|Location||699 Bellevue Ave., Lake Merritt, Oakland, California 94610|
|Owner||city of Oakland Park and Recreation Department|
|Operated by||Oakland Children's Fairyland, Inc.|
|Opened||September 2, 1950|
|Area||10 acres (4.0 ha)|
Children's Fairyland, U.S.A. is a theme park for children, located in Oakland, California on the shore of Lake Merritt. It was the first "themed" amusement park in the United States and the first amusement park created specifically for families with young children. Fairyland includes 10 acres (4.0 ha) of play sets, small rides, and animals. The park is also home to the Open Storybook Puppet Theater, the oldest continuously operating puppet theater in the United States.
Fairyland was built in 1950 by the Oakland Lake Merritt Breakfast Club, a local service club. The park was immediately recognized nationally for its unique value, and during the City Beautiful movement of the 1950s it inspired numerous towns to create their own parks. Walt Disney toured many amusement parks in 1950, including Children’s Fairyland, seeking ideas for what turned out to be Disneyland. He hired the first director of Fairyland, Dorothy Manes, to work at Disneyland as youth director, in which position she continued from the park's opening until 1972.
Numerous artists have contributed exhibits, murals, puppetry, and sculptures to the park. Some of the better-known artists are Ruth Asawa and Frank Oz, who was an apprentice puppeteer in the park as a teenager.
Origins of the park
On a 1947 trip to the Detroit children's zoo in Belle Isle Park, Oakland nurseryman Arthur Navlet saw a collection of small nursery-rhyme themed buildings, and wanted to create something similar in Oakland's Lake Merritt Park. His hope, though, was to create much larger sets that children could climb in and interact with. After getting the backing of the Lake Merritt Breakfast Club, a civic organization devoted to improving the park, he took his ideas to William Penn Mott, Jr., then director of Oakland's parks department. Mott and the Breakfast Club were able to raise $50,000 from Oakland citizens. Contributing sponsors included Earl Warren, Clifford E. Rishell, Joseph R. Knowland and Thomas E. Caldecott.
Navlet hired fantasy artist and architect William Russell Everritt (1904-1978) to design the original 17 sets. Everritt originally presented models which followed a standard fantasy architecture: straight-sided, "precious" buildings in gingerbread and candy. When told his models were too staid, he delightedly destroyed them and came back with buildings with no straight sides and outré colors and textures. It was exactly what Navlet was looking for.
The original park
The park opened on September 2, 1950. Admission was 9 to 14 cents, depending on age. The original guides to the park were a dwarfish married couple dressed in glamorous Munchkin-style costumes. The park was reported on nationally, with numerous newsreels shot in the park. The original sets included Pinocchio's Castle, Thumbelina, Three Billy Goats Gruff, The Merry Miller, The Three Little Pigs, Willie the Whale, and several others. The entrance to the park was through the shoe illustrating the Old Woman in the Shoe. The entrance through the shoe was sized for children, so that adults had to bend over to go through.
The park today
The park continued to grow through the early years, adding the Open Storybook Puppet Theater, also designed by Everritt, in 1956, as well as other sets. In 2006, the Storybook Puppet Theater celebrated its 50th Anniversary with a near-complete renovation including the addition of a new facade and workshop. The current Master Puppeteer is Lewis Mahlmann.
Another important addition were the Fairyland Talking Storybooks and Magic Keys. Oakland television personality Bruce Sedley would often make appearances at the park to tell the stories of the sets. The constant strain of speaking threatened his voice, and he invented a system of talking books with recorded stories on tape. The boxes were activated by a plastic key. Sedley took the system he developed at Fairyland to zoos and children's parks across the country, where they are still used extensively.
In addition to exhibits, the park today has rides such as the spiderweb Ferris wheel, a carousel, and the Jolly Trolly (a train). For safety reasons, Fairyland admits adults only when they’re accompanied by children and children only when they’re accompanied by adults.
In 2008 Fairyland opened Aesop's Playhouse, a dedicated children's theater funded by Oakland City bond measure DD. It is a Greek theater-style outdoor amphitheater seating 215 people. Fairyland had a long tradition of plays put on by local children ages 8–10, but they were performed in the tiny Emerald City Stage. Previous plays have included The Monkey King's Journey to the West, Brer Rabbit, The Wizard of Oz, Cuoi, the Boy in the Moon, Ohana Means Family, Little Red Riding Hood, Lost in Fairyland, Hip-Hop Pinocchio, The Panchatantra, Méxica, Aesop's Fables, The Girl Who Lost Her Smile, and Harvest at the Lake'.
Storybook Strings: 50 Years of Puppetry at Children's Fairyland's Storybook Puppet Theater, by Tony Jonick, 2003
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- Jonick, Tony (2003). Storybook Strings: 50 Years of Puppetry at Children's Fairyland's Storybook Puppet Theater. Rappid Rabbit Publications. ISBN 978-0-974714202.