Leopold Simon was a stocky Texan who made his money by curling himself into a coffin-sized box and setting off a stick of dynamite placed six inches from his head. The resulting blast obliterated the box and when the smoke cleared Simon staggered unsteadily to his feet. Crowds loved it.
“Suicide” Simon, as he was known, brought his act to Kennywood Park in 1958. He played second bill to the Lone Ranger, who rode a white horse and complained about having to drive a Cadillac all night from Albany, NY, to make the appearance.
Kennywood’s gates reopen this month for the park’s annual Halloween attraction that features stumbling zombies and phantom pirates. But in the 1950s, a decade before George Romero brought hipness to rotting dead people, Kennywood offered death-defying acts that were actually alive.
We found in our archive several pictures of Kennywood from that era. You’ll recognize the park, but it appears as a simpler and less crowded place, the rides smaller in scale. Braddock’s Edgar Thomson steel mill belches black smoke in the background. Moms in the pictures wear dresses. Girls wear bobby socks. Bonnets are strapped to babies’ heads. Davy Crockett was popular — his image graced t-shirts worn by several young boys.
Most stunning are a series time-exposures shot at night by Pittsburgh Press photographer Stewart Love. The pictures transform spindly rides like “Rockets” into magical wheels of light.
While researching these photographs, we came across stories about Suicide Simon, “The man who dynamites himself,” and other acts that once performed at the park. Simon’s trick sometimes failed. One time he miscalculated the dynamite blast and awoke 48 hours later in a hospital bed. The mistake cost him four teeth.
The Baranak Sisters perch pole team miscalculated during an act in 1950. Waltrand Baranak held the pole; her sister Gesela fell and broke a leg. Luckily, an emergency backup perch pole team named the Adamson Duo remained at the ready, and so a show did go on.
Visitors in 1953 got to see Victoria Zacchini, “the only girl ever used as a human cannonball.” She was launched over the park’s lagoon. That same day Galasso the Great balanced his body on just one finger.
By far the strangest story we found concerned a Charleroi father who took his six children to Kennywood in August 1953. After a day of chasing his kids around the park, the father gathered up his brood at dusk, stuffed them into his car and headed home. There, the kids were sent to bed.
Next morning, the man awoke and was shocked to discover in his house a seventh child — a stray six-year-old named Billy Voelker. The father had been somewhat careless, or at least absent-minded, while rounding up his kids the night before and young Billy had allowed himself to be carried away with a bunch of strangers.
The boy, according to a Post-Gazette article, had wandered away from his mother and was “worn out with a day’s load of mischief.”
Mrs. Voelker was of course in a panic as the hours passed and police and firefighters scoured the Mon Valley for her missing child. The story ends well, though, with the father driving the boy back to Kennywood for a reunion with his mother.
Oddly, the absent–minded Charleroi father was unnamed in the Post-Gazette’s story. “Another case of absent-mindedness,” wrote the reporter. “Nobody thought to ask him his name.”
If “zombie” can be a state of mind, it made its debut at Kennywood more than six decades ago.