A Hungarian sculptor gave them life.
Tacoma’s favorite theme park gave them purpose.
Then the city took them away.
The orphaned sculptures in Hewitt's underground bunker in downtown Tacoma; photography by Aaron Locke.
Granted, he was a fast-talking born salesman given to fits of elation. But this was a dream come true: the grand opening of a fairy-tale theme park at Tacoma’s Point Defiance. The ticket booth was besieged. Car after car arrived, and all of them drove away with the words “Never Never Land” stuck to their bumpers. He built it; thousands came.
Forty-five years later, the visitors have left — forever. The parking lot beside the stack of books where Humpty Dumpty once sat stands empty. The odor of Coney Island hot dogs has been replaced by the smell of Douglas fir. The Old Woman’s shoe, which generations of Tacomans slid down, is boarded up, condemned. Little Bo Peep, Jack Sprat and the Three Little Pigs have disappeared. It’s almost as though Never Never Land never was.
But as the forest inexorably reclaims its curb-lined paths and crumbling foundations, Never Never Land’s uprooted cast lives on in an underground diaspora. Tacoma Metro Parks stores a cracked Humpty Dumpty and other fiberglass figurines, and a nearly identical collection resides in the downtown basement of eighty-one-year-old Tacoma businessman John Hewitt Jr.
Humpty Dumpty tastes temporary freedom outside his Tacoma cell.
Hewitt flips through an antique rolodex.
“Here it is,” he says. “Alfred Pettersen. This number must be forty years old.” He picks up the phone and dials. Wrong number.
“He was quite a fellow.”
Eventually, I track down Pettersen’s new number in Victoria, BC, and give him a call. “I was twenty-five going on eighteen,” Pettersen recalls, laughing. In 1963, he had arrived in Tacoma hoping to replicate the Wooded Wonderland theme park he had built for Victoria the year before. On his way into town, he saw an advertisement for the Bank of California. He liked the ad so much that he decided to ask for a loan.
“They asked me what my assets were. I said, ‘What are assets?’ I literally didn’t know what an asset was! Can you imagine?”
Not knowing his assets may have been Pettersen’s greatest asset. He had the dauntlessness of the young and ignorant. His infectious enthusiasm soon had the loan officer sold on his idea. But not on his personal credit.
“He said, ‘Why don’t you call Chauncey Griggs?’”
Pettersen called the Tacoma lumber magnate. Soon Griggs, John Hewitt Jr., and several more investors signed on. The next July, Never Never Land was born. “We did about $1,350 that first day,” says Pettersen, now seventy-one. At fifty cents admission for adults and twenty-five cents for children, that’s a lot of visitors. And they kept coming. By the end of the first year, more than ninety thousand visitors had passed through the gates.
Hewitt eventually became the principal owner of Never Never Land, and in 1986 he sold it to the city. He also owned a stake in another Pettersen park in Hill Island, Ontario. When that one closed in the late 1970s, Hewitt traveled to Boston, bought a Toyota, picked up his son from prep school and headed north to rescue the orphaned statuary. Back in Tacoma, he deposited the figures in the basement of his office, where they remain today.
Never Never Land's gateway, 90,000 visitors and 45 years later.
Planned by museum designer Jean Jacques André and fashioned by sculptor Elek Imredy, Hewitt’s orphans lack the bright festiveness Disney and others have taught us to associate with cartoons. In their dungeon-like confines at Hewitt’s place, the characters seem tragic, not comic — more Brothers Grimm than Mother Goose. The wolf looks depraved, the witch very wicked indeed; the children are lonely and frightened to death.
“The talent of Imredy really shows through, even today,” says Hewitt. “They’re really wistful figures.”
Huddling in the shadows, the figures look like refugees, a trait they share with their maker. Born in Budapest in 1912, Imredy fled Hungary’s bloody 1956 anti-Communist revolution and settled in Vancouver, BC. Well known for his public bronzes, including the iconic Girl in Wetsuit in Vancouver’s Stanley Park, he might seem an odd candidate for a Humpty Dumpty job. Indeed, had fate not intervened (as it seems inclined to do where Pettersen is concerned), Imredy likely would never have known about the gig.
The Old Woman's Shoe, now childless forever in Point Defiance Park.
Pettersen hit a snag when building Victoria his first park, Wooded Wonderland. The friend he hired to sculpt the characters took weeks to make just one, and then quit. But the friend promised to help find a replacement. By chance, Pettersen’s friend encountered a sculptor working in the friend’s old home in Vancouver. The sculptor, Imredy, showed him his new technique for making fiberglass sculptures from clay molds. The method enabled him to efficiently produce and duplicate complex pieces. His prototypes were beautiful. Pettersen had his man.
“He was really a hell of a sculptor,” says Hewitt.
Hewitt laments that some Never Never Land visitors may have missed Imredy’s artistry. In the waning days of the attraction, Hewitt complains, when Metro Parks was maintaining it, little attempt was made to adhere to the visions of Imredy and André. Primary colors were used in place of muted tones, he says. The characters’ expressive eyes, the source of their pathos, were repainted by park workers not trained in fine arts.
“There were a lot of subtleties associated with the exhibit that were lost on the city,” Hewitt contends.
Hungarian refugee Elek Imredy's poignant Little Red Riding Hood.
But the Hill Island figures languishing in Hewitt’s basement escaped that misfortune. Some may not have been built by Imredy’s hands, but even the ones reproduced from his molds honor the artist’s intentions. And while Pettersen seems content to see the figures in the eternal glow of 1964, they clearly have more than just sentimental value.
Hewitt’s son, John Stanton, would like to see Elek Imredy’s creations in a museum. Hewitt at first seems more pragmatic. “I’d sell them if anyone wanted them,” Hewitt says, standing in his office. Then, smiling, he reconsidered. “What would interest me is if someone wanted to put Humpty Dumpty together again.”