February 23, 2007

SECRETS OF THE PHANTASMAGORIA

Photo from the Tulsa Tribune August 1, 1973

UPDATE: I have updated this article with new photos and information provided by Bell's staff member Kyle J. Wood. The updates are indicated with orange type.

On November 8, 2006 Bell's Amusement Park was evicted from its ten acre lot in mid-city Tulsa, Oklahoma by the very county to which they've paid rent for more than fifty years. Over the past three months Bell's has been in the process of dismantling the attractions and preparing each one for storage with hopes that the park might someday find a new home.

Among the rides currently being deconstructed is Tulsa's only 'dark ride'- aptly named the Phantasmagoria. A couple of weeks ago I posted my personal history with the ride (which I've since updated with even more information and images).

As fate would have it, last Friday some close friends and I were granted a final walk-through tour of this mysterious ride! This time the lights were on and we were guided by the man who knows "the Phantaz" better than any other living soul, Buddy Stefanoff, the park's electrician and member of the Bell's family for over seventeen years. During this bittersweet excursion, less than a week before the entire structure was scheduled to be torn down, Buddy related a wealth of facts, memories and even "secrets" pertaining to the beloved Tulsa landmark. It is my distinct pleasure to share with you this exclusive last look inside the Phantasmagoria. (Note: all images can be viewed much larger if you click them.)

We approach the naked exterior of the dark ride. In June of 2006, a microburst (a sudden, violent downdraft of air over a small area) demolished the ride's wacky facade. A new one was ordered (at a cost of over 200 grand), but the request was cancelled after the park received news of the eviction.

Here's how it appeared in 2001


Let's step across the turnstile for one last journey through the Phantasmagoria. (Charles Kuralt's ghost told me to say that.)


This panel controls the whole thing. Every creep inside can be silenced with the push of a button.


This was the last remnant of the original exterior.


The ascent into darkness begins with this series of three bang doors. Right away the rider's senses are fooled. By the glow of the blacklights, the triple circles almost appear to be painted on a single door. Originally, this was the location of a different version of the trick called Diminishing Squares. It was a similar illusion but the doors turned out to be too heavy and slammed too hard so they were replaced.


This sign was followed by a large loudspeaker at the rider's "lap level" which blared vicious dog noises. The audio ceased to function early in the ride's history which caused latter day patrons to believe the sign was intended as a psych out. (Photo by Marsha Sites, 2001)


Once the site of a dip in the track and a grim reaper that hung from the ceiling, this lengthy dark corridor became quite popular with vandals. Each year (especially during the final weekend of the Tulsa State Fair) this area got ransacked by deviant patrons. At the time of our tour, wood patches from previous repairs had been removed revealing a long history of damage. In 2005 additional scenery (skulls, cobwebs, etc.) was added to this stretch.


This is a peephole that enabled staff to monitor patrons without being seen. The Bell's team was able to travel between any two points of the ride within moments thanks to a series of secret passages. (How perfect is that? A dark ride with secret passages!)


Two points of interest approach: ahead is a graveyard and to the left is the overlook of Skull Pond.


Here we look down upon Skull Pond and its green tinted water. The verdant pool was frozen solid on the day of our visit.


Any worthwhile haunted house must include a graveyard.


Here's a glimpse of the skeleton unhindered by the protective wire grid.


The backdrop is a rather beautiful rendering of a classic foreboding mountainside.


The next trick is a buzzard relaxing in his nest as he picks clean the bones of his latest victim.


Reminiscent of the era the ride was created, the psychedelic striped room remains trippy.


Next we find a ghostly date awaiting her caller. The frilly curtains and rotten lingerie seem to be part of the brothel motif hinted at on the ride's facade. Typically her shawl covered her body, but Buddy suspected that this immodest pose was the result of maintenance worker shenanigans. "You have to have a sense of humor to work at a place like this." He explained.


This "action" photo of the ghoulish gal was shot when the ride was operational. (Photo by Marsha Sites, 2001)


I mentioned secret passageways earlier, well this is one of them. Employees referred to this area as the "Kings Chamber." This perch provided easy access to both levels of the building (note the ladder to the first floor).


As we reach the halfway point we see where riders originally emerged into the outdoors for a breath of fresh air and a second dip in the tracks. The riders’ reaction to this public dip provided some entertainment for folks who were still waiting in line. When the dip was removed (due to people's belongings constantly flying out of the cars and blocking the track) this stretch was enclosed.


