Arto Monaco: From Tinseltown to Land of Makebelieve:
Portait of Upper Jay’s Old Master
by Anne Mackinnon
(Reprinted with permission from the May/June 2001 issue of Adirondack Life magazine. www.adirondacklife.com)
In the early 1950s, at a bend in the Ausable River near the foot of Ebenezer Mountain, Arto Monaco conceived and built a place he called Land of Makebelieve . There had never been anything quite like it. Less a “theme park” as we understand the term today than an extended work of art created lovingly by hand, Land of Makebelieve was a cherished destination for hundreds of thousands of families for almost thirty years. Children may have been delivered to its parking lot via their parents’ cars, but once inside they were on their own, free to roam the grounds in search of adventure.
Land of Makebelieve was Monaco’s masterpiece and ultimate vehicle. Every inch of its twelve acres expressed his quirky imagination, his joy in color, his delight in detail, his outright respect for downright fun. Because so many people visited, and because so many of those visitors loved the place sincerely and remember it vividly, it looms large in public impressions of Monaco . Yet Land of Makebelieve was only the most extensive of Monaco’s many projects, the place where his exploits came together in the spot—the hamlet of Upper Jay—that he still calls home.
Walk into Monaco ’s studio today, and you’re likely to find him working, talking and otherwise carrying on much as he has since the day he arrived home from the Army fifty-five years ago. Between cups of tea and insulin shots and the barking of his four dogs and phone calls and his special diabetic lunch and instructions to his helpers and colorful reminiscences and the occasional nap, he still manages to turn out a lot of pretty amazing stuff. And the stories! They are endless, fascinating and often hilarious.
Arto Monaco was born in Au Sable Forks in 1913 and spent his first eight years in E liz abethtown , where his father worked for Victor Prime, a wagon and automobile dealer. He recalls being “dirt poor” during those years, surviving the winters on a diet of potatoes and trout, which his mother caught in the stream behind their house. But Louis Monaco—an Italian immigrant who’d come to this country in steerage and married a local woman—wanted more. In 1921 he went to his employer and declared his wish to go into business for himself. Prime offered to sell Monaco the general store he owned in Upper Jay, then lent him the money to buy it. Soon the business had expanded to include a garage and automobile salesroom.
Yet Louis Monaco had not found his true vocation. Still catering to the tastes of a newly mobile America , he soon turned the general store into an Italian restaurant with a few rooms above. His generous style quickly earned the place a reputation for good food and a lively atmosphere. Monaco ’s attracted a wide clientele of local folks, travelers, seasonal residents and, during Prohibition, the occasional rumrunner. Plying the back roads between Montreal and New York City in their big cars, those ingenious couriers were always ready to trade a few bottles of illicit liquor for a tank of gas, a room for the night or a meal. The trades, in turn, helped make the restaurant a magnet for the artists, intellectuals and movie people who had found their way to the Adirondacks in those years. “John Steinbeck, Ludwig Bemelmans, Peter Freuchen—I knew those famous people,” says Arto. “They’d come up to Dad’s place for spaghetti, and they’d have a ball.” The momentum only accelerated after the repeal of the Twenty-ninth Amendment, when Louis Monaco opened a tavern across the road.
One evening, artist Rockwell Kent—who lived nearby and regularly brought guests to eat at Monaco’s—came into the dining room. Noticing the murals that decorated the walls, Kent asked who had painted them. Monaco replied that they were the work of his son Arto, a talented but aimless young man. He was worried about his son, and for good reason: with poor grades and unable to concentrate on academics, Arto had dropped out of high school. Kent suggested that Monaco send the boy to see him.
Arto vividly recalls that first intimidating audience with Kent . “He said to me, ‘You can draw. What do you have planned?’ The truth is, I had no plans, except tending bar for my father.” From that point, Kent wasted no time. A phone call to Agnes Wells, at Wellscroft mansion in Upper Jay, prompted another phone call to a friend of hers, a certain Mrs. Pratt. Before too long, the twenty-year-old Arto was on his way to Pratt Institute, in New York City , to study art. “When I got to New York ,” Arto recalls, “I knew nothing about the art world. My first day there, some guy asked me, ‘In what medium do you work?’ Medium? I didn’t know what he was talking about.”
