Richard B. Clark, 63, stood in the middle of his back yard on West 25th Street looking as if he was losing his best friends.
In some ways, he was.
A tow truck groaned and pulled out the first of several rusted amusement rides straight out of the 1950s.
It was not their age that made them unique. The yard, in some ways, had become a kind of elephant graveyard, only instead of elephants coming here to die, a group of one-time kiddie rides slowly fell into decay after rising insurance fees, the death of Clark’s father, and a change in youth culture made them less viable entertainment.
Four vehicles, and later an accompanying air-filled jumping tent, had made up a mini-carnival, providing curbside fun at local street fairs and events around Hudson County.
Now, with the colors faded, it was almost difficult to see the objects’ attraction.
But the tiny Ferris wheel managed to move, if with a groan, as did the truck with the large metal swing. Another ride called “The Whip” had ceased use because Clark said it was too dangerous, and the horses to the fourth truck’s merry-go-round had long been sold off to a local collector.
“I made the swing myself,” said Clark, who has worked as a machinist most of his life when he wasn’t helping his father run the rides during the summer.
The swing got its name from a misunderstanding he and his father had while watching TV one night.
“Did you ever hear of ‘Sing Along with Mitch’?” Clark asked. “We were watching the program and my father wanted a name for the ride. He thought it was saying ‘Swing Along with Rich,’ and so that’s what we named it. We painted it on the front, but the name is gone now.”
Two of the rides were very familiar sights at the summer sidewalk sales in Bayonne, one ride parked in front of the Barney Stock store near 23rd Street and Broadway, and the other parked in front of the McDonald’s two blocks north.
Along with the summer sidewalk sales, the Clark family operated the rides for events throughout the county and state, working events for The Shiners and other groups as well as doing charity events for places like St. Joseph’s School for the Blind in Jersey City as well as an annual event for disabled held at what was then called Veteran’s Stadium in Bayonne.
“We went all over,” he said, including a stint in Hoboken and events in North Hudson, northern New Jersey, as well as upstate New York. “I did a job once where a girl had no knees. She was very pretty and wore one of those long dresses, and when she got on my father helped her. She had to put her legs straight out.”
From oil to carnival rides
Clark’s father didn’t start out as a carnival man, but as the owner and operator of the R.B. Clark Fuel Oil Company.
“We used to run the company out of the garage,” Clark said, pointing to where the rides were stored.
Clark’s father got into the mini-carnival business when he purchased the first ride “The Whip” from a company called “Uncle Sam.”
“We changed the name,” said Clark, who started helping his father with the rides in 1972 and became a familiar figure in Bayonne – so that some people still recognize him.
“The reason we stopped using The Whip is because if the chain broke it would fling a kid out,” he said. “Some people recognize me because I was always wearing camouflage clothing.” He still wears it.
Clark attended Roosevelt School in Bayonne and then attended the technical school the county operated at Bayonne High School, where he learned to become a machinist.
But the rides were always a big part of his life.
“It was a lot of fun helping the blind children and the [disabled],” he said.
But the rides were popular everywhere.
“We even did small jobs,” Clark recalled. “If a store was opening up or did a grand reopening, we were there. We did something for the Masonic Lodge, too.”
“We used to run the company out of the garage.” – Richard B Clark Jr.
The family operated the rides from the late 1960s until insurance costs made their operation too expensive, and his father parked the vehicles in the yard where they remained for more than 12 years, slowly deteriorating.
“It cost us $8,000 every six months for each ride in insurance,” he said.
They could hardly recoup the cost of insurance.
But the environment changed, too. Kids were no longer the same, and cruel people threw things at the rides.
So they parked the rides in the yard and they slowly deteriorated. Clark’s father died about six years ago, after which Clark started thinking about doing something else with the rides and eventually had his friend put up a notice on craigslist.com. He got a response from Jimmy, who restores things as a hobby. Over several days in June, the rides were pulled out for transport to a shop elsewhere in New Jersey.
Jimmy, however, was still not certain about two of the rides, and knew that one ride would require a lot of work to restore.
“If the insurance isn’t too high, he might use them or might just take the rides to places to show people how things used to be,” Clark said.
Blast from the past
Back when they were still operating the rides, Clark recalled doing an event in Jersey City as St. Joseph’s School for the Blind. The truck rides were self-contained, but the inflatable jumping bag needed electricity.
“Most of the time wherever we went, police and firemen would help us lay the bag down, roll it out, and we’d put air into it,” Clark recalled. “This time at St. Joseph’s School for the blind, I went to the priest and said I needed an outlet to plug this thing in. He called over a girl. She must have been 15 years old, a short Italian girl with curly black hair. She goes into the basement and it’s dark and I said, ‘You have to put the lights on.’ She was blind so she didn’t notice the light bulb was burned out. She had someone else plug it in. I almost forgot about this until I called up there the other day. I got a lady who said let me get you someone – I think she said her name was Sister Josephine. She gets on the phone and I explain how we’re restoring the rides and how it was back then, about the swing and the bag, and how we used to plug it in. Then I hear her gasp, and I asked if she was all right. She said, ‘That was me.’ She remembered. She was that blind girl who showed me where the plug was.”