One of my fondest memories from childhood was a trip to Spaceland Amusement Park with my father and my sister Carol. The year was 1958 and I was not quite five years old, Carol was eight. The park was located in an old airplane hanger just east of the Meadowbrook Parkway on Old Country Road in Westbury, New York. It stood on the former site of one of the worlds first civilian airports and had become hemmed-in on all sides by unrelenting, post-war suburban growth.
Inside the building, my eyes were immediately drawn to the eighty-foot silver rocket ship that lorded over the scene. It stood at the far end of the hanger, dwarfing the kiddie-rides that filled most of the floor space in front of it. The picture above shows the other side of the rocket, with sunlight streaming through the many small panes of glass on the back wall of the hanger. On the nearside was a staircase leading up to the cockpit. The hanger's ceiling was decorated with twinkling lights representing the constellations.
Carol wanted to board the rocket ship and take a trip to Mars, but I was too scared. I felt that at my age I was not yet ready for space exploration. I remember standing there as she boarded the ship, convinced that the rocket would take off and blast through the roof of the hanger. I held my ears and watched, too scared to move. To my astonishment, she emerged from the space ship unscathed about ten minutes later. I was thrilled that she was back on Earth and not stuck on Mars.
A Second Trip
I don't remember much else from that first trip to Spaceland, but I returned about a year later with my next door neighbors, the Murphys. On this occasion, I yielded to peer pressure and took the trip to Mars. We climbed the staircase and entered near the front of the ship. We were instructed to turn left toward the rear of the rocket and take a seat. A rear-projection screen at the front of the ship displayed our progress as we took off and hurtled through space toward the red planet. The rocket shook and accompanying sound effects and blinking lights added to the illusion of flight. Costumed actors called out instructions and we flew the ship to Mars and back. It would be pretty lame by today's standards but it was state-of-the-art in 1958.
The Purple People Eater Song
Sci Fi fans will be interested to know that Sheb Wooley was the voice behind the infamous "Wilhelm Scream". That sound clip has been used in more than four hundred movies and TV shows, from Westerns to Star Wars and Indiana Jones. It's still used today by filmmakers as an inside joke.
Another attraction was Planet Vulcan - a room sculpted out of cement to look like a grotto on an alien planet. The walls were painted with fluorescent paint of various colors and lit with ultra-violet light, which cast an other-worldly glow throughout the attraction. Our guide told us to watch out for Purple People Eaters, which was a reference to a popular novelty song that was on the charts at the time. I think they had someone in a Purple People Eater costume wondering around in the cave, but I never saw him because I was focused on finding an escape route. Of course we weren't in much real danger because Purple People Eaters only eat purple people, or so we were told. There was one more terrifying moment when we were led to the only way out (for kids). It was a slide through a cave-like tunnel with walls that our guide said were charged with a million volts of electricity. I made myself as small as I could and managed to slide down without making contact. It was a miracle that I survived to tell this tale.
Spaceland opened in June of 1958, just eight months after Sputnik caught the free world by surprise and ignited the country's appetite for anything space-related. The park was built by Al Hodge, and backers Lester Tobin and Lionel Michael. Hodge was TV's Captain Video from from 1951 until the demise of the Dumont television network in 1955. The show was broadcast live six nights a week at 7pm. On Sundays, Hodge taught Sunday School in Manhasset. Somehow he managed to log over 50,000 miles making personal appearances in cities and small towns all over the country. He was perhaps the most recognizable performer on television, but his salary was just $60 per week. When Dumont folded, Hodge found himself unable to get work in television or movies because of his strong association with the Captain Video character. He joined the New York local kid's television program Wonderama, but only to host cartoons as part of the Captain's Video Cartoons segment. During an interview In 1958 he said "When I go after dramatic parts, they say my "Captain Video" identification would destroy character illusion. Libraries, mens stores, real estate, clerical work--I have done it all since the "Captain Video" days. Unfortunately, there has been no show-business work."
Hodge, whose father had once been a performer with the Buffalo Bill Wild West Show, teamed up with two backers to build Spaceland. He performed an outer space version of a typical Western routine with space pirates instead of stagecoach bandits. There was a space-themed version of a Punch and Judy puppet show, and kiddie rides typical of the period filled most of the floor space. During the first season, attendance was very low until one of the backers, Les Tobin, became a $10,000 winner on the television show Name That Tune. The park was mentioned before a television audience estimated at 28 million viewers, which helped attendance at Spaceland grow enormously.This caught the eye of an unscrupulous investment firm in Garden City, which sold shares in a non-existent company, claiming that Hodge had signed-on to open up Spaceland parks all over the country. The broker told his victims that the Queen of England would be at the opening of the new parks, which included a harness racing track in Canada. The scam netted the firm about $500,000, but they were ultimately caught and convicted for the deception. Neither Hodge nor anyone else associated with Spaceland was involved or had any knowledge of the scheme.