Despite his lack of formal training or even a high-school diploma, Arto entered art school prepared to make the most of it. He brought confidence and a thirst for new experiences, traits Louis Monaco had cultivated in his son. Stories from Arto’s childhood illustrate the point. When he was eight, his venturesome parents drove the family to Florida in their Model T Ford, camping along the way and giving their son a first taste of the wider world. “There were no campgrounds in those days, and we were too poor to stay in hotels,” he recalls. He remembers the fear he felt one night when his father rapped on the door of a black family’s home in rural Georgia . Their car had “conked out” while fording a river, and his father wanted to borrow a mule to haul it out. “I thought they were cannibals because of pictures I’d seen in storybooks,” Arto says, shaking his head. “They were wonderful! They pulled us out, then gave us corn for dinner and let us tent on their property.”
Later, when Arto was thirteen, his father took him across the ocean to visit his grandmother in Italy, where the village kids laughed at the funny American and his long pants. He spoke no Italian, but he managed to make friends. Another story from these years: Soon after Louis gave Arto his first car, a little yellow roadster, a nosy neighbor called the elder Monaco to report that Arto had just gone by, his vehicle piled with girls, “three in front and three in the rumble seat.” “Well,” retorted Louis, “I guess I’ll have to get him a bigger car.”
During Arto’s years at Pratt, his friendship with Kent grew. He spent his summers as a studio assistant to the older artist—at the time the foremost book illustrator in America—gaining experience and absorbing Kent ’s impeccable standards. He remembers, for example, working on the decorative rims of Kent ’s Moby Dick dinnerware designs, on which Arto was forbidden to use white paint for touch-ups. “We don’t paint over our mistakes,” Kent warned. “We do things perfectly.”
Arto also struck up a friendship with Frances Kent, Rockwell’s second wife, and with her sister, Kendall Milestone, who owned a house nearby. Kendall ’s husband, the film director Lewis Milestone, was another part-time Jay resident of international stature: In 1928 he was awarded the first Oscar given for best director, for his comedy Two Arabian Nights; in 1930, he won again for the epic All Quiet on the Western Front. When Arto graduated from Pratt in 1937, the Milestones invited him to stay with them in California while he tried his luck in Hollywood . Their hospitality was less improbable than it might seem: Not only was Arto charming, handsome and eminently presentable, he was handy to have around. During his stay, Arto painted decorative patterns on the walls of Mrs. Milestone’s bedroom, while also keeping an eye on the somewhat “wild” son of Frances Kent, who had by then left Jay and moved to Beverly Hills .
Another valuable Upper Jay contact was Donald Ogden Stewart, the left-wing writer whose screenplays for Dinner at Eight in 1933, Holiday in 1938 and The Philadelphia Story in 1940 were admired examples of urbane comedy. Soon after Arto arrived in California, Stewart took him to dinner at the glitzy Trocadero and offered to get him an interview with Jack Chertok at MGM. Arto’s eagerness echoes today as he recalls his reply: “MGM! That would be like going to heaven!” When he arrived at the studio’s reception area dressed in a suit, he quickly rea liz ed that the experienced Hollywood types were all in casual attire. Even so, Chertok gave him a spot in the cartoon department.
The pay was low—less than thirteen dollars a week—but his studio job offered other advantages. “The whole world wanted to be in Hollywood during those golden years,” Arto remembers. “Most people couldn’t even dream of being there. And there I was.” He tells of bluffing his way onto even the most heavily guarded set, typically by rolling up his sleeves, grabbing a clipboard, and insisting that he was there on the highest authority. “I’m telling you, I’ve got to check a set for Mr. Mayer,” he’d say to the security guard. “I can’t leave until I’ve checked it. No one would question an order from Mr. Mayer.”