To the right we find a cutout that originally sported a decorative window containing multi-colored lights (the one on the right in the photo below).

(photo courtesy of Kyle J. Wood)

Front and back views of the ride's original Wacky windows. The one on the left hung near the entrance.

In 2005 Kyle J. Wood added a "witches head" to the opening.


Here we have yet another secret panel that allows access to a maintenance area on the first floor which was known among employees as the "Queen's Chamber."


After an all-too-brief glimpse of the real world, riders are forced back into the darkness where this warning foreshadows the next trick.


The mineshaft was the passage back down to the first floor. Note the cracks in the support where the ceiling appeared to cave in.


A rarely seen resident dwells high above the beams.


Purchased at Wal-Mart in 2004, this owl was first placed above the dock where it failed to scare away the pigeons that were "crapping on the cars." Kyle J. Wood painted it up and it eventually wound up in the mine shaft "where the kids couldn't reach it."


Now it's another encounter with Skull Pond. This time riders got a close-up view. At the water's edge there are intentionally loose boards to create a racket as cars passed over.


While crossing Skull Pond, if you look up over your shoulder you can see an earlier stretch of the track.


Chances are, while patrons were busy studying Skull Pond they failed to notice another hidden door on the right. This was the entrance to the secret Phantasmagoria Workshop!


Inside the workshop we find a rat and a buzzard on the operating table.


On the opposite wall hangs a grim reaper who will eternally await repair. He was originally suspended above the first dip in the long corridor.


Here's another view of this grizzly customer.


This is a shot of him back when he was in active duty. Now you know why they called it the PhantasmaGOREia. (Photo by Marsha Sites, 2001)


On the floor we spot the original swirling eyes from the facade.


A buzzard recuperates from a neck injury.


In the back of the workshop we can see the original flower display that once hung outside above the external dip. The heads that line the wall were from an Arabian themed ride.


This is the coupon requirement notice that used to hang in front of the queue. Here you see that 5 coupons were required to board.


However, during the off-season the sign was simply turned around to reveal a cost of only 2 coupons.


Back on the track and around the next corner we approach a seven-foot lunging rat.


Here's a rare look at the rat unhindered by protective wire mesh.


This shingled corner was once home to a shrouded skeleton lady...


...we found her packed up and looking scarier than ever.


Finally we come upon the most popular trick in the house, the oncoming bus. The phantom driver (originally a skeleton, more recently a skeleton with a hockey mask) had already been removed at the time of this photo. The gag was made from a real city bus, and it was the replacement for a lackluster "tilted room" where water appeared to flow uphill. As riders encountered the bus, a blaring horn would sound. No matter how familiar visitors were with the ride, this stunt rarely failed to frighten.


From this angle we can see yet another hidden passage. This is the ladder leading up to the "King's Chamber."


The 12 volt track takes another disorienting turn into the mirrored hallway.


Hanging out in the corner is the packed up half-naked, half-rotten lady. Always keeping with the times- she was nude in the 70s, bikini-clad coming out of the 90s, and she wore a thong in 2006.


The dayglo tunnel was sure to blast your mind just in case it hadn't been blasted prior.


Be careful, I think that's a vortex.


Back when he had a head, this fellow used to hang from a noose.


As bats often do, these bats hung in the cave.


The cave is the final trick and it used to be home an uphill-running water illusion as well as a water curtain that threatened to soak passengers, but shut off just in time of course. The trick was plagued with problems (I'm guessing some folks got accidentally soaked) and so the water was removed relatively early on.


After the journey concluded we emerged into the chilly twilight where we were greeted by a very real and very appropriate black cat.

The closing of this magic little amusement park is a heartfelt loss to many Tulsans (as well as frequent visitors like myself.) It's just like Buddy said- Some folks met their future spouses there, got their first kiss there, families played together there year after year and kids have grown up there.

But wait, I do have some good news. The decision to relocate and reopen Bell's has been made official by park management! The park will move to an as yet to be determined location in the vicinity of South Tulsa, and is slated to open its doors again in the Summer of 2008. With the exception of a portion of the Sky Ride (which was purchased by the city for future use at the Tulsa State Fair), every Bell's attraction will be disassembled, moved and rebuilt at the new location including Oklahoma's largest roller coaster, the Zingo. An amusement park relocation of this scale has only taken place twice before in U.S. History. The new park is expected to be twice the size of the original and will incorporate up to seven new rides (also yet to be determined). So does this mean the Phantasmagoria will "live" again? The answer is yes, though not as we've come to know it...

