- Historic Sites
Mammon & Monuments
Commercial enterprise and history seldom make comfortable bedfellows
August 1963 | Volume 14, Issue 5
The Richmond Times-Dispatch , supporting my view in an editorial of May 7, 1960, entitled “Against Hawkers and Hucksters,” pointed out in reinforcenient: The sort of crudity against which Dr. Whitehill warned has popped up already in New Jersey—as a dismaying editorial on this page from the Newport News Z)MiVy Press shows. Special cigars, rum drinks and hats arc being created lor sale at a race track there—all of them tied up in some remotc and ridiculous way with the Civil War anniversary …
The year 1961 provided its quota of opera bouffle , including the event satiri/ed “by a Combat Artist of The Washington Post ” in its issue of (uly 24, K)Oi. A cartoon entitled “Survivors fleeing the Battle of ^d Manassas (igOi)” shows a job-lot of dusty tourists with thermos bottles, lunch baskets, and squalling children, leaving the hot sun of the battlefield in (he company of individuals disguised as soldiers, who are refreshing themselves after combat with soft drinks.
The appointment late in 1961 of Professor Allan Xevins as chairman of the Civil War Centennial Commission gave promise of hope, particularly when he stated on January 31, 1962, that If we confine ourselves to battles and campaigns, the sigh of relief that went up over the real Appomattox in 1865 may conceivably be nothing to the national sigh of relief that will go up over the commemorated Appomattox of 1965.
He announced that the commission planned a series of thirteen scholarly volumes concerning the impact of the war in such areas as agriculture, poverty, crime, charities, and literature, to be written by competent historians and published by Alfred A. Knopf. His promise that “The National Commission would reenact a battle only over my dead body” gave great relief to many. Nevertheless, the very day that Dr. Nevins was addressing the Civil War Centennial Commission in Washington, the attempt to fire a cannon in the driveway of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston to celebrate the opening of an exhibition, “The Civil War, The Artist’s Record,” only succeeded in breaking numerous windows in neighboring apartment houses. Then, alas, perhaps because of President Kennedy’s remark: “I like sham battles,” a local committee went ahead and re-created the Battle of Antietam in September, 1962. Thus we may apparently expect to have hostilities break out at any time through April, 1965, despite the implacable opposition of the Civil War Centennial Commission.
While national celebrations offer the richest field for commercial exploitation, even the mildest local anniversary furnishes an opportunity for someone to dress up and make a fool of himself. A well-organized event causes beards to be grown (by “brothers of the brush”) and hoopskirts to be worn (by “sisters of the swish”) in quantity. Hawkers and hucksters swarm to it like flies to honey.
It would be charitable to assume that many organized celebrations spring from legitimate motives and that commercial exploitation of history only slips into them by the way. Such an assumption cannot apply to “Freedomland U.S.A.” in the Bronx, which opened in June, 1960. Notwithstanding Governor Nelson A. Rockefeller’s misleading endorsement— Freedomland is the ultimate expression of the effort to dramatize our history and to bring it home vividly to everyone who sees it.
—Freedomland, for all its veneer of pseudo history, was from the outset a commercial effort of Mr. William Zeckendorf’s firm, Webb and Knapp. It was (and is) simply an amusement park, charging admission at the gate, plus fees for the “attractions” within.
Freedomland, according to its Texas-born engineershowman creator, C. V. Wood, Jr., was to offer its visitors “a giant slate of assorted wholesome fun, integrated around a theme.” Of his profession Mr. Wood observed: “I view it as an imaginative combination of big business, show business, design creativity and mass education through entertainment. What more could a person want?” Of this particular instance, he explained: In building this world’s champion outdoor entertainment park, I told my design staff I wanted to tell the whole American story in one vast area shaped like the nation’s map and segmented into regions. We came up with 500 thrilling American themes, discussed and discarded until we had the top 14 major stories now in the park, some of them with four or five separate attractions. This is our way of dramatizing the American heritage.
The Times , in a pre-opening description, reported on June 18, 1960, that the theme being America’s history, the new kind of showmanship is able to offer many of the thrills of the old carnival-type rides by overlaying its “new” rides with a veneer of history. Thus the “Dragon Ride” in the New Orleans enclave is presented as part of that city’s Mardi Gras. Many an old-timer will recognize in it the basic philosophy of the old-style tunnels of love, as the dragon snakes its way, puffing and blowing, with people inside it, through the streets of New Orleans.