As a young boy, Van Hall started working in the family business, at Crystal Beach Amusement Park.
Much later, in 1972, he and his cousin Robert purchased the park in nearby Fort Erie, Ont., becoming third-generation family stewards of one of the Niagara Region’s most popular recreation gems dating back to 1888.
Van Hall – whose given name was Fillmore Vanderveer Hall – became president in 1973, and began a brief renaissance that saw the park add eight new rides and reach a peak attendance of some 500,000 annual visitors, until hard times and competition from newer parks led to the park’s closing in 1989.
Hall, who also enjoyed a 50-year career in aviation and completed hundreds of combat missions as a fighter pilot in Vietnam, died Monday in his Buffalo home after a lengthy illness. He was 80.
Despite all his accomplishments as a military and corporate private pilot, Hall probably will be remembered more for his efforts to keep Crystal Beach open through the 1970s and 1980s, as newer, slicker parks began to threaten the park’s viability.
To most Western New Yorkers of a certain age, especially those over 50, Crystal Beach simply defined the term “amusement park.”
“Van got great pleasure knowing that Crystal Beach Park had touched generations of this region in such a positive way,” said his wife of 36 years, M. Jan Hall.
Wherever they went, whenever the term “Crystal Beach” came up and people learned that he was the owner, they would start telling stories about their own Crystal Beach memories. Their faces would light up, and so would Hall’s.
“He never grew tired of the happy stories that people told of their love of visits to the park in the ‘good old days,’” his wife recalled. “Van knew that Crystal Beach was a lasting legacy for the many memories of young and old alike, which gave him much happiness.”
Crystal Beach was a Niagara Region treasure along the Lake Erie shoreline. It was known for its Comet roller coaster; for the Cyclone, Wild Mouse and Magic Carpet rides; for the Laff in the Dark fun house; for the pristine sandy beach that drew visitors from the Canadiana and Americana excursion boats; for the towering lumberjack statue; for the legendary dance hall that drew the likes of Tommy Dorsey, Les Brown and Stan Kenton; for ride tickets rewarding kids for great report cards; for neighborhood days that also brought large groups of Western New Yorkers to the park; and for treats that fed anyone’s sweet tooth, including Crystal Beach loganberry and Hall’s Suckers.
It also was a bridge to an earlier, less hurried and more nostalgic time.
“For Americans and Canadians alike, the place has the feel of a favorite old shoe – a bit worn out but more comfortable and cheaper than the new model,” Buffalo News reporter Tom Buckham wrote when news of the imminent closing hit in August 1989.
The park was beautifully laid out, with the Lake Erie spray on a windy day hitting riders on the well-known Comet, an old, rickety-sounding, wooden roller coaster considered the signature ride in the park. And Crystal Beach offered the perfect haven from the city’s summer heat, with lake breezes providing natural air conditioning.
After the Hall cousins purchased the park in 1972, they invested heavily in the somewhat outdated facility, adding at least eight new rides. In the mid-1970s, they also unveiled a new pay-one price for admission; instead of paying per ride, maybe 10 to 25 cents each, park-goers could pay a flat fee of $5.50, although the Comet still cost an extra 25 cents, according to an article on Crystal Beach from the Coaster Enthusiasts of Canada.
But Crystal Beach couldn’t survive, hemmed in geographically by shinier new amusement parks, including Canada’s Wonderland and Marineland on the Canadian side and Darien Lake on the American side. Meanwhile, the debt load on the Halls’ heavy investment proved too much for the park, which closed on Labor Day 1989.
The popular playpen had passed from the scene from failing health, at age 101.
“It was one of the loves of his life,” Jan Hall said of her husband. “He worked there as a young boy and grew up with the park. Since it was family-owned and -operated, he absolutely thought it was part of his legacy.”
Born in Buffalo on March 7, 1935, Hall graduated from Manlius Military Academy outside Syracuse in 1952 and from Colgate University in 1956. After graduation, he entered the Air Force, serving for 28 years, including 21 with the 136th Tactical Fighter Squadron at the Air National Guard in Niagara Falls. He attained the rank of lieutenant colonel at just 37 years old, and his call sign was “Sky King.” During his Air Force tenure, he flew three different jet fighter planes, the Hun, Voodoo and Phantom.
In the middle of that service, he was activated in 1968 and served one year in Vietnam, completing 240 combat missions, later earning the Distinguished Flying Cross and the Air Medal with 11 clusters, among other decorations.
Hall retired from the military in 1984, spending the next 22 years flying corporate aircraft, mostly for Tripi Foods.
Survivors, besides his wife, include two sons, Gregory and Douglas; two stepchildren, Robin Pfalzgraf and David Pfalzgraf Jr.; a sister, Sandra Doyle; a brother, Donald; and seven grandchildren.
A memorial service will be held at 10 a.m. Jan. 9 at Amigone Funeral Home, 1132 Delaware Ave.