Good Time Charley: The Life of Theme Park Patriarch Charles R. Wood

by | August 2022, History

photograph courtesy of Bobbie Wages Wood

 

Once upon a time, there was a larger-than-life man named Charles R. Wood—better known to all as Charley—who dedicated his life to fun. He strode onto the North Country’s mid-century scene with little more than a smile and a hammer, but managed to build an entertainment empire from scratch.

Charley, who was born to a middle-class family near Buffalo in 1914, was a natural entrepreneur. Like any typical youngster, he started earning nickels and dimes with a paper route, but his schemes soon outgrew the typical. By the time he was in high school, he had the wherewithal to buy a home for his family and convert its carriage house to a rental apartment.

But it wasn’t all about dollars and cents. Charley was a dreamer who’d tinker around with extravagant ideas until they became reality. His daughter, Bobbie Wood Wages, says he built a Model T in the basement when he was 12 years old. He didn’t have a plan for getting the vehicle out after he’d put it together, but that didn’t dampen his enthusiasm. In the true Charley Wood style that he would become known for, he dreamed big, worked hard, and found a way around the obstacles. 

After a brief stint at the University of Michigan, and then some time at Harrison Radiator—where he met his first wife, Margaret, by dropping a file drawer on her foot—Charley joined the war effort, overseeing hundreds of mechanics repairing aircraft in Africa and the South Pacific while he was still in his 20s.

Scouting around for a direction after the war, Charley turned his attention to the hubbub surrounding Knott’s Berry Farm, in Southern California, which had become a prototype for the modern theme park. The Knotts made a name for themselves with their tearoom’s specialties, fried chicken and boysenberry pies, and the lines to get into their place never seemed to shorten, no matter how many times they expanded their dining area. So, to give their customers some distraction from the wait, they added entertaining backdrops that would eventually include a full-blown ghost town.

Noting the success of that pie-in-the-sky idea, Charley started looking around for ways he could break into the entertainment business. In 1947, he thought he saw his opening, with an ad for a roller-skating rink for sale near Albany. By the time he traveled there, it was no longer available, but he happened to see another ad, one for an Adirondack property in a little place called Schroon Lake. He asked a policeman on the street how to find the town, and the officer pointed toward Route 9, telling him, “Follow that.”

Route 9, at the time the main artery from Albany to Canada, took Charley to Schroon Lake, and it also took him past scattered cabins, motor courts and dude ranches—a budding Eden to fire his imagination. He ended up buying the Schroon Lake property and, with his new bride, launched an “American Plan” resort—where guests pay one flat rate for both room and meals—named Arrowhead Lodge. But Charley saw that the real action was in Lake George, and soon opened the Holiday House resort on its shores.

The Holiday House was a success; still, Charley noticed guests wanted more of an experience while they were “getting away from it all” in the wilderness—and he knew a family-friendly attraction would fit the bill. So he paid $75,000 for five acres of marshland between Glens Falls and Lake George and got to work.

“He was personally very involved with building Storytown,” Bobbie remembered in a 2016 documentary. “He designed the little houses. He worked hammering nails and putting things together. I mean, he loved building.” For ideas, she said, he pored through piles of colorful nursery-rhyme collections.

A venture based on Mother Goose—featuring a wobbly Humpty Dumpty, Little Bo Peep with a tag-along sheep, and Jack and Jill tumbling down the hill—was never a sure bet. Charley admitted to sitting up on the hill the night before it opened, in 1954, and crying next to that old woman of rhyme’s shoe, thinking nobody would show up. But the crowds came. And came. And came. Storytown debuted the year before Disneyland, becoming one of the very first theme parks in the nation. Within a decade, visitors could be counted in the millions.

Despite the initial success, Charley saw a problem right away: he was missing out on the male market. When families pulled into the parking lot, the mothers and children would head to the ticket booth, but fathers would wait with their cars, smoking cigarettes and chatting with fellow holdouts. 

This would never do. So Charley cast about for a draw that would get dads through the door, and Ghost Town was born. He turned to his friend Arto Monaco, the mastermind behind Upper Jay’s Land of Makebelieve, and together they cooked up a kid-friendly version of an 1800s mining town, led by the outlaw-foiling Marshal Windy McKay. The place boasted singing cowboys, bank robberies and a root-beer slinging saloon sporting a “no women allowed” policy, courtesy of its 19th-century-minded barkeep, Dan McGrew. Ghost Town opened its swinging doors in 1957.

