Summit Beach Park visitors laughed until it hurt at Hilarity Hall.

And sometimes it hurt a lot.

Giddy giggles and startled shrieks filled the midway as customers lined up at the famous fun house in the Akron amusement park.

Patrons risked bumps, bruises and other injuries to explore the twisted labyrinth of dark corridors, folding walls, hidden slides, teetering walkways, crooked stairs, revolving wheels and trick mirrors.

Hilarity Hall opened 100 years ago this week at “Akron’s Fairyland of Pleasure.”

The beloved park, which had debuted two years earlier on the eastern shore of Summit Lake, lacked a proper fun house until concessionaire Edward J. Lauterbach (1877-1927), owner and manager of Lakeside Park in Dayton, began building the signature attraction in May 1919.

Also new that season were 1001 Troubles, a mirror maze; Ye Olde Mill, a log ride through a watery cavern; Monkey Speedway, an auto race featuring four trained simians; and the Crystal Pool, a 600,000-gallon, mosaic-tile swimming pool.

Located near the Wisteria Ballroom, Hilarity Hall cost $15,000 to build — nearly $222,500 today.

Lauterbach missed the spring opening by a few weeks but completed the fun house in time for Decoration Day. Roughly three stories tall, the garish building’s broad exterior featured colorful paintings of leering, grotesque characters spouting such gleeful, enticing slogans as “Don’t Be a Crab: Smile,” “Joy Is the Fountain of Youth” and “Come on In and Forget Your Troubles.”

“There’s enough machinery and motors and mechanical equipment in the hundreds of feet of underground space in Hilarity Hall to run a big plant,” the Beacon Journal explained. “In fact, when Hilarity Hall is in operation its power plant underneath resembles a half dozen small factory interiors.

“To show the size of the fun-plant’s machinery and equipment, it is stated that 60 electric controls, 20 levers and 18 compressed air releases are all operated from the control station of Hilarity Hall.”

Hilarity Hall was a smash success as park crowds topped 50,000 a day.

The fun house had some sadistic touches, including electric shocks, trap doors and compressed air jets that blew up the skirts of unsuspecting girls as they crossed a catwalk in front of waiting customers.

Patrons who suffered motion sickness quickly learned to avoid the human roulette wheel, a whirling contraption that made customers dizzy just by looking at it.

“Riders of this device sat near the center of a huge, well-polished wooden disc,” wrote Diane DeMali Francis and David W. Francis in “Summit Beach Park” (1993), the definitive history of the resort. “The wheel would rotate faster and faster until centrifugal force began to move the riders to its outer edge and ultimately onto the floor. As the wheel approached peak speed, only the riders at the exact center were able to remain on the spinning disc. At the whim of the ride operator, the final riders might be rudely dislodged by hidden electrodes on the wheel.”

Less than a month after Hilarity Hall opened, Summit Beach faced its first lawsuit over the attraction. Harry Kozel, 30, suffered a concussion June 16, 1919, after being flung from the roulette wheel into an iron pillar. He was transported to Peoples Hospital, where he walked away in delirium and returned to Summit Beach, claiming to fall a second time. Judge William J. Ahern dismissed the $75,000 lawsuit in 1920.

Hilarity Hall proved to be so popular that it was allowed to stay open for an extra month — along with the dance hall and roller rink — after the rest of the park closed.

Year after year, the attraction was retooled, reconfigured and repainted.

In 1924, Hilarity Hall added the features Helter Skelter, the Mammoth Squeezer, Wiggle-Woggle, the Golden Twister, Cake Walk and Through the Dark. We don’t know exactly what these entailed, but some of them sound painful.

A year later, the fun house added Laffin’ Sal, a cackling, animatronic figure of a gap-toothed woman whose prerecorded laughter on a 78 RPM record wafted by loudspeaker across the lake and terrified youngsters trying to sleep at night.

Also in 1925, Hilarity Hall added a rotating 20-foot barrel through which customers had to pass.

“The barrel is made of hardwood and is smooth as a whistle inside,” the Beacon Journal reported. “It revolves slowly because of its great weight — two tons of wood and steel being part of its makeup. The barrel is set in the floor and operated by a set of powerful chains. The idea is to walk through and remain standing.”

It probably was the closest thing to feeling drunk that teetotalers ever experienced.

The litigation wheel continued to spin as well. Among plaintiffs seeking damages against Summit Beach over injuries in Hilarity Hall were Iva Held, 1922, $50,000; Ruth Hance, 1923, $25,000; Elizabeth Larko, 1927, $5,000; Horace Hendricks, 1927, $25,000; Dalton Sparkman, 1929, $10,000; Lucille Laon, 1932, $25,000; and Nellie Gill, 1932, $40,000.

The hall operated for 20 years before it screeched to a halt in the late 1930s. In its place, Summit Beach advertised “three spooky fun houses” in the mid-1940s that the park didn’t even bother to name. They may have been safer but they weren’t as fun.

Columnist Kenny Nichols admitted in 1949 that he felt “a twinge of homesickness” when he visited Summit Beach because the old fun house was no longer there.

“Hilarity Hall was a great, rambling structure straight out of the Wizard of Oz,” he wrote. “It had all sorts of queer, twisting passageways, floors that dipped up and down and whole rooms that, all at once, would start to whirl around at a merry rate.

“Too, there were air jets in the floor that would blow up the skirts of the girls causing them to scream in feigned terror and the boys to grin with great delight.”

Hilarity Hall’s generic successors continued to entertain visitors but fell into disrepair in the early 1950s. Ticket sales declined while crowds stayed home to watch television. A fresh coat of paint could only do so much to hide the deterioration.

Without any warning to customers, Summit Beach closed after the 1958 season. Workers dismantled the old rides while vandals targeted whatever was left.

Finally, bulldozers leveled the old park in the 1960s, leaving a trail of happy memories where hilarity once ensued.

 

Mark J. Price can be reached at 330-996-3850 or mprice@thebeaconjournal.com.