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Chi Lives: remembering Riverview

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Ralph Lopez sits in the living room of his Roscoe Village apartment watching a video about the old Riverview amusement park that he and his partner Derek Gee produced five years ago. The 35-minute video, Laugh Your Troubles Away: The Complete History of Riverview Park, includes footage Lopez shot with a Super-8 camera while riding in the front car of the Bobs, the park's wooden roller coaster. The film was shot in 1967, the year Riverview closed. "If I had known it would be the last year," he says, "I would have shot a lot more footage."

Riverview opened near Belmont and Western in 1904, eventually calling itself the "World's Largest Amusement Park." It included attractions like the Bobs and a sideshow billed as "The Only Negro Siamese Twins Alive Today." But when the site's property value soared in the 1960s, the park's investors shut it down and sold the land. Today it's home to a Dominick's and a Toys "R" Us.

Lopez grew up nearby. "My mother says she rode the Bobs when she was pregnant with me," he says. Lopez followed his parents and both of his brothers when he began working at Riverview in 1957. At 16, he started at the merry-go-round, handling the controls and hoisting kids onto the horses. He begged a park superintendent to let him transfer to the water chute, his favorite ride. A boat slid down a track and splashed into a pool of water. He drove that boat for two years, then handled the elevator that pulled it up the track. By the park's last season he was managing the ride and supervising a crew of 22 workers.

In the fall, the beginning of the off-season, Lopez helped coat the tracks of the roller coasters with oil. By the spring, the sun had baked it onto the tracks, and Lopez and other workers scraped it off to replace it with lighter oil. The crew also tested the roller coasters. After operators stopped the cars midride to check the brakes, the workers had to push the cars to restart them, jumping in before they picked up speed. "Riverview was work and play at the same time," Lopez says. "It was the safest amusement park in the country and had the lowest insurance rates of any park."

After Riverview closed, Lopez briefly worked as a machine adjuster for an envelope manufacturing company on the north side. But he soon quit, preferring to work outdoors. He drove a truck for 14 years and remodeled homes. Meanwhile he had begun amassing Riverview memorabilia. In 1972 he bought 4,000 tickets from a Wisconsin park operator who had purchased some of the Riverview rides. Neighbors gave him their pictures of the park, and he began collecting blueprints of the attractions. By the mid-70s he was selling ticket displays and pictures to taverns and hobby shops. Recently a friend in the Wisconsin Dells who used to run an amusement park lent him and Gee glass-plate negatives and architectural plans from Riverview. This fall they'll publish a book about the park. Lopez dreams about opening an amusement park museum.

In 1978 he founded the National Amusement Park Historical Association, which now has around 2,000 members. The organization shares information about parks, stores old attractions, and organizes trips to various parks around the world. One of Lopez's favorites is Kennywood Park, located just outside Pittsburgh, which still has a few wooden roller coasters. "It just sounds and smells like Riverview," he says. "It has an old, traditional feel to it. Everything is not made of fiberglass and plastic."

Lopez will show Laugh Your Troubles Away and talk about Riverview at 11 AM this Saturday at the Chicago Public Library's Lincoln-Belmont branch, 1659 W. Melrose (312-744-0166). It's free. --Michael Marsh

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/J.B. Spencer.

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