Originally published April 25, 2015 at The Los Angeles Beat
“I’d like to be under the sea,
In an octopus’s garden in the shade…
We would sing and dance around,
Because we know we can’t be found,
In an octopus’s garden in the shade… We would be so happy you and me,
No one there to tell us what to do.
I’d like to be under the sea,
In an octopus’s garden with you.” – Richard “Ringo” Starkey for The Beatles (1968)
Sometimes, as adults whirring around with busy schedules, we forget to notice the magic. Magic weaves itself around us constantly, lighting on our shoulders and buzzing in our ears, but often it is only the children who stop to take notice. Our lives would be happier and have more synchronicity if we once again believed in fairy tales and making wishes.
Children’s play parks from the 1950s to 1970s often captured this wishful sorcery in elaborately imaginative “fairy-tale lands”, “Santa Claus villages” and idyllic theme parks. Even Magic Mountain in Valencia originally featured happy trolls, wandering wizards and singing mushrooms. Most of these parks disappeared as the world around us got more literal, politically correct and “child proofed”. Luckily there are three playgrounds left within the Los Angeles area that feature the whimsical early 1960s sea monster sculptures of Benjamin Dominguez. They display a trusting enchantment of a simpler time. For those growing up near San Gabriel, memories of playing at “Monster Park” might bring all kinds of crazy nostalgia. Others remember the odd sea creatures scattered around Legg Lake in El Monte. Still others have fondness for the surreal Atlantis Play Park in Garden Grove.
The master mind behind these fantasies was a Mexican immigrant in his mid-60s named Benjamin Dominguez. Born in 1894, Benjamin had worked his entire life as a master concrete sculptor in Mexico, concentrating on zoo enclosures, bridges and realistic looking concrete wood. It was only after his 62nd birthday, in 1956, that he moved to the United States and let his imagination run truly wild in designing bizarre and eccentric children’s play parks. Dominguez first settled in El Paso, Texas, where he was initially commissioned to do more zoo work. But after designing a fantastical playground full of sea creatures, a harp slide and a moonscape climbing piece he called a “sputnik”, his play sculptures became popular and he went on to create dozens more. He briefly headed out to California in 1957 to construct a rustic faux-wood bridge that still stands in Beverly Hills’ Coldwater Park. Unfortunately in El Paso today there is reportedly only one piece of his original playground work left standing- a turtle sculpture.
Always searching for the next commission, in 1959 Benjamin headed west to Las Vegas where a woman’s group asked him to build another fanciful play park. His work there included a happy whale, a friendly dragon with mushroom seats, a two-headed serpent, turtles and more. The Las Vegas park was eventually razed for new development and only one of Benjamin’s pieces was saved. The imagination and magical design of his work was becoming known during this time and “fantasy play parks” were becoming fashionable. His brightly colored dreamlike sea monsters would fit nicely in Southern California, where he would do his last three, and most fantastic, commissions.
In 1960, Benjamin settled in La Puente and started work on six new fairy-tale-like sea sculptures to be set around Legg Lake at Whittier Narrows in El Monte. He built his pieces on site, using a frame of bent rebar and steel mesh covered by layers of concrete. He left the painting up to the discretion of the park and the pieces have been repainted semi-frequently over the years. He was paid $600 for his first sculpture, Mother Dragon and Mushrooms, and $2,240 for the five remaining pieces which include a big fish in which children climb into its mouth and slide down its back; an elaborately majestic two-headed dragon which appears to be playfully weaving through the water; an octopus stretching his tentacles; an abstractly shaped “tripod” and a starfish. Today these pieces still stand in their original placements, but several are fenced off for protection and hopeful reconstruction.
Next, in 1963, Benjamin was hired by the city of Garden Grove, Orange County to create unique play pieces for a new aquatic themed park named after the mysterious lost city of Atlantis. It was Garden Grove’s first park and they rejected the notion of “cookie cutter” design. Extremely charming and full of vintage character, Atlantis Play Center features numerous play areas centered around Benjamin’s work, which had evolved since Legg Lake. A blue whale was now bigger than his last fish piece, and instead of entering through the mouth, children now climbed up its back and slid down its long red tongue between two rows of pearly white teeth. Also featured is Sandy Sea Serpent whose long, winding body forms a slide as she stretches up a hill; her tail to be found cheekily above. Danny Sea Dragon, found below, bobs in and out of the “water” just like his two-headed friend at Legg Lake. All of the sculptures are accompanied by signs with Dr. Seuss-like poems to give these sculptural characters names and personalities.
Finally, in 1965, at age 70, Benjamin Dominguez constructed his final park in the town of San Gabriel, La Laguna de San Gabriel, locally known as “Monster Park” or “Dinosaur Park”. Modeled after a lagoon, it was his final crowning achievement and greatest artistic success. Taking elements and creatures from his conjure bag of tricks, Benjamin created a park where all the monsters blend together seamlessly and can be seen in one big picture harmoniously frolicking in their sandy sea. Besides another swimming sea serpent, there are fourteen pieces in total, including a sinking pirate ship complete with treasure chest; a 20-foot tall lighthouse with sea serpent slide; Lookout Mountain- a 30-foot tall faux-rock formation with a large fanged sea monster built in as a slide; Minnie the Whale, whose tongue is a slide; Ozzie the Octopus; a friendly family of dolphins named Flipper, Skippy and Peanut; Stella the Starfish and Sammy the Snail.
Benjamin Dominguez passed away in 1974 at the age of 80. He is buried in San Gabriel, the home of “Monster Park”. His celebrated sculptures in San Gabriel narrowly escaped demolition in 2006, but with public support the park was nominated to the California Register of Historic Places in 2009 and declared a local landmark for the City of San Gabriel. They are currently being repaired and brought to their original strength and beauty. Legg Lake was thankfully nominated for the same register in 2012. Atlantis Play Center continues to be popular and its pieces are the brightest and most well-kept. Although we are currently living in a McMansion culture, where homogeny is valued by the masses, it is more important than ever that we work to value and preserve the odd eccentricities that make our city a unique and treasured place.
The Atlantis Play Center: 13630 Atlantis Way, Garden Grove, CA 92844; (714) 892-6015. $2. Open Tues- Fri: 10am-2pm; Sat: 10am- 4pm; Sun: 12-4pm.
La Laguna de San Gabriel: Vincent Lugo Park– 300 Wells St., San Gabriel, CA 91776; (626) 308-2875. Hours: 7:30am-10pm.
Legg Lake: Whittier Narrows– 750 S Santa Anita Ave., South El Monte, CA 91733; (626) 575-5526.