From the Archives: Fort Lee’s Original Mad Man

PR man Sol Abrams of Palisades Amusement Park—the man who once put an elephant on water skis on the Hudson—garnered national attention for the park

The exhibit Palisades Amusement Park—Our Last Summer in the Sun celebrates the 40th anniversary of the closing of our park—September 12, 1971 to be exact. As part of the exhibit, members of the Fort Lee Historical Society and the Fort Lee Film Commission are conducting a living history project to videotape the memories of people who worked at the park. 

Our first interviewee is the last man standing from the administration of the park and the most famous of all the park’s publicists, Sol Abrams. 

We ventured to Mr. Abrams’ Bergen County home this week to discuss the park’s history and the role he played in its promotion on a national and international level.

Sol started out as a young man with the Universal Studios publicity department in New York just before World War II. During the war he served in the U.S. Army, for which he was involved in PR work. After his military service Abrams went to college on the GI Bill and majored in journalism with the intention of pursuing a career in public relations. 

Following graduation, legendary New York City public relations executive Bert Nevins hired Sol. One of Nevins’ clients was Palisades Amusement Park.

Nevins created many of the park’s events, such as the Mrs. America Pageant, which he established at the park in 1936. Nevins assigned the Palisades Amusement Park account to Abrams in 1949, and Sol was with the park until it closed in 1971. In the early 1960s he moved his office into the park administration building.

But how did an amusement park atop the Jersey Palisades here in Fort Lee and Cliffside Park gain national and international attention? 

Well, according to Sol, it was based on the idea that newsreels were given top priority at the park, and his good relations with the cameramen who shot them propelled story after story from the park, making such newsreels as Universal on a regular basis.  

These newsreel stories would be seen in every movie theatre in the nation, and as a result, when tourists came to New York, they invariably sought out nearby Palisades Amusement Park because of this publicity.

Newspaper publicity was important too as witnessed when a young unknown actress by the name of  Grace Kelly came to the park for a photo spread. Ms. Kelly spent a day in the park documented by the photographer Sol had on hand. A few years later when Kelly became a movie star, Sol sought out the photographer and acquired the photos, which appeared in the New York Journal American in a large photo spread—again, the type of publicity the park just couldn’t buy.

Another story from the 1960s involved Jackie Kennedy bringing her children kids Caroline and John and their friends to the park for the day. Sol abided by her request for no publicity, but somehow, a reporter posing as a father of some kids ingratiated himself to Jackie, and the result was a newspaper story about Jackie and her kids at the park.

Sol recalled the final days when park owner Irving Rosenthal was working with entertainment executive Sonny Werblin to try to move the park to the Meadowlands. After the park closed for good in 1971, Sol continued to work as a PR man for Irving Rosenthal and later for Rosenthal’s widow, Gladys Shelley. Through the 1970s and 80s, Sol continued to work his PR magic for many clients, but the park remains the love of his life.

Perhaps Sol’s greatest PR stunt is documented in this newsreel footage.

Palisades Amusement Park was home to a circus each year for decades, and one year, to promote the opening of the circus, Sol came up with the idea of putting the circus elephant on water skis—large pontoons secured and checked by circus professionals—and have it travel up and down the Hudson River against the backdrop of the park atop the cliffs. Universal newsreel cameras captured the event, and the park was once again on the map. 

“Imagine a tourist from overseas on the New York side of the Hudson seeing this elephant on water skis,” Sol said, recalling the day. “Only in America.”

The Fort Lee Historical Society and Fort Lee Film Commission will honor Sol Abrams in September at an invitation-only event at the Fort Lee Museum, where the Mayor and Councils of Fort Lee and Cliffside Park, along with former park employees and entertainers, will be in attendance. 

Thanks, Sol; you are an American original!

Palisades Amusement Park—Our Last Summer in the Sun runs through January 29, 2012 at the Fort Lee Museum at 1588 Palisade Avenue. For more information visit the Fort Lee Historical Society’s website or call 201-592-3580.

Editor's Note: The author is Executive Director of the Fort Lee Film Commission.


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