By Adam Bednar
This post originally appeared on Oak Lawn Patch in October 2011.
On a cool Chicago summer night, Carol Janc vividly remembered climbing into her father’s massive Plymouth and taking off across town to her favorite weekend destination. The evening would be filled with games of skill and captivating thrill rides. From roller coasters to ring toss, the Green Oaks Kiddieland, formerly located at 95th Street and Pulaski, had something for everyone.
Of particular fascination to young Carol was “Mr. Ferris Wheel,” as her parents called it. Piercing the suburban night with flashing lights and playful music, the laughter of children and adults alike could be heard blocks away.
To this day, many Oak Lawn residents recall those simple days from their childhood, when the most pressing dilemma they had to face was whether to get a funnel cake or a handful of freshly spun cotton candy.
It all started when Mickey Doolan, a lifelong Chicagoan, retired in 1940 and relocated to the South Side. As the population of Oak Lawn and the surrounding communities of Worth and Palos Hills grew, so did the number of young families looking for an inexpensive weekend destination. By the mid 1940s, the Windy City featured only one amusement park, Riverview in the North Side's Lake View neighborhood. Sensing a tremendous business opportunity, Doolan purchased three small rides and opened the 21-acre Kiddieland just in time for the summer of 1946.
Overnight, everyone from small children to honeymooners were drawn to the park. Charging a meager admission fee, visitors were free to stay as long as they pleased; experiencing all the thrills and excitement that Doolan had to offer residents. Kids yelled and cheered as they rode the miniature railroad that circled the grounds while their parents nearly lost their lunch on the spinning Tilt-A-Whirl. On weekends, it would not have been uncommon for traffic to be redirected as throngs of people lined up at the entrance.
The 1950s were widely considered the “Golden Age” of amusement parks in Chicago, with the Green Oaks Kiddieland one of the most popular. While facing stiff competition from Fairyland in nearby Lyons, Doolan was constantly on the lookout for bigger and better rides to amaze his customers. By the time the park closed in 1971, Kiddieland featured almost 15 rides, with everything from Ferris Wheels and Merry-Go-Rounds to roller coasters and boat rides. It truly was, in the words of former Oak Lawn historian William Goodfellow “a play land for everyone in Southland."
Originally expecting a quiet retirement, Mickey Doolan’s life was forever changed. As the park’s owner, despite being wealthy enough to hire crews of mechanics, vendors, and custodians to maintain the grounds, he nonetheless could be seen carefully inspecting each ride for safety. Whether it was shaking hands with visitors or staying late to repaint the train engine, Doolan was fully committed to his park.
Realizing that Kiddieland’s success would have been impossible without the children themselves, Doolan donated a significant amount of the park’s revenue to local schools. Throughout the 1950’s, his generous contributions helped a fledgling community purchase textbooks and raise enough money for new buses.
Doolan's nephew, Robert Zirzow, told the Daily Souhtown in 2003 of his uncle's community philanthropy. Without charging a dime, Doolan closed Kiddieland to the public for a day every year and gave developmentally disabled children from a nearby school unlimited ride tickets for the day. Such acts, especially from a man who grew so rich late in life, were true testaments to his character.
After Doolan’s death in 1957, family members continued to manage the park until the early 1970s, when basic upkeep became too expensive to maintain. Sitting on a prime piece of real estate that was eyed for a shopping center, the Green Oaks Kiddieland closed for good in 1971. Within a short time, it was demolished and a parking lot and shopping center were built.
Although the Green Oaks Kiddieland has been gone for more than four decades, it has not been forgotten. One of the train engines from the park was restored by the village and has been periodically displayed at Oak Lawn’s annual “Fall on the Green” festival. Similarly, several of the scaled-down fire trucks purchased by Dooley were featured during Evergreen Park’s Fourth of July parade.
While it might be easy to label Kiddieland’s success as merely a savvy businessman understanding his target audience, this explanation would deny the meaningful impact that the park had on its visitors.
Little Carol Janc, just weeks after losing a parent, drew inspiration and comfort when she rode Kiddieland’s Ferris Wheel one night back in 1949. Clasping her father’s hand as they neared the top, Carol thought of her mother once again. “I would think that if I timed things just right, my mother could peak out of her place in heaven and wave goodnight to us."