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Films Reveal Willow Grove Park Past

At the most recent meeting of the Upper Moreland Historical Society, members viewed video of the amusement park from the 1950s to 1970s.

The held its monthly meeting Tuesday, March 22, featuring a special viewing of films of Willow Grove Park in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s. The program was of special interest with the tri-centennial of Willow Grove kicking off in a few weeks.

On April 26, the historical association will begin its Willow Grove 300 celebrations with the organization’s annual dinner. Tickets can be purchased by visiting umha.com.

Upper Moreland Historical Association treasurer and 15-year member Ray Stahl lead the March meeting.

Stahl presented four videos of the amusement park, which once stood where Willow Grove Park Mall stands. The videos were all donated to the historical association, and the association paid to have the videos converted to digital format for future preservation.

“It’s really a nice treasure to have for our collection of artifacts,” said Stahl at the March meeting.

The first video shown was a home movie from 1976, when Willow Grove Park was leased out and operated under the name Six Gun Territory.

The second video was another home movie from the early 1960s. Although the film was donated to the historical association, the family seen posing in front of rides and eating treats at the park is unknown. There was also no sound on this film.

“The historical association is lucky to have some of the original sounds from the park,” said Stahl.

He played sound files, which originally played in the park near various rides, during the video. The audio recordings boasted of the thrills the fun to be found in the spinning spaceship-themed rides or the roller coaster named for the Alps.

Stahl said in an email that the sound files were also donated to the association by a man who worked the PA in Willow Grove Park.

The third video shown was a professional creation, which, although soundless, told an amusing story.

“I named this one 'The Love Story,' and you’ll see why,” said Stahl.  

The video shows a man going on rides with a young lady he meets in the Willow Grove Park, only to be surprised at the end of the day when her three children meet up with her.

The final video was created in 1955 as a promotional video for the park. The title of the film is the same as the motto of the park, “Life is a lark in Willow Grove Park.”

At that time, Willow Grove Park was in its 61st year of operation. The film would have been shown at school and to other organizations. The feature was created on 16 mm film, and it was transferred to digital format by the historical association.

The promotional video showed the picnic area, the rides, the casino restaurant and dance hall, and trains, buses and trolleys that brought the public to the park.

After the videos, members of the audience shared their memories of Willow Grove Park.

One man recalled working in the batting cage for 35 cents an hour. A woman said that from her childhood home, she often heard the sounds of the park, including the circus animals that were sometimes featured in the park.

Others said that the park was not maintained as well as it appeared in the 1955 promotional film; they remembered times when the picnic area was overgrown and weeds grew around rides.

These videos and others will be made available in the Upper Moreland Historical Association’s History Room, Stahl said in an email.

He added that the historical association is always looking for donations of historical interest, like the videos or photos of Willow Grove and Upper Moreland in days gone by.

The historical association has no plans to screen the videos at another public event in the near future, but the organization will host other, related events for Willow Grove 300.

These events include the lectures:

  • “From Manor of Moreland to 1887” on Wednesday, May 4
  • “Transportation History of Willow Grove” on Wednesday, May 11
  • “The History of Willow Grove Park” on Wednesday, May 18
  • “Willow Grove 1900 to Present” on Wednesday, May 25
  • “History of Aviation in Willow Grove” on Wednesday, June 1.
Heather Greenleaf March 28, 2011 at 12:58 PM
Peg, the Upper Moreland Historical Association has published a Then and Now booklet in honor of the Tricentennial. It contains side-by-side aerial views of the park around the 1950s and as it is today, along with side-b-sides of more than 25 other local sites. It can be purchased for $5 at any Historical Association public meeting, or at their Archival room on the ground floor of the Township Building, which is open for public research every Thursday from 11am to 3pm.
Ruth Z. Deming March 28, 2011 at 09:38 PM
really well-done article, megan. i too wish i could see the films sometime. when the art-deco bowling alley was being knocked down to make room for the mawl, i found an old bowling pin which i kept for many years, but then threw away in a a rare cleaning frenzy.
Nancy Schaub March 29, 2011 at 12:19 AM
Is there any chance these films could be transferred to DVD and offered to the public? My school always took trips to Willow Grove Park in the 50s so the memories from those years are extra special. Now what were the names of the three roller coasters? The Thunderbolt, the Alps and what? My grandmother attended the park in John Phillip Sousa's day.
Megan Doherty March 31, 2011 at 01:35 PM
Ruth - Thank you! Nancy - A man named Ed emailed me directly and also suggested selling the films on DVD. As far as I know, there are no plans to sell the films. But there is a booklet for sale, as mentioned in Heather's comment. Thanks for reading!
Jan Maxwell Kershner April 08, 2011 at 04:07 PM
I think the third, and smallest, roller coaster was the Scenic.

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