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Historian

Chris Ryon photo from Naomi Solo

By Naomi Solo

Chris Ryon has officially been appointed Village Historian for the Incorporated Village of Port Jefferson. Chris brings to this position a very interesting historical story. His parents were introduced to one another by Rob Sisler who was the village’s first historian. At the time Chris’ father had been teaching in Port Jefferson High School along with Rob. Chris’ mother Theora Newcomb was a personal family friend. Theora’s father and his brother Spurge owned the very well known Newcomb Brothers Automobile dealership located where the present ferry dock is.

Back in the 1980s I was fortunate to interview Andrew Newcomb, Chris’ grandfather. I was doing research on the building of the schooner Palestine. I got some of my earliest history lessons of the village from him.

Chris’ interest in our local history comes naturally to him because he was raised in a family where history was the conversation during dinner. Chris has for several years been the historian for the Village of Poquott. His appointment to this additional position comes at a time when he has just retired from a career in teaching and is excited about the possibilities of expanding and enriching the Archive of Port Jefferson Village.

To that purpose he cordially invites any residents in the area to stop by the Archive room in the Port Jefferson Village Center on Saturdays or Mondays from 9 a.m. to noon and share stories and/or photos with him.  He fully realizes that the enrichment of the Archive room necessitates villagers’ participation and he is eager to talk to many of you.    

Chris succeeds Ken Brady who held the position and was largely responsible for the development and rich holdings that the Archive room now possesses. Ken welcomed one and all from Port Jeff and surrounding communities to drop in and visit to share old photos and to chat. Chris wants to follow that same pattern.  Preceding Ken Brady in that position was Rob Sisler, and it was Rob’s idea that the Village Center have a Mezzanine/Gallery. Because of this we are able to have continuing art and historical exhibits. It is through Rob’s efforts that two of our historic buildings were moved and restored and have become the Port Jefferson Chamber of Commerce office and the Zinna house at West Broadway.

  In chatting with Chris, he said that history exists in the rich memories of the families living in and around the village. For the 150th anniversary of Cedar Hill Cemetery Chris worked on the photo exhibit. Recently my husband has passed away and when I go up to Cedar Hill I see so many of the local family names. I learned most of their histories  from Ken and Chris.

A historian’s job goes beyond simple knowledge and is enriched by the contributions including stories and photos that provide a more complete picture. The job of a historian is to be the gatherer of information where people can come and share their stories.

Those wishing to speak with Chris are welcome to call 631-802-2165 and/or email him at portjeffhistorian@gmail.com.

Ad in the Port Jefferson Echo: Jan. 13, 1927, page 2. Photo from Beverly Tyler

By Beverly C. Tyler

Athena Hall, now known as Theatre Three on Main Street in Port Jefferson, was a community hall from 1874, when it was built, until it was remodeled into the Port Jefferson Theatre in 1928 with raked seating for 473.

Until then, it was an open flat-floor area above Griswold’s machine shop, where vaudeville and minstrel shows, magic lantern shows, automobile shows, local plays and other events were held which usually included music and entertainment, and by the early 1900s, “moving pictures” as well.

Ad in the Port Jefferson Echo: Jan. 13, 1927, page 2. Photo from Beverly Tyler
Ad in the Port Jefferson Echo: Jan. 13, 1927, page 2. Photo from Beverly Tyler

Athena Hall was also used for the high school graduations, as a meeting house, election headquarters, dance hall, roller skating ring and by various organizations such as the Port Jefferson fire department which held a benefit show in 1927, featuring a one-act play, a movie and the Port Jefferson High School orchestra. Earlier the same year, Bridgeport radio station WICC held a two-night show featuring Charlie Cole and His Famous Radio Singing Orchestra, with music for dancing every night from 9 p.m. to 2 a.m. There were even musical and Charleston dance contests during the auto show in January 1927.

About this same year, 12-year-old Blanche Carlton was asked to play the piano before the film that day and to accompany her close friend Veronica “Ronnie” Matfeld who would be singing. Blanche (Carlton) Tyler Davis is my mom and she told me this story over tea one day just recently.

Mom said, “I believe it was all arranged by Charlie Ruggles who got the director to run the skits at the theater before the movie. I think the director’s name was John. Ronnie was going to sing and I would play the piano. I could hear the tunes so I didn’t need the music and I could pick out other tunes. For the last piece Ronnie sang “Ave Maria” and when she reached the higher notes I was supposed to be at the top notes on the piano and then when Ronnie reached the highest note I was to reach for the notes beyond the piano and fall off the stool onto the stage — and I did.” That was the end of the skit. My mom Blanche and Veronica went off the back of the stage and the movie started.

Ruggles came to live in East Setauket in 1926 and purchased a property at 16 Old Coach Road. He maintained this East Coast residence until 1942.

Ruggles was probably best known for his performances as a character actor in films such as “Bringing Up Baby” (1938) with stars Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn. In this crazy, hectic comedy film he played Maj. Applegate, a big-game hunter. Ruggles appeared in about 100 feature films over a more-than 50-year career.

He began on the stage and became well known for his work in radio and television.

Ruggle’s career included Long Island at the Players-Lasky studio (later to become Paramount Pictures), based in Astoria, where he made four silent films in 1915. His comedic talents also extended to his personal relationships and he made many friends, some famous in their own right, as detailed in the Brooklyn Daily Star for May 13, 1927.

“Due to the cordial relations existing between Charles Ruggles, popular comedian of ‘Queen High,’ at the Ambassador Theater, and Lieutenant Commander Byrd, Clarence Chamberlain, Bert Acosta and other famous airmen, the actor has erected a huge searchlight on his estate near East Setauket, L. I., to guide the flyers in their aerial navigation during the night hours.”

Ruggles didn’t spend a lot of time on Long Island. After all, he couldn’t be here and make all those films and be on the stage in New York as well as in radio and television. However, in a story headlined “Movie Star at East Setauket,” as detailed in the Mid-Island Mail, Oct. 1, 1936, he did come here often: “Charles Ruggles of the movies flew from the coast last week to spend several days at his home in East Setauket. The well-known comedian is a frequent visitor here.” Ruggles was also here enough to be included in the 1930 census for East Setauket along with his future wife Marion La Barba.

Many other vaudeville, minstrel and Broadway actors came to this area with its pleasant villages and picturesque harbors. Getting out of the noise and smells of the city was one reason to come to places like Port Jefferson and Setauket and the presence of local theaters, dance halls and entertainment venues just added to the appeal.

Beverly Tyler is Three Village Historical Society historian and author of books available from the Three Village Historical Society.

Historian pens new book on local amusement parks of yesteryear

Actors, including local resident Jane Owen playing the notorious outlaw Belle Starr, pose in front of the bank at Dodge City in Patchogue. Photo from the Eaton family

Living in Suffolk County, we’ve all heard of Splish Splash, Chuck E. Cheese’s, Dave and Buster’s, Boomers, Adventureland and the Long Island Game Farm. But how many of us have ever heard of Frontier City, Fairytown USA, Dodge City or Turner’s Amusement Park?

Photo from The History Press
Photo from The History Press

Historian Marisa L. Berman’s latest book, “Historic Amusement Parks of Long Island: 118 Miles of Memories” (The History Press) takes us on a nostalgic journey to explore the kiddie parks of Queens, Brooklyn, Nassau and Suffolk that are now just a distant memory. According to Berman, this book is “a celebration of the amusement parks that Long Islanders have loved and unfortunately have lost. … [It] will tell the story of Long Island through the memories of its children.”

Berman’s first book centered on Nunley’s Amusement Park in Baldwin, which she often visited as a child. At book signings, according to her second book’s introduction, many people would mention other parks on Long Island that they had fond memories of and she “quickly realized that there were many more stories that needed to be told.”

The author reached out to sources on Facebook and received many photographs, stories and memorabilia from people who had visited these parks. After much research and numerous interviews, the book finally came together.

All of the 33 amusement parks featured in the book opened in the 1940s and ‘50s, with the exception of Playland Park in Freeport, which opened in 1924 and closed in 1931. Berman attributes this to the many veterans who moved east from the city to Long Island to raise their families after World War II and the need to “entertain the masses.”

Each park is described in vivid detail, from inception to closing, from admission prices to rides, including what is in that location today — almost always a shopping mall or store. The wonderful black-and-white photographs, 80 in all, pull everything together.

Many of the kiddie parks featured a petting zoo, carnival rides and a train, but each had its own special niche. In our neck of the woods, there were western-themed parks like Dodge City in Patchogue, on the corner of Sunrise Highway and Waverly Avenue, and Frontier City in Amityville, on Route 110, complete with a bank, jail, cemetery, general store and sheriff’s office.

Children ride the miniature train at Lollipop Farm in 1952. Photo by Kathryn Abbe, courtesy of SPLIA
Children ride the miniature train at Lollipop Farm in 1952. Photo by Kathryn Abbe, courtesy of SPLIA

Fairytown USA in Middle Island, which was located across from Artist Lake on Middle Country Road, consisted of a storybook-inspired village and sections with themes like Planet Mars and Mother Goose. Farther west, Lollipop Farm in Syosset had a miniature train that carried children around the four-acre farm. The train miraculously survived, stored in pieces in a barn, and was recently lovingly restored by the Greenlawn-Centerport Historical Association.

The majority of the defunct parks’ artifacts, however, have been lost forever. Mostly family-owned and operated, Berman attributes the parks’ demise to the decline of the baby boom in the mid-1960s.

By the end of the book, Berman will have the reader yearning for a simpler and more innocent time, “a time when there was nothing better than your parents bringing you to your park so you could play and just enjoy being a kid.”

Todd Berkun, founder of the Facebook page “Long Island and NYC Places That Are No More,” sums it up perfectly in the foreword: “Whether you spent time in these parks growing up or live on the Island now and have wondered about their glorious past, this book is for you. As a testament to an era of great fun and enjoyment on the Island, this work describes a vibrant and important part of Long Island’s history.”

“Historic Amusement Parks of Long Island: 118 Miles of Memories,” $21.99, is available at local retailers and online bookstores. It is also available through Arcadia Publishing and The History Press by calling 888-313-2665 or by visiting www.arcadiapublishing.com.

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