Growing Up In Amusement
The Texas Story Project.
I grew up with a very interesting family heirloom: an amusement park. Playland Park was built in the 1930's, in San Antonio, for the enjoyment of the military families that lived there. Adjacent to Fort Sam Houston, on 2222 North Alamo, it was the perfect place for all families to enjoy themselves and escape the realities of work life.
The owner, my grandfather, Jimmy Johnson, moved from Chicago, Illinois, to San Antonio to build the park, in the early 1930s. Mystery surrounds the reason why he sold his player piano and slot machine business to move to a place like San Antonio, but rumors are said it may have had something to do with the Mafia. To this day, though I'll never know the truth.
My grandfather and father, Jack, ran the park until it closed in the 1980's, when Grandpa was ill with Alzheimer's. Growing up at the park was magical though. In the off seasons, my friends and I would ride our bikes all around the park, exploring and playing, a world all to ourselves in the safe confines of fenced acreage near downtown. There was the Pleasant Valley Church, now part of St. Edward's Anglican Church, set upon a hill next to the creek where we would hear the sermon on the mount. Not many people knew about that church. And outside, you could hear the bleeting of the sheep that lived under the roller coaster The Rocket. True, there were sheep to keep the grass low in that area—less maintenance, you see. The Rocket has since been reborn and fittingly named The Phoenix at Knobels' Grove in Pennsylvania. If you could get a hold of your fear of heights, my friends and I would walk the wooden planks of the roller coaster rails, back before helicopter parents would've deemed such an atrocity.
For whatever reason, we would run past the laughing lady at the fun house. She was scary and I don't know why. The fun house was not so fun unless you were in the hall of glass and memorized the path, sped through it, and turned to watch others who were trying to follow you get lost in the maze, and sometimes a bloody nose.
During the open season (April–September) my friends and I would ride all of the rides over and over again, stop for lunch at the hamburger stand (I can still smell the onions cooking) for a hamburger and soda, then back to riding all of the rides. We'd spend hours and hours there just having the time of our lives.
Today, there's nothing left, just land, which was purchased many years ago. I no longer have a legacy to pass on, but the amusement never left my soul. I went on to work for the Walt Disney Company in Florida in entertainment, fulfilling a life long dream of being a character performer. I guess the amusement side of me will never leave, as I continue to perform in community theatre, even establishing a blues band in 2016, when I got my first tattoo (a right of passage).
Texas will always be my home and my family's legacy of Playland Park continues to live on the memories of all the families that visited there.
Julie Johnson Pici now lives in Austin, TX. Julie continues to perform when she can and also participates on the creative development side of TV production. Although Playland Park is no longer in standing, it exists in many hearts and memories of Texans who walked through its gates.
Posted April 27, 2020