August 09, 2018

THE LOST ROAD TRIPS: PART III- NYC VIA TENNESSEE AND WILDWOOD, NJ

“The air was soft, the stars so fine, the promise of every cobbled alley so great, that I thought I was in a dream.”
― Jack Kerouac, On the Road: The Original Scroll 

Starting a blog posts with a literary quote is a first for me, but I've been thinking about the connection between dreams and road trips. It's simple: I often dream about road trips, and road trips often feel like dreams. Certain destinations seem to have built a permanent spot in my dream world. There are also several imaginary locations that I revisit again and again.

It makes sense, considering the impact that travel has on our psyche. We interrupt the flow of our daily lives to carve out a journey that offers a constant stream of new stimuli, sometimes visiting places that stop at nothing to amuse and delight. When I'm on a trip I'm well aware that the day I'm living will likely be imprinted in my head until death. Trips are my mental benchmarks that help me sort out the years. It's no wonder that the places we visit almost take on a spiritual significance. (Neil Gaiman's book "American Gods" demonstrates this by making tourist attractions, House on the Rock and Rock City Gardens, literal meeting places for the gods.)

Somehow my 2016 excursion to New York was more dreamlike than most. The whole premise of the trip was a dream come true. I was invited to the NY Comics & Picture-Story Symposium to give a presentation on comic book ads and novelties. It's a modest monthly event that takes place at Parsons New School and is hosted by one of my favorite graphic novelists, Ben Katchor. (Ben's work usually centers around the fictitious history of objects, industrial design, and urban rituals. Sometimes he incorporates the old novelties that I'm so fond of. In fact, one of his books is called "Cheap Novelties: The Pleasure of Urban Decay." Nothing else can put me in the same headspace as Katchor's work.) The event was the perfect excuse for a road trip, so I brought my friend Chris along and we set out to make it as epic as possible.

Since epic was the goal, our first stop was Graceland.


I had never been before. Strange, I know, considering my taste for tourist traps, and that Graceland is located on a frequently traveled route. But the timing had never been right, and reports from other people had dampened my interest. For years all I'd heard is that it's smaller than you'd expect, you can't go upstairs, and it's expensive. These statements are not unfair. I had to remind myself that Graceland's cultural significance made up for the fact that I could have spent an entire day at a theme park for roughly the same price. 

The size wasn't a shock thanks to the many warnings, but what did surprise me was its sheer coolness. To me, the common notion of a dream house is usually less than dreamy. Mansions can feel cold and impersonal, but I found Graceland to be extremely cozy and inviting.


For those unfamiliar, the tour groups assemble at a visitor center across the highway from Graceland proper. The line for the bus corralled us in front of a printed backdrop of the Graceland gates. A photographer snapped souvenir photos that would be available for purchase at the end of the tour. Chris and I placed our bets as to how much those puppies would run. I guessed low. Turns out they were thirty-five bucks apiece. That's for a photo in front of an illustration that was taken across the street from the real thing. Our tour ended at closing time so the backdrop was empty and we snapped our own free photos; an act fueled by the rebellious spirit of Rock N' Roll.

There are plenty of complete Graceland photo tours on the web, so I've narrowed this down to my favorite rooms. First is the kitchen.


I'm so ready for all-over wood surfaces to make a comeback. I don't care if it's the real thing or flimsy paneling. The idea that rooms need to be "opened up" with light colors is a plague on our society. (I wouldn't mind the return of avocado appliances either.) Elvis's kitchen put me at ease. Nothing else could make him seem so human.


Even with all its '70s deco glitz, the TV room still has a basement-ness that keeps it humble. It seems surprisingly attainable now. The space is eighty percent sectional furniture and mirrors, and these days the triple screens are almost quaint.
  



In what was likely an effort to keep up with today's sophisticated consumer, each guest was issued an ipad to hang around their necks. The device had the ability to sense your location, and serve up a 360 degree interactive tour of your surroundings. I get the value in being able to touch on certain objects and learn more information, but it means that you're often staring at a Quicktime virtual view of the same room you're actually standing in.

The Jungle Room was the pinnacle of lush lounging. The next-level feature was a mini waterfall where you might expect to find a fireplace. This is yet another trend that I would welcome on a mass scale.



I noticed that someone had left a compact disc on a chair in the roped-off room. There's no way it was an accident. Could it have been an offering put there by a budding musician who sought a blessing from The King? When I walked back through the disc was gone. Possible explanations are: (A) the staff was very vigilant, (B) Elvis received his sacrifice, or (C) it's an Illuminati drop point.

