The art of looking back will never leave us. Witness the Tempe History Museum’s new exhibit, a year-long tribute to the long-dead amusement park Legend City. The exhibition opened last Friday, and features pieces of some of the park’s best-remembered rides, old ticket stubs and flyers, even an employee uniform. Some small hunks of the park itself have been recreated, including the house of illusion in which balls roll uphill and standing up straight is a chore.
Legend City, located at East Washington Street at the border of Tempe and Phoenix from 1963 until 1984, was the brainchild of Louis Crandall, a 28-year-old Phoenix ad agency owner. Crandall, a Disneyland nut, designed and collected financing for what would become an 87-acre colossus of fun — the first and last such amusement park in Arizona’s history. In addition to rides and funhouses and junk food concessions, the park was home to a stage where local celebrities performed each weekend. Kiddie faves Wallace and Ladmo and 1965 Miss America Vonda Kay Van Dyke were regulars.
In the late '70s, Legend City began to falter, and went bankrupt and closed in 1984. But it remained a legend, perhaps because so many kids had relied on its Tilt-o-Whirl at a time when there was little else to do in Phoenix.
“You can tell how much Legend City meant to people, because they kept work outfits and ticket stubs and souvenirs,” says local historian Marshall Shore, who was brought on board by photographer Pat Gorraiz, whose work is part of the exhibit, to create buzz about the event. Shore contributed home movie footage depicting Legend City’s opening day celebration, given to him by a local collector. “People came out of the woodwork with Legend City stuff from their private collections,” Shore reports, including pieces of rides and attractions purchased at auction in 1984.
Some fixtures that aren’t on display include the lampposts from the park’s entrance, which now stand watch over a wedding boutique over on McDowell Road. “But one guy contributed pods from the sky ride,” Shore says, “And Vonda Kay loaned us her ventriloquist dummy, the same one she used as her talent for the Miss America pageant.” A featured photography exhibit called "Legend City: A Ghost Town" presents 20-odd black-and-white images shot by Gorraiz, who gained entrance to the park in 1984, after it was closed down and before its contents hit the auction block. Gorraiz’s poignant documentation of a crumbling amusement park add an element of higher art to this memory-lane exhibition, which will be on display through October of next year.
“This is not the kind of stuff a lot of museums would display,” Shore says. “They spent a year putting this show together, and it’s really all just full of people’s memories of what Phoenix used to be.”
"Legend City" continues through October 31, 2016 at the Tempe History Museum, 809 East Southern Avenue in Tempe. Admission is free. For details, call 480-350-5100 or visit www.tempe.gov/museum.