother, he built two department stores, one in Mahanoy City and another in neighboring Mount Carmel.
Daniel, meanwhile, became a banker, real estate developer, school superintendent and Congressional candidate. Living with the Richard Guinan family, he became their mentor in finance and politics and “the Guinan boys’ ” beloved uncle who traveled with them throughout the United States.
As the United States involvement in World War I was about to begin and the coal towns were flourishing, the brothers purchased a vast tract of farmland in Ryan Township with the idea of developing an amusement park.
Within a year, Lakewood Park had opened its gates, offering an idyllic country respite for the miners of Schuylkill, Carbon, Luzerne, Northumberland and Berks counties.
Each day from May to September, they boarded trains in towns such as Tamaqua and Shenandoah for the short ride to Lakeside Junction Railroad Station. Upon arriving, they had their choice of two amusement parks: Lakewood and Lakeside, which had been established in 1890 less than two hundred yards across the highway.
In the early years, the competition sparked a rivalry. Both parks flourished, however, and soon people from across the region traveled to the town of Park Crest and its parks.
True to its name, Lakewood’s early appeal centered on its vast manmade lake, where families enjoyed boating, swimming or just picnicking on the banks.
Swimming meets, diving competitions, fireworks, alligator wrestlers and celebrities like Buster Crabb (Tarzan) attracted bathers and spectators to the new park. Professional swim coaches arrived from Florida to train the local kids.
Within the first five years, Lakewood featured women’s and men’s bath houses, a boathouse and dock, camp grounds, picnic pavilions, water pump stations, food stands, an icehouse and a large dance pavilion.
In 1925, the Lakewood Ballroom--known to most as the dance hall--was erected. Big Bands traveling between Chicago and New York City began making weekly stops at the growing dance capital. Thursdays became dance night, date night and the night to plan for all week in the coal region and beyond.
The early sound system comprised a microphone and two small speakers. But the hall—with its vaulted ceiling and wooden arches—provided excellent natural acoustics for the bands and their soloists.
As the new ballroom was being built, the manmade lake was divided into a pool—three times the length of an Olympic pool—and the adjacent lake for canoes. A toboggan, 33-foot-high diving tower, stationary rafts and sprinklers were added.
In those early years, the children of the founders were being trained to take over the management responsibilities. A program for the Ballroom of 1925 to 1929 besides listing the upcoming bands details the management team: Daniel F. Guinan II (age 15)-assistant Ballroom manager, Richard H. Guinan II (13)- interior decorator, and Francis Guinan 11, ticket collector. Apparently, Larry at 9 was deemed too young to work! After college, Dan and Rich, joined by their two younger brothers, took on the management of the Park.
As the park grew so did the surrounding community of Park Crest. Some of the earliest settlers were the men and women who manned the amusement rides: The Fogarty family, whose son John ran the park’s train; Susie Burke, operator of the Carousel, and brother Red Burke, always at the controls of the Hey Dey.
Young entrepreneurs like the Mayesky and Althoff families built homes across the road from the park. A horse stable, run by the Reed family, was built in Park Crest, and “Chopsy’ who operated the fish pond built a variety store.
And then there were the bars and restaurants - at least 15 of them - located within walking distance of the Park and open after the dances for those patrons who just couldn’t get enough of the partying. Bars like Applegate’s, Margaret’s, Witkowski’s, Ogrodnick’s and the Log Cabin flourished in Park Crest.
In 1948, a 750 seat, air-conditioned Theater was built for the legendary John Kenley, producer and founder of New York City summer stock plays. Only the stars came in for the week’s show; the “house” actors were local talent. Each week, the “house” actors performed one play on stage while rehearsing for the next week’s play across the walk in the Ballroom. Highlights included performances by Lana Turner and apprentice Alan Alda. Don Coombe remembers “locals” were a supporting cast to the Lakewood Theater. In Don’s words, Kenley bought his gas and joined in the conversation at Brownie’s Gas Station. One day he asked “Brownie” Mayesky to pick up Shelly Winters in Philadelphia to bring her to the Theater for her appearance in, Born Yesterday. Folks at the time assumed that Kenley asked Brownie because he drove a flashy, yellow convertible. Theater records indicate the date as June 6th, 1950. Winters had broken all records at the Paramount in New York right before coming to Lakewood. Many of the stars stayed in local homes because they weren’t provided with a car. Jackie Cooper lived over Witkowski’s Bar for a week, enjoying center stage at the bar and at the Theater.
Ethnic music and food were part of the fiber of the coal regions and continues to this day. Building on success of Lithuanian Day, believed to be the longest running ethnic festival in Pennsylvania, Lakewood organized several other ethnic festivals: Ukrainian, Italian, Russian, Bavarian and Irish which drew crowds from surrounding states.
The Theater, much like the Ballroom, brought a dose of big-city glamour to rural Pennsylvania. By day, the “stars” sunbathed at the Lakewood pool and in the wee hours, they frequented the local restaurants and bars for some “homemade” food and White Lightning moonshine.
Early images included in this collection are the Park grounds before the pool was constructed, the original toboggan, the ornately-carved horses from the original carousel, Dick Clark greeting the crowds and the ballroom decorated for the Bavarian Oktoberfest Festival. Autographed pictures of big band leaders and Broadway stars include a photograph of local natives Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey, Mrs. Dorsey, Mrs. Guinan and her four sons on the occasion of Mrs. Dorsey’s 80th birthday bash at the Lakewood Ballroom.
Throughout the collection, recollections of former employees, concession operators’ families and visitors are included.
When it closed in 1984, Lakewood Park had hosted Xavier Cougat, Guy Lombardo, Dick Clark, Clarabelle, Zippy and Sally Star. Red Buttons and Veronica Lake had acted in its Theater.
In Lakewood Park, Jack Palance kissed babies, Frankie Laine danced in a marathon and Muhammad Ali appeared at a fundraiser. Governors spoke at its banquets, romances flourished on its dance floor, high school students held their proms there, riding the amusements in gowns and tuxedoes.
Wrestling alligators, bathing beauties, dance marathons, the Grand Irish Jubilee, and the Bavarian Festival—it all happened at Lakewood Park.