There we go. Finally, some of my lighthearted commentary. I'm not sure why this post has started out so pensive and then price conscious. Anyway...

Truth is, the Elvis factor was pretty much secondary for me. I was so in awe of the environment that I had to remind myself that a modern legend had been cooped up in there, and even died right upstairs. But I'd pay theme park prices to see most any extravagant time capsule homes with shag carpet and green steel tanker desks.



By the way, I asked the attendant if she'd seen any ghosts walking around. Her reply was "no," but that's because she'd only worked there for two weeks.



You are correct if you guessed that we stood before the grave obnoxiously quoting the scene from This Is Spinal Tap, and harmonized a barbershop raga version of "Heartbreak Hotel."


Elvis's house closed, but the stores didn't. You could divide the souvenir shops into three tiers. The gift shop in the Graceland complex offered the officially ordained shopping experience. It's full of the highest order of Elvis gear at premium prices. Right next door in the Graceland Crossing shopping center was Souvenirs of Elvis Presley Boulevard. I was disappointed by it's carefully controlled inventory. It's like they had a couple dozen focus group-approved designs that were applied to the standard types of merchandise. 

Thankfully, I spotted Boulevard Souvenirs, not to be confused with— wait, actually being confused with Souvenirs of Elvis Presley Boulevard may have been their entire plan.



Boulevard Souvenirs was everything I look for in a souvenir shop: cramped, haphazard, and longstanding. There was plenty of stock that first arrived when Clinton was president.



The shop was full of items produced by risk-takers, items too unorthodox to be considered by the upper echelon of the Elvis estate. Seeking official endorsement would be a waste of everyone's time. I bought a foamcore stand-up Graceland that fell apart in my hands, and a poorly designed bumper sticker dated 1994. I've spent a couple hours in search of that goofy sticker hoping to scan it for this article. In the process I did find an old photo that I put on a friend's Facebook page, and that inadvertently connected me to another old friend who I hadn't talked to in a quarter century. So it was worth it.

Day two took us to the twin cities of Tennessee tourism, Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge. I've written about this wonderful part of the world before. Both towns experienced a boom in tourism when the Great Smoky Mountains National Park was established in 1930s. Gatlinburg was first to develop as a tourist spot, and is more pedestrian friendly...

 

While Pigeon Forge has bigger attractions that are less concentrated...


 

We spent the bulk of our time in Gatlinburg. It's nestled in a valley beneath tree-covered hillsides which, to me, sets it apart from other tourist meccas like the Wisconsin Dells, Orlando, or Branson. I'm also sentimental about it because it's the first place I've ever been where multiple haunted walk-throughs were plopped right in the middle of a shopping district. To my joy, many businesses on the Gatlinburg strip had gone unchanged since my first visit as a teenager. So I made it a goal to take photos of things that looked more or less like they did thirty years prior.




Why stop there? Maybe some subtle Photoshopping can help bring out the 1985 in them...









 This one even has payphones and a neon animal print...



I love visiting places where the economy can support more than one freestanding marshal arts supply shop...



I just noticed that there's a mask from the movie Scream showcased the front window. This means that the Ghostface mask was a vital piece of their marketing strategy, selected for its potential to lure people inside. I appreciate that so much.


I've been sitting here thinking about this, and it occurred to me to check the Google Maps street view just to see if it's also visible there. (Admit it, you were thinking the same thing.) Turns out, the Google view is four years older than my photo, but look, there it is! And it's on some sort of canvas!


Now I'm looking up Ghostface mask trivia. Four years before the movie Scream, the original Ghostface design was part of a 1992 line called "Fantastic Faces" by Fun World, the same company responsible for one of the worst Halloween cassettes of all time. The mask was originally called “The Peanut-Eyed Ghost.” There's a dispute over who created the initial design between former employee Brigitte Sleiertin-Linden and her former boss, Alan Geller. (Geller also claims he thought Scream was a student film when he licensed it. This contradicts Wes Craven's recollection of lengthy negotiations. I believe Brigitte.)




Anyway.

One of my favorite things on earth is Gatlinburg's one and only World of Illusions. I've written about it before, but it's been ten years and my feelings have changed. It straddles the line between monumental rip-off and national treasure. Sixty-eight percent of its Trip Advisor reviews are rated "Terrible." But the following one star review is exactly why I'd give it five stars... "It looks like it was built 50 years ago and not touched since then."



