Make Believe Comes True for Monaco
The second in a two-part story about Upper Jay artist Arto Monaco, recently recognized as a living 'North Country Legend'
LEE MANCHESTER, Lake Placid News, Oct. 10, 2003
UPPER JAY -Last week we told the first part of the story of artist and theme-park designer Arto Monaco: about his childhood in Upper Jay, his discovery by illustrator Rockwell Kent, his brief career in Hollywood as a studio artist, his role in designing a German village in the California mountains for the Army during World War II, and his return to Upper Jay.
This week we'll take a look at how Arto designed the Santa's Workshop theme park, opened the Land of Makebelieve in his own Upper Jay back yard, and continued working as an artist with a kid's heart even after repeated ice floods finally forced Makebelieve to close in 1979.
ARTO SET UP a small factory in Upper Jay where he and his crew made simple, durable, colorful educational toys from wooden blocks for youngsters. That's where Julian Reiss, the man who came up with the idea for Santa's Workshop, came in 1949 to ask Monaco to design his new attraction.
"He described what he wanted to do," Arto recalled, "and then he said, 'A lot of people would think this is crazy or foolish. What do you think about it?'
"I told him, 'I think it's beautiful.' What flashed through my mind in that moment was Annadorf - that's why the North Pole looks like it does.
"But he was dressed pretty humbly - I mean, his shoes looked even worse than mine. I had to say to him, 'Well, Mr. Reiss, I don't mean to embarrass you, but this is going to cost a lot of money.'
"He said, 'Well, don't worry about that; I can get it. I'll just take these drawings you've made down to New York and show them to my father.'
"Mr. Reiss came back the next day and told me it was all settled - he'd talked to his father, and he would make the money available. He'd flown his own plane down there."
A few days later Arto, Julian Reiss and partner Harold Fortune were up on Fortune's tract in Wilmington, just below the toll house for the Whiteface Memorial Highway.
"We didn't even have a tape measure," Monaco said. "We just put one foot in front of the other and walked off the dimensions for each building. We had the whole park laid out in 2 or 3 hours, and they were cutting timbers the next day. We had no electrical engineer, no permits - it was funny."
THOSE WERE the days when theme parks were sprouting up all over the eastern Adirondacks - and Arto was involved in designing many of them.
Monaco designed a second, smaller attraction for Reiss on the outskirts of Lake Placid, Old McDonald's Farm. Though it stayed open only a few years, its buildings formed the core of a summer camp for underprivileged kids from New York City that's run today by the Julian Reiss Foundation.
The small-scale mill house that Arto designed as part of the entry gate to Old McDonald's Farm, now half a century old, can still be seen in the gully between the Tops grocery and Saranac Avenue.
By then Monaco had started thinking about opening up his very own park in Upper Jay. One day he found himself talking about his idea with the father of Kay Cameron, one of his wife's friends, who was part owner of the J.&J. Rogers plant in Au Sable Forks.
"I told him I'd like to build a village for kids to play in," Arto said. "It would have very little that was commercial about it once the kids got in, just popcorn and soda pop for sale. That's why I never made any money - not that I ever needed money. I'm happy with what I have.
"Anyway, all of that rang true with Cameron - he hated those carnival-type places, selling all that junk every time you turned around. He said he'd pay to build the park, and he'd make me president of the company with 51 percent of the stock. Two days later we were in the lawyer's office, drawing up the papers, and before you know it we'd started building."
"Every element bore Monaco's distinctive style," wrote Anne Mackinnon about Arto's Makebelieve architecture, "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 hand-cut shingles - somehow truer than any literal translation."
After toying with another name for his new theme park, Monaco settled on calling it the Land of Makebelieve. It had a castle, a set of fairytale houses, a riverboat, a train and stagecoach, a miniature town straight out of the Old West, even a fleet of cars the kids could drive around the park - and all of it was scaled to the size of the park's young clientele, between 1:2 to 3:4 scale.
The children were encouraged to dress up in costumes and play to their heart's content - and their parents were urged to stay out of the kids' way.
"Don't say 'Hands Off,' " read a sign placed prominently at the entrance to the Land of Makebelieve, "don't say 'Don't Touch,' cause no one here forbids, so put your paws on anything - we built this place for kids."
"Arto always said that every child's dreams should contain magic castles," observed Bob Reiss, Julian's son, at the TAUNY award program last month 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."
Indeed, 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.
'THOSE WHO had the good fortune to visit the Land of Makebelieve while it was still open got a treat they'd never get anywhere else," Reiss told the crowd in Canton, reminding them that Arto's theme park had been forced to close down in 1979.
The Land of Makebelieve stood just a few dozen yards back from a very shallow stretch of the Au Sable River. The North Country winter froze that river hard most years. When spring came and the ice broke upstream, it jammed in the Upper Jay shallows. That ice dam pushed the waters of the Au Sable River out of its banks to cover the nearby flats, including the field where Monaco's theme park was built.
In the 25 spring thaws between 1954 and 1979, the Land of Makebelieve was flooded 11 times. The last flood was the one that finally did the park in. So powerful was the partly frozen stream that ran through Arto's back yard that it lifted the park's office from its foundations, carrying it about 1,500 feet before setting it back down and crushing it.
"The Land of Makebelieve didn't close because it wasn't doing a good business," Monaco told Derek Muirden of Mountain Lake PBS while taping a 1993 documentary. "It went out at the top of its glory. We went out because Mother Nature said, 'That's it, Arto.' "
Looking around the grounds with Muirden at the remains of Cactus Flats, his child-sized Western town, Arto said, "I'll probably restore some of these buildings - I don't know what for."
Ten years later, however, a nearly 90-year-old Arto Monaco seemed to have resolved himself to the demise of the Land of Makebelieve.
"The Land of Makebelieve is a place that once was," he said in a recent interview, "and it will never be again. It lives only in the hearts and minds of those who loved it."
ARTO HAS BEEN far from idle in the nearly quarter century since the Land of Makebelieve closed. He has illustrated some 17 books and he's kept making games and toys, the most intricate of them as gifts for his nephew and niece or friends around the Adirondacks - and, sometimes, just because he feels like it. Many of his toys are kept in the private museum he has constructed inside the old shop at the Land of Makebelieve, next door to his home.
Monaco has also kept his hand in the theme-park game, helping out his friend Charlie Wood with designs and artwork for his various ventures - Storytown, Gaslight Village and the Great Escape, where many of the fairytale buildings from the Land of Makebelieve ended up after the 1979 flood.
Arto has continued giving of himself to children. Samples of his whimsical furniture can be found in the children's sections of the public libraries in Upper Jay and Au Sable Forks.
About 10 years ago, Wood and actor-philanthropist Paul Newman roped Arto into painting a huge mural around the indoor swimming pool of their new camp for critically ill children, the Double "H" Hole-in-the-Woods Ranch in Lake Luzerne.
More recently, local developer Mickey Danielle persuaded Monaco to design a new children's camp in Jay for a foundation that had been established by Danielle's daughter to help the families of children with growth disorders.
"Arto, you've made a lot of people happy over the years," observed Derek Muirden a few years ago 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?"