While I am a New Jersey native, I moved at a young age and spent most of my childhood in Pennsylvania. My parents still had a lot of friends and family back in Jersey so we’d go back regularly, and this being the early ‘90s I have vague memories from these visits of kids in the area wearing t-shirts for some theme park called Action Park, along with some pretty wild television commercials featuring mini-bungee jump platforms and leaping off cliffs into pools of water.
Having never gone myself, I didn’t hear about just how insane this place was until I was much older. Tales about water slides with full loop-the-loops, a general air of lawlessness, and even a handful of deaths at the park seemed the stuff of urban legend, but damn if it wasn’t all absolutely true. Hell, Wikipedia has a pretty robust page dedicated to all of the shenanigans that went on there. It’s a tale ripe for the documentary treatment, so I was thrilled when I found out that Chris Charles Scott and Seth Porges teamed up to make Class Action Park.
Class Action Park is a sprawling story about the park’s entire history, from its inception in Vernon, NJ as a summer supplement to ski season revenue in 1978 through its closing in 1996. At the center of the tale is Eugene Mulvihill, a man that the Scott and Porges try to give even-handed portrayal yet still manages to come off as a total asshole. He’s introduced as a friend and associate of Bob Brennan, who you may remember as being one of the main players in the penny stock scams in the ‘70s and ‘80s.
He’s pretty much the epitome of that “nobody can tell me what to do” attitude that became really popular in Reagan-era America and whose ripple effect can still be felt today as we enter our six months of a pandemic due in large part to people not wanting to inconvenience themselves for the good of the group. So it’s pretty compelling and infuriating to see this extreme individualism through the microcosm of Mulvihill and Action Park. This is a guy who employees recall with wild tales of a boss who designed his own rides and came up with screwball measures to keep order in the park (including the use of fake cattle prods). On the other hand, this is also a guy who used his connections to avoid being held accountable for virtually any of the incidents at the park, ruined the career of at least one local reporter, and literally had his death celebrated by the family of a teenager who was killed on one of his rides.
But while you can’t tell Action Park’s story without Mulvihill, it’s the recollections of the park through the eyes of guests and employees that really make this documentary worthwhile. The interviews with past employees, from “senior staff” (aka people who lasted more than three months) to day-to-day workers plays sort of like these wild campfire tales, instilling the movie with tales of sex, drugs, and work mishaps that would fill several ‘80s teen comedies. They’re also the source of some of the wilder interactions with the rides, as they were usually the guinea pigs for attractions that were too dangerous to make it to the public. Alas, since these rides never truly saw the light of day we don’t get any actual footage of them in action, but we do get some fun illustrated reenactments to give some sense of the insanity.
For those rides that dubiously deemed ready for prime time, comedian Chris Gethard and actress Alison Becker, who both grew up in New Jersey, provide the focal point for the guest experience. Gethard in particular is a riot as he remembers that even as a kid, he had some pretty serious reservations about the safety of some of these rides. He then adds the hindsight of adulthood to truly grasp just how wildly inappropriate this place was for anyone, much less children. At the same time, both he and Becker recall the experiences with a sense of pride of surviving not only Action Park, but just childhood in New Jersey as a whole.
But while Scott and Porger instill all of these stories with a sense of romanticism, they also realize that there’s nothing whimsical for family members of those who died at the park. I was relieved that they gave due time and respect to this aspect of Action Park through the family of George Larsson, Jr, a 19-year old killed at the park in 1980. Interviews center on Larsson’s mother, Esther, and they don’t shy away from the details of the event, the reality of the loss, and the shady moves that Mulvihill made to not only escape any real responsibility, but also to continue running the park for over a decade and a half after Larsson’s death (which would result in around a half dozen additional deaths).
It’s not easy to balance the nostalgic tone of a park that represents New Jersey youth for thousands of people who worked at and visited the park with the very real ramifications of an attraction run by a scam artist with no regard for the well-being of the people who bought tickets. But Scott and Porger pull it off by acknowledging that both of these things can be true at the same time, and in doing so give us an honest look at a relic that perfectly encapsulates the Garden State.