It was always part of Tacoma mythology, like the Chinese tunnels, the ancient petroglyph buried along the Foss Waterway shoreline and the great chicken noodle soup at the Mecca Theater.
Deep in the basement of an old downtown building, the rumor went, were dozens of fairy tale figurines. The gaily painted statues depicted childhood favorites such as Little Red Riding Hood, Mother Goose and that woman who lived in a shoe.
They might have even been from a long-closed amusement park that still holds a special place in the hearts of local baby boomers – Never Never Land. The amusement park with 26 nursery rhyme scenes filled the woods next door to Fort Nisqually at Point Defiance Park.
Most myths are just that. The Chinese tunnels are the stub end of a started, but never finished, railroad tunnel. The petroglyph has never been found. And the Mecca closed before I could sample the soup.
But Never Never Land figurines did, in fact, live for decades in the dark basement of a lower Pacific Avenue building owned by John Hewitt Jr. and the late Alan Liddle. And now they’ve been liberated as John’s children, with his permission, have decided to sell the remaining pieces.
There’s Little Red Riding Hood. Actually, there are two Little Red Riding Hoods. There’s Jack. There’s the giant getting ready to plunge from the top of the beanstalk. There’s Goldilocks and more than a few bears. The Big Bad Wolf, Peter of pumpkin eater fame and all the characters from “Ding Dong Bell” (including the pussy safely rescued from the well).
One by one, the 100 or so statues are being cleaned up, photographed and then put up for sale at Ron Adamson’s Antique Row store Broadway’s Best.
It was time, said Nicola Hewitt. John Hewitt Jr. just turned 84. And while he and the family had hoped that someone might want the entire collection — perhaps to restore the much-loved park or as a display in a museum — that no longer appears likely. The best way to preserve and display them might be as individual pieces that could show up in stores or restaurants.
I mean, what would be a better place for Jack Sprat and his wife but a steak house? What local bakery could count itself complete without Jack Horner (though sadly the figurine no longer includes the plum on his thumb).
One part of the myth is untrue, technically at least. These figurines are not from Tacoma’s Never Never Land. Those, at least those that remain, are in storage with the Metro Park District. Some, however, were lost in the fire that badly damaged the Pagoda, which did double duty as district storage.
Instead, the figurines being cleaned and readied for sale are mostly from a sister park in Hills Island, Ontario, also called Never Never Land.
As John Hewitt tells the story, the park was closing in the late 1970s and he was concerned about the fate of the beloved figures. He traveled to Boston, fetched son John Stanton Hewitt (known as J.S.) who was attending prep school in the area, and headed north in a truck to rescue the characters. For the most part, those are the ones that have been hiding in the basement ever since.
(I say for the most part because the Hewitts think the Little Black Sambo they have may have been removed from Point Defiance in the 1970s after objections were raised that it was racist.)
How Hewitt became involved in Never Never Land might seem odd. The son of an early business leader of Tacoma, Hewitt was an investment manager with money in projects including mines and the Crystal Mountain ski resort. But along came a young Canadian in 1963 with more creativity than business savvy. Alfred Pettersen wanted to locate a stateside version of his Wooded Wonderland in Victoria but didn’t have money or collateral for a loan.
According to Mark Thomas Deming, who interviewed Pettersen in 2009 for the magazine City Arts, the bank officer put Pettersen in touch with Tacoma lumber and banking scion Chauncey Griggs,who signed on Hewitt, Sam Brown and others to back the project.
Madeleine said that while her father may have seen it as a business investment, it is more likely that he and her mother, Johanne, wanted to provide something nice for their hometown.
“They both loved Tacoma, had small kids, loved the beautiful park,” Madeleine said. “I think they saw it as a magical addition to the city.”
The pending opening was front page news in the Tacoma News Tribune.
“While Never Never Land will be designed for children, adults will enjoy it too,” Pettersen told the newspaper a week before the opening. The figurines were designed and built by Elek Imredy, a Hungarian-born sculptor who would later become a well-regarded artist in Canada (think the Girl in a Wetsuit figure on a rock just off the seawalk at Vancouver’s Stanley Park).
The figures that have not suffered repainting display Imredy’s skills. The faces show the emotion of the characters, from wonder to fear to apprehension. While some are cartoonlike, such as Bambi and the Three Little Pigs, most are realistic and lifelike.
When the Tacoma version of the park opened in July 1964, it was a smash. During the first year, 90,000 tickets were sold, according to the park district’s history. Many baby boomers remember trips to the park with parents and grandparents. They later took their own kids there.
I watched Wednesday as Nicola, Madeleine and J.S. walked among the figurines still being prepared for sale. All three worked in the park as teens and were able to identify the disconnected characters that Adamson, the antique store owner, could not. J.S. recited from memory the verses that were displayed next to each scene. Each of the siblings is claiming a favorite — Nicola the Little Red Riding Hood with the original paint, and Madeleine the Tortoise and the Hare. J.S. was having trouble deciding as each brought its own memories. Siblings Eve and Lise have decided not to claim a figure for themselves.
Never Never Land was a fixture in the park and in the weekends of many Tacomans. But in the later years, it struggled to attract visitors and repel vandals and pranksters. The figures were frequently damaged or stolen. Humpty Dumpty was a popular target. The park district took it over in 1985 but gave up in 2001 and moved the figures permanently into storage. Finally, in 2010, the last large structures — the Old Woman’s shoe and the stack of giant books at the entrance — were demolished.
Melissa McGinnis, the park district’s cultural resources manager, said all the remaining figures and the molds are safe and well cared for. The district, however, has no immediate plans for them and no interest in selling them. A planned children’s play area might be a good spot for some. There has also been discussions of an exhibit of the park’s history that would need to tell the Never Never Land story.
And what about the giant Humpty Dumpty that once welcomed visitors atop that stack of books? He lives for now in the district’s shops building.
“He’s just fine,” McGinnis reports.