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Beverly Park and Ponyland: The 'Kiddieland' that Inspired Walt Disney

To wax reminiscent about a trip to the Beverly Center seems to me to be a fool's errand. I am not a person who dislikes malls, I actually rather like them. Sometimes when I want to escape the never-ending griminess and terminal "uniqueness" of city life, I will go to the Beverly Center, get a slice of Sabarro pizza and buy some new lipstick from Sephora. But, this slick and clean mammoth of a mall is comforting to me because in a town full of personality, it has absolutely none. It is like Cedars-Sinai Hospital behind it- except its cavernous, antiseptic walkways are lined with dresses fit for a Kardashian, instead of rooms filled with medical instruments.

So, while a trip to the Beverly Center is nothing to write home about, I could go on and on about my childhood memories of the annual North Carolina State Fair. Every fall would bring the rides, the funnel cakes, the carnies, and the dust covered "fun" houses, with their distorting mirrors and human sized hamster wheels. I loved the roller coasters, the sticky games one could never win, and the temporary carny town of trailers that sat on the outskirts of the fair! My friends and I spent hours riding the swings that shot into the sky, and touring the off-brand tent of oddities named "Riley's- Believe It, You're Nuts!" There was something magical about how temporary and transient the amusements seemed, and how exciting it was to drive a bumper car as dirty and worn as my family's Toyota.


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From 1945-1974, children growing up in Los Angeles had their own mini-fair year round. Beverly Park operated on less than an acre, on the corner of Beverly Blvd. and La Cienega, the present home of the Beverly Center Mall. There were usually about twelve kid-sized rides, as well as animals, hot dogs and cotton candy. Parents sat on benches watching their children ride the merry-go-round, and birthday parties were celebrated at picnic tables. For the children who grew up going to this pebble-strewn, family- run park, it was a respite from city life- quite simply put: "It was heaven."1


A Ride Man

Bradley was everywhere in the little park, switching on the tiny motorcycles on the minibike race course, running the kid-sized roller coaster, and, through a remote microphone, projecting the voice of the blue hippopotamus that talked to children outside the Haunted Castle. Inside the castle, two giant freak faces rolled their eyes, and a bat flapped up and down in front of visitors. Young children sometimes came out sobbing.2
I guess I never grew up. What's a grown man doing building kiddy rides?3

David Bradley was a born and bred California dreamer. He was a man whose pie-in-the-sky dreams were luckily facilitated by his engineer's brain. Born in Los Angeles in 1911, by the age of 15 he had already rebuilt a 1923 Ford. He graduated from Dartmouth College with a degree in economics, but according to amusement park historian Jay Jennings, he was quickly drawn towards the magic and lights of the entertainment industry.

The soft-spoken, friendly, pleasant-looking Bradley held many early jobs that seem to be a catalogue of awesome intra-war careers. He worked for a time at the Hollywood Reporter, then as a manager of the popular big bands of Freddy Martin and Russ Morgan. It was while touring with the big bands across the country that he became fascinated with the ballrooms and outdoor park venues his acts frequented. According to Jennings, his "long term goal was to own a ballroom or park of his own."4 But in the interim, he worked as a production manager at a radio station, and spent the war years working as a toolmaker at Lockheed Martin.

Photo: Courtesy of L.A. Times and Los Angeles Public Library

2 ladies ride the roller coaster at Beverly Park ca. 1958 | Photo: Courtesy of USC Digital Archives

In 1945, David Bradley's opportunity to fulfill his dream to "bring life and laughs to people after the death and destruction of the war," materialized.3 The Frock and Meyer Amusement Company was selling a small children's amusement park named Beverly Park, right in the middle of Los Angeles. It had been opened for just two years, and before that it had been home to a fairground and baseball field. Bradley bought the infrastructure and all the rides. He leased the land from the Beverly Oil Company. He put his own fanciful stamp on the park, disguising the giant oil well that towered over the property so that it looked like a dragon with flapping wings. Bradley's Beverly Park officially re-opened in 1946 and was such a success that he recouped his investment within two years.

Bradley had very particular notions about what a children's amusement park should be. He believed the park should be spotless, and that customers should always look and feel good on rides, never demeaned. He also believed that "an appealing ride must tie together participation of the customer, make the customer feel comfortable and still be an adventure."3 He spent hours in his machinist shop on the property, fixing and perfecting rides, and constantly coming up with new ideas. He rotated rides to fit in with the fads of the times. Staples included the Little Dipper roller coaster and a ride made of fish shaped cars called "Bulgy the Whale." Bradley also loved old amusement rides, and began to buy and restore many old carousels. He sold most of them, but kept the 1916 C.W. Parker Carousel, which had had a long LA history, first at the Ocean Park Pier and later at the Looff Hippodrome on the Santa Monica Pier.

Helping him along the way (until their divorce in 1970) was his wife Bernice, who worked in the story research department at Disney Studios. She eventually left Disney to work full time at Beverly Park, running the box office and serving as treasurer. It was through Bernice that Bradley met Walt Disney, who began to frequent the park with his two daughters. Bradley's brother-in-law, Bud Benner, worked as general manager of the Park, and also helped him "build and repair new rides and tracks in an open airfield in Bradley's machine shop."

Girl takes a ride at Ponlyland ca. 1958 | Photo: Courtesy of Los Angeles Public Library

Next door, there was another mom and pop operation which offered a different kind of fantasy to youngsters. This was Ponyland, which opened at 8536 Beverly Blvd. in 1945. The operation was owned by two real characters, Leo "Pat" Murphy, and his wife, the gruff and beloved Viva "Meryle" Murphy, who always had a cigarette dangling out of her mouth while she led children around the pony track. The Murphys were ranch folks who had come to California during the Depression. According to Jay Jennings:

Beverly Ponyland consisted of a dusty, dirty row of old wooden stalls with a 3-track riding ring where one could hear the sounds of snorting ponies, jingling bits, creaking leather saddles and sporadic "Giddyups," while the pungent mixture of hay and fresh droppings filled the air.4

Beverly Park and Beverly Ponyland were often visited on the same day by children and their parents. And no matter how rustic and innocent the parks were, it was inevitable that they would be dusted with a good dose of Hollywood glamour.


Divorced Dads and Movie-Star Moms

Wheee! It zooms just like a P-38! Oh boy-look at that big white horse...I'd rather ride on the Ferris Wheel, it goes so high!5
This is divorceland.6

Walt Disney spent more and more time at the park, spending hours discussing rides with Bradley, asking children what they liked most about their favorite rides. In 1950, Disney showed Bradley his plans for a theme-park he was to call "Disneyland." For the next few years, Bradley did double duty, running his park and working as a consultant for Disney. He went to Europe to photograph rides for Disney, convinced him to build Main Street at 7/8th scale, built Disneyland's first carousel, and introduced the idea of "themed photo ops." He stayed good friends with Disney, even after he returned full time to Beverly Park in 1955.

Disney wasn't the only celebrity to frequent Beverly Park. It was a sought after filming location, and many TV shows and movies, including Hitchcock's Strangers on a Train, were filmed there. Bradley worked as a technical advisor for the ridiculous and delightful climax of the movie, which takes place on an outdoor carousel. Off-the-clock, Beverly Park was also a popular spot for busy movie star parents, hoping to cram some "quality time" (and perhaps a good photo op) into their busy schedules. Basically, every Hollywood star of the 40s,50s and 60s, who had children, frequented the park. A list in the book, Beverly Park: L.A.'s Kiddieland, runs an entire page and features names like Lana Turner, Carol Burnett and Errol Flynn.

One has to believe that Flynn was perhaps there for two reasons. Beverly Park became known as "the" place for divorcees to bring their children, and as one divorced dad put it: "This is a good place to pick up women." It was also a melting pot of all races and ethnicities, at a time when LA was still a largely segregated place. "It's a neighborhood thing," Bradley explained about the park's charm, in an increasingly metropolitan Los Angeles.6 He also admitted, "this is very much a daddy park." An LA Times reporter described the scene in 1971, a hint of pathos in the sunny voice:

By noon on this still hot autumn Sunday several hundred kids are alternately smiling and scowling their way through the acre of dodgem cars, tilt-a-whirl and dune buggy rides at Beverly Park. Their parents scrunch through the gravel to watch from benches under wind rippled elms. Frill hats and favors and "happy birthday" songs wait at 11 tables for 11 birthday parties. A blond 2-year old bounces and waves his arms with innocent abandon as the carousel cranks out "show me the way to go home." The day holds promise. Smell those kosher hot dogs- the kind with the New York crunch. Feel that sticky cotton candy melt on your tongue. Listen to the giggles float over the clank-erk-bonk of the rides. Daddy for a day.6

Many of these daddy's had come to Beverly Park as children themselves. Now they were continuing the tradition, and the free parking on site probably wasn't too bad either.

Photo: Courtesy of Los Angeles Times and Los Angeles Public Library


The Little Dipper and Bulgy the Whale Say Goodbye

There was hardly anything out here then. Everything's so jammed up now, but back then I used to stake the ponies out in the fields to eat wild oats.7

In 1974, higher rent, surrounding expanded oil drilling, and the fatigue of running "kiddieland" convinced Bradley to close Beverly Park. He was also increasingly occupied at his Bradley and Kaye Manufacturing Plant in Long Beach, where he made fiberglass carousel molds and children's rides that he sold to other amusement parks. He continued to be eccentric, housing a 29-foot Chinese sampan boat in his backyard. His second wife, Geri, claimed it helped keep her home tidy, because the grandkids and Bradley played in it, instead of her house. Bradley died in 1988. In 1987, Chance manufacturing bought the rights to his highly respected carousel molds. These figures can still be seen on Chance carousels around the country.

After Beverly Park closed, some of the rides remained on the lot. They stood forlornly behind a chained up gate, bearing a misleading sign which read, "closed for renovations." Ponyland stayed open for a few more years. In 1979, it was pushed out to make way for the Beverly Center, which residents referred to derisively as "the incredible bulk."2Meryle a widow since 1965, hitched up her 27 ponies and left the city. It is a fitting image-the carnival had officially left town. In its place were chain stores, traffic, parking decks and shopping bags- not my idea of "heaven."

*Special thanks to amusement park historian Jay Jennings. His fabulous book Beverly Park: LA's Kiddieland can be purchased here: retroimagepublishing.blogspot.com

________

1Author interview with Brad Fisher, who went there as a child.
2"L.A. Scene/The City Then and Now" Los Angeles Times, March 15,1993
3"Backyard Boater Uses Imagination" Los Angeles Times, July 23, 1981
4 Jay Jennings, Beverly Park: L.A.'s Kiddieland (Los Angeles: Retro Image Publishing, 2012)
5"Flower Guilds Party Thrills Nursery Tots: Miniature Rides and Other..." Los Angeles Times, August 27, 1944
6"Family Fun For Part-Time Fathers" Los Angeles Times, Oct 17, 1971
7"Postscript: Shopping Mall to Bushwack Riders Along the Pony Trail" Los Angeles Times, July 28, 1978

About the Author

Hadley Meares is a writer, actress and singer who traded one Southland (her home state of North Carolina) for another. Her debut novel "Absolutely" is now available on Amazon.
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