Helter Skelter in Venice

I recently had the good fortune to peruse the extensive Venice postcard collection of Tony Bill, and, boy, does he have some great cards. It’s truly amazing all the old postals that were made of this 100-year-old city. And it seems that Tony probably has them all.

Going through them, all of a sudden two images jumped out at me. They were of the entrance to the Midway Plaissance, at Windward and Trolleyway, with the miniature railway at its turnaround, engines steaming away. But what caught my eye was a tiny 3-story structure sporting a unique tower-capping neo-Italian spire. It was maybe ten feet wide on all four sides, with a wrap-around stairway leading to the second story. And coming out from the western side arched opening was what looked like a child’s slide, slowly descending and curving first to the left, then to the right in a gentle arc, then finally straightening out at its terminus.

On the one card looking to the north, with the Pacific Southwest Bank building in the background, I could read the writing on the slide itself. “Helter Skelter.” And in type on the card it read “Helter Skelter and Scenic Ry., Venice, Cal.”

Wow!! I’d never seen nor heard of a Helter Skelter ever before in Venice. I turned the card over to see the postmark date, 1909. Aha! It seems like another Venice first.

In England at that time, a Helter Skelter was a popular amusement park ride with a slide built in a spiral around a high tower. Users climb the tower and usually slide down on a mat. The name means haphazard, pell-mell, or in disorderly haste. I guess like the experience of riding it. It was thus similar to a waterless hydroslide. Throughout the British Empire, they were featured at carnivals, or exhibitions, most notably in 1906 at the New Zealand International Exhibition, Hagley Park, Christchurch, and in 1908 at the Scottish National Exhibition, Saughton Park, Edinburgh.

For those unfamiliar with early Venice, the Midway Plaissance was the sideshow attraction zone along the lagoon, open from 1905-1911. This Helter Skelter slide must have been in place for at least a few years, entertaining and thrilling the visiting hordes, before being torn down and replaced by the grand entrance to the new Race Thru The Clouds racing roller coaster.

A few years later, out on the Venice pier, another, larger Helter Skelter was built, called the Dragon Bamboo Slide. It opened in May of 1925, featuring decorative dragon feet coming out of the central tower, supporting the ever-encircling slide. The whole adventure took three-and-a-half revolutions, which must have been some ride, seeing that the start was 98 feet up in the air. Customers climbed to the top of the cone-shaped tower, then slid down the spiral bamboo ramp on a straw mat.

This landmark bamboo slide was open until the pier closed at midnight on Saturday, April 20, 1946. Then in May of 1947, during the long drawn-out demolition of the pier, pranksterish boys set fire to its framework, annihilating it and the remaining roller coaster on the closed pier.

The term gained notoriety again during the late 1960s. In 1968, The Beatles released the song ‘Helter Skelter.’ Although to Britons the song clearly referenced the ride with its lyrics - “When I get to the bottom I go back to the top of the slide, where I stop and I turn and I go for a ride, til I get to the bottom and I see you again, yeah yeah yeah,” - this meaning was unknown to many in the United States. Among them was Charles Manson, who mistakenly interpreted the song as a message to go on a killing spree.

All that Manson stuff was built around Paul’s song about an English fairground. It has nothing to do with anything. But, I don’t know, what’s ‘Helter Skelter’ got to do with knifing somebody? – John Lennon

I was using the symbol of a Helter Skelter as a ride from the top to the bottom, and this was the fall, the demise, the going down. – Paul McCartney

Helter Skelter means confusion. Literally. Confusion is coming down fast. If you don’t see the confusion coming down fast, you can call it what you wish. It is not my music. Why blame it on me? I didn’t write the music. I am not the person who projected it into your social consciousness. – Charles Manson

It’s a song Charles Manson stole from the Beatles; we’re stealing it back. – Bono, U2

Sorry blokes, but I’m stealing the Helter Skelter from you now, to put it in its true place in history. Like the going round and round sensation of sliding down a Helter Skelter, the name itself goes round and round, resurfacing 100 years later as another Venice first, an attraction for the masses in the celebratory town of Venice, circa 1905.