If you only know the Safari from its recent incarnations (and by recent I mean the last 20 years or so), it may be difficult to envision what a swanky delight it was in its prime.
Apparently, the building dates to 1909 and started out as a pool hall for local teens. By the time my family arrived in Sunnyside in the early 60s, the pool hall had already been the Safari Room for many years. I'd guess the transformation took place sometime in the mid-1950s. The safari theme is a fairly rare off-shoot of the Polynesian/Tiki-craze of the 40s-50s. There weren't many safari-inspired restaurants, motels, cafes, etc. to start with, and very few of them remain. I have to imagine our Safari Room was one of the best remaining examples.
Cup of salt here...I'm not an architect or a preservationist, just an English teacher who loves crazy architecture in general and is completely, irreversibly, and forever in love with that block of Edison Avenue between 6th and 7th that glittered like Las Vegas every night for all of the time I lived in Sunnyside. I don't know what neon salesman rolled through town in the 1950s and sold the business people on the idea of great big neon signs, but I'm glad he did.
When I was about six years old, I had my first fancy dinner -- a dinner like grownups have -- with my mom and my dad and my sister Sindy and that dinner was at the Safari Room. We sat at a table with a beautiful white cloth set up on the dance floor in the basement. I have no idea what we ate, but I remember feeling quite glamorous and sophisticated. Our drinks -- Shirley Temples or Rob Roys -- came with little plastic monkeys or mermaids and paper umbrellas. Kids had to clear out early (maybe as early as 8 p.m.) so they could turn the room for grownup dining and dancing to live music. That still left us with plenty of time to bask in the blue light of the aquariums or -- for a while -- to marvel at the "honeybears" (kinkajous?) that lived in a glass enclosure along one wall.
We didn't go out to dinner often (a really good night was Arctic Circle), but for most of my childhood celebrating meant dinner on the dance floor at the Safari. We usually parked in the back parking lot and entered through the rear door, partly for the sheer joy of encountering that huge tiki mask (an African tribal mask, really, I guess) with its eyes and tongue that darted back and forth. Partly, too, though for the delight of navigating that maze of a building and all of its mysterious compartments that gave us such a tantalizing glimpse of what grownups did with their free time: the barbershop, billiard room, a card room (I think), coffee shop, lounge. And of course every blessed bit of it was covered in pink or orange or leopard-print vinyl, hung with animal skins and tribal masks and spears.
Everything changes, of course, and the Safari is no different.
The Safari Room of recent years was not the Safari Room of my youth. Still, whenever I was home, I'd poke my head in for a cup of coffee or drive by at night just to see if it, that magnificent marquee, was still lighting up. Usually, some of the lights were out, but enough were always on so that you got the effect. Even with some of the lights gone, this little block on Edison between 6th and 7th was in many ways the last cool, authentic vintage-y artifact of the little town where I grew up, and the Safari front was kind of the crown jewel in that glorious sea of light.
I am going to miss it more than I can say.
- Julie Staggers, PhD,is an assistant professor of technical and professional writing at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, and is a 1979 graduate of Sunnyside High School