Many Americans of a certain age have memories of an amusement park at the beach — winning prizes on the midway, drawing close to a sweetheart on a dark ride, feeling a little rocky on a roller coaster, screaming in a haunted house. Those rituals have a certain sweetness. That’s what’s appealing about “Pontchartrain Beach: A Family Affair,” by Bryan Batt and Katy Danos, a spirited new book chronicling the history of the Crescent City’s well-known amusement park.
Batt will give a talk at 10:45 a.m. Saturday at the Louisiana Book Festival (State Capitol, House Committee Room 6) and sign books at 11:45 a.m. in the Barnes & Noble Bookselling Tent.
Bryan Batt’s grandfather, Harry Batt Sr. (1903-1977), was the driving force behind the Pontchartain Beach. He had a job in the family ice business, but one day he saw a refrigerator on the back of a Model-T and knew his career was approaching a dead end. This gives the book its memorable opening line: “My grandfather was an iceman and he overcameth.”
Harry Batt Sr. set about researching amusement parks — would fun and family entertainment ever go out of fashion? — and negotiated a savvy lease for lakefront property. Pontchartrain Beach would provide pleasure to the New Orleans area and beyond from 1928-1983.
The book is a history of a family business, how it was born and nurtured, and how its time passed. But it’s also a chronicle of this particular kind of show business — how rides were developed and maintained and enjoyed and how they changed over time. Finally, it’s the story of how a business becomes a beloved part of a city’s culture.
For Bryan Batt, this writing project was a chance to get to know his grandfather better. “He died when I was 14, so I never got to know him as an adult,” he said.
Cleaning out his mother’s house after her death, he found boxes of ephemera, simply labeled “PB.” Inside was a treasure trove of memorabilia, and the idea of the book was born. Batt and writing collaborator/business partner Katy Danos reached out in newspapers and on Facebook, asking people to share their memories.
There are stories of both famous and ordinary folks in these pages. Former New Orleans coroner Frank Minyard was a summer lifeguard. “He saved more lives on Pontchartrain Beach than he did as a doctor,” Batt said with a laugh.
Bestselling author Michael Lewis remembered throwing up after a Zephyr ride. Irma Thomas recalled her first and only roller coaster ride, and Wendell Pierce made his acting debut in an ad for the Ragin’ Cajun. Writer Carolyn Kolb received her engagement ring at the top of the Zephyr and kept it in her mouth until she and her fiancé were safely back on land. Bryan Batt once stole a smooch in the Haunted House and got slapped for his efforts.
The book is filled with vintage photos, postcards and programs, printed in dazzling color as well as nostalgic black and white. Danos, whom Batt calls “the Columbo of writers, my Jessica Fletcher,” identified as many people as she could.
One chapter is a revelatory glimpse of how important Pontchartrain Beach was as a music venue. Dr. John played there as a back-up musician for the Beach Boys. Other visiting performers included Roy Orbison and Frankie Avalon. “And my band, The Singles,” Batt added. Fats Domino played the closing concert in 1983.
Once, when the Animals let fly some profanity, Harry Batt Sr. pulled the plug.
“People thought the electricity went out,” Batt said. “But no. He told them this was a family business and to cut it out.”
But Harry Batt Sr. liked Elvis. “My grandfather always said, 'He was fine young man,'" Bryan Batt recalled. “He said, ‘Why did they call it the devil’s music? I don’t know what the problem was.’”
Danos fell in love with the writing challenge.
“Bryan had his family memories, but I was wondering, ‘How can I connect?’ and it was easy to see quickly how wonderful the material was. We had the Breezy Brevities, the Beach’s newspaper from the ’40s. It offered free roller coaster rides for report cards with all A’s, then during the war years, there were useful prizes like pots and pans and nylons for women in the beauty pageants. And I thought, there’s a real culture here.
“Here we had in our hands the actual documents of what it was like,” Danos continued, praising Marguerite Batt’s journals and letters. Harry Batt Sr.’s wife was a significant part of her husband’s working life. “She was a writer, she kept the books, did the correspondence, traveled everywhere with him. Her letters home from all over the world were amazing. She always kept a suitcase packed in case Harry wanted to go somewhere.”