Mott is a free-lance writer who contributes regularly to The Times' Orange County Life section.

For 52 years, the Balboa Fun Zone has been considered a sort of local hero. It has been cemented in the collective Orange County mind as a kind of carefree cultural icon.

In the home county of two of the largest theme amusement parks on the planet, it's easy to miss the significance of the Balboa Fun Zone. How can you compete with multimillion-dollar corporations that offer a sophisticated repertoire of high-G thrill rides when your landmark attraction is a small Ferris wheel? Yet, throughout its 52-year history, the Fun Zone has been considered a sort of local hero. It has been cemented in the collective Orange County mind as a kind of carefree cultural icon, a monument to summer days, ocean breezes, light hearts and pockets full of nickels.

For people who grew up elsewhere, near other seaside amusement parks with such names as Palisades Park or Nu-Pike, the Fun Zone may sound Orwellian at worst and cartoon-like at best, less a name than a declaration (Leaving Misery Zone, Entering Fun Zone). But for longtime county residents or for the lucky vacationers who have spent summers in rented houses on Balboa Island, the Fun Zone has offered a kind of primitive, slightly rumpled magic.

"I loved it," says Tony Rausa, a Huntington Beach beauty parlor operator who in the early 1950s owned and operated the Fun Zone Ferris wheel and shooting gallery concessions. "If I were to rate the fun times of my life, I would certainly rate being at the Fun Zone the highest. Everybody who came down there seemed to be happy and having a good time. The real business was during the summer, and everyone was on vacation. It was great."

The 1.5-acre Fun Zone was small compared with other carnival midways, but for decades, it served as a kind of focal point of the Balboa neighborhood. And entrepreneur Al Anderson, an English immigrant who built the first attractions at the Fun Zone in 1936, knew it.

The neighborhood was a natural. Large-scale development wouldn't arrive in Newport Beach for decades, and there was money to be had from the summertime tourist trade. Newport Beach was known as a resort, and every summer day the Pacific Electric Red Car came to Balboa carrying beach-goers eager for warm sun, cool ocean waves and any form of beachside fun they could scare up.

So, after buying from local rancher Fred Lewis the land northwest of the Balboa Pavilion, Anderson modified some of the existing structures (the property formerly had been a boatyard), erected game arcades and a handful of carnival rides and continued each year to add small rides and other features. Anderson owned the land and the buildings but struck a deal with concessionaires, who paid 25% of their gross for the use of the structures.

The Fun Zone became the peninsula's summertime hangout. You could rent boats at the Pavilion down the street, dance at the nearby Rendezvous Ballroom and fish off almost any dock with water underneath it, but you came to the Fun Zone for just about everything else.

"The Fun Zone was the place to go in those days, and it was just jammed in the summertime," says Jack Wilcox, a title company employee who lives in Costa Mesa and manned one of the arcades for two summers in the early '50s. "At night, and especially on weekends, it was wall-to-wall people. The crowd was basically happy, very carnivalesque. And it wasn't very expensive. You could spend the whole evening there and really have a riotous time. I don't remember what we were paid when I was working there, but it was enough for a high school kid, enough for spending money."

The Fun Zone, until a recent face lift, was basic almost to the point of austerity. The most thrilling ride was likely the bumper cars; the most visible landmark, the Ferris wheel. The midway games were familiar: dart toss, shooting gallery and the like. The arcades, in those pre-video days, relied on thinly veiled games of chance and the ubiquitous Skee Ball, which Wilcox operated when he broke in as an arcade hand.

"I was the cashier. I had this apron with two big pockets full of nickels, and you got five balls for a nickel. I was right there with the crowd, mingling with people, and there wasn't a tremendous amount of responsibility."

The Fun Zone initially was loud because of the blaring organ in the carrousel, Wilcox says. After neighbors complained, the organ was removed and popular music--at a lower decibel reading--was played from the ticket booths.

There also were attractions that appealed to adults, Wilcox says.

"The summer after I worked the Skee Ball concession, I worked at night and had the cigarette concession. It was kind of like gambling. There was an elliptical wheel that would spin, and when it stopped on a number, the player would get that many packs of cigarettes. And we had cases and cases of them."

Rausa saw the Fun Zone as a way to supplement his income. In 1952, he was working as a firefighter at the station adjacent to the Fun Zone, and he was driving a school bus on his days off. Another driver at the time happened to own the Fun Zone Ferris wheel and mentioned that he wanted to sell. Rausa, then 25, bought the vintage 1911 wheel for $6,000 and quit the fire department the next year to run the concession full time. Soon after, Rausa bought out the owner of the shooting gallery for $4,500.

