Saturday, August 22, 2015

I was a teenage photographer

Second only to lifeguard, my first summer job was about as vintage as it gets: I was a scooper at an old-fashioned ice cream parlor. It was surprisingly exhausting work. My friends were regularly annoyed that I didn’t give them free ice cream.

My second summer job was not vintage, but the setting was: I was a photographer at an amusement park. Lake Compounce Festival Park opened in 1846, making it the longest-operating amusement park in America. (The cameras we used might have been nearly that old.)

The author I am now loves that history, but at the time, I was more preoccupied with the four big perks the park promised: (always free) rides, (always free) concerts, (sometimes free) pizza, and, of course, girls.

Gretchen and Jen, who were stationed at the Creamery

I worked there for two seasons, 1989 and 1990 (the summer before college).

The first summer, three of my co-workers were three of my best friends (one of whom got me the job); the second summer, two more from our gang joined us.

 guy in the middle was our boss Lou

Our responsibility was simple: be mosquitoes. In other words, stand inside the main gate and take as many (posed) photos of entering guests as we could. This job, too, was exhausting, but in a good way. For hours on end, we were on our feet, in the sun, on unforgiving asphalt, amid mobs of people. But because we were teens, our immortality shielded us from the downside of this.

Some of us were also trained on the developing process. 

The photos we were selling were those photokeychains commonly associated with cruises. I still have about 20.

We all still remember the line: “Stop right there and get together for two quick shots. No obligation!” We’d give them a ticket with their item number and instruct them to come by the photo shack/stall later.

Some people gladly stopped. Others pretended they didn’t hear us and kept walking. I was known to follow, saying “I can walk as fast as you, maybe faster.” That was as endearing as you would imagine.

We also still remember the cost: “One for five, two for nine.” (One day it poured unexpectedly and the park gave each employee a plastic poncho. We sold those, too—one for five, two for nine.)

At the time, as noted, Lake Compounce was a concert park. When we worked the concert nights, we got to see the show for no charge. The park booked B+ and legacy acts including Paula Abdul, Chicago, Don Henley, and the Doobie Brothers. (I would grow up to interview some of the women in some of the videos of some of those bands.)

We’d try to guess which concert crowds would be friendly and which would be difficult; we were often wrong. I thought the Doobies fans would be mellow. But that night, one (large, face-tattooed) guy said “I’m trying to decide if I should smash that camera over your head or shove it up your ***.” I chose A. But luckily he was all talk.

Some days, my friends and I would play a prank on the customers, asking if they were staying for the show that night. They’d ask who was playing and we’d name some A-lister the park could not attain like Prince, Madonna, or U2. They’d invariably speed to the box office to see if tickets were still available and we’d quietly crack up.

The crowds were heaviest at the start of the day and two hours before the concert. Our boss, Lou, assigned us a minimum number of rolls to shoot during that evening rush. We’d go extra fast and then secretly burn off the remaining time on the rides. (One of our favorite park characters was the guy who walked around wearing a badge stating he was the “Flume Supervisor.”)

When Metallica played, the crowd ripped a chain-link fence out of the ground; as I recall, no one was hurt, but 42 were arrested.

The summer of 1989 was the height of New Kids on the Block mania. The park attendance capacity was 17,000, but to maximize profits, they let in 30,000. You could barely walk, but you could still scream “Joey!” or “Jordan!” (Weirdly, I remember these trivial stats—42; 30,000—but can’t say for sure which of the New Kids were the most screamed.)

Occasionally, we got to meet the celebs. 

my friend Mike (right) with RoboCop

But the most notable was Debbie Gibson, who was the same age as we were.

After her show, at about 11 p.m., two of those friends and I were leaving through the employees-only area where the tour buses parked. Debbie was zipping around on a scooter. We got her attention, asked for her autograph, and gave her something in return: a photokeychain with a photo of us in it. I’m sure she still has it today. Just as I still have her signature (laminated), which she scribbled on the only piece of paper I had on me:

Funny that we carried a camera most of the time, yet did not get a photo with her.

Lake Compounce stopped hosting concerts soon after. However, for the new generations of teens who work there, I take heart knowing that the other three perks will always remain, in abundance.

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