That was nowhere near the endpoint for Charley’s restless imagination. Soon he’d dreamed up an after-hours draw that would get rolling right after Storytown was closing down in the evenings. Gaslight Village, another collaboration with Arto Monaco, opened on the south shore of Lake George in 1959 as a slice of 1890s nightlife. Its ads promised “yesterday’s fun today,” and the turn-of-the-century playground delivered with vaudeville acts, old-fashioned rides and even pie fights in the streets.

In 1963, Charley opened the South Pacific–themed Tiki Motor Inn next door, with an adult-centric Tahitian Lounge that served up hula shows and the ribald banter of “Hurricane Hattie.” Other lodging and restaurants would follow—Sun Castle condominiums, Howard Johnson’s Motor Lodge, the Blacksmith Shop steakhouse and Alfonso’s Restaurant.

Shoveling much of his profits back into his businesses, Charley came up with something new to tempt the crowds every year, along with a steady stream of major additions—he introduced a Jungle Land animal park to Storytown in 1961, opened the Cavalcade of Cars in Gaslight Village and Waxlife U.S.A. across the road in 1974, and targeted teens with bigger rides and more games at Storytown, which was renamed the Great Escape in 1982. (The park is now owned by the Six Flags corporation, though you can still visit Humpty Dumpty and other relics of the original Storytown.)   

Charley was a hands-on boss, staying involved in every facet of his enterprises, and working “from the minute he woke up to late at night,” according to Bobbie. He would watch his guests—especially the littlest ones—noting what they enjoyed and what they didn’t. And he kept his employees hopping.

Joe Hanlon, who played a Ghost Town deputy in the late 1950s and early 1960s, recalled at a 2006 reunion of old Storytown hands, “Charley kept us busy. Between shows we’d do at Ghost Town, we’d have to clean the stable then go around picking up cigarette butts. The girls did the can-can shows, changed clothes and played other parts. He got eight hours of work out of us, all right.” Charley’s daughter Charlene Wood, who, like her sister Bobbie, worked for the family outfit starting at 12, said that her father “expected a lot from people, but he didn’t expect them to do anything that he wouldn’t personally do.”

And as he was keeping all those balls in the air, Charley still found time to spread a little joy. Charlene remembered that when she turned 15, he donned a chauffeur’s cap and drove her and her friends to a Lake George pizza joint in Jackie Gleason’s limousine. “And that was pretty typical for what he liked to do,” she said. “He always liked to have excitement and things that make people smile and happy.”

Charley was widely known as an astute businessman, a snappy dresser, and a genius at promotion, but his enduring legacy will remain his generosity. In 1978, he established the Charles R. Wood Foundation, which is dedicated to the arts, health care and children. The organization has donated more than $25 million to local causes, including Glens Falls’ Crandall Public Library, Charles R. Wood Theater and The Hyde Collection. Charley’s gift to the Glens Falls Hospital funded the C. R. Wood Cancer Center, and a donation to the Albany Medical Center went toward the expansion of their neonatal intensive care unit.

But the project that remained closest to Charley’s heart was the Double H Ranch, a 320-acre Lake Luzerne camp that gives children with life-threatening illnesses a chance to let loose and have fun. Wood had heard of Paul Newman’s Hole in the Wall Gang Camp for seriously ill children in Connecticut and wanted to open another. The catch? Paul Newman wasn’t interested in expanding into another location. But after a very persuasive Charley laid out his vision, Newman was moved to give the project $1 million in seed money.

The Double H Ranch—one H for health and one for happiness—welcomed its first campers in 1993 and has since lightened the hearts of more than 60,000 kids who’ve come to explore the Adirondack wilderness without sacrificing access to round-the-clock care. Like Charley’s other enterprises, the camp has expanded over the years, adding an adaptive winter sports program and a high ropes course. There’s no charge for campers. 

Bobbie called Double H her father’s happy place. “He was so proud of it and so excited about what an impact it could have. He would go up there every day, year round, whether it was open or not.… He was excited to see the kids there.”

Charley Wood died in 2004 at 90 years old. In 2019, the Charles R. Wood Park and Festival Commons was dedicated on the former site of Gaslight Village. The park is an apt namesake for Charley, a place for family fun, with its playground, nature trails and skate park, as well as a concert and event venue. ​But the space also includes a recreated wetland ​that helps filter storm-water before contaminants can flow into the lake, working to make the world a better place—just like Charley.

Do you have old snapshots from Storytown, Land of Makebelieve, Enchanted Forest, Frontier Town, or any of the other hotspots during the heyday of Adirondack theme parks? Send them to aledit@adirondacklife.com, and they may be featured in a future issue.


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August 2022

Why Newcomb should be on your Adirondack bucket list, plus ideas for a summer-full of family fun, carefree camping in Lake Luzerne, an epic ice-cream tour, the legacy of theme-park patriarch Charley Wood—and much more!

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