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The Aftermath

Defunct amusement parks have a short shelf life. Most are almost immediately demolished to make way for strip malls, parking lots, or housing complexes. In Asbury Park, fate took a different path. Even though waterfront developer Joseph Carabetta lost his major financing in 1989, and eventually filed for bankruptcy in 1992, the City could never break his grip on the waterfront properties, so the Palace and many other properties were tossed into a state of limbo that lasted for more than a decade.

Final days of the Orient Express (2004). Photo copyrighted by Frank Saragnese. view larger image
For all intents and purposes, Carabetta abandoned the Palace once he had taken possession in early 1989. Carabetta never painted; George Lange had commissioned the last repainting of the walls in the mid-1980s, and the last painting of Tillie was done by Steve Tallent, brother of the E Street Band's bass guitarist, Garry W. Tallent. Carabetta never maintained the interior; the last maintenance was done by the final operators, Sam and Henry Vaccaro just before they turned over the keys to Carabetta in 1989. Nor did Carabetta provide security. Over time, it is hard to tell what caused the most damage - vandals or the weather.

The Carousel House, days before demolition (2004). Photo copyrighted by Frank Saragnese. view larger image
The rides were put up for sale in late 1988 and early 1989. Collector Peter Szikura drove by the Palace shortly after the closing and saw a sign on the window reading "Contents For Sale." A savvy buyer could have snapped up treasures, but there were few of those around. As Szikura recalls: "Even the Asbury auction houses were clueless about the value of items sitting right there." One buyer did strike a deal for the Olympic Bobs, the Auto-Skooters, dozens of games, an animated gorilla and more. To this day, he keeps this rich collection of Palace memorabilia out of public view, stored in four tractor-trailers. Anything that didn't sell was dumped. "On the very last days of selling," Szikura said, "Sam Vacarro got big dumpsters and just started heave-hoing everything." Dumpster divers had a field day.

One Palace attraction was moved over to Sandy's Arcade and Amusements, a Boardwalk arcade run by Henry Vaccaro's son, Henry Jr. There, the Palace photo booth - one of the most popular coin operated machine in Palace history - remained in operation until purchased by Vermont show owners Pamela and Slim Smith. The booth is one of those old style booths where you plunk in your quarters, pose quickly, and get in return a strip of four wallet sized black and white photos. The Smiths moved the booth to their Folkheart store in Burlington, and later to a second Folkheart in Bristol alongside Nepalese clothing, Himalayan bric a brac, and delightful trinkets. In late 2006, with the closing of Folkheart, the Smiths donated the booth to Save Tillie, which gave it a complete mechanical overhaul and returned it to Asbury Park, where it now operates on the lower level of The Shoppes At the Arcade, 685 Cookman Avenue.

The Fun House, vibrant and colorful to the end (2004). Photo copyrighted by Frank Saragnese. view larger image
After a spirited campaign failed to save the carousel, the Vaccaros put the carousel, the rotating wheel, and the children's carousel on the auction block at Sotheby's in New York. (Click on: Inside the Sotheby's Auction and The Palace wheel.) When the carousel failed to sell as a unit, seven horses were auctioned before Vaccaro stopped the bidding to allow one final attempt at keeping the remaining parts of the carousel together. When that effort fell through, Vaccaro sold most of the carousel animals through another New York auction house, and sold the operating mechanism and the rotating wheel to a park owner in Biloxi, Mississippi.

Detail of Twister wall (2004). Photo copyrighted by Frank Saragnese. view larger image
When they locked up for the last time, the Vaccaros left behind a ghost town of relics: the entire facades of the Fun House and the Orient Express and the Haunted Castle, and the great Twister wall painted by Ralph Lopez Jr. The offices located near the Wild West Shooting Gallery and the smaller offices and repair shops located behind the Orient Express were full of business records and game parts. Thousands of carousel rings remained in a box near the repair shops. The upstairs apartment in the Crystal Maze building, built for Ernest Schnitzler and his family (and later occupied by the family of Mr. D, the Polish carpenter, and then by Nick Nichols) still retained its original molding. Murals of ghosts and spiders and graveyard scenes were left behind in the Haunted Castle.

For the battering it took at the hands of vandals and from ocean storms between 1989 and 2001, the Palace proved itself to be a tough, well-constructed building. An independent inspection in early 2001, by the New York firm of Robert Silman Associates, found the carousel house built for Ernest Schnitzler in 1888 to be in remarkably good shape. The rest of the complex, said the inspector, needed attention soon, but the problems were said to be reversible. The inspector noted that in his experience, many buildings in far worse shape had been successfully restored.

Final days of the Twister wall (2004). Photo copyrighted by Frank Saragnese. view larger image
The inspection, however, carried no weight with the City of Asbury Park's code enforcement officer, William Gray, a persistent advocate of Palace demolition. In 2001, Gray told preservationists he had a personal motive for seeking demolition. If the building collapses, and he had done nothing to prevent the collapse, Gray predicted he would be brought up on negligence charges. "I'm an ex-cop," said Gray. "I'm not going to jail for the Palace. You know what happens to ex-cops in jail."

Final days of the Kingsley Street clown (2004). Photo copyrighted by Frank Saragnese. view larger image
Nor did the inspection matter to the Palace's final owners, a group of out-of-town business men fronting for New York investors who acquired all of Carabetta's properties and signed contracts with the City in 2002 to manage the waterfront redevelopment project. They rejected an offer from Save Tillie, the Palace preservation campaign, to shore and brace the Palace at no cost, and moved instead to clear away obstacles to demolition.

