Terror Bound

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Thank God for failed screenplays and the ideas they set free.

 

Thank God for failed screenplays and the ideas they set free.

 

Some years ago, when I suffered from a fitful delusion that it would be fun to write for the big screen, I sentenced one of my characters to be married on the Cyclone roller coaster at Coney Island. This scene, like so many others I had written, promptly disappeared into my drawer, where it soon crossed that mysterious line past which food becomes garbage and screenplays become paper. But then, equally mysteriously, it progressed farther along the spectrum—onto my list of things to do. And so it was one wretched winter night that I surprised my girlfriend, Leslie Fratkin, by making the Cyclone a condition of my marriage proposal.

She cried for a while. Then she said yes.

Certain problems were quickly dispatched. George Robinson, a Unitarian minister with a flowing red beard, was more than amenable; when we described what we had in mind, he quietly asked if he could take the ride twice. As for securing permission, the man then in charge of P.R. for Astroland, the amusement park that owns the Cyclone, was Milton Berger, and Berger was nothing if not a publicity hound. “This could be big,” he ventured when I reached him by phone. “I mean, really big. Who knows? If it’s a slow news day, why, it could be . . . front page !” With that, he set about calling every media operation this side of the Mississippi.

The particulars of the ceremony, however, were another story. A roller coaster is not a clean white building with four square walls, and as far as I’ve been able to learn, there is no established etiquette for getting married on one. Where, for example, was the minister supposed to sit? Could a movie camera be brought on board? For the answer to these and other vexations, only a careful look at the machine in question would do.

Berger proved to be a vision of a Coney publicist: polyester leisure suit pushing his shoulders into a trapezoidal shape, big rings reflecting the sun from every finger, a pair of sunglasses reminiscent of Florida circa 1972. Meeting us outside the Cyclone entrance, he escorted us down to the boardwalk in a stiff but dignified gait and treated us to French fries at Gregory and Paul’s stand. That accomplished, he spirited us back to the Astroland offices for a tour of the Cyclone’s assorted awards and memorabilia. Then he did something unusual even for an amusement-park impresario. He led us into a conference room and sat us down for a fatherly talk.

 
The entire history of the roller coaster in America can be seen as an ongoing effort to minimize the threat of technology while maximizing its terrors.

Weddings had been performed on the Cyclone before, he admitted, taking his sunglasses off and running one hand through his short gray hair, but it had been some time since the last one—exactly how long he wasn’t sure. He also mentioned that a man had recently been reinducted into the Navy on the ride, and that the dates of our wedding day and his own anniversary were one and the same. “Of course,” he explained, “in these turbulent times the institution of marriage is not what it used to be—”

Here he stopped short, apparently at a loss for words.

“Nevertheless,” he continued, finding himself again, “I wish you the best of luck. It’s a very appropriate place to be married, and we’re very happy to help you however we can. And now, if you’d like, we can take a look at the ride.”

We had always imagined reciting our vows on the way up the first rise, with a climactic “I do” at the apex, but a quick survey of the scene disabused us of this idea. The simplest variant of “for better or worse” timed out at a minute and a half—a full sixty seconds longer than the duration of the first ascent. What’s more, insurance considerations precluded the use of a movie camera on the Cyclone once it was moving.

Fortunately an answer presented itself soon enough. We would perform the ceremony in the coaster as we had hoped, but before the ride began, with the guests looking on from the platform. For anyone so inclined, Berger would provide two extra rides gratis before opening the coaster to the public. This solution was good both in letter and in spirit; it followed rules without skimping on the drama. We had ourselves a plan.

June 12, 1993, was clear and warm and just about as perfect as a wedding day could be. Arriving in white tie and tails, I soon found myself ensconced in the front car, looking out at a large gathering of friends, relatives, and—thanks to Berger’s efforts—a phalanx of television cameras. The enthusiastic George Robinson sat in the car behind me, the best man and the maid of honor in the car behind him. Leslie appeared in a splendor of white and took her place to my left. “Dearly beloved, we are gathered here today. . . .”