12.27.2000 08:04
Poster pays homage to a Rhode Island treasure

By S. ROBERT CHIAPPINELLI
Journal Staff Writer

WARWICK - Frank Galasso remembers being borne in his father's arms through Rocky Point during a Frank Sinatra Jr. concert in the mid-1960s. Bright flashes lit the sky, forging an indelible first image of the venerable amusement park.

Galasso, who was about 4 at the time, remembers asking who was taking all those photographs. He didn't realize at first that the flashes were lightning bolts from an approaching storm that soon sent the family scurrying for cover.

Now, the park is gone, its rides auctioned, its thrills mere memories.

But Galasso, who regularly contributes sports cartoons to The Providence Journal, has, after a fashion, revived the long-dormant midway with a holiday cartoon that salutes "Rocky Point, New England's Most Beautiful Amusement Park."

From the Corkscrew, the last great Rocky Point roller coaster, that climbed and dived from 1984 to 1995, to a 250-foot tall observation tower built in 1865, Galasso depicts highlights of the area where steamboat Capt. William Winslow, the park's founder, first landed with day trippers in 1847.

Thirty years later, President Rutherford B. Hayes visited Rocky Point and received a phone call from Alexander Graham Bell in Providence, marking the first time a U.S. president had used the telephone.

Galasso depicts the bearded president saying to the telephone inventor: "What's that, Bell? You'd like a dozen clam cakes and some chowder?"

Chowder and clam cakes, of course, were park staples, dispensed over the years from three different shore dining halls. Hurricanes in 1938 and 1954 destroyed the first two. The third hall featured hurricane-proof windows, brick-and-stone construction and a sign boasting that it was the world's largest shore dinner hall. Galasso recreates all three, plus more landmarks.

From the late 1940s, Galasso tells beholders, the Palladium ballroom hosted weddings, proms, big bands, dances and various large political and community functions. In the early 1960s the Windjammer was added.

Imaginary poster patrons ride the Tumblebug, grope through the darkened House of Horrors and enjoy the wonderful Sky Liner vista. Galasso loved that most of all, thrilling to the spectacular view as the high-wire cars made their turn and the beauty of Narragansett Bay unfolded before him.

The cartoonist also included his least favorite ride, The Flume. "I thought it was a dumb ride," he said. "You know you're going to get drenched." Whenever he was cajoled aboard and prepared for the concluding descent, he said, he thought, "why the heck am I on this thing."

The timid probably repeated that question on the Enterprise, the Cyclone and the Skydiver that Galasso's pen resurrects. Some tossed their chowder and clambakes on the spinning Music Express and the Spider. But most just enjoyed the ambiance - one part tacky, many parts traditional - that marked the place.

They bashed into each other in the Italian scooter cars, also known as bumper cars or Dodge 'Ems, and whirled on the Looff ferris wheel that Galasso recreates. Until 1941 many perched their youngsters atop Leo the Lion that Galasso depicts and snapped pictures. Vandals sank that tradition in 1941 when they attacked the cast-iron lion and dumped parts of it into the water.

The artist also included the Whip, one of his childhood favorites, and the carousel. He rode that numerous times but had no idea for most of his 39 years that its animals were originals, masterpieces dating back to 1912, that fetched handsome sums when they were finally sold, in 1989.

Caricatures of owner Vincent Ferla and his brother, Conrad, whom Vincent appointed park general manager in 1949, dot the poster, which might become part of a tradition for Galasso. Last year he featured the old Rhode Island Reds hockey team and that sold very well, prompting him to think of a successor.

He thought back to his childhood and memories of Rocky Point surfaced like divers at the park's salt-water swimming pool. He recalled how many people say that they wish the park was still open.

Since his work usually tells a story in an old-fashioned style, he decided that the park would be a perfect subject and began researching old Journal photos. "I couldn't believe the amount of photos and information we had back from the 1800s," he said.

Off and on he worked on the project over eight months and concluded around Thanksgiving. The 2-foot-by-3-foot posters are available for sale at $19.95 at locations such as Benny's, Apex, and Rhode Island and Warwick Malls.

Galasso was disappointed that he couldn't include everything, relieved that the work was complete but a little sad that the project was over. "It was sort of like having a friend with you for eight months," he said.

Copyright 2001 The Providence Journal Company