Final days of the Kingsley Street mural (2004). Photo copyrighted by Frank Saragnese. view larger image
Also rejecting the independent inspection was the administration of New Jersey Governor James McGreevey. New Jersey law specifically protects properties on the New Jersey and National Registers of Historic Places from anything more than a "minimal practicable" impact during development in a coastal zone. The Silman inspection report, along with more than 5,000 letters and emails on behalf of the Palace, were presented to the State as a part of a joint effort by the National Trust for Historic Preservation, Preservation New Jersey, Save Tillie, and the Asbury Park Historical Society to save the Palace. Gov. McGreevey, however, refused to meet with preservationists, and state bureaucrats opened, but (by their own admission) did not read most of the letters and emails. Finally, in 2004, the State issued a permit that provided, among other things, for Palace demolition.

Members of Save Tillie, aided by a crew from Baumgartner Construction of Egg Harbor Township, New Jersey, salvaged over 125 artifacts from the Palace during the late spring of 2004. Among the salvage: the Orient Express murals painted by Ralph Lopez Sr.; most of the Twister wall painted by Ralph Lopez Jr.; murals and other artwork from the Fun House, including the hands of the Fun House giant; 27 murals from inside the Haunted Castle; the large entryway to the Haunted Castle; and, in virtually mint condition, a sign from the Asbury Park Rock 'N' Roll Museum that had fallen behind a Sheetrock wall in 1988. All items were given to the Asbury Park Historical Society and the City of Asbury Park for safekeeping. However, in February 2010, officials of both organization said they had destroyed all but four of the more than 125 artifacts, an act denounced by Save Tillie's president, Bob Crane, who said that at no time was Save Tillie alerted to the impending loss or given a chance to reclaim the items. "We would have taken all of them," he said. "These irreplaceable items were all viable candidates for restoration, and all told a part of the Asbury Park story that is now lost."

Tillie (detail) shortly before demolition. Photo copyrighted by Frank Saragnese. view larger image
Over four days in mid-June of 2004, Save Tillie members and a crew of sawing experts, steel fabricators and welders under the direction of Save Tillie member Gary Loveland of Universal Fabricators in Jackson, New Jersey, separated the Tillie mural from the Palace at the corner of Cookman Avenue and Kingsley Street. They sawed through foot-thick high density cinder blocks, and surrounded the mural with steel frames until the entire 16-foot high, 14-foot wide and 16 tons of Tillie were fully supported by the frame.

At the critical moment, Sash Francese, a crane operator with the hands and nerves of a surgeon, gently maneuvered Tillie skyward for eight agonizing tension-filled minutes until the mural swung free over the top of the Palace. Francese lowered Tillie onto a truck, and with a canny sense of history, Loveland - at the head of an impromptu parade - drove Tillie up Ocean Avenue past the Casino, The Stone Pony, Madame Marie's and Convention Hall enroute to storage. A few weeks later, Loveland's team repeated the feat, removing the bumper car murals from the Lake Avenue facade.

During the fall of 2004, an antique chariot carved by Charles I.D. Looff for the Palace carousel in 1888, along with 17 non-original wooden horses, were stolen from a storage trailer at the Twin Brook Golf Center in Tinton Falls. After a lengthy investigation, Tinton Falls police recovered the chariot, which was valued at between $25,000 and $65,000, along with the horses and made four arrests. Detective Cpl. Chris Camilleri said one of the suspects represented himself as a collector and sold or attempted to sell the pieces to various antique dealers throughout the state and on eBay.

In 2012, officials of Madison Asbury Retail, LLC., a division of the Madison Marquette development company (a successor to Asbury Partners), failed an inspection of the protected Palace items, eventually admitting that two -- an overhead door from the Cookman side, and the Shooting Gallery/Fun For All sign from the carousel house, were missing and presumed lost. By certified letter Sept. 25, 2012, Michele Kropilak, State of New Jersey Regional Supervisor for Coastal & Land Use Compliance & Enforcement, warned developers that "items on the Palace Amusements Artifacts list are to be preserved and incorporated into the redevelopment project as required by the Permit. Failure to protect and preserve any of these artifacts will be considered a violation of the permit and penalties will be assessed accordingly." The warning, accompanied by strict new rules for protecting the artifacts, was applied prospectively, for no penalties were assessed for the loss of these two items. All other protected items were accounted for.

* * *

Edward Lange, who shared ownership of the Palace for 48 years, died on Jan. 27, 1996 at Jersey Shore Medical Center in Neptune. He was 88.

His son, George, who grew up in the Palace and later co-owned it with his father, died in Orlando, Florida on Aug. 18, 2002. He was 63.

Trish Carlson grew up on the Shore, never far from the Palace. "The Palace was a norm in my life. The face of Tillie terrified me as a child and made me laugh as an adult with his Cheshire grin and wink. The Palace was a unique and beautiful place to be. There was nowhere else on earth exactly like it. It was just one of those places you thought would be there forever somehow; like nothing could happen to ever change that. Maybe it was a different time that no one cares about anymore, I don't really know. Great Adventure and Disney World came along and made the neon glory of the Palace dim and fade. I never really thought I'd see those seafoam green walls come down in chunks and lie on Kingsley Street, but it happened. We look back on our days at the Palace with regret and great love now. It will always be a part of our lives and live on forever in our hearts and never really ever die completely."