Fantasyland 7. How America became the world’s biggest theme park


Preface. This is the 7th of 9 posts about Fantasyland. Some theme park quotes:

  • One of America’s first theme parks was created in 1894, Black America, with 500 pretend slaves advertised as “Fun for the Darkies” and the “Fun-Loving Darky Old Slavery Days”.
  • Suburbia and TV became so pervasive so fast we lost any sense of the radical peculiarity of our fantasy-drenched postwar way of life. The average American watches more than five hours of live television every day, consuming fictions and advertisements in a quasi-hypnotic state.

Links to the 9 parts of this book review:  1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9

Alice Friedemann  author of “When Trucks Stop Running: Energy and the Future of Transportation”, 2015, Springer and “Crunch! Whole Grain Artisan Chips and Crackers”. Podcasts: Derrick Jensen, Practical Prepping, KunstlerCast 253, KunstlerCast278, Peak Prosperity , XX2 report ]

Kurt Andersen. 2017. Fantasyland. How America Went Haywire.  A 500-Year History. Random House.

The first theme park: Black America

In 1894, Nate Salsbury, Buffalo Bill’s producer, created a mock plantation in Brooklyn called Black America and recruited 500 “Southern Colored People, actual field hands from the cotton belt” to occupy the 150 rustic slave cabins. The New York Times advertised it as “Fun for the Darkies” and “Fun-Loving Darky Old Slavery Days”. For two months they pretended to be enslaved, picking cotton bolls from a recently planted acre and processing them in a real cotton gin. Tens of thousands of white people watched “the labors that the Negroes of slavery days engaged in, and the happy, careless life that they lived in their cabins after work,” a New York Times reporter wrote. Black America was a hit, and it toured the Northeast before returning to Madison Square Garden in New York.


America’s century of wholesale suburbanization was another part of its happy fictionalization, a nation morphing into Earth’s biggest theme park.

In the 1930s Frank Lloyd Wright was not only channeling Americans’ disgust with the big bad city—“throw it away,” he said—but grandiloquently giving his stamp of approval to suburban life. “Our pioneer days are not over,” he wrote, because our new manifest destiny was to make America a coast-to-coast suburbia, what he called Broadacre City, “the only possible city of the future,” “this city for the individual,” with no higgledy-piggledy downtowns at all, each family in its own house on its own acre, every American transformed into “landed gentry,” the Jeffersonian fantasy realized at last.

Back east at the turn of the century, the Coney Island amusement parks were built adjacent to America’s largest city. In southern California in the early 1900s there was no huge existing city, so an ambitious new entertainment zone instead became urban protoplasm: just southwest of Los Angeles, by the beach, a real estate developer (and eccentric utopian) named Abbot Kinney built an amusement park around an artificial lagoon, with canals and gondoliers, calling it Venice of America. Other developers extended the conceit, building more canals; the whole storybook confection quickly started becoming an actual town, Venice, and in the 1920s officially part of Los Angeles.

One way to track the nation’s transmutation into Fantasyland is to look at where Americans moved during the 20th century. In 1900 only two of the 20 largest cities, New Orleans and San Francisco, had temperatures that seldom got below freezing. Today, 14 of the 20 largest cities are places where there ain’t no snow and the sun shines every day.

The 1950s were freaky and fantastical. Start with two defining pieces of the stereotypical American 1950s—TV and the suburbs. Both were expressions and enablers of our American appetites for immersive make-believe. After suburbia and TV became so pervasive so fast—Currier & Ives on the outside, private electric cinemas inside—we lost any sense of the radical peculiarity of our new fantasy-drenched postwar way of life. When my eldest sister was born, just seven years before me, a fraction of 1% of Americans had TVs; by the time I started school, there was a TV in practically every household.

Television’s supply of super realistic fantasies (including the ads) was free and abundant and required no reading, no trips to theaters, not even the imaginative work of listening to radio plays. By the end of the decade, the average American spent a third of his or her waking hours watching TV. Nowhere and never had more people spent more time consuming fictions and advertising, and never in such a continuous quasi-hypnotic state.

At the beginning of the century, two-thirds of Americans still lived in old small towns and on farms. By 1960, only a third did—and another third now lived in suburbia’s new simulations of old-time countrified America. As the land closest to cities became built up and saturated and more distant parcels developed, the implicit nostalgic model shifted from the New England village to the pioneer homestead.

No other developed country has such a huge fraction of its people living at such low densities on such massive amounts of land.

Disneyland and modern Las Vegas were born simultaneously. Disneyland had been inspired by disapproval of “questionable characters” and “honky-tonk” atmosphere. In the badlands three hundred miles across the Mojave Desert, Vegas was created by questionable characters to be honky-tonk,

Just as Disney did with amusement parks, the creators of the new Vegas took seedy American artifacts—gambling halls and roadhouses—and reinvented them as something grand. It was Adventureland for people who hungered after a different hormonal and neurotransmitter mix, one requiring high-stakes indeterminacy—the chance of getting instantly rich or laid, going broke or on a bender. Vegas and Disneyland were just two different new brands in the expanding line of the fantasy-industrial complex.

The proof of concept for its transformation into a satanic Disneyland happened during World War II, as tens of thousands of aviators came through for training at the Las Vegas Army Airfield.

Hefner’s genius was not just in providing more upscale make-believe—color pictures of unequivocally beautiful women shot by good photographers, skillfully retouched and printed on glossy paper—but in building out a 360-degree fantasy that seemed normal, an aspirational template for his wankers to reimagine their everyday lives fantastically.

One of Hefner’s brilliant innovations was to provide a few details about Playmates’ lives, the more banal the better—their hobbies, their favorite books and foods. The fantasy seemed more real. And the rest of the magazine allowed its readers (and “readers”) to imagine themselves living fantastically sexier lives. You are not a scared, lonely chump with dreary domestic responsibilities and a crappy job, every page told them. You are masculine and sophisticated and witty and suave and well dressed and cool, with good taste, in a fun America full of women eager to have no-strings sex with you.

While reading Casino Royale or Goldfinger, one knew that James Bond wasn’t real, whereas Playboy was mainly, nominally nonfiction. Its photo spreads of naked women, its advice columns, its articles about (and ads for) hot cars and cool bachelor pads and hi-fi and hep new cultural products, constituted an imaginary world presented as perfectly real and available. Reality and fiction were a total blur for Hefner.

A few years after inventing a magazine that allowed men to fictionalize themselves, Hefner stepped through his looking glass, turning his own life into a full-blown public fiction, with himself as its main character: the pipe, the bathrobe, the friendship with the Rat Pack, the Playboy Mansions, the harem of permanently youthful Playmates in residence, the whole shebang. Hefner and his magazine were ambivalent about the Beats. They were members of adjacent new Fantasyland denominations—sex! booze! bennies! jazz! selfishness!—but mutually contemptuous, not unlike the two-way suspicion between Christian evangelicals and Pentecostals. Hefner even coined and used the term Upbeat Generation to distinguish his affluent go-go sophisticates from the slackery beatniks.


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