Salvaging memories in advance of wrecking ball
Sue Bergeron wrapped her fingers through the chain link and leaned into the fence. Walter Belonos was beside her. They were walking the city trail at Rocky Point Thursday and were curious why a group of people was outside the Shore Dinner Hall.
They didn’t wait long for an answer. The team from the Department of Environmental Management (DEM), wearing headlamps and dust masks, were going through the building and the nearby Palladium, salvaging items in advance of demolition crews. Plates, cups, signs, boxes of tickets and a few of the better chairs were being carried off to a storage locker rented by the Rocky Point Foundation.
The foundation hasn’t decided what to do with the items. They could be used as raffle prizes and other means of fundraising for the park, or for a park display, but when offered the opportunity to save them, the answer was, “Yes!”
Demolition was supposed to start earlier this month but, according to Lisa Primiano, of Land Acquisition and Development for the DEM, HK&S of North Kingstown, the selected contractor, a purchase order has not been issued. She thought work could begin as soon as this week.
HK&S submitted a base bid of $2,404,976 to remove the buildings, debris left from the demolition of the Midway buildings and then grade and level the park site in 75 days. They were also awarded a secondary bid of $660,000 to remove the remaining Rocky Beach cottages on the north end of the 82-acre state property. The contract calls for removal of the cottages in 90 days. JR Vinagro of Johnston was the only other bidder at $2,856,402 and $383,154.60, respectively.
For both those inside and outside the fence Thursday afternoon, the park evoked memories.
Carmino “Cap” Paliotta, who headed the DEM team, recalled his senior banquet that was held at the Palladium. The year was 1984 and he was graduating from Johnston High School.
“It was just so beautiful, alive and happening at that time,” he said, before entering the darkened Palladium.
Inside it was cool and musty. Under foot, broken plates and glasses crunched on the carpeting. Beams of sunlight streamed through holes in the roof to reveal a pyramid of chairs in a corner of the room that was once the setting for giant political rallies and gatherings. The dance floor, buckled from years of moisture, rose in waves before the stage where state and national leaders had given speeches; where top bands and shows had performed. To one side, a piano laid on its side and, on a counter where waitresses and waiters filled trays with place settings, sat a plastic rack with neat rows of saltshakers, many still containing salt.
“It’s like they just walked out of this place,” said Paliotta. Ahead, Antonio Palumbo, Ryan Kania and Rob Henninger probed deeper into the room with lights strapped to their heads. Rounding out the salvage crew was Felicia Celeberto.
“Kids have been through here. They smashed a lot of this,” Paliotta said, as the group worked its way into the kitchen. The floor was a carpet of broken crockery. The air was heavy, moist and oppressive. Henninger offered dust masks to everyone.
On a smashed table, with water dripping from a visible hole in the roof, was the sodden remains of a “Francis X. Flaherty for Governor” poster. Deteriorated ceiling tiles were strewn across the spongy carpet. Outside, vegetation obscured what was once a view of the Midway. Shrubs and trees pushed up from cracks in the pavement, with green curtains of vines and poison ivy wrapped between them.
Paliotta led the way to the remains of the observation tower, which will be spared from the wrecking ball. The arch, the steel tower for the swing ride, and the stanchions for the Skyliner, will also be staying.
From the tower, the group headed downhill to the Shore Dinner Hall, with its collapsed roof and smashed windows. Remarkably, even in exposed condition, it has withstood the assault of wind, rain and vandals. The flooring has collapsed, opening holes into the lower level that was used for maintenance equipment and a second kitchen that served the take-out for clam cakes and chowder. Toppled chairs and tables littered the once popular dinner hall. Broken plates, like so many shells, covered the entry to the kitchen, with its stainless steel ovens and cooking vats.
Despite surveillance by DEM officers, much of the copper wiring and pipes have been stripped from the buildings. Graffiti covers walls, and one can only imagine what else may have been carted off. DEM has caught some people and Paliotta said the agency is currently prosecuting a couple of youths they caught on the property.
On the way around the building, the group caught the attention of people walking the city trail on the shoreline side of the fence. Belonos and Bergeron come over to learn what’s happening. The couple reminisced about the park. Belonos was in his teens when he peeled potatoes for chowder. He remembers spuds coming in by the truckload. And he remembers that, the worst they looked, all wrinkled and soft, the better the chowder.
“We threw potatoes against the wall to see if they stuck,” he said. And, vividly, he recounted how their supervisor said ‘Don’t worry, it will grow back,’ when a co-worker sliced off the end of a finger.
Bergeron remembers switching bowls so people got chicken and chowder when they had a ticket for only one. And she recalled the Weird Al Yankovic concert, where she reached under her shirt, freed her bra, and threw it on stage.
She doesn’t remember Weird Al’s reaction, but she does remember him saying, “‘You know you really reached rock bottom when playing in an amusement park in Rhode Island.’”