His association with the Milestones brought him into sometimes lucrative contact with lots of famous people. Asked by Leonore Gershwin, Ira’s wife, who had painted the decorations on her walls, Kendall said they had been done by “a kid who lives with us.” She knew that Arto was eager to make some extra money, so she called him in. He remembers the moment well: “Mrs. Gershwin asked me to paint her cabañas—you know, those little huts they put around swimming pools in Los Angeles . I had no idea what cabañas were, but of course I said yes.” Mrs. Gershwin not only paid him well but also lent him her car—a great big Packard—when she went away for the weekend. His next job came when Fannie Brice saw his work on the cabañas and asked him to decorate wooden trays she had picked up at a flea market. The writer Dorothy Parker saw the trays and hired him to apply gold leaf to antique furniture.
During his few years in Hollywood , Monaco tried the patience of his supporters by bumping around from job to job, from animation to sets, never settling down. He left his first MGM job for a position at Warner Brothers, then left there for Paramount. He did a short stint at Disney, then went back to MGM. One night, he got into his car and drove into the desert. He kept going until he reached Upper Jay. “I was restless,” he explains with a shrug.
That particular episode ended when Milestone invited him over to his house in Jay to meet John Steinbeck. “They were working on Of Mice and Men,” Monaco says, “and they asked me to do a storyboard and some sketches for the titles.” When he completed the job, Milestone confronted him: Why was he hanging around his father’s restaurant when he ought to be pursuing his Hollywood career? Monaco was convinced and headed back to California. When he started his third job at MGM he was told in no uncertain terms that he would not be hired back again.
For a little while Monaco stayed put at MGM. In 1941, however, he announced that he was leaving, this time for the irreproachable reason of joining the Army. With his boss’s blessing, he headed home to marry Gladys “Glad” Burrell, a vivacious local woman, “and a hell of a dancer.” After signing up at the Army enlistment center in Lake Placid, he was sent to Albany, then to Camp Upton on Long Island for basic training. There, he met up with an old Pratt friend, Phillip Kellison.
Their commander at Camp Upton was “a little red-headed corporal, kind of arrogant—you know how little tiny people can be,” he explains. One day, after they had been there about a week, sirens went off. The recruits were ordered into formation. “That little bastard was marching us to a forest fire! On Long Island !” Monaco says indignantly. Somewhere along the road, he was surprised to hear his name shouted out: “There was a guy on a bulldozer. ‘Is that you, Monaco ?’ It was Jim my Snow, from Au Sable Forks. He told the little corporal he needed me. Fortunately, Snow was a sergeant. He took Kellison too.” Beyond the reach of the arrogant corporal, the pair were soon on their way to Aberdeen Training Center , in Maryland . There, they met with another piece of extraordinary luck.
“I feel embarrassed sometimes,” Monaco says, “when I think how most soldiers lived. I knew there were a lot of fellows overseas fighting. I was lucky.” For one thing, he was able to be with Glad, who soon arrived at Aberdeen . Then one morning an officer asked if anybody could paint signs. Monaco raised his hand. What was needed, it turned out, was a notice that said “Don’t throw cigarette butts in the urinal.” After carefully lettering that important message, Monaco made a name plate for the sergeant’s desk. The next thing he knew, he was on his way to see Lieutenant Churchill. “There’s a war coming,” the lieutenant explained, “and we’re sure as hell going to get into it. We’re going to need to train a lot of men. Isn’t there a way to make a chart of, say, a pistol, so we can train a hundred men at once rather than twenty-five?”
Monaco saw immediately that Churchill was right. He recruited his friend Kellison, found some wrapping paper and black paint, and got to work. “There was no such thing as an art department,” he comments, “no supplies, no place to work, no allocations.” In an empty barracks, on picnic tables, they began making charts of everything. Their officers were pleased, and their group grew to three, then four men. But they had no budget. They scrounged wrapping paper and tape from Baltimore department stores, telling the clerks to charge the order to the Army. Their general was sympathetic, but he couldn’t single-handedly allocate money.
“We were a conniving outfit,” Monaco laughs. “We invited some Congressmen up from Washington for a visit. We took a two-thousand-seat theater, filled the place with soldiers, and showed the Congressmen how we used to do training—a little diagram and one guy lecturing. Then we brought out a great big howitzer, all made of wood, and took it apart. We promised the guys in the commissary that we’d make them name plates if they supplied good food. They gave us everything: cakes, cookies, whiskey.” After the visit, Congress voted a budget of fifty thousand dollars. The Training Aids Division quickly grew to about a hundred enlisted men and eighty civilian women, then doubled in size when Sergeant Monaco took half the staff and established a second unit on the West Coast, at Santa Anita Racetrack.
