The Arto Monaco Historical Society, ensuring the legacy of Arto Monaco for future generations

Remembering Arto Monaco

A Lake Placid News column by LEE MANCHESTER - Nov. 28, 2003

       "I'm Arto Monaco and I'm from the Land of Makebelieve."

       That's how Arto introduced himself to a group at the Upper Jay library in June, because that's exactly who Arto was - an experienced toy, set and theme-park designer, to be sure, with the heart of a kid (and, some would add, a child's mischievousness, too).

       Though I'd heard plenty about the legendary Arto Monaco just from living here in the North Country, I really only got to know him a few weeks before his death. I'd finally gotten around to a project I'd had in mind for a good little while: a feature on the master of the Land of Makebelieve. Though not in the best of health, Arto nonetheless took the trouble to sit down with me several times in September to talk about his life and his career.

       One of the most interesting things I found was that when I spoke with other people in Monaco's life about the times they'd gone through with him, I didn't find separate versions of the Arto story. Everyone told essentially the same tale about the experience of having Arto Monaco in their life.

       Arto was always the same person, no matter who he was with, no matter what he was doing. That fundamental integrity is one of the characteristics that made Arto so many, many loyal, loving, lifetime friends.

       "I'm Arto Monaco and I'm from the Land of Makebelieve."

       ARTO MONACO touched a lot of lives.

       One of them was Dick Roberts'.

       When Dick met Arto for the first time, in 1979, he was a 6th grader and a budding artist living in Loon Lake.

       "I wasn't doing real well in school, and I didn't know where I was going," Dick said a couple of days ago when we spoke on the phone. "He took me under his wing and showed me how to do it."

       Arto knew all about such things. As a teen-ager, Arto too had been a little lost. Local artist Rockwell Kent had taken Arto under his wing, pointing him in the right direction.

       Today Dick Roberts is the vice president for marketing at Sony Television in Los Angeles.

       "I'm here because Arto got me into this business," Roberts told me. "He was such an inspiration."

       THOUGH ARTO and his wife Gladys had no children of their own, the two were known as Uncle Arto and Aunt Glad to every kid who came through the gates of the Land of Makebelieve, the child-sized theme park Arto built in his back yard.

       The idea came to him, Arto said this summer, when he was designing Old McDonald's Farm on the outskirts of Lake Placid for Julian Reiss in the early 1950s.

       "We built all these cute little houses for the chickens there," Arto recalled, "and I thought, it's a shame that kids can't have something this nice to play in!"

       Arto started planning for his own playland for kids almost immediately. Within a couple of years, it was a reality.

       "We built the Land of Makebelieve just for kids," Arto said. "They could do whatever they wanted, and you couldn't bother them."

       Mary Wallace, Jay's town historian, recalled this summer that Upper Jay was one of the cleanest hamlets in the Adirondacks because of Arto Monaco and his love for kids.

       "He always used to give the local kids $2 to pick up all the trash around town," Wallace said.

       Arto gave the local kids more than a couple of bucks every now and again - he gave them their own entrance to the Land of Makebelieve.

       Martha Robison, who was 8 years old when the Land of Makebelieve opened, remembered this summer, "The local kids a secret entrance, and it was free. They could come in there and play anytime they wanted."

       Arto Monaco had a way not only with the kids who came to play at the Land of Makebelieve; he also had a knack for dealing with the youngsters who worked there.

       Arto told a story this summer about one young employee who broke into the canteen jukebox one night.

       "He wasn't a bad kid," Arto said, "he just did bad things."

       Monaco said that he knew right away who had broken into the jukebox, "just from the way it was done."

       Arto called the boy in the next morning.

       "If you tell me the truth," Arto said, "I won't say another word about it. But if you don't, I'll still know the truth.

       "Did you break into the jukebox last night?" Arto asked the boy, point blank.

       "He hemmed and hawwed a little, but then he said, 'Yes. But aren't you mad at me?' "

       Arto asked, "Well, should I be?"

       The kid replied, "I spent all the money right here."

       The magic Arto Monaco created at the Land of Makebelieve touched everyone associated with it. His employees came back at night to work on their own time, just because they loved it - and him - so.

       Arto talked this summer about the idea of re-opening the Land of Makebelieve.

       "A man came by last year and said, 'Rebuild the park. The money's there,' " Arto recalled. "But you can't do it, you can't rebuild it, because the people who ran it aren't there anymore."

       The Land of Makebelieve has been closed now almost as long as it was open. Most of the fairy-tale buildings were shipped off to the Great Escape. What's left are the overgrown remains of an old play castle and what looks like a scaled-down version of a Western ghost town, the ruins of the Cactus Flats section of Makebelieveland.

       The Land of Makebelieve will never again be what it was in its heyday - but it may not be completely over for Arto Monaco's personal Field of Dreams.

       Just before Arto's death, one group of his fans were in the final stages of registering a nonprofit corporation. The organization is called, appropriately enough, the Friends of Arto Monaco. With his blessings, the group hopes to raise money to restore the castle and open the area around it as a public-access park - all in time for the 50th anniversary of the opening of the Land of Makebelieve next summer.

       And this summer Arto mentioned that a nephew and another relative had been discussing the idea of starting a museum for Monaco's drawings and toys. All 47 of Monaco's original sketches of the Makebelieve buildings - he built from watercolor paintings, not engineering blueprints - have survived in Arto's workshop. A private museum housed in the old Land of Makebelieve store, next Arto and Gladys's home, currently holds the hundreds of one-of-a-kind toys that Arto made for family and friends.

       No matter whether the castle is restored, the park is cleared, or the museum is opened, no one has any fear that Arto Monaco will be forgotten.

       Thousands of people visited the Land of Makebelieve each summer, from 1954 through 1979. Traffic coming into Upper Jay from both directions was bumper-to-bumper between Keene and the Wilmington Notch. Locals say that, even now, 24 years after the gates were closed for the last time to the Land of Makebelieve, people still knock on Upper Jay residences, asking where the children's theme park is.

       The kids who found refuge at the Land of Makebelieve, the parents who brought them there, the men and women who worked there, the people who were blessed to know him since it closed - none of them will ever forget Arto Monaco.

       'If I had to do it all over again ," Arto mused at the end of this summer's gathering at the Upper Jay library, pausing.

       "You'd do the same thing," Mary Wallace finished for him.

       "Nope," Arto quipped, a glitter in his eyes, "I'd be a rock star."

       But Mary Wallace was probably right. Arto wouldn't have changed a thing. He was who he was, and - to paraphrase Popeye - that's all that he was.

       "I'm Arto Monaco and I'm from the Land of Makebelieve."


The Arto Monaco Historical Society, ensuring the legacy of Arto Monaco for future generations