| | By Mike Rosen-Molina
| Photos by Margaretta K. Mitchell.
On an average day at work, C.J. Hirschfield might be filling out insurance forms, fundraising, making phone calls—or even wishing happy birthday to an alpaca. Then again, her workplace isn’t an average office building; it’s a park where a candy-colored train chugs through a giant mushroom forest, where rabbits and guinea pigs cluster in their own garden, and where a happy yellow dragon with a lolling green tongue greets visitors.
Hirschfield is executive director of Children’s Fairyland, the tiny Oakland theme park on the shores of Lake Merritt that has delighted kids for 63 years. Lively and outgoing, she combines a youthful joy for innovation with a practical entrepreneurial streak and a mind geared not just for fun but for the serious business of making fun happen. For more than 10 years, Hirschfield has been the dynamo who has helped shepherd the park’s renaissance, from threats of closure to the thriving community jewel it is today.
“In all my time here, I think there have only been a couple of times when people have come to Fairyland, seen kids running around and chasing bubbles, and just didn’t get it,” says Hirschfield, 58. “But most people do. They see it as an urban oasis.”
In fact, she lives close by in the Lake Merritt area with her husband (she also has a daughter, 22, and two stepsons, 22 and 19) and walks to work daily.
Originally from Los Angeles, Hirschfield moved to northern California to study film and broadcasting at Stanford University. It was, Hirschfield recalls, a crazy time: The cable industry was just being born as she graduated from college in 1976, so she, like many women, was able to get in on the ground floor of the new industry. Her first job out of school was managing the city of San Francisco’s public access station. FCC regulations demanded that fledgling cable companies open certain channels up for locally produced, public affairs programming.
Hirschfield had her hands full dealing with a public eager to share its own stories: from a reverend who ministered to animals (Hirschfield’s first engineer refused to work with the reverend after she brought a boa constructor on the set) to the Ohm Lovers who worshipped eroticism and danced while lifting their dresses over their heads. One day, a group from the Mission District demanded control of the station, claiming that the channel should be owned by the people rather than the cable company.
“These were people that I knew,” says Hirschfield. “They were in a dramatic mood that day, but they were friends and neighbors, so I was able to talk them down. That’s one thing that working in public access had in common with Fairyland: They’re both very lively.”
She also produced a performing arts showcase and the city’s only weekly public affairs series, where the San Francisco Chronicle city editor interviewed prominent Californians like Willie Brown and Dianne Feinstein. After years managing the channel, she left to become vice president of industry affairs for the California Cable and Telecommunications Association.
In September 2001, Hirschfield was in New York, producing a fundraiser for a nonprofit organization that helped place minorities in high-profile cable positions, when the two airplanes crashed into the World Trade Center buildings. Two decades into a rising cable TV career, Hirschfield found she wanted something more meaningful.
“It made me realize I wanted to do something more tied to my heart,” Hirschfield says.
When she returned to Oakland, she saw a Craigslist ad seeking an executive director for Fairyland. Hirschfield had first visited the park in 1994, taking her daughter, then 3. Her daughter loved the park—especially the animal corrals—but Hirschfield could tell that Fairyland was not seeing the love it needed.
Built in 1950, Fairyland was one of the first family theme parks in the nation. Its opening made national headlines, even luring Walt Disney to visit as he sought inspiration for his own fantasy parks. (Disney eventually recruited Fairyland’s first executive director to become youth director at his first park, Disneyland.) Many of Fairyland’s earliest attractions—like the Jolly Trolly—still run today. Over the years the park has helped inspire a number of people who’ve gone on to make a splash: A teenage Frank Oz—who went on to create the Muppets’ Fozzie Bear and Miss Piggy, then to direct films—spent summers as an apprentice puppeteer at Fairyland’s Storybook Puppet Theater. It’s the longest continuously running puppet theater in the country.
Despite its shining past, the park, then run by the city, hit tough times by the mid-’90s. Years of budget cuts after the 1978 passage of Proposition 13 were taking a toll.
“I brought my daughter at the same time that Fairyland was going through big changes,” says Hirschfield, recalling that first visit. “Through her eyes it was perfect. You could tell it was a fantastic place but was falling apart. At that point, the city didn’t have the money it needed to keep it up. The community had to make a decision whether to close it down, and no one wanted that to happen. They eventually came up with the idea to create a nonprofit to run the park.”
In 1994, the Lake Merritt Breakfast Club, the same citizens’ group that helped found the park in 1950, convinced the city to let Fairyland become a nonprofit. That same year, the city of Oakland and Oakland Children’s Fairyland, Inc. entered into a public/partnership agreement, where the city owns the land and the nonprofit manages the park’s operations.
Hirschfield became the second executive director in 2001. The job seemed a perfect fit for her: It was half operations management, which she knew intimately from her years wrangling a chaotic public access station, and half fundraising—and Hirschfield already knew many of Oakland’s power players from her cable association days.
But running a children’s theme park isn’t kids’ play. Hirschfield manages a staff of 20 full-time employees—and up to 30 extra workers and interns in the summer.
“We don’t spend all our time flitting about on fairy wings,” she says. “We work on a tight budget, so everyone who works here has to wear multiple hats: One person might be running the summer camp and being our education specialist. One person might be doing all our graphics and our photography. We stretch every dollar. When you don’t have money, things take time. It was 10 years before the park could afford to hire a full-time handyman.”
“Even so, our staff meetings can be pretty amusing,” she continues. “We’ve still got the same level of creativity and professionalism as any other company, but we’ll have agenda items like ‘Today is our alpaca’s birthday.’ You have to have a sense of humor and not be thrown off by surprises. If you love kids, it helps.”
Hirschfield hit the ground running. In her first week as executive director, she petitioned the Oakland City Council to give Fairyland funding from the city’s $198 million Measure DD parks and water bond measure. The park received $3 million. That was the start, but she hasn’t rested on her laurels. Nonprofit Fairyland is largely self-sustainable with 80 percent of its income earned from ticket sales, but it still relies heavily on grants and donations. Every day hundreds of visitors tromp through the park’s 10-acre spread. That leads to a lot of wear and tear, so Hirschfield has her hands full keeping Fairyland in shipshape condition.
Under her watch, Fairyland restored the children’s theater in 2006 to house the park’s Storybook Puppet shows. Fairyland added a third birthday area, built an Old West junction, refurbished its pirate ship, and in 2009 reopened the Thