Class Action Park: A Q&A with the Documentary's Codirector Seth Porges | Film | Hudson Valley | Chronogram Magazine
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Class Action Park: A Q&A with the Documentary's Codirector Seth Porges 

Last Updated: 01/12/2022 2:41 pm
click to enlarge Stills from Class Action Park, a documentary about the infamous Action Park in Vernon, New Jersey, which operated from 1978 to 1996. The film is codirected by Beacon resident Seth Porges.
  • Stills from Class Action Park, a documentary about the infamous Action Park in Vernon, New Jersey, which operated from 1978 to 1996. The film is codirected by Beacon resident Seth Porges.

On a recent evening at Story Screen theater in Beacon, as superheroes and superbaddies were battling it out in the latest Marvel Universe installment, in an adjacent screening room, teenagers were hurtling toward—if not certain doom, than at the very least a probable laceration in the documentary Class Action Park. The screening was the first time the film’s codirector, Beacon resident Seth Porges, had seen the film in front of an audience. Due for theatrical release during the pandemic, Class Action Park went straight to HBO Max last year.

The film tells the story of Action Park, an amusement park in Vernon, New Jersey, that was at the opposite end of the spectrum from Disneyworld. Where Walt Disney’s vision was to create a safe and magical wonderland for children, Action Park founder Gene Mulvihill built an amusement complex that pushed fun past the limit of safety. Teenagers, myself included, loved its environment of danger and chaos. As comedian Chris Gethard, who grew up nearby, is quoted in the film, “We were willing to die for fun.” And six people did die at Action Park during its run from 1978 to 1996. Class Action Park documents not only a seriously unregulated business, but also a time when teenagers were allowed to take outrageous risks.

—Brian K. Mahoney

Brian K. Mahoney: How was the screening on Saturday?

Seth Porges: It was awesome—a packed house! Movies should be seen with a crowd whenever possible. And that’s something I miss dearly. There’s something very special about the social experience of watching a film in the crowd. There’s such an immediacy to just feeling how things hit with people. And not just laughter. When people feel other emotions, there’s something about us, I think, as humans that picks that up in a crowd. And when people are feeling engaged or sad or terrified or whatever it is, we love seeing these things with other people and it’s really, really special for me to be able to see it with other people, especially in my hometown theater.

Let’s talk about Action Park. Do you have a personal connection to Action Park?

Yeah. I went there as a kid a couple times. I grew up going to amusement parks. That was what our family vacations were. We’d go to Disney World or Universal Studios, Six Flags. I grew up in the DC area and we made it to Action Park just a couple of times based on the TV ads.

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Later in life, I asked my parents, “What were you thinking taking me to that place as kid? “ And my mom insisted the ads made it seem like this great place to take your family. But then you get there, and it’s very clear this is not Disneyland. You hear people in line making jokes about injured kids. You hear urban legends being passed around while you’re walking around the park in line. You see fights breaking out. You see injuries on people. You see chaos.

And then you see these rides that seem to be ripped from your seven-year-old imagination. And when you go there as a young kid, it has this intense hold on you and this intense power, because it’s the kind of place where things you thought could only exist in your imagination come to life. When you’re a kid doodling on the notebook in class, what kind of crazy rides you would imagine? The kind of things you would see on the Itchy and Scratchy episodes of “The Simpsons.”

For example, you might draw a water slide that goes in a loop, but no way in your rational brain do you think that thing could actually exist. Then you go to Action Park and it’s there. And it sticks in your brain. And as I got older, these memories were such outliers from everything I knew about not just how amusement parks worked, but how the world worked, that I began to sort of doubt my own memory. And what really inspired me to dig deep into Action Park and to research it as a subject as a journalist, and then eventually as documentarian, was effectively trying to fact check my own memories. Because I would tell people about these things and people would think I was making them up or joking or misremembering.

Having gone there myself as a teenager, I assumed that every metropolitan area had a crazy place like Action Park. Were there other amusement parks in the country as wild and chaotic as Action Park?

Yes and no. Why the story feels somewhat universal to the Gen X experience is that even if you didn’t grow up going to Action Park, you might have grown up playing in abandoned quarries or abandoned mental hospitals or abandoned railroad tracks. My codirector, Chris Charles Scott, grew up in Texas. He never went to Action Park. But he said “Seth, this is about growing up in the `80s.” Growing up in the `80s as a latchkey kid with minimal parenting and kind of a misaligned sense of danger and risk assessments, I think, is a key part of the Gen X experience.

One mystery we wanted to solve was why is it that yesteryear’s latchkey kids are today’s helicopter parents? And I think Action Park kind of provides the answer to that. And it is that these people grew up doing these things that were fantastic and amazing and thrilling and insane, but also foolhardy, dangerous, and they know it. A lot of people who grew up with these experiences wouldn’t change it for the world, but at the same time would do absolutely anything possible to keep their own kids from experiencing them as well.

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I completely agree. Action Park reminded me of the BMX track that my childhood friends and I set up in an abandoned lot with no supervision and no helmets. I would never let a child that was under my supervision do any of that.

That’s what makes Action Park so interesting to me, and why I think it’s this portal into this generational thinking is because on one level, you are grateful for these experiences, but the other level you are terrified and perhaps pissed off that that’s how you grew up. And the comedian, Chris Gethard, who’s in our film, I think he puts it so beautifully and so eloquently, this idea that on one end, this generation of kids is simultaneously grateful they had experiences and furious that they had to have those experiences. And that’s why I think the movie is about more than just an amusement park.

The second answer to your question about whether other people in other areas have this type of place. The answer is no. Action Park was unique, but everybody who grew up around it found it to be completely normal and mundane. And that to me is something else that’s very interesting, especially as I got to know a lot of people who grew up working at the park, how this sort of distorted the idea of what life is and what normal is.

And I became very close to, in many ways attached to, a lot of the Vernon locals who grew up working there because I saw this intense level of grit and resilience that comes from that experience. And the way that they themselves developed this very dark, gallows humor about this experience that I think an outsider might view as crass or insensitive when, in fact, it’s a coping mechanism for, in some cases, severe trauma.

Let’s talk about Gene Mulvihill, the park’s founder. What’s did he do before opening Action Park?

He was a pioneer in almost everything he did. He deserves credit for really being one of those folks who could sort of see into the future about what industries would be taking off. He was the kind of guy who just had these ideas and sometimes he could see the future and sometimes the future was too much for the rest of the world.

But he was a mutual fund pioneer, a penny stock guy who created a company called Mayflower Securities that eventually got suspended by the Securities and Exchange Commission and Gene himself got banned for life by the SEC. He was able to buy these ski resorts for cheap in Vernon. And he very quickly realized that the ski season in New Jersey is very short. He needed to find a way to make this closer to a year-round resort, and so he had this idea of building a water park. It’s important to note that this was either the third or fourth modern water park in the entire country.

Today you build a water park, you have the same rides that basically appear at every waterpark. You get them at an industry convention. Action Park was built in real time. What was an action... What was an amusement park? What was a water park? And that meant a lot of experimentation.

Was Mulvihill an engineer?

No. Nobody who was building the rides at Action Park was, so a lot of the rides were built either by Gene himself, or by random employees who had ideas. And then they would build this thing without any sort of testing or modeling or anything. It’s especially shocking for people today who assume things are worked out with technology and computer modeling—that’s just simply not how it was then. They were just throwing these ideas at the wall and seeing what stuck. The park was next to a ski slope, so the rides follow the terrain. A lot of the water slides are just, “This is what our hill is. Let’s put some fiberglass on it.” And nature took its course.

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Action Park and Gene are such interesting topics because they force us to confront the struggle we all have between our logical selves and our emotional selves. I think on one hand, you look on paper at everything this park was and you’d just say “That was awful. It should never have opened. Shut it down.” But then, even as you say that, you probably find yourself thinking, “Oh, my God. I’d go there tomorrow.”

More sanitary amusement parks create experiences around that desire for thrill, desire for danger, in a truly safe way. In Action Park it was a real danger. It was basically a series of extreme sports masquerading as a children’s amusement park.

And then you add alcohol to the mix.

Yes. Alcohol was a big part of it because Gene was a huge beer lover, an Oktoberfest fan. He literally shipped in an entire brewery and brewmaster from Germany. He liked to claim, and this is true, that everything from the beer, including the people who made it, came from Germany, except for the water. Alcohol played in heavily. Keep in mind, the drinking age was 18 for most of Action Park’s existence, but even then, nobody was IDing you. It was a place where teenagers could get liquored up and then go put themselves in harm’s way.

And it wasn’t just like, “Okay, we’re going to drive 60 miles per hour racing cars while we’re drunk.” It was also, “we’re going to lean into this belligerent party mindset while we’re doing things that are dangerous.” A lot of Action Park’s danger comes from the innate danger of the rides, and a lot of them were innately dangerous. I think lot of the myth of Action Park is that this is a place that was only dangerous if you push yourself past your limit. That’s not true. Many people got hurt because the rides themselves were fundamentally unsafe or there’s other people on a ride who are doing stupid things and meant that no matter what, you were going to get hurt through no fault of your own.

So Action Park became somewhat self-selecting in the types of people who would go. It became known as a dangerous place. Gene knew that the more newspaper articles about how dangerous Action Park was, the more people would show up. The danger didn’t scare people away. It drew them in and he knew that. The people who came to the park after seeing these articles, after hearing the rumor at school on Monday about this place, those people came there expecting a chaotic and dangerous place and knew that they had to fit into the role of the Action Park attendee.

In the film, you interview Esther Larsson, the mother of George Larsson, a 19-year-old who died on the Alpine Slide. And her hurt, the loss of her son, is still with her 30 years later. It’s right there with her.

Yes, and not only that, one of the things about the myth of Action Park had always been dismissive of the injury and death toll. And there was this myth out there about how George Larsson died that really is designed to do two things. One is to make it seem like it’s his fault. A lot of the myth of Action Park is that if you got hurt, you yourself did something wrong or you couldn’t handle it. And it’s clear when you look at what actually happened to him that’s not true. And Gene never reported his death. And the reason they never reported his death, they said, was because he was a park employee and they didn’t have to because he wasn’t a member of the general public. But he wasn’t, that was a lie. Gene and Action Park were very effective at making bad news go away.

Although the film never directly mentions Gen X or the ‘80s, as a Gen X kid, it definitely captures a bit of the Wild West quality of my childhood antics.

There is a universality in the Action Park experience for people who grew up in that generation. People who grew up in the `80s are sharing this movie with their kids, and earning major cool cred with their kids, who see that their parents actually were pretty cool because they did this kind of stuff. Today’s teenage kids are like, “My God, this is how you grew up, dad?”

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