Bidding Arto Farewell
Monaco, creator of Land of Makebelieve, laid to rest last Saturday in Upper Jay
LEE MANCHESTER, Lake Placid News, Dec. 5, 2003
UPPER JAY, N.Y. -A subdued crowd gathered early last Saturday afternoon in a snowy cemetery at the foot of Ebenezer Mountain. There they bid farewell to Arto Monaco, the beloved creator of the Land of Makebelieve.
Monaco had died eight days earlier, on Friday, Nov. 21, less than a week after his 90th birthday on Nov. 15. He died in his sleep at 6:25 a.m., his wife and family by his side.
A longstanding heart condition had been worsening in the days before Monaco's birthday. After the weekend celebrations concluded, Monaco allowed himself to be admitted on Tuesday, Nov. 18, to the Adirondack Medical Center unit in Saranac Lake.
"Even Wednesday (Nov. 19), he was telling people who called about plans for things he wanted to do after he got out of the hospital," said Lynda Denton, Monaco's niece and longtime assistant. Denton spoke with a reporter on Monday afternoon at the Land of Makebelieve workshop.
The day before Monaco's death, however, the gravity of his situation apparently came home to him.
"He was talking on the phone with Tom Wallace," Denton recalled, "and he said, 'I can see my whole life unwinding in front of me, like a movie running backward ... It's the darnedest thing. And you know, I've had a pretty neat life.' "
Denton, husband Bob and daughter Carrie Denton had manned the phones at Monaco's workshop in the days after Arto's death.
"The old employees were calling, everybody was calling - and everyone was crying," Denton said. "It was hard.
"I couldn't believe what he meant to so many people. He took under his wing a lot of people who had troubles. Arto was a great champion, backing people," she recalled, "telling them they could doit, whatever it was.
"There was this one kid who stole some gas one night from the Land of Makebelieve," Denton related. "The troopers chased the kid and caught him across the bridge (adjacent to Monaco's home). Arto came over and asked the troopers to let the kid off.
"A few months later, the kid comes by and asks Arto for a job - and he turned out to be one of Arto's best employees.
"Arto was very forgiving," Denton added, "but he'd also tell people, 'Don't do it again,' and he'd mean it. You didn't want to burn Uncle Arto!"
Monaco was known for being a great boss. One would be hard pressed to find anyone who lived in Jay, Keene or Wilmington townships between 1954 and 1979 whose family hadn't had someone working at the Land of Makebelieve. The theme park had been one of the area's major employers - though, as with other tourism operations in the Adirondacks, the jobs were only seasonal.
"Uncle Arto always made sure that his employees got enough time in during the summer to qualify for unemployment," Denton said, "even if he had to put them on the clock when he didn't really need them."
Monaco never became wealthy, Denton said. He took a salary rather than royalties for the toys and games he designed for Anjar in the 1970s, and he plowed most of what he made from the Land of Makebelieve back into the park's operation.
At one point, Denton said, Monaco felt like his life had not amounted to much. Talking one day with friend and colleague Charlie Wood, the entrepreneur behind the Great Escape amusement park outside Lake George, Arto said, "I'm a nothing. I've done nothing."
"Arto," Wood replied, "do you know how many kids you've made happy?"
By Denton's count, the number of children affected by Arto Monaco's life must run into the tens of thousands - and that number includes more than just the kids who came to Santa's Workshop, which Monaco designed in the late 1940s, or the Land of Makebelieve.
"You don't know about all the kids around here who had a Christmas," Denton said, "who wouldn't have if Uncle Arto hadn't done it."
Denton illustrated Monaco's special connection to children with a story from a job Arto had done for Wood.
Wood and actor-philanthropist Paul Newman had founded a summer camp in Lake Luzerne for children with profound disabilities or fatal illnesses. Monaco was hired in 1993 to paint a huge mural around the camp's indoor swimming pool.
"While we were working on that," Denton said, "a kid came up to Uncle Arto.
" 'I've got cancer,' the kid said, 'and I'm dying. Could you draw me a picture of what Heaven will look like?'
"Uncle Arto told the kid, 'I've had cancer, too, and I know what that's like.' And he drew that picture for her," Denton said.
Preserving Monaco's legacy
Monaco's memory is not likely to fade anytime soon. Derek Muirden, a documentary filmmaker for Mountain Lake PBS, has already made two half-hour programs on Arto Monaco. Muirden spent several days with Monaco this summer, taping conversations about Arto's life and career. Muirden says that a third documentary on Monaco will likely be produced next year.
A book on Arto Monaco is also in the works. Writer Mark Frost edits The Chronicle, a weekly tabloid-format newspaper in Glens Falls. Frost recorded hours and hours of interviews with Monaco a couple of years ago and, slowly, is composing a biography based on that material.
Much of Monaco's artwork - the toys he's made, the buildings he's designed for theme parks and restaurants, the paintings and murals he's created - are still on display or in active use at public places all over northern New York and New England.
But some of the work that was closest to Monaco's own heart - his first fresco, for instance, painted on the wall of an Au Sable Forks tavern in 1940, and the rustic 1951 miniature mill house from Old McDonald's Farm, now listing to one side in Placid Lake's Outlet Brook - is at risk of decaying and disappearing altogether unless someone intervenes.
That "someone" may be a group that is now in the final stages of filing its nonprofit incorporation papers, the Friends of Arto. The group is led by three people who, as youngsters in Upper Jay, were deeply influenced by Monaco: John Kimberly, now a professor at the Wharton School of Business; Cam Eldred, son of Monaco's partner in the Land of Makebelieve, Kay Cameron Eldred, now a businessman in Hanover, N.H.; and Anne Mackinnon, daughter of Upper Jay's small-town doctor, now a noted regional writer.
Eldred, Kimberly and Mackinnon had a note handed to those leaving Monaco's funeral service last Saturday morning. The note announced the group's formation and asked for ideas from those who knew and loved "Uncle Arto."
Their first big goal is the restoration of the castle at the Land of Makebelieve. They hope to have the job completed in time for the 50th anniversary next summer of the 1954 opening of the children's theme park - an ambitious goal, they admit, but one that would mean a great deal to those who still remember the place as it was in its heyday.
Why Monaco's work mattered
After a first glance at the toys, paintings and buildings Arto Monaco created, it may be difficult to believe that they have any really significant place in the history of American art or architecture.
But Monaco's fans have spent much of their lives looking at his work and drawing inspiration from it, partly because of its curious artistic character, partly because of the innocence it bespeaks and the child-like joy it arouses.
Anne Mackinnon, in her prize-winning article on Monaco's life, published in the June 2001 issue of Adirondack Life magazine, made a classic characterization of the range of buildings he designed for the Land of Makebelieve:
"Every element bore Monaco's distinctive style," Mackinnon wrote, "simultaneously perfect and 'a little bit cockeyed.' The buildings ... were charming caricatures, their slightly exaggerated features - skewed rooflines, emphatic colors, the bric-a-brac of hand-cut shingles - somehow truer than any literal translation."
"He drew these wonderfully whimsical characters," recalled Dick Roberts, "and without a trace of irony."
Roberts, now marketing vice president for Sony Television in Los Angeles, was mentored by Monaco as a young artist growing up in Loon Lake.
"Arto had an utterly innocent heart," Roberts added, "the soul of a child. That's why he loved children so, I think, and why they loved him and the work he did for them."
Steve Engelhart, executive director of Adirondack Architectural Heritage, a Keeseville-based preservation organization, shared similar thoughts in reflecting on Arto Monaco's passing.
"It's still hard to believe he's not with us any more," Engelhart said, "but in addition to losing him, I think the really unfortunate reality is that people like him, with such child-centered playfulness and imagination, are an increasingly rare breed - and yet we need them more than ever."