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Local author writes book on storied Freedomland amusement park

For baby boomers of a certain age, a mention of Freedomland U.S.A. brings back memories of a unique slice of New York City history centered on a Disneyland-like theme park was situated in the heart of the Bronx that was open from 1960 to 1964. It sat on a site that is now home to Co-Op City, the world’s largest housing cooperative, and the Bay Plaza Shopping Center. Despite being in existence for only four years, Freedomland U.S.A. left an indelible mark on pop culture and was featured in Richard Price’s 1998 novel Freedomland and was also depicted in the 2014 Nicole Mary Kelby page-turner The Pink Suit. Most recently, it was given the most thorough presentation in Michael Virgintino’s recently released historical book, Freedomland U.S.A.: The Definitive History. While the book took a year and a half to pull together, Freedomland has been an obsession of Virgintino, dating back to his founding a Facebook page dedicated to the venue roughly a decade ago. As someone who grew up blocks from the park while it was still in existence.

Michael R. Virgintino

“When I started the Freedomland Facebook page, I didn’t just decide to put up a picture and ask if anyone remembered the attraction. I went into the background of the attraction, how did it get there, why did they choose it for the park and who created the attraction. I did this by delving into the history behind the attraction and the park,” he explained. “I started doing that and writing articles for some magazines as well as some online publications. And then a fellow journalist was writing a book comparing the similarities among Freedomland, the New York City World’s Fair of 1964 and 1965, Disney World and Disneyland. He interviewed me for the Freedomland portion. From there, the publisher commented that the found someone who knew something about Freedomland. He wanted to know if I had a book in me. So I was contacted and I said we should try.”

Billy and Digger. Billy Collins (Billy the Kid) is just another customer for John Fortna (Digger O’Toole)
(Photo courtesy of Billy Collins)

The result is a 306-page book that exhaustively details the history of Freedomland U.S.A. based on extensive research and interviews Virgintino conducted over the years with former performers, character actors and adults who attended the park while they were children. Working off an American history theme, the park was created by C.V. Wood, a flamboyant theme park designer who had worked on the planning, construction and management of Disneyland in California. Following a falling-out with Disney brothers Walt and Roy, Wood sold the idea of an American history theme park to real estate developers William Zeckendort Sr. and Jr. The themed sections were Little Old New York (1850 to 1900), Chicago (1871), The Great Plains (1803 to 1900), San Francisco (1906), The Old Southwest (1890), New Orleans-Mardi Gras and Satellite City—The Future. The research and design team consisted of approximately 200 top artists and architects, including 19 Academy Award nominees. Original music for the 85-acre park was written by Jule Styne, composer of many Broadway musicals, including Gypsy and Funny Girl. Lyrics were written by George Weiss, known for a number of famous songs including “Lullaby of Birdland” and “What a Wonderful World. Celebrities were constantly being brought in to make public appearances and oftentimes perform including famous athletes (Roy Campanella, Jackie Robinson), television personalities (Fred Gwynne and Joe E. Ross from Car 54 Where Are You?), movie stars (Henry Fonda, Debbie Reynolds), musicians (Lionel Hampton; Louie Armstrong; Les Paul and Mary Ford) and comedians (Red Skelton; Allan Sherman).

Sternwheeler and tugboat. One of the sternwheelers shares the Great Lakes with a New York Harbor tug boat.

While the official groundbreaking took place on Aug. 26, 1959, Freedomland quickly experienced financial and operating woes. Eventually, the debt became too much and Freedomland shut down on Sept. 14, 1964. While the official reason was that the launch of the 1964 New York World’s Fair over in Queens hastened the park’s demise, Virgintino’s research yielded something quite different.
“During my research on William Zeckendorf, I found a newspaper interview with him and he was talking about his company’s bankruptcy and his investments and projects over the years. All of a sudden, the interviewer mentioned that Zeckendorf had gotten into the amusement park business and asked him about Freedomland and [Zeckendorf’s] quote was, ‘Well you know that Freedomland was just a placeholder for the land.’ As soon as I heard that, it got me asking what he meant by that and putting together the story that the park was only supposed to exist for five years,” Virgintino said.

American Express Stage Coach. The stage coach makes a splash for these riders as it rumbles through hostile mountain passes.
(Photo courtesy of Billy Collins)

“That was unbeknownst to the public and the media. It was also unknown to the creator of the park, who at that point, had moved on to create other entertainment venues. That was an interesting component and with the research I kept finding more information. So then it was about boiling it down so that someone who was reading all of this could follow the timeline.”

Gunfight at Fort Calvary. The marshal is the last man standing. John Conant (foreground), Bob Oran (upper left) Mike Hill (lower right), Billy Collins (upper right)
(Photo courtesy of Billy Collins)

Having grown up wanting to work as a cowboy at his childhood happy place, Virgintino never got his shot as Freedomland closed before he was able to apply for a job there. That said, the impact this unique attraction wound up having on him continued to resonate for decades after.
“That got me so ingrained with American history that I went on to become the president of a Civil War organization in Manhattan. What was interesting was that after Freedomland closed, I was about 12 years old and my parents took me to Gettysburg and there were some of the Union soldier figures from the park down in the museum at Gettysburg. You keep trying to follow up and connect the dots. And that’s also been fun to do,” he said.

Michael Virgintino will be appearing on Nov. 6 at Syosset High School, 70 South Woods Rd., Syosset. For more information, call 516-364-5675.