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Surpise House

By: John Waite

Surprise HouseWhile growing up in Cleveland, Ohio during the 30's and 40's, our family would make trips each summer to Euclid Beach Parkon the other side of the city for a day of fun and excitement. I was always fascinated with the "high rides" like the Aero Dips, Racing Coaster, Thriller, Over the Falls, and of course the Flying Turns.
I have to admit though that I was very curious about the Laff-In-The-Dark and the Surprise House and how they operated. As a young child I found that the Surprise House was this ominous large building with that scary laughing lady outside who made the adults laugh, but frightened the little ones with her loud laughter and wild body movements.
For several years my family would all venture into this mysterious place with my mother pulling me along with her. After giving our tickets to the ticket taker, we entered what I call a "Screen Door Maze" consisting of screen panels where only one would be a door and you had to push and shove your way through this with the doors loudly banging behind you. I felt safe there as my mother had my hand and seemed to know where she was going pulling me along behind her.
We then entered a narrow room with a rock formation along one wall. A large bear was running around the rock and you had to pass rather close to him. That was kind of scary but again I felt safe with the family We then were faced with an arched moving floor where people watching outside could see you struggling to get over this obstacle. Again, here I could see the outside world and was helped or carded across this area with everyone laughing and struggling with this moving floor.
Surprise HouseNow the plot thickens -- for as you entered a long hallway there was pitch blackness ahead. Again, with my mother holding on to me, we approached this darkened area. Now try to picture this.. we were entering a dark spooky unknown place. All around were frightening sounds of people screaming, a loud knocking floor over head somewhere, and the sound of air blasts and screams. That was as far as I could get for several years as my mother would take me back to the ticket taker who would let me stand by him until the family exited the building laughing and talking about their experience.
Several years later I finally got past the darkened corridor and enjoyed all the tricks and surprises filling this large attraction. During my college years I worked summers at the park and although I mostly worked on my favorite attraction, the Flying Turns, my technical curiosity attracted me to find out more about the Surprise House.
According to some of the historical information available, the Surprise House opened in 1935. It was a large building over 62' wide, 100' long and 25' high It was a two story building with emergency exit doors at different levels along the side of the building facing the children's Colonnade building. While facing this side of the building, it was fun to watch the people pause at the open exit doors and then usually shortly after that you would hear a blast of air and screams as they tripped an air hole stunt.
The front of the building was very plain painted in the early days what we called "Euclid Beach Green." Large letters spelled Surprise House in the center of the building below which was the cutout opening where spectators could watch people struggling to cross the arched moving floor. Wings on both sides of the building protruded out offering a space for the entrance doorway on the right side and the exit on the left. Laughing Sal's space was behind an opening in the front of the wing on the right side. For a short time I remember Laughing Sam appearing behind an opening on the left wing of the building but he didn't last very long for some unknown reason. Of course the sounds were always there, air blasts, knocking floors, and screams.
There were many moving floors sliding up and down, side to side, forward and back to cross and moving stairways to climb, but all these obstacles usually had an alternate way to get around them if you didn't want to try it. This included the knocking floors that were placed on an elevated platform.
The entire layout was like a maze as you kept going forward during your journey as compared with many old FUN HOUSES where there are numerous stunts in a big room and you would pick and choose what you wanted to experience.
Of course there were the dark passages usually with an air blast hidden somewhere along the way. There was also a large tilted room where gravity seemed to defy itself.
There were many other stunts throughout the passageways and I can only recall a few of them. At one point you saw three portly sailor boys with whistles in their mouths. As you approached them, loud shrill whistles were blown eight in front of you. About 5 years ago I saw this stunt in a private collection in Ohio.
I recall a large grandfather clock at the end of a corridor and as you approached it, a large snake darted out at you. At one point you passed a window with a miniature scene of a fireman with a hose. As you looked closer, water shot out of the hose and hit the window in front of your face. Climbing a short stairway to a platform brought you to a wishing well. Looking down you saw a moving mermaid at the bottom. This I understand was an illusion done with mirrors as she was positioned horizontally under the platform.
Just before exiting the attraction you entered a small room with a tree in the corner. As you approached the tree a large owl shot up into a hole in the tree and hooted at you hopefully scaring you out the exit.
It really was a wonderful attraction and was there until the park closed in 1969. Stunts were added and changed over the years and it was very popular. I worked on it only one day when they were short handed. I remember I didn't hear Laughin' Sal after about the first hour even though she was just around the corner from where we stood.
At one point the manager asked me to change a light bulb in front of the Grandfather Clock stunt. He gave me a bulb; a long handled bulb changer and a whistle, in case I got lost. There were many employee doors to get from one corridor to another, but if you were unfamiliar with them, you could easily get lost in the maze. I didn't have to blow the whistle for help, but it did take me some time to find the clock and get back outside again. To this day I feel the managers did this to all new employees just to see them get lost.
My technical interest in the attraction was particularly directed toward the way they tripped off the various stunts. Euclid Beach had their own R&D department and was known for developing various things that are in use today. In this case when I went over to the attraction one day I asked about the tripping device and was taken inside and shown what they were using.
Approaching an air hole stunt, the manager pushed open an employee door and mounted against the passage wall was a small unit containing radio tubes. As I recall his explanation was that this was a radio type device that Harvey Humphrey had developed. There was a metal plate mounted under the floor out of sight that was connected to this unit. It set off a radio field through the floor that could be adjusted to any height. In this way when a guest would pass through the field, it would set off the stunt it was controlling. In this way nothing was visible to the guest and it was virtually impossible to not trip the device it was attached to. I had so much respect for owner/engineer Harvey Humphrey, his engineers, and staff that developed all the unique rides and attractions at this great park.

This article ©2004 John Waite and used with permission.
Postcard images from the Rick Davis collection, and used with permission.