THE SANTA CLARITA Valley I grew up in was an idyllic enclave, just far enough away from L.A., with safe neighborhoods, oak-studded hills and a Magic Mountain where friendly trolls roamed.
The hokey, upstart amusement park in Valencia was born in 1971, two years after I was, and its centerpiece 384-foot tower always beckoned in the backdrop of my childhood. Reaching working age in the '80s, I toiled at the Mountain during weekends and summers in high school and college, as did both of my brothers and most of my friends. This was the one enterprise that put our community on the map, and we were proud to serve.
Donning uniforms only the Village People could love, we hawked the corndogs, mopped the vomit and kept the coasters rolling. The experience helped us to mature, at least a tad.
The park, though, never grew up. After getting sucked into the Six Flags chain, Magic Mountain became stuck in adolescent swagger, fixated on speed and thrills, and gained a reputation as a sort of anti-Disneyland for young, sometimes rowdy thrill-seekers. The trolls? They didn't make it.
In June, Six Flags Chief Executive Mark Shapiro acknowledged Magic Mountain's problems and said the debt-laden company might just sell the place off, possibly to become yet another expensive real estate development. The park's fate remained in limbo for months -- with attendance plunging like a flume ride -- until Jan. 11, when Six Flags announced the sale of seven of its 30 parks but declared its intention to hold on to Magic Mountain after all.
That's good news not just for coaster crazies but for the social order of the increasingly affluent Santa Clarita Valley, a place where Kmart has been supplanted by Pottery Barn. Without the thousands of summer jobs that Magic Mountain provides, Santa Clarita's sheltered, privileged youth would surely slide into sloth and decadence -- "The O.C." without the ocean.
Nothing quite tests a teenager's mettle like working at a crowded amusement park on a summer weekend, when temperatures and guests' expectations of fun are far too high. Wearing my platypus-like visor and equally embarrassing rainbow-striped shirt, I started off working a food service window, dispensing pricey burgers to wave after wave of ravenous guests, somehow managing to hold my ground. It felt a lot like the classic '80s flick "Red Dawn," in which high schoolers help fend off a Soviet invasion of the American mainland.
Not everyone could take it. Co-workers came and went faster than the Max Headroom craze. But I found that the strangely therapeutic routine of greasy labor jolted me out of my Depeche Mode-induced malaise, and I quickly rose to manager of a little eatery.
One of my key responsibilities was to prevent the dreaded "torpedo effect." That's what might happen, we were told, if one of the upright carbon dioxide canisters that keep the sodas fizzy toppled, snapping off the nozzle and wreaking destruction. I can still recall the sting of getting written up by my supervisor after leaving a canister momentarily unchained as I answered the phone. But I learned my lesson, and no crew members were lost to those carbonated tubes of doom on my watch.
My Magic Mountain career reached its pinnacle after I moved on to work as a waiter at the Timbermill, one of those high-class, logging-themed buffet restaurants you always read about, located next to the Log Jammer ride. Nothing builds character more than having to stand atop a chair while wearing a lumberjack-style shirt with simulated buckskin across the chest and shout out "We have a birthday!" -- then having pretty much everyone ignore you and go on with their meal.
The real payoff of these low-wage jobs was social. Drawing teens from all across Santa Clarita and beyond, the Mountain brought liberation from the social castes of your particular school. Geeks and jocks and those people who liked to wear black clothes worked side by side. I even dated a girl from ... Canyon Country. My group worked the closing shift, then hung out afterward, meaning I'd get home at 2 a.m., coated in fryer grease and sweat-salt but too tired to shower, and slide right into blissful slumber.
All of us adults should sleep better at the news that Magic Mountain won't suffer the same fate as SoCal's long-gone Marineland and Busch Gardens -- at least not yet. So go ride the Colossus and scarf a churro, just to keep those young workers on their toes. Before Santa Clarita's coddled youth coast on to college and cushy corporate roles, they first should put in at least one summer facing the masses on that Mountain.