- The Playful Crowd: Pleasure Places in the Twentieth Century
Gary S. Cross and John K. Walton have provided historians of modern leisure with an incisive examination of what they call twentieth century "pleasure places": amusement parks, seaside resorts, and tourist destinations. The Playful Crowd highlights four major entertainment venues: Coney Island, Blackpool, Disneyland, and the North of England Open Air Museum at Beamish. Their study is a refreshing addition to scholarship on leisure for at least two reasons. First, it examines the mass consumption of leisure across time, charting developments in specific areas of popular entertainment over the course of a century. Taking this relatively long view allows Cross and Walton to highlight persistent trends in both popular attitudes toward leisure and the historical precursors of contemporary "innovations" in theme parks like Disneyworld. Second, The Playful Crowd investigates the creation of a modern mass audience for amusement parks with a transatlantic perspective, comparing attractions in Britain and the United States. This comparative approach enables Cross and Walton to engage larger developments in class, leisure and culture in two industrialized societies. The Playful Crowd's chronological and geographic sweep frames leisure broadly, but allows for a sufficiently detailed analysis of U.S. and English crowds and attractions to contribute to the cultural history of both nations.
Cross and Walton begin the book by asking how the pleasure-seeking and often unruly pre-industrial masses became the relatively jovial and non-threaten- ing playful crowd of the twentieth century. Central to their inquiry is the notion that human societies have "produced many versions of playful crowds—on feast days and holidays, in lulls in the hunting or agricultural cycle, in religious, political or military celebrations" (5). In the twentieth century, the "longing for a release from the 'rules' of urban/industrial life" produced what the authors call [End Page 754] an "industrial saturnalia" (7) suited to the needs of day laborers, factory workers, and others enmeshed in an increasingly regimented economy. The new playful crowd, the authors observe, had much in common with old feast day celebrants, but modern revelers appeared "less threatening politically but more threatening culturally and morally" (7) than their pre-industrial counterparts. The rise of seaside resorts and amusement parks, The Playful Crowd shows, minimized the threat of mass violence or disorder often associated with celebration, but worried critics concerned about the shallowness, vapidity and immorality of mass entertainments nonetheless.
The book's first chapter comprises a dual history of the development of Coney Island and Blackpool as popular resorts. While the terrain is familiar, the juxtaposition of these two resorts provides new insights into each. Both had much in common. Each relied, to a greater or lesser degree, on supplementing the allure of the beach with animal exhibitions, thrill rides, spectacles of various sorts, and sideshow attractions. Moreover, both adapted techniques and attractions from the popular entertainment portions of World's Fairs to shape their seaside amusement parks and appeal to urban plebeian crowds. Still, the two venues developed along sharply different lines. Blackpool drew on a relatively stable tradition of English seaside amusements to adapt to new circumstances and prosper throughout the twentieth century, while Coney Island invested in more ephemeral attractions that eventually lost customers to other entertainment destinations. Other differences, which probably contributed to the different fortunes of each resort, emerged as well. The second chapter, which details how Coney and Blackpool created the playful crowd, notes that over the course of the century, Blackpool's "crowd remained ethnically and culturally homogeneous, based in the upper strata of the working class," while the "Coney Island crowd became relatively anonymous and divided by ethnicity" (60). For all their differences, however, Cross and Walton found that both resorts drew crowds with a "seemingly contradictory combination of playfulness and respectability" that "gave adults permission to act like children" (73). Cross and Walton complete their comparison of Coney and Blackpool with a chapter on the largely middle-class critics of both, and another on...