Monday, June 21, 2010

Rocky Redux

Today is the summer solstice, making it the longest day of the year. But even though there are plenty of picnics and barbecues, beach days and baseball games, fireworks and ferry rides ahead, I can’t get past the down note: Beginning tomorrow, we start losing the light.

To counter this nagging sensation, many Rhode Islanders move through summer in a mad dash, checking off quintessential experiences. Trips to Fenway and McCoy. A scenic drive to Tiverton Four Corners for an ice cream cone at Gray’s. Picking up chowder and clam cakes at George’s or Champlin’s and sitting on the jetties in Galilee watching the boats come and go. Breakfast at Jim’s Dock in Jerusalem. Pub-crawling and people-watching in Newport. Taking a picnic basket and a kite (or bocce balls) to Colt State Park in Bristol. A day of body boarding and Del’s at your favorite beach. Riding the ferry to Block Island and cycling around the Block before capping the day with drinks on the deck of The National Hotel.

The list is endless, but it’s missing something these days and this month the Warwick Art Museum reminds us what that is - Rocky Point Amusement Park. The once (and future?) land of summer leisure in Rhode Island is the subject of the museum’s latest exhibition, “Long Live Rocky Point: A Collection of Art and Artifacts,” a nostalgic thrill ride through the memories and mementos of a beloved park.

I had a chance to see the exhibition last Thursday (the trip turned into this week’s column, for those who like to follow my paper trail). In typically Rhode Island fashion, the collection is wonderfully weird and eclectic. There’s art by The Mad Peck. Dracula’s coffin top and the Darth Vader car from The House of Horrors. Stories spanning 150 years of Rocky Point goings-on that read straight out of the Weekly World News. Even a strangely familiar, “Animal Farm”-esque metal sign makes an appearance: “Management reserves the right on all decisions.” In a room crowded with TV and radio reporters and random Rhode Islanders, it was as if every photograph, comic book, token, tag, ribbon, Bingo card, postcard, ticket stub, newspaper ad, prop, sign, poster and piece of scrapbook ephemera served as a memory prompt and a conversation starter.

The day Leonard Nimoy showed up to read poetry and tried to sing. The day a woman taking a driver’s lesson just outside the park sent cars sprawling everywhere because a sea gull had flown in her window. The day the Viking statue inside the House of Horrors malfunctioned and scalped the hair off a child’s head.

Museum organizers said, only half-jokingly, that more people have already come to the Warwick Art Museum to see the Rocky Point show than visited during the previous 34 years’ worth of exhibitions combined.

The question is, with no Rocky Point around anymore, what has become the quintessential Rhode Island summer experience?