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Sebak takes PBS viewers along for an amusing ride

Sunday, July 18, 1999

By Rob Owen, Post-Gazette TV Editor

Last month's Rick Sebak documentary, "A Hot Dog Program," might not have appealed to everyone. Vegetarians come to mind.

However, I can't imagine anyone disliking "Great Old Amusement Parks" (8 p.m. Wednesday on WQED). OK, maybe folks with extreme vertigo, but there aren't many camera-strapped-to-the-roller-coaster shots that cry out for Dramamine.

Instead viewers get an hour of greater depth and history than "A Hot Dog Program" could muster. While it's not the defining thesis on the rise and fall and rise again of American amusement parks, the program offers enough information to keep you saying, "Huh, I didn't know that."

Since this is a WQED production, it's not surprising the program begins at nearby Idlewild Park in Ligonier (Kennywood is featured later in the show). Sebak explains how railroad companies started many amusement parks, including Idlewild, to create destinations for their passengers.

In 1919 there were almost 2,000 amusement parks in the United States, while today the number is down to about 600, Sebak says. The original mecca of amusement parks, Coney Island, gets its due in "Great Old Amusement Parks," along with other small parks across the country.

  TV REVIEW: "Great Old Amusement Parks"

When: 8 p.m. Wednesday on PBS.

Produced, written, directed by: Rick Sebak


What you won't find is devotion to gigantic theme parks - no Walt Disney World or Six Flags. The biggest park included is Cedar Point, which dates from 1870 when it began its existence as a beach park.

"This is the only old-time park that made the transition into a big-time super park," says one Cedar Point executive.

Roller coasters are featured, including the restored Leap-the-Dips at Lakemont Park in Altoona, but "Great Old Amusement Parks" shouldn't be confused with one of Discovery Channel's thrill ride specials. We've seen the latest high-tech coasters time and again, so the revelations in "Great Old Amusement Parks" are more like trips to an antique shop.

I'd never before seen the caterpillar-like ride at Idlewild that features a canopy that comes up and down. The carousel-like Derby Racer at Playland in Rye, N.Y., and the Boat Chute at Lake Winnepesaukah were quaint relics, too.

Along with the historic rides, Sebak visits what's believed to be the nation's first "theme" park, Holiday World in Santa Claus, Ind. It's here, Sebak reports, that the idea for a park based on themes began with Christmas and later expanded to sections devoted to the Fourth of July and Halloween.

The only failing of "Great Old Amusement Parks" is that it begins to wear out its welcome. It clocks in at less than one hour, but I grew antsy toward the end, especially during a section on contestants riding a roller coaster in San Diego for two months as part of a radio station contest. That's the sort of time-wasting filler we've come to expect from local news, viewers don't need that in a Sebak special.

Otherwise, "Great Old Amusement Parks" offers the expected interviews with everyday Joes and Joans as they talk about their favorite rides. Sebak even slips in a few sly winks to the audience. One woman talks about amusement park rides, saying "bigger doesn't mean better." Sebak cuts to a close-up of her husband. It's brief, but long enough to have the intended nudge-nudge, wink-wink effect.

It's appropriate Sebak should look at amusement parks, since amusement is his specialty. Sebak's documentaries aren't laugh-fests or serious examinations of issues, they're easy-to-watch, amusing tales of Americana.

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