They also branched out beyond charts and models. For a War Bonds fund-raiser, Monaco called on skills he learned in the film industry and contacts in the Warner Brothers props department to create a tropical island in the Los Angeles Coliseum. “The show began with music and soldiers in close-order drill,” he says, “then all hell broke loose. It was supposed to be a Japanese invasion.” For explosions, they couldn’t get ahold of the stage dirt typically used for special effects, so they set charges under piles of paint powder, which burst dramatically in bright clouds of green, pink and yellow. What they didn’t know was that the explosives crew, unaccustomed to creating movie effects, used half-sticks rather than quarter-sticks of dynamite. “It was terrible,” Arto recalls. “People got their glasses broken, their clothes burned. We were in trouble, all right, but they didn’t shut us down.”
The greatest feat of all was the construction of a complete German village, dubbed “Annadorf,” for training soldiers in infiltration and street fighting. Houses, school, church, shops—all were outfitted with furniture, curtains, German-language signs. All were booby-trapped. Bottles were made of wax to prevent flying glass, and walls were designed to prevent ricochets in exercises using live ammunition. To make it look like a battle zone, Monaco arranged wrecked Jeeps and other equipment along the roads. He made realistic corpses from latex rubber, using Warner Brothers’ molds, then added movie blood and pig innards. The city of Pasadena complained about the smell, but the Army was satisfied enough to adopt the concept for training courses around the country.
When the war in Europe came to a close, the Army began phasing out the Training Aids Division. Monaco was sent briefly to Mississippi—a place he hated, and where he had no chance to use his expertise. But just as he was getting really miserable, he was called back to Aberdeen. He and a friend from Training Aids were transferred to a special installation in New Mexico. They drove out with their families to White Sands, where they spent the rest of the war making models for the Manhattan Project. He remembers the beauty of the place and the picnics he and Glad enjoyed out on the desert, close—probably too close—to the nuclear-test site.
The years following the war were unsettled but full of variety. Monaco did some work for Rockwell Kent , then spent a year or so in California at Lake Arrowhead , where he designed a Swiss-style resort village, not so different from Annadorf. It was beautiful when it was finished, but the place burned to the ground a few years later. Kent helped him land a job with the Ideal Toy Company in New York City, where he enjoyed designing teddy bears and got along wonderfully with his boss—but longed for the Adirondacks. Like his father, he wanted the independence of running his own business. And so, when his father offered to give him the abandoned hotel across the road from the restaurant, Arto decided to open a toy company of his own.
Arto Monaco’s Toy Company made beautiful and educational wooden toys, designed by Arto and built by him, his brother Jim my and a handful of friends. Glad ran the office. The toys were sold in the very best places: I. Magnin in San Francisco, Saks in New York, Filene’s in Boston. Every year, the company built a dozen exquisite little wooden trains for Georg Jensen, unique items that the store presented to select customers.
In 1947 a man named Julian Reiss visited Monaco with an intriguing idea for a business. Reportedly inspired by a comment from his daughter, Reiss wanted to build a theme park on the side of Whiteface Mountain, in nearby Wilmington. “Can you imagine this?” Reiss asked. “It’s called North Pole, and Santa lives there year ’round.”
Arto could imagine it all right—what he couldn’t imagine was making a profit. “I told him he’d be wasting his money,” he remembers, “but his family was well off. They could afford the risk. I made sketches, and he took them to show his father. To my surprise, his father said we should go ahead.” With partner Harold Fortune, they went to work, Monaco designing and Reiss developing a village with the omnipresent theme of Santa Claus.
Santa’s Workshop opened for business in 1949 to mobs of visitors. The postwar boom in automobile travel, the proximity to Lake Placid, the afterglow of the 1932 Olympics, the sheer appeal of Santa Claus, not to mention the weird logic of placing him in an alpine setting quaintly arranged around a perpetually frozen “North Pole”: these elements combined to produce traffic jams that snaked for miles along the narrow roads leading in and out of Wilmington. Every motel room was booked, every restaurant full—indeed, there was literally a food shortage. “The state police had to close Wilmington,” Monaco says. “I saw families leave their cars and trudge a mile up the mountain to get to the gate.” Reiss followed up his Santa success with a second park, Old McDonald’s Farm, in Lake Placid. Based on a barnyard theme, it was also designed by Monaco, who worked on it over several years while he continued to run the toy company. At about that time, the State of New York informed Louis Monaco that the old hotel was in the path of the new bridge planned for Upper Jay. Inevitably, the building would be demolished, and with it Arto’s toy factory.
As a teenager, Glad Monaco had worked for a man named Donald Cameron, a widower and wealthy part-owner of an Au Sable Forks paper mill, as a live-in nanny to his daughter, Kay. Glad and Kay, not so far apart in age, became lifelong friends. When Santa’s Workshop opened, Arto suggested to Julian Reiss that he give young Kay a job. She was hired as Bo-Peep. When she outgrew that position, she became the gift-shop manager at Old McDonald’s Farm. One morning, as Kay and Arto were driving to Lake Placid , he began to describe a fanciful new shelter he was planning for a big brood of chicks. Arto said to Kay, “You know, it’s a damn shame to build those beautiful little houses for a bunch of chickens. Wouldn’t it be great if kids could play in those houses?” Yes, Kay agreed, it would.
It was at that moment in the spring of 1953 that Monaco rea liz ed he wanted to build his own park. He and Kay agreed they would talk with her father about financing it—not an easy thing to do. As Arto remembers it, Cameron, a sturdy Australian, was scornful of the idea at first. But they convinced him that the place would feature none of the games of chance of a country fair, no tasteless Ferris wheel, no hawking of hats or photos or souvenirs at every turn. Yes, we’ll have a gift shop and a restaurant at the entrance, Arto reasoned. We might even have a place to buy soda pop or ice cream inside. But once a family has paid their admission, there will be no more pressure to buy. Cameron told Arto to meet him at his lawyer’s office the next morning. He and Kay were in business.
Monaco knew he wanted to draw on fairy tales and legends for his theme. In his own mind, he began to call the place Storyland. Then he got a call from an aspiring theme-park developer in Glens Falls named Charlie Wood. Wood knew nothing about Monaco ’s own plans, but he knew he wanted advice from the man who had designed Santa’s Workshop. His place, already under development, was going to be called Storytown. Wood and Monaco became friends, and Arto began searching for a new name. In a restaurant in Lake George , he heard the popular song “It’s Only Makebelieve” on the jukebox, and he knew he had found it.
After considering a few sites, Kay and Arto settled on a spot along the river behind Monaco ’s restaurant. He bought three small parcels, the last from an elderly neighbor who initially refused, then gave it to him for a dollar. And then they started to build.
Land of Makebelieve opened for business in the spring of 1954. In a single year, they had purchased the land, planned the park, cleared the property, planted grass and flowers, and laid gravel paths. They had paved the parking lot and built a gift shop and entrance. Inside to greet the visitor was a majestic fairytale castle, built so quickly that head carpenter Max Lehman had gone ahead and poured the concrete foundation as Monaco finished sketching. Clustered near the castle were child-size houses for the Three Bears, Mary Quite Contrary, the Queen of Hearts and Peter Pumpkin Eater. A short distance away was Cactus Flats, a classic Western town with a general store, saloon, church, school, town hall, blacksmith shop, assay office, rooming house, Wells Fargo office and jail, all exquisitely detailed and built to half-scale. There was a train with cars just large enough to hold a child, a train station and an authentic pony-size stagecoach.
Even the skeptical Mr. Cameron was impressed, so much so that he urged them to expand. “You need the billabong,” he insisted, referring in Australian patois to the swampy little pond on a plot of adjacent land. Arto went to see the owner—an elderly former teacher of his—and asked her to sell the land, which included a nice house for Glad and himself and a barn for the horses. Although she, like Mr. Cameron, initially suspected an encroaching carnival, she was finally persuaded to sell.
In spring 1954 the Monacos moved into the house, dredged the pond and built an elaborate side-wheeler known as the Billabong Belle. The Belle got its first test when the Ausable flooded and lifted the boat off its blocks before it was even finished. In the next quarter-century, the river would flood the park eleven more times. It got to be too much, and Monaco closed the park in 1979.
With the help of a loyal crew, Monaco refined Land of Makebelieve every year. By the second summer, he expanded the castle and added a dungeon, where visitors found a talking baby dragon and his winking mother. Kids clamored to drive diminutive Model Ts or ride in Cinderella’s coach or ring the bell while cruising the grounds in a scaled-down fire truck. A tiny circus filled a colorful tent, and a movie theater sheltered adults on rainy days. A safari ride featured animals that popped out of the bushes. Every element bore Monaco ’s distinctive style, simultaneously perfect and “a little bit cock-eyed.” The buildings especially were charming caricatures, their slightly exaggerated features—skewed rooflines, emphatic colors, the bric-a-brac of handcut shingles—somehow truer than any literal translation.
Arto gave thought to the people side of things, too. The coaches were driven by teenagers who could be trusted to treat the horses with affection. He assigned girls to the parking lot because he thought they’d be more careful with customers’ cars than the boys had been, and he was right. His sister-in-law Carrie Pelkey sewed curtains for the Western town on a sewing machine, but she hand-stitched curtains for the fairytale houses—they didn’t have sewing machines, after all. Many of the people who worked for him decades ago still come back to see him. His niece, Lynda Denton, was there as a little girl at the very beginning; she’s still his assistant today.
As a consultant, Arto still applies his particular vision to designing and building special features for special places, as he has done over the years at High Falls Gorge, Santa’s Workshop, Holiday Harbor in Lake Placid, and others. His advice was frequently solicited during the design of La Ronde, the amusement park built as a component of Montreal’s Expo ’67. Monaco ’s hand was evident throughout Storytown and Gaslight Village, which Charlie Wood later consolidated into the Great Escape. For nine years after closing his own park, he devoted most of his time to the Great Escape, where he designed the Noah’s Ark pool and other features. Great Escape also became the new home for several of Land of Makebelieve ’s appealing little houses.
Toy design has also been a continuing vocation—one that draws on Monaco ’s distinctive blend of artistry and ingenuity. His private toy museum shows his fascination with trains, trucks and circus wagons, of which there are dozens of one-of-a-kind examples. Of the hundreds of toys and games he has created over the years for the commercial market, most were developed in partnership with his dear friend Jim Becker, who sold prototypes to major manufacturers like Mattel and Ideal. Typically, Becker would bring an idea to Monaco, who would think it through, sketch it, build it, test it, refine it, build it again—until the finished model was finally packed up and sent to Becker.
As a child, Lynda Denton was frequently called upon to field test a new creation and pass judgment. She and a neighbor played Othello for hours before pronouncing their approval: “Yeah, it’s fun.” When the owners of the Smurf characters wanted to put the little blue guys on bikes, they asked Monaco to design a movable version. Arto and Linda stayed up several nights trying to get it right. Linda grumbles at the memory, but Arto recalls it differently: “We had to get their legs to move up inside their pants. That was fun!”
And so, despite diabetes and two heart attacks and a near-fatal encounter with thyroid cancer, Arto Monaco keeps going. A few years ago, when he opened his eyes in a hospital bed in Burlington and found a priest administering last rites, he told the man to stop and demanded an ambulance. “I certainly wasn’t going to die in Vermont,” he explains fiercely. “If I had to die it was going to be over here, in my beloved Adirondack Mountains.”
His new studio—built in 1996 after yet another flood wiped out his previous workshop—is always busy. Visit on a summer morning and you might find him refurbishing a team of elegant fiberglass horses, which he designed in the 1960s. Go there in winter and he might be painting a fairytale scene or rounding the edges of a wooden music box. The floods and illnesses have been financially devastating, and Monaco’s ingenuity has never extended to royalties and other arrangements that might have made him a rich man.
“Don’t be an artist!” he exhorts the children who gather to paint with him one morning at the Upper Jay library. “You’ll always be struggling.” Maybe so, but Monaco has always made that struggle look like a hell of a lot of fun.