PHANTASMAGORIA VERSION 2.0

A new dark ride is indeed in the works for the next Bell's location, and it will retain the name Phantasmagoria. The next incarnation will be nearly twice the square footage, and will feature more modern and elaborate tricks. The new goal is to make the ride a story-driven experience with a tone that's a bit more family friendly. Bell's is considering a collaboration with a horror-influenced recording artist named Doctor Steel. The ride's storyline would be based on the singer's backstory which is that of a mad toy maker attempting to make the world more fun by way of his monstrous creations (as well as his music.) For sentimental reasons a number of the old tricks will be integrated into the new ride, but they will take on a more scenic role. For example the Skull Pond could wind up as Doctor Steel's hot tub. Here's an exclusive look at a concept drawing for the new Phantasmagoria...



And finally, if you're wondering how this whole incredible visit came to be... It's a tale of divine timing and the joys of blogging.

A couple weeks ago a news story covering the disassembly of the Phantas inspired me to blog a lengthy retrospective wherein I detailed all of my own experiences involving the ride. This included mention of an attempt to personally paint the ride's faded fa├žade in 2002 which ultimately failed due to miscommunication between myself and the park's maintenance department. (In hindsight I ultimately blame my own lame, indirect communication with the park's owner.) In my article I took a few playful jabs at the maintenance crew and even joked that they would have sabotaged my scaffolding, and in effect, killed me.

A week after I posted the piece I got a comment from someone claiming to have more information on the ride (I've since removed it to protect his email address). I emailed the commenter and the response came from none other than Buddy Stefanoff, the senior electrician for Bell's! This was the very man I was unable to connect with during my paint job debacle. I cringed as I began to read his email, fully expecting a severe rebuttal to my snarky comments about his team. He did briefly explain the unique challenges they had faced in maintaining my favorite ride. But to my pure surprise and delight he offered me the guided tour I detailed above, so that I might have "one last look."

When we first spoke on the phone I spent the first chunk of our conversation trying to assure Buddy that I harbored no grudges and that I only brought that stuff up because I wanted to document my entire history with the ride. All of my blabbering was completely unnecessary because Buddy had taken no offense to my initial post (though I could understand a person of lesser character doing just that.) He told me that he and Robby Bell thought that a visit would make for a better end to my story. They were absolutely right; it couldn't have been more perfect. Thank you Buddy and Robby for making this dream a reality, and for the millions of happy memories you guys are responsible for.

UPDATE: Reader Nick Beals was kind enough to share this great photo of the dog that once bobbed in and out of the facade. He said it was sitting near the Sky Ride soon after the micro burst of Summer 06...



APPENDIX A: Phantasmagoria facts

Opened: July 1973
Demolished: June 19, 2007
Number of levels: 2
Duration: approx. 5 minutes
All of the 'bang doors' close solely by the power of gravity.
There are nearly as many smoke detectors as there are spooks in the ride. Not one fire occurred in the ride's history.
Items commonly discarded in ride: Stuffed animals, hats, litter, cigarette butts, ladies undergarment, feminine products, condom wrappers
Means of mischief: Getting out of car (most common), making out, occasional stink bombs.
Number of tricks: 23

APPENDIX B: List of tricks

1. The spinning eyes (exterior)
2. The lunging dog (exterior)
3. Three ascending bang doors with circular cuts (originally diminishing squares)
4. Guard dog sign/barking audio
5. Dip #1
6. Grim Reaper (originally hung above the dip in the long corridor)
7. Skeleton in the graveyard
8. Singing skulls
9. Buzzard in the nest
10. The psychedelic room (aka tinfoil room aka strobe room )
11. Skull faced "lady of the night"
12. The witches head
13. Dip #2
14. Collapsing mine shaft (aka Falling Timbers)
15. The Skull Pond with rattling floorboards
16. Cloaked skeleton lady in front of shingles
17. The giant rat
18. Rotating naked/bikini woman
19. Skeleton in the noose
20. The bus (formerly the tilted room where water ran uphill)
21. The mirrored hallway
22. The spinning tunnel
23. The bat cave with water curtain