Publicity aside, Spaceland's ten attractions, many of them kiddie rides, just didn't provide enough entertainment for repeat business and the the park closed in the early 1960's.
Years later, whenever we passed by that hanger, I always thought about Spaceland. It was near the Roosevelt Field Shopping Mall, Roosevelt Raceway, and many other popular places. I remember that it looked more elaborate than the hangers at the old Mitchel Field Air Force base. It had ornate decorations with olive branches and wings, harking back to a time when things were built with style. A bit of research revealed that the hanger stood on a parcel of land that had originally been part of the Hempstead Plains Aerodrome, one of the earliest civilian airports in the country. It was built in 1911 and consisted of two airfields separated by a fifteen foot-high bluff. The aerodrome was taken over by the Army when the United States declared war against Germany in 1917. It was renamed Hazelhurst Field for Leighton Hazelhurst, the first non-commissioned officer killed in an aviation accident.
The eastern-most field was renamed Roosevelt Field for Quentin Roosevelt, the son of President Theodore Roosevelt, who was killed in aerial combat over France on July 14, 1918. After the war, the eastern field would be renamed again, this time to Curtiss Field, after Glenn Curtiss, the American aviation pioneer credited as the founder of the U.S. aircraft industry. Curtiss built his experimental aircraft factory on the site in 1917. In 1929, both fields were merged into Roosevelt Field. Long Island truly was the Cradle of Aviation as the name on the Museum implies.
In 1919, the British dirigible R-34 landed at Roosevelt Field after the first east-to-west nonstop transatlantic flight. Charles Lindbergh's 1927 historic solo transatlantic flight originated from Roosevelt Field.
Charles Lindbergh, Emilia Earhart, Glenn Curtiss, Wiley Post, and Igor Sikorsky are just a few of the pioneers who made aviation history here. They of early flight flew, set world records, and built an industry.
On May 31, 1951, historic Roosevelt Field officially ceased aviation activities. Its forty buildings would be used for industrial and manufacturing purposes, and later would become a the site of a shopping mall.
Hazelhurst Field #2, the field south of Long Island Motor Parkway (Stewart Avenue today), became Mitchel Field during World War I. The area labelled "Camp Black" in the map above has a rich history itself. During the Revolutionary War it was known as the Hempstead Plains and used as an Army enlistment center. In the War of 1812 and in the Mexican War, it was a training center for Infantry units. During the Civil War, it was the location of Camp Winfield Scott. In 1898, during the Spanish-American War, it was called Camp Black. At the start of World War I, it was absorbed into Mitchel Field.
Mitchel Field was responsible for many firsts. In October 1923, it was the scene of the country's first airplane jumping competition. Two world's airplane speed records were established there the same year. The U.S. airmail service started with experimental flights from the airfield in 1924. In September 1929, Lieutenant James H. Doolittle, made the world's first blind flight.
In 1938, Mitchel was the starting point for the first nonstop transcontinental bomber flight. Mitchel Field also served as a base from which the first demonstration of long-range aerial reconnaissance was made. With Curtis LeMay navigating, the aircraft flew 620 miles out to sea to intercept an ocean liner in order to demonstrate the range and accuracy of modern aviation.
During World War II, Mitchel Field was a staging area for B24 Liberators and their flight crews en route to Europe. The airbase was closed in 1961.
In 1957 the U.S. received a wake-up call by the name of Sputnik; the first man-made object to orbit the Earth. The Russians had jumped ahead of us in a race we didn't know we were in, and the public clamored for action. The country was fixated on this little 23 inch sphere circling the earth at 18,000 miles per hour, and it was a huge embarrassment. Less than a week after launching Sputnik, the Russians exploded a huge atomic bomb as a further show of strength. It was just a matter of time before the Russians would be capable of reaching the U.S. with an Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM). The race to space had become a race for survival. This was no longer just a matter of national pride, it was a matter of national defense.
Elected officials blamed our education system for not producing enough engineers. They thought that the engineers we did have were wasting their talent on designing better cars and refrigerators. The government began pouring money into science and mathematics programs at all levels of education. It was every American student's patriotic duty to knuckle down and get busy studying math and science.
The U.S. established the Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA, a military agency) and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA, a civilian agency). Amazingly, in just over ten years, NASA would put a man on the moon with the help of a Long Island company located just a short distance from the hanger where I boarded the rocket ship to Mars. Grumman's Lunar Module (LEM) landed in the Sea of Tranquility on the lunar surface on July 20, 1969. ARPA created the ARPAnet global network that would eventually be called the Internet.
A Chapter Closed
Spaceland opened to much fanfare on June 19, 1958 and closed unceremonious some time in late 1959 or early 1960. The old hanger still had more life in it though, being subsequently used as a movie studio in 1964 (The World of Henry Orient and Santa Clause Conquers the Martians) and a discotheque in 1966, when radio personality Murray the K converted the hanger to a multimedia music venue called "The World". The discotheque was short-lived however, and the historic building succumbed to the wrecking ball to make way for a furniture store.