"At the time I had the Ferris wheel, rides cost 5 cents for kids and 15 cents for adults," Rausa says, "but we used to do 1,200 or 1,300 rides a day. That was when the Fun Zone was really cooking."

The Fun Zone became a stopping place for Hollywood celebrities weekending in Newport Beach. Rausa remembers visits from John Wayne, Robert Wagner, Natalie Wood, Tyrone Power, Jane Powell and Gene Kelly.

"(Frank) Sinatra came down one night with what was then the Rat Pack--Sammy Davis and, I think, Shirley MacLaine and the others--and he just took the place over," Rausa recalls. "He said not to charge anything, that he'd pay at the end of the night, and he paid big and tipped everybody big."

In 1958, figuring that "you can't have a bunch of concessions and honky-tonk rides and expect to compete with Knott's or Disneyland," Rausa sold the Ferris wheel for exactly what he paid for it and later left the then-defunct shooting gallery to the new owner.

Financial problems forced Anderson to sell the Fun Zone at auction in 1961, says Joe Tunstall, a veteran Fun Zone employee who today is a co-owner of some concessions.

For the next two decades, the Fun Zone went through a succession of owners and, Wilcox and Rausa said, tawdriness began to replace the old glitter. One owner, in 1972, proposed that the structures be razed to make way for condominiums, but the plan was vetoed by the South Coast Regional Coastline Commission. Ten years later, new owners won city approval to demolish the Fun Zone and replace it with a $20-million, three-story "Cape Cod-style entertainment-oriented environment." Some of the rides were dismantled and one arcade was shut down, but the project was put off by a series of internal lawsuits and financial problems.

But just more than two years ago, a remodeled Fun Zone opened after a two-year, $2.5-million restoration supervised by the present owner, attorney Jordan Wank. A limited partner in ownerships of the Fun Zone since the mid-'70s, Wank now is the sole owner. His son Bruce, who lives in Newport Beach, is the manager of the operation.

"I decided that since I grew up with the Fun Zone as a kid and my kids grew up with it, too, that it would be an exciting project to get involved in," Wank says. "It's been a labor of both love and money, although so far it hasn't been totally rewarding from a financial standpoint. But I think the future is very bright because we're getting tenants in there who are more stable, and the whole area's improving now."

The new Fun Zone is not the tall, broad complex envisioned in the 1982 plan, but the Cape Cod architectural style was used for the new structures. Apart from the Ferris wheel and the carrousel, the new Fun Zone bears little resemblance to the mini-midway of old. You can still buy frozen bananas and Balboa bars, but you also can get a burger at Wendy's or a fistful of cookies at Famous Amos. Tenants can park their cars in the 56-space underground garage, and there is a 36-slip marina on the former bathing beach.

Still, in the new arcade owned by Tunstall and another early Fun Zonehand, Bob Speth, the beeping and whooping of video games can be drowned out by the Andrews Sisters on the jukebox singing "Rum and Coca-Cola" or Ricky Nelson bopping out "Hello, Mary Lou."

"Bob and I started here when we were just kids in the early '50s, sweeping floors and blowing up balloons," Tunstall says. "We grew up here."

When they became adults in the '60s, Tunstall and Speth left the deteriorating Fun Zone. Speth became a firefighter for Fountain Valley, and Tunstall opened a bicycle shop after working for a time at Disneyland's Main Street Arcade. When they heard in 1985 of the plans for remodeling the Fun Zone, the pair decided to return.

"We figured, what the heck--we started here; we might as well end up here," Tunstall says.

They bought a new Ferris wheel, specially constructed to look like the old one, installed vintage games of skill in their two arcades, and just last summer opened a bumper-car concession and a "dark ride."

"It's a lot like it was back in the '50s," Tunstall says. "It's relaxed and easygoing. There's no shoving, no drinking. It's a family walk-around place now. These are (just like) the old days."

But at least one of the old carny hands misses what he considered to be his summer home.

"I find it hard to call it the Fun Zone now," Rausa says. "Now it's more like stores with a few rides in there. I occasionally walk through it just to reminisce. The most vivid memory I have is when the beach was still there, and I'd look at the hills above the island and there was nothing there but clear, rolling hills with nothing on them. It was great. Who would have known that they'd become loaded with high-rises and all that development?"

Still, he finds satisfaction in seeing the enduring popularity of the remaining arcades.

"Every time I go in there, they're packed. It's always been something the kids love to do, winning prizes and seeing the flashing lights. They're places people come back to every year.

"We used to say that one year you're putting the kids on (the rides), and before you know it, you're putting their kids on."

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World