Arto Monaco: Late theme park designer lived long, amazing life
LEE MANCHESTER, Lake Placid News, Nov. 28, 2003
UPPER JAY - Children young and old throughout the North Country wept last Friday at the news that their beloved "Uncle Arto" Monaco had died the night before.
Monaco had lived for 90 amazing years, all but half a dozen of them in Upper Jay. Almost everyone around here knew something about his role in designing Santa's Workshop for Julian Reiss in 1949, and about the Land of Makebelieve, the theme park he built and ran for himself in his back yard for a quarter of a century.
But there's a lot that many people don't know about Arto Monaco.
The son of a well-known Upper Jay restaurateur, Arto was lost in high school.
"I was doing very poorly," Arto recalled in a late September interview in his Upper Jay workshop. "I knew that I couldn't take school any longer, and I wanted to quit."
It was Rockwell Kent, probably the best-known illustrator of his day, who helped Arto get back on track. Kent, who lived on a farm outside Au Sable Forks, was a frequent guest at Louie's, the restaurant run by Arto's father.
"Rockwell Kent admired the drawings of mine that my father had put up on the walls," Arto remembered. "He talked to Dad and convinced him that I should be an artist."
Kent helped Monaco enroll at the famous Pratt Institute art school in New York City. After Monaco graduated in 1937, Kent helped him find work as a studio artist in the motion picture industry in Hollywood. For the next 4 years Arto bounced from MGM to Warner Brothers to Paramount to Disney and back to MGM studios before enlisting in the Army in 1941, just before America entered World War II.
Arto's experience as a prop and set designer led to an unusual Army assignment. Starting with just himself and a buddy from Au Sable Forks, Monaco started what became the U.S. Army Signal Corps' Training Aids Division. Stationed at Camp Santa Anita, a horse track turned Army base in eastern Los Angeles County, Staff Sgt. Monaco's unit was told to build a Bavarian village in the mountains above L.A., where soldiers would train for street fighting. Monaco named the village "Annadorf" after the daughter of one of his men, a Jew.
"That seemed especially appropriate," Arto remarked.
Arto was awarded the Army's Legion of Merit in recognition of his leadership.
When the war ended, Monaco wasn't quite sure what to do with himself.
"All of a sudden, you're on your own," he remembered. "After a few years of the Army regulating every minute of your life, it's a strange feeling."
"What I really wanted was to build an Annadorf in the Adirondacks, but I didn't have the money," Monaco said.
Instead he spent a few months working for an officer from his old Army unit, refurbishing a resort in Lake Arrowhead, Calif., before taking a job with Ideal Toys in New York City.
"I wasn't there two months," Arto said. "I couldn't take that city life."
He and his brother opened a small factory in Upper Jay where they made educational toys for children. That's where Julian Reiss tracked him down in 1949.
Reiss wanted to open something he called a "theme park," a tourist attraction where everything was designed around a single idea. In Reiss's case, that idea was Santa Claus.
"He described what he wanted to do, and then he said, 'A lot of people would think this is crazy or foolish,' " Monaco recalled.
"I told him, 'I think it's beautiful.' "
After designing Santa's Workshop in Wilmington, Monaco helped Reiss create a second, smaller attraction on the outskirts of Lake Placid called Old McDonald's Farm.
By then, Arto had a pretty clear idea of a project he wanted to build himself. Monaco wanted to construct a theme park in his back yard, a place just for kids.
He called it the Land of Makebelieve.
For 25 years, Monaco's dream delighted thousands of youngsters. They found at the Land of Makebelieve a place where their own dreams came alive. In the middle of Arto's back yard was a three-story play castle, scaled like everything else to the size of his young guests.
"Arto always said that every child's dreams should contain magic castles," remarked Bob Reiss, a son of Julian Reiss, when accepting a recent "North Country Legend" award on Monaco's behalf from TAUNY - Traditional Arts in Upstate New York - in Canton.
"That's why he made the Land of Makebelieve. Arto didn't make his art to make money; he made it to make kids happy.
"Arto had no children of his own, but to every child in the (Au Sable) Valley he was their Uncle Arto, who had the coolest back yard ever," Reiss said.
The children of Upper Jay were given their own secret entrance to the Land of Makebelieve, where they could go play whenever they wanted - for free.
In 1979, after a quarter century in operation, the Land of Makebelieve closed, not because it wasn't doing a good business, but because of repeated flooding from the nearby Au Sable River - 11 times in 25 years.
"It went out at the top of its glory," Monaco told Derek Muirden, Mountain Lake PBS documentary filmmaker, in 1993. "We went out because Mother Nature said, 'That's it, Arto.' "
Looking around the remains of the park then, Monaco said, "I'll probably restore some of these buildings - I don't know what for."
Ten years later, though, Monaco had resolved himself to the demise of the Land of Makebelieve.
"The Land of Makebelieve is a place that once was," Arto told this reporter in September, "and it will never be again. It lives only in the hearts and minds of those who loved it."
"Monaco, you've made a lot of people happy over the years," Muirden observed a few years later in a second PBS documentary, "Return to the Land of Makebelieve."
"Mostly I made myself happy," Arto replied, "and how many people do you know who spent their lives doing just what they wanted to do?"
Arto Monaco's health had declined in the days leading up to his 90th birthday on Saturday, Nov. 15. He was able, nonetheless, to attend two parties that weekend: one a public gathering at Upper Jay's Wells Memorial Library attended by nearly 100 of Arto's fans and friends, the other a more private affair at Monaco's workshop hosted by former Land of Makebelieve employees.
Monaco was admitted to the Adirondack Medical Center, in Saranac Lake, on Tuesday, Nov. 18. He passed away in the early morning hours on Friday, Nov. 21, with his wife and family by his side.
A memorial service will be held for Arto Monaco at 11 a.m. on Saturday, Nov. 29, at Holy Name Catholic Church, in Au Sable Forks. Arto will be buried in Mountain View Cemetery, in Upper Jay, following the service. Friends and family are invited to gather afterward at the Wells Memorial Library, in Upper Jay.