The 270-plus community histories in the ISJL’s Encyclopedia of Southern Jewish Communities contain countless stories of Jewish-owned businesses. Often, these stories are fairly typical: a small dry goods store grows into a big department store or maybe even a regional chain of shopping emporiums.
But in Norfolk, Virginia – just one of 23 Virginia encyclopedia histories we recently unveiled – I came across a unique story with an explosive ending (literally).
Dudley Cooper was an optometrist who got his start going door-to-door fitting people for eyeglasses. He later moved into various real estate ventures, and in 1942 he bought the dilapidated Ocean View Amusement Park. Cooper bought it for its prime ocean front property, and had plans to tear it down to develop the site. It was during World War II, and Norfolk was home to a large naval base with several other military installations in the area. The military brass was concerned by the dearth of wholesome recreational activities for off-duty sailors and soldiers in Norfolk, and in a bid to distract them from the bars and brothels in the area, convinced Cooper to reopen the amusement park. Their plan was evidently a success, as the rate of venereal disease among area military personnel sharply declined by 1943. Ocean View remained in business after the war and became a summer ritual for generations of children and their parents.
During the years of legal segregation, Ocean View was for whites-only. But in 1946, Cooper partnered with three prominent black businessmen to establish the Seaview Beach Amusement Park exclusively for African Americans. With both black and white staff and managers and nice new rides, Seaview was the nation’s only major amusement park for African Americans. In a 1950 newspaper article, Cooper called it “a victory sociologically but a dud financially.” After Ocean View was integrated in the 1960s, Seaview was closed.
By the 1970s, Ocean View began to lose money due to high maintenance costs and increased competition from newer amusement parks in the area. In 1976, the Hollywood movie “Rollercoaster,” starring Timothy Bottoms, George Segal, and Richard Widmark, was filmed at Ocean View, which brought attention to the park, but was not enough to save it. By 1978, Cooper had decided to close the park.
When he sold the property to the City of Norfolk, it was his responsibility to clear its structures, which would be a difficult and expensive undertaking. Enter film director Michael Trikilis, who was looking to shoot a disaster movie set at an amusement park and had heard about Ocean View’s demise. He proposed to Cooper’s son, Joel, and to his nephew, Richard Miller, that the family allow Trikilis to blow up the rides for his TV movie to be entitled, appropriately, “The Death of Ocean View Park.” The Coopers agreed, and the rest is Norfolk and TV movie history.
Destroying the Rocket rollercoaster was not as easy as it looked in the film. The ride was so well-made that two attempts to detonate it left The Rocket standing. Finally, after its supporting beams were cut and pulled down by a large tractor, The Rocket gave way. Thanks to the magic of Youtube, you can witness the exciting climax of “The Death of Ocean View Park.” As you watch it, try to forget the bad acting and think about the important legacy of Dudley Cooper and his mission to provide wholesale entertainment to the people of Norfolk:
You can read more compelling (if less explosive) stories about the history of Jews in Virginia here.
By Education Fellow Reva Frankel
Tomorrow brings the end of Black History Month. Most often when we discuss the Jewish connection to this month, we think of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel or other notable Jews involved in the civil rights movement. Rarely do we think back to those Jews, like so many southerners at the time, who owned slaves before the civil war, or the small number of enslaved African Americans who adopted the religion of their captors.
Mathew Lopez’s riveting play, The Whipping Man, explores the lives of these Jews—both enslavers and enslaved—and I had the chance to see it in Charlotte, where it will run through March 9th. The play is set in a dilapidated home in Richmond, Virginia, following the end of the Civil War. Caleb, a wounded Jewish Confederate soldier, returns home to find two former slaves there, Simon and John, who are also Jewish. They must rely on each other, while also figuring out how to relate to each other as equals.
The story itself is captivating, but the larger ideas discussed are what make this play simultaneously horrifying, fascinating and beautiful. The play deals directly with the conflict of Southern and Jewish identities by addressing the inconsistency of Jewish values and the way masters often treated their slaves. It also deals with loss of faith due to war. One thing I loved is that there are many frank discussions about what it means to be enslaved and what it means to be a Jewish slave with a Jewish master.
Just one small spoiler: there is a hilarious scene when all three characters try horse meat (which is not kosher) for the first time.
I highly recommend seeing this play. If you are in the South, you can see The Whipping Man currently in Norfolk, Virginia, through March 17th and in Atlanta March 8th–April 7th. Visit the playwright’s website to see all upcoming and current productions, and/or to buy the script.