The Rise and Fall of The Salty Dog

When I was a kid, me and my brothers would spend one week every summer at my cousin’s house in Staten Island. While Shaolin might not be what you think of when you think “vacation destination,” it was more centrally located to other summer attractions we’d go visit together. Occasionally, this included a trip to a museum in The City or a Mets game, but usually it meant cramming as many visits to theme parks in New Jersey and Pennsylvania into a week as humanly possible.

Six Flags: Great Adventure was, of course, high on our list of prime destinations, as it was for many a tri-state-area tyouth. We would try to get there super early to outrun some of the big crowds, and stay late to outlast them. If you stuck around long enough, you could ride The Great American Scream Machine or the Ultra Twister many times consecutively with virtually no line. At one point in my feckless youth, Great Adventure stayed open until midnight on certain days, and we squeezed our money’s worth out of our tickets by staying as late as we could. I think I rode the Bobsled Roller Coaster six times in a row, and only suffered a mild concussion.

When you stay this late, though, you need to take a break at some point. Or your parents do, anyway. This usually involved plopping down in one of Great Adventure’s many “stage” areas and enduring some god awful show involving a showtunes medley or unicycling or something else profoundly uninteresting to a kid of distinction.

In retrospect, I pity and admire most of the brave souls who performed to unappreciative audiences under a hot New Jersey sun just because it gave them a sliver of some kind of spotlight. But at the time, me, my brothers, and cousin would yell horrible things at these poor slobs, in between shushings and back-of-the-hands from our mothers. We didn’t yell out anything obscene; it was all just typical kid meanness, the kind we would organically happen whenever we got together. (See/hear the “mice on ice” tale captured at the end of this post for an example of our collective horribleness.). I feel retroactively guilty for being such a jerk to the vast majority of these people. However, one summer day we encountered a performer who was fully deserving of our scorn.

This happened when we were all still pretty young (I was the oldest of the bunch, and I couldn’t have been older than nine or ten). The whole group of us settled post-lunch in a shaded bank of seats to view a spectacle called The Salty Dog. It was a puppet show starring the titular character, a dog in a captain’s outfit. One would presume that this was intended for children, but one would be wrong.

The Salty Dog had spent a lot of time at sea, evidently, and the sailor’s life had made him grizzled and jaded, with a seaman’s vocabulary. His voice was gruff and tar lined, like a doughier Tom Waits, and his show consisted of him busting on people for as long as they could stand it. He was an embryonic version of Triumph the Insult Comic Dog, only not remotely funny. According to the link from Great Adventure cited above, “Occasionally the jokes made at the expense of the audience resulted in somewhat disgruntled guests who would lay in wait outside the door to the theater looking to confront the performer. In cases like this, a security escort was sometimes required to insure the peace.” Who was this show meant to entertain? I haven’t the slightest idea.

When we saw The Salty Dog, the jokes were made entirely at the expense of young ladies, who he invited to come up toward the “stage” (really just a platform for the puppet to rest on), only to mock them, usually in a lewd fashion. I remember him saying to one girl in a tight outfit, “Nice dress, how long did it take you to paint it on?” I had to ask my mom exactly what this meant, and she reluctantly explained.

Even to a little kid, this seemed gross and wrong. It was leering and insulting, and directed exclusively at girls who were brave/dumb enough to join him on stage. I felt profoundly uncomfortable, and could feel discomfort from everyone else around me. I could almost hear the entire audience think, Should we say something? And yet, no one spoke up for a painfully long period of time.

After a few interminable minutes of heaping abuse on one group of unfortunate females, The Salty Dog pointed to the crowd and asked another girl to come on stage. Knowing what awaited her, she refused. He asked again. She refused again. Rebuffed, he all but commanded her to get up there with him, yelling at her with this bleating, grating C’MONNNNNNNNNNN! I felt the entire audience cringe en masse, and yet still no one dared to say a word.

No one, that is, until my cousin, all of eight years old (if that), stood up and yelled SHE DON’T GOTTA! The crowd erupted into spontaneous applause, as if his outburst made them all at once realize Hey, that kid’s right, she doesn’t haven to be abused by a puppet! None of us do! A few of them even stood up to cheer his rebuttal. Whatever weird spell The Salty Dog had over this crowd was now broken.

Needless to say, The Salty Dog was furious. WHO SAID THAT?! he screamed. WHO SAID THAT?! My cousin immediately engaged in the typical kid response to adult confrontation, which is to say he ran the hell away. Me and my brothers ran after him, because the Flight Response is contagious among kids, and because we felt like somehow we’d be blamed as willing accomplices to the rebellion.

As we took off, The Salty Dog barked GET BACK HERE!, and we ran even faster. We kept running and running and running until we reached the far side of the Yum Yum Palace. (A huge, almost psychedelic ice cream parlor with towering minarets of fake custard. If you’ve been to Great Adventure, you probably know what I’m talking about. If not, it looks like this.) Why did we flee in terror? Because we thought a puppet was going to beat us up? Yes, we did.

This was the talk not just of the rest of our day, but the rest of our vacation. The rest of our year, even. We reveled in how we’d taken down this evil enemy with a simple but stern declaration. (Somehow my cousin’s singular outburst transformed into something “we” did.) Like we had used our power to be huge jerks for good, and spared this poor girl the humiliation of being made fun of by a puppet dog. We elevated our accomplishment to the point of thinking ourselves super heroes, defenders of the defenseless.

We also vowed that when we made our next trip to Great Adventure, we would give The Salty Dog the business real good. No fleeing in terror this time. We would not let up until The Salty Dog was crying salty tears.

We did not return to Great Adventure for another year, but this was very much on our mind during our next vacation. We almost didn’t care about trying out any new rides, so long as we could give The Salty Dog a piece of our minds. We actually worked out things we’d scream at this jerk once given the chance, riffing on this topic all the way down the Garden State Parkway. He was gonna wish he was never stitched together!

So imagine our deep disappointment when we got to The Salty Dog’s little pavilion and found out that he’d been rebranded. He was no longer a PG-13 rated attraction, but more of a dopey sea captain in the vein of Goofy, with a voice to match (hyuk, hyuk!). I’m not exaggerating when I say it was one of the most deflating moments of my childhood. We quietly discussed yelling stuff at him anyway, but it seemed inappropriate and pointless, like screaming at a marshmallow.

No matter. We would always have that one moment when we stood up to puppet tyranny, then valiantly ran away like terrified maniacs.