There are plenty of "4D" screen-driven attractions these days. Isn't there room for three dimensional figures that move with the assistance of loud, oily motors? If anything, it serves as a historic record of how special effects and magic tricks used to be done: with special lighting, mirrors, and wires. But its greatest mystery is how it has endured the decades. It has to be one of the last of its kind, and I fear its demise.

 



To entice foot traffic World of Illusions deceptively fills their spacious lobby with "hot" characters of the day i.e. Harry Potter, Spider-Man, Padawan Anakin, Frodo (formerly Mini-Me), even a makeshift Neo and Trinity from The Matrix. It's like a history of summer blockbusters. However, on the inside the latest property is probably Star Trek: The Next Generation.



The concept of combining a wax museum with magic trickery sounds great, but World of Illusion's greatest weakness is the shockingly short duration (with an arguably disproportionate admission price.) Compared to other local museums like Ripley's, or Guinness World Records, the number of (working) exhibits are minuscule. The first time I completed it, I thought I had walked out a fire exit by mistake. There's not even a final gift shop, you're jettisoned into a service ally. I'm guessing it takes about seven minutes for the average visitor to take it all in, and that's if they study the toy magic tricks and printed illusions on the walls, including the "magic eye" poster they probably bought at a nearby shop in the '90s. We camped inside for nearly an hour, soaking up ever detail and documenting everything. I roamed from entrance-to-exit again and again, thrilled to exist inside that dark hallway.

The exhibits were behind glass and some were so dim it was difficult to see. It felt like struggling to make out images in dreams. To my delight, at least half of the exhibits were spooky in nature. There's Frankenstein, a werewolf, and at least two vampires, one of which was part of a "Dracula to bat" room...



The "new Vampire/Werewolf Illusion" advertised out front was unfortunately, an update to the classic "Girl to Gorilla" sideshow act...



 There was also a grim reaper wearing a re-purposed Batman suit!


But that's not even the best thing about it. When the face turned human, it was revealed to be Charles Bronson! That's not a joke, or a coincidence, it's a former figure from one of the town's defunct wax museums.  I repeat, they had Charles Bronson as a grim reaper in a Batman suit!



But that's not the only formerly-unemployed wax figure. They tried to pass Alan Alda off as a Doctor Frankenstein! Didn't even take off the dog tags! Was this the product of a masterful sense of humor, or did the management think that customers would be too moronic to notice?


Photo borrowed from a Flickr user named "touristtrap"

The monsters aren't nearly as creepy as Superman using his powers to secretly see Louis Lane's unmentionables.



It would seem that once E.T.'s hot streak was over, he was painted green and incorporated into a Star Trek exhibit. And people complain about the eight dollar admission?!



Once again, Elvis Presley was there to entertain us in the form of a singing bust. A looped medley of "Hound Dog" and "Heartbreak Hotel" echoed relentlessly from a damaged recording. Speaking of Audio, one of the most amazing things about the place is the recorded "barker" that they pipe out onto the sidewalk. It's clearly a product of the 1970s, and I applaud them for ignoring the inaccuracies and just pressing "play" every day.



If you crave a further look at the World of Illusion, here's a recent video tour that's pretty good.


Late afternoon arrived too soon, and we still needed to get a lot closer to the coast in order to stay on schedule. We agreed to explore one more wood-covered block before heading back to the car.


My dreams recurrently involve finding neat little shops in mysterious towns. World of Illusions had already put me in a dream state, but for a moment I truly questioned whether I was awake as I saw an out-of-reach store called Doc's Magic Castle. Stores in my dreamworld are often inconveniently located, showing up on precarious hills, or other impossible places. I frequently arrive at closing time, or during a blackout. (These frustrations don't match the waking realization that none if it ever existed.)


We navigated a three story mall that never abandoned the beloved diagonal wood trend of the 70s era. Passing a nearly empty arcade on my way up supported my dream theory.


We found the facade of the magic shop, and to my thrill Doc's Magic Castle looked like a castle. However— the front gates were locked, and the lights were out. Of course it was closed, just like a dream.



Then a mysterious voice from inside said, "Give me a moment and I'll open that for you." It wasn't a magic trick, the clerk was getting ready to open! The place sprang to life quickly and a few other customers followed us in. Doc's was a neat magic shop with an extra layer of Gatlinburg aesthetic, like a dragon that could breath smoke. We eavesdropped on a boy with a heavy Tennessee accent who apparently performed street magic for tips. Leaving that scene was tough, but we had miles to tend to.



Back on the road, it wasn't long before darkness fell and sprinkles of rain followed. The moment was right for me to break out my now-ancient MP3 player, pre-loaded with content for a variety of situations. For general fair-weather travel, I had a K-Tel collection of Truckin' songs. For the long stretches of nothing I had entire four-hour episodes of "Rick Dee's Weekly Top 40" from the 1980s. For the rainy, eerie climb over the Kentucky Appalachians I had a real gem set aside.

In 2003 WFMU launched the 365 Days Project where an audio oddity was posted every day for a year. The overall experience changed me as a human, but one of my favorite discoveries was a found cassette recording of a portion of a radio show called "Is Paul Dead?" ( a link to the audio is on the web page.)  It's a lengthy exploration of the legend of Paul McCartney's death coverup. The host goes well beyond the common "clues," and delves into wildly imaginative leaps of logic to support the conspiracy. The content is fascinating enough, but the tone and production value brings it to a chill-inducing level. The music places the recording sometime during the late '70s. The host's earnest delivery, and the music bed that includes the Close Encounters soundtrack and Tomita's "Bermuda Triangle" album give it the same vibe as those documentaries on unexplained phenomenon that were popular in the decade. When you pop it on you think, "This might be fun for a couple minutes," and a half hour later you're disappointed that it's over. It's one of my all-time favorite pieces of art.

Day three was reserved for the New Jersey coast. One yet-to-be-visited place that had been on my radar for a long time was the Wildwood boardwalk, former home of the legendary Dracula's Castle dark ride which burned down in 2002.

I had heard that things don't open until May, but it was the last week of April, so what's one week? It turns out that one week was the difference between open hotels, and no open hotels, between a town and a ghost town.  Here's the scene we found...


 

 


It was cool in a Scooby-Doo kind of way, but it took some getting used to.

Places that were open included: a couple t-shirt shops doing prep work for the following week, a toy shop, an arcade full of crane games, and two pizza joints. As Chris and I tried to determine the best pizzeria, workers from each place walked out of their empty buildings to woo us. We were each handed menus, and told about VIP discounts, free refills and other amenities. The decision was paralyzing.  I don't remember what finally coaxed us inside one of them, but I feel bad that we dealt such a blow to the other place.


I decided to find the Caribbean hotel where I'd tried to make a reservation. It was mid-century gorgeous.


But somehow, in all my years of nostalgia-obsessed intenetting, I never learned that the entire town is a sanctuary for 50s and 60s hotel design! It was mind-blowing, block after block of "doo wop" architecture (also known as Googie, or Populuxe style). The area is known as the Wildwoods Shore Resort Historic District where the structures are saved and restored by the The Wildwood Doo Wop Preservation League.











How had we stumbled across a place like this? Again, it felt like— one big dream!

As we traveled closer to our painfully contemporary hotel, there was time for a final stop to see Lucy the Elephant in Margate City, New Jersey. This had been on my roadside bucket list for decades because it appears in nearly every book and documentary about wacky roadside architecture. Built in 1881, it's one of the oldest of its kind. It was visited by tourists back when road trips required horses.


We made it to New York City with several hours to suck up some sights. Everyone was taking photos of the Empire State Building and the Statue of Liberty, but I took this picture, just in case nobody thought to photograph the inside of a Times Square souvenir shop that day.



Elvis himself appropriately made a final appearance in the form of a costumed impersonator posing for tips. I didn't know he was there until I heard him angrily accusing us of taking unpaid photos of him. Chris defended us and a minor verbal spat broke out. As he walked away he flipped us off and told us to, "Eat a dick."

It was perfect! I mean, come on, that's not just dream-like, that's the kind of stuff you'd write into a novel. That's a full blown literary theme! We went from visiting hearth and home of the real Elvis Presley, to a run down robot of him in Gatlinburg, to a bitter New Yorker insulting us personally. Clearly, the trip had reached a turning point.

I gave my talk and had a blast. As a college instructor I'd forgotten what it was like to have an audience that's interested, enthusiastic, and there on their own volition.

On our last full day on the road I wanted to check in on one of my favorite little tourist spots, Cave City, Kentucky. The biggest (man made) attraction there, Guntown Mountain, was teetering on the brink of collapse the last time I'd been through. We discovered the place had shut down after changing the name to "Funtown Mountain" and some failed renovation efforts. Consequently, what I once described as "the perfect souvenir shop"(in this old post) was boarded up. The mood turned bleak, and as if on cue, dark storm clouds began to roll in. (Thankfully, as of this summer the place is operating again under the name Froggett's Guntown Mountain.)



Rather than return to the interstate I wanted to investigate the defunct Mammoth Cave Wax Museum that went up for auction in 2012.






It opened in the 70s and had a mini golf course, an ice cream shop, a tank of fake sharks, and an alpine village called Pixie World. There was also a sizable apartment for the management to live on site. I used to fantasize about buying it. The owners were hoping they could pass the torch along to someone else, but I heard the contents were sold to various buyers, ensuring its demise. Sheesh, maybe following up the Guntown Mountain discovery with another grim stop wasn't a great idea. Elvis's grave was cheerier than this.

Speaking of which, yet again Elvis had a poetic connection to our journey. His statue had been in there for decades. Just as he had left the building, it seemed like he had left us to face our daily lives once again.


 Photo from 2011 by Flickr user jacobkrejci

(Here's a video tour of the Wax Museum grounds that's made even better by some abandoned Halloween decorations.)

The horizon was flickering with wild lightning when we saw a sign for a rock shop and mystery house four miles away.



Was it worth an eight mile round trip knowing it would be closed, and the storm was about to rage? Of course it was. As we pulled into the driveway the storm let loose.


The fun was over prematurely, like waking up from a good dream before you're ready. Everything around us was closed, dark, soaked, or out of business— except for the combination Long John Silver's and A&W! The lobby was a welcome dry refuge, heavy with a familiar deep-fried aroma. They cooked me up a batch of chicken planks (as I still call them) and a side of complimentary krums. We sat in the otherwise empty dining room devouring our trays of batter-dipped comfort as the storm gave the windows a thrashing.

With precision timing, the after-dinner skies grew merciful. Chris surveyed the patio, looking like an Edward Hopper painting.


The ride to our next bed was smooth and clear. Once again we were living the dream.

9 comments:

Todd Franklin said...

Of course, it's sad that we lost Elvis but I'm glad he chose to leave this world in '77 because it froze Graceland in all of it's 1970's glory. If he would have survived into old age those wonderful rooms would be just boring modern rooms. Anyway, thanks for sharing! Your road trip tales are always epic and filled with nostalgic goodness!

Hauntedheadful said...

I just visited Wildwood on Saturday night,August 10.Its about a 45 minute drive for me,but I always go at least once about this time of year.The crowds are a little less frantic before the Labor day stampede.I also frequent the Ocean city NJ boardwalk, about half the size of Wildwood's and only 10 minutes from my house.I also frequent both places in the dead of Winter.Like you said ,its quite surreal to be the only person on the boardwalk and even stranger with a dusting of snow.

Ol Scratch said...

I really enjoyed reading this thank you so much. Looking forward to anything else you share. Hope you're having a great day and happy Halloween albeit early.

Kirk D. said...

Todd- Yes, Elvis seemed to visit this planet at precisely the right time!

Haunted- I wouldn't mind seeing it in the aftermath of the season. That's great that you have access to it year round. I imagine there are unique reasons to go during every season.

Ol Scratch. Thank you! I do indeed have more to share. I have three more trips to cover but the new school year threw off my writing streak. But here's hoping I can make more time before too long. At the very least I hope to talk some Halloween!

John Hunter said...

I am amused that the airplane that crashed into the top of the World of Illusions has the nose rotated 180 degrees from the tail of the airplane. Must of been a heck of a wreck. Looks like a really cool place. So sad to see so many attractions that lack that old charm and crappyness. Worlds Of Fun has lost so much of that over the years. The old fun house is gone. The old shooting gallery. The old movie set boats around the park. They were all simple entertainment for what seemed like a simple time.

Jody Birchfield said...

You sent me down a half-hour rabbit hole of YouTube videos about the World of Illusion. I have to go to Gatlinburg just to see Alan Alda in the Frankenstein vignette!

Anthony Riggins said...

Bronson as the grim reaper is pretty amazing, I feel the need to go see that myself.

Glad to see you’re still posting on occasion!

23 Wolves said...

Great article, I've been to a few of those places and you make me want to go to a lot more...also, I too listened to (and burned) the entire 365 days project and felt changed as a person. I think it made me who I am today, and I have almost never heard it referenced, so, thank you!

Kirk D. said...

Jody- Glad to be of service!

Anthony- Thanks! Still plan to keep it up when I can.

23 Wolves- I once had a friend who was talking about his obscure collection of Amway sales tapes. I started singing the lyrics to Pat Boone's "I've been Amwayed" via 365 project and blew his mind.