Earlier this week, I was tooling around the Northwest Side to interview a woman for an article, and I drove by a massive, weather-beaten dinosaur sculpture. I took a photo of it, put it on social media, and many people identified it correctly as the only remaining sign of what was once the thriving Johnson’s Park that featured a mini golf course, go-karts, batting cages, food stand and an arcade.
There’s a fence surrounding the property, which is now just patches of weeds and piles of rubble. I stared at it for a long time until I could muster memories of what it once looked like.
Eventually, I could remember other details from the mini golf course like the hole featuring a large bird bent over with his beak buried in the AstroTurf and the tiny pencils attached to chains on the red, wooden stands next to the holes to provide a surface for mini golfers to keep score.
I also remembered that I had a birthday party at Johnson's Park in the early '80s during which I and my sister and a few friends played mini golf, zipped around on the go-karts and ate a cake that my mother brought in on a picnic table.
Later, I remembered a few more now-defunct places where I had birthday parties. So I made a list. Not with a small golf pencil, but on my iPhone.
Farrell’s Ice Cream Parlour – There was a Farrell’s in Northridge and Southridge malls, but as a child growing up on the East Side, we always went to the Northridge location. I celebrated my fourth birthday at Farrell's, but was slightly traumatized by this event. I was a very shy kid and Farrell’s was known for banging a massive drum and making a big noisy deal around the birthday child and I told my father before the party that I did not want this to happen. However, the next thing I knew, a staff member was lifting me out of my seat (imagine that happening now?!) and, proclaiming it was my birthday, got the entire restaurant to sing to me. I was mortified, started crying and then felt embarrassed for crying during my birthday party. But I then got a Walton’s lunchbox and board game and felt better.
Barnaby’s Family Inn – I think I celebrated my eighth birthday party at Barnaby's. It was located on Port Washington Road – apparently there is still a location in Illinois – and I liked the place because it had root beer mugs hanging from hooks on the ceiling and every table featured a light box with a number on it that lit up when your order was ready. Most of all, I dug the low lighting. To this day, I cannot stand overhead / fluorescent lights of any kind. I only use lamps for light in my home and I still prefer dark restaurants and bars. (Hi, Bryant’s!)
Lox, Stocks & Bagels – It took a long time for me to remember the name of this place that was located in the basement of the Prospect Mall (it later became Thai Joe’s). Truth be told, I actually can’t remember if I had a birthday party at this bagel joint or my sister did – but one of us did for sure. It doesn’t seem like a typical birthday place to me, but then again, neither of my parents were particularly typical, either. ("Weird is good," dad, who really loved bagels, always said.) I don't remember much about the party, but I do remember a photograph taken of me, my sister and our party guests, sitting on the stairs of the mall. My 6- or 7-year-old self couldn't know it at the time, but I went on to work at the Prospect Mall Cinema for six years.
Showbiz Pizza – In the ‘80s, Showbiz and Chuck E. Cheese’s were neck-and-neck as the premier party place, but eventually, the mechanical mouse beat down the mechanical bear. (Which was Showbiz’s mascot, if memory serves.) I know I had a birthday party at the location that was, I think, on Good Hope Road. Probably not far from Johnson’s Park.
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