Carlin's Park: Park Circle's Entertainment King

PART 1 OF 2 - Looking at the Dietz & Watson building at the corner of Reisterstown Road and Druid Park Drive, it is hard to imagine that many decades ago this very area was the home of a popular amusement park. And, not just any amusement park; Carlin’s was an entertainment king sitting right at Park Circle.

Before summer family excursions to Hershey Park, graduation trips to Greater Adventure or Kings Dominion, there was Carlin’s Park. Carlin’s was the brainchild of real estate developer John J. Carlin. Launching in 1919 as Liberty Heights Park, the land for the park was originally planned for housing development. Carlin had bought the land from the John S. Gittings Estate -which is known as Ashburton – to build homes but due to the economics of World War I, decided to build an amusement park.

This was a great choice because Carlin’s became a community oasis by offering a smortgasboard of entertainment. From professional boxing to wrestling; dance marathons to concerts; traditional amusement park rides to roller/ice skating. Popular features during its heyday included its roller coaster Mountain Speedway, Hall of Mirrors, the caterpillar, teacup, airplane, racer dips and The Fun House. The Fun House was like a separate attraction on its own and featured a mini circus, rides and other attractions that kept park goers buzzing.

Carlin’s was forever expanding with new attractions, and as such, each spring would bring wonderment as to what would be new. Like entrepreneurs today, Carlin was constantly looking for new income streams. In 1929, the park was the location for the Miss America pagent. Records indicate that the Miss America pagent was cancelled for several years because of the depression. It appears that John Carlin tried to fill the void, although the event was marked with controversy over the selection of the winner. Appears some had a problem with the winning contestant being from a community in Ohio, where Carlin had another amusement park.

"Before Frank and Brooks Robinson, Earl Weaver and other Oriole notables, the team that had the Oriole name was the Baltimore Orioles hockey team."

Park Heights, King of Ice Hockey

Today, hockey and Baltimore don’t seem like a natural connection. But in the 1930’s through mid 50’s, hockey was a part of Baltimore lore and a feature at Carlin’s Park. Before Frank and Brooks Robinson, Earl Weaver and other Oriole notables, the team that had the Oriole name was the Baltimore Orioles hockey team. Owned by Carlin, the team played at Carlin’s Park from 1930’s to early 1940’s. The team played to enthusiastic crowds, and yes, it was fisticuffs on the ice back then as well. Carlin eventually sold the team and their demise would come shortly thereafter.

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But hockey would still play a part in Carlin’s history. The Baltimore Clippers came to town in the mid 1940’s and made Carlin’s Iceland rink their home. The Clippers would play at Carlin’s until the ice rink burned down in 1956. The Clippers then moved to Charlotte. At that time high school hockey games – which included teams from Poly, Calvert Hall, City, Forest Park among others – were being planned to move from The Sports Center Ice Rink in NE Baltimore to Carlin’s Park, but the fire obliterated those plans. The U.S. Coast Guard Cutters also made Carlin’s their home ice. As history notes, the champion Detroit Red Wings played the Cutters in 1944 before a sellout crowd at Carlin’s Park. The Cutters put up a good effort but would eventually lose to the Wings.

And, when hockey teams weren’t cutting up the ice, figure skaters like Karl Schaefer and Melita Brunner would get top billing.

Everything Must Change

Carlin’s had several major fires throughout its history that destroyed some of its facilities. To make matters worse, the park didn’t always have insurance to cover their losses. Based on contemporary standards, some of those buildings and rides would have never seen the light of day.

As the 1950’s were rolling in more Americans were buying cars, thus increasing their mobility and opportunities to travel further. In the early days of the park attendees were more likely to stay all day due to the length of time it took to get to the park. But with car transportation they could go and come as the pleased.

By the 1950’s the park had reached its zenith and was now on the decline. Records indicate the roller rink and swimming pool were the holdovers from its heyday and park management were looking for new business opportunities.

We Need A Civic Center

Baltimore was looking to build a major venue to host diverse events. It would be called the Civic Center and Carlin’s management had the perfect place for it – its facility at Park Circle. But John Carlin would never see the results of their new pursuits. He died in May of 1954. Carlin had left an impressive legacy in entertainment and having a civic center built on the premises where decades of entertainment was staged would be a fitting tribute. However, the proposal faded and the city briefly considered Druid Hill Park before ultimately deciding to build the Civic Center downtown.

Carlin’s Drive In and the end of an era

The fire that destroyed Carlin’s Iceland rink in 1956, forced park management to move in a different direction. The park was done as an amusement park but a drive in theater was about to be born. The year 1958 saw the launch of Carlin’s-Drive In Theater, the only one of its kind in Baltimore City. The drive in is what most people of this writer’s generation remember about Carlin’s. Generations across racial and neighborhood lines can remember car loads swirling into Carlin’s for their double features. It was low cost with a family atmosphere with its playground. It also was a great opportunity for convenient romance. In its waning years of the 1970’s, it was nothing to see residents lined up on the outside of the drive-in’s fence sitting in lawn chairs and taking in the movie free of charge.

After the opening of the Drive in, Arlan’s department store and A&P Supermarket would set up operations on part of its property that was used for the amusement park. By 1977, the drive-in theater, Arlan’s and A&P would all be closed. A niteclub(Giovanchy’s/Pascals), Super Pride grocery, laundromat, bakery would all spend some time at this business strip. Today, it is an industrial park with Dietz & Watson being the most noticeable attraction in an otherwise non-descript piece of land that shows no trace of its previous glory.

copyright 2014 C. Green/School 18 Project