ABINGTON >> Many Millennials pass by the iconic merry-go-round at Willow Grove Park mall and wander through the Victorian-style building unaware that they’re strolling through a tribute to the former home of what was at one time one of the biggest amusement parks in the United States.
For so many residents of the area, Willow Grove Park — which opened in 1896 — once provided years of fun and entertainment as well as long-lasting memories that began in a time when amusement parks like Disneyland were still decades away from even being a concept.
And for local documentarian Ryan Ritchey and his wife, Stacy, they’re asking those who frequented Willow Grove Park to share some of those memories — and maybe some pictures and videos, too — for an upcoming documentary titled “More Than a Lark: The Story of Willow Grove Park,” which serves as an homage to Willow Grove Park’s once-popular slogan: “Life is a lark at Willow Grove Park.”
“What we want to do as closely as possible is have people think, ‘What if we could go to Willow Grove Park one more day?’” Ritchey said. “We essentially want to create a movie version that makes people think they’re back at Willow Grove Park again.”
Ritchey said he first moved to Montgomery County about 15 years ago and currently lives in Glenside.
Interestingly enough, Ritchey said the initial idea to produce a documentary about the former amusement park came to him years ago following a simple misunderstanding and his then-unfamiliarity with the area.
“My GPS in my car showed me this place called ‘Willow Grove Park,’ and I thought, ‘Oh, I’ll go and enjoy a day at the park’ because I assumed it would be a park,” Ritchey said. “But then to get there and see that it was a mall, it made me wonder what had been there in the past.”
For right now, Ritchey said the documentary is still in pre-production as he and his wife do some preliminary research and plan out the next steps.
One of those steps, Ritchey said, have organized a community event — set for July 25 in the community center at the Giant in Willow Grove — in which the community is invited to bring any pictures or items and share personal recollections of Willow Grove Park. People who plan on attending are encouraged to let Ritchey know ahead of time so they can plan accordingly
That will then be followed by the beginning of filming in either late July or August.
“What’s interesting about the park to me is for those who were old enough to go there, it’s a really strong memory,” Ritchey said. “And for people who are younger and weren’t around when Willow Grove Park was there, most of them don’t even know it existed.”
Ritchey and his wife also recently completed a trip to Knoebels Amusement Resort in central Pennsylvania to hunt down what was once a part of one of Willow Grove Park’s main attractions: a horse from the original carousel.
Ritchey explained that he first found out that the horse was there after visiting Knoebels last summer.
During his time there, Ritchey said he came across a plaque saying it was once a part of the carousel at Willow Grove Park. Several people had also mentioned on the project’s Facebook page that the relic was located there as well.
One of the things Ritchey said is key to making a documentary with Willow Grove Park as the subject matter is separating fact from myth.
For example, Ritchey said there is a popular misconception that the merry-go-round currently located at the mall is from Willow Grove Park, when, in fact, it is an entirely different one altogether.
However, what is true, according to Ritchey, is that even when Hershey Park was opened in 1906, Willow Grove Park was still the largest amusement park in the area, even though it had been in operation already for 10 years.
A pavilion demolished in 1959 also once served as the location where renowned American composer and conductor John Philip Sousa and his band played annually — save for one year — between 1901 and 1926. A quick image search for Sousa reveals a man dressed in the naval garb of the period, much like the silhouette on the signs that greet mall visitors at each entrance.
And from 1972 to 1975, an outside company with success creating Wild West theme parks across the country in years prior stepped in and renamed Willow Grove Park “Six Gun Territory.”
The idea, however, was a flop and the amusement park closed for good in April 1976 before the mall that stands there today opened in 1982.
“My goal is really to shine a light on what was at the time one of the largest amusement parks in the country that was right here in our backyard, and most people — younger people, especially — don’t even know about it,” Ritchey said.
Ritchey mentioned that he and his wife would definitely like to arrange a public showing at one of the area’s local movie theaters and would certainly entertain the possibility of having the documentary shown at film festivals as well.
As for those interested in making the documentary a part of their movie collections, Ritchey said he would also like to eventually sell DVDs and digital copies of the documentary as well.
Those interested in reaching out to Ritchey with information for the documentary can do so by visiting the project’s website www.morethanalark.com or by calling 215-948-2843. Updates can also be found on the project’s Facebook page and on Twitter: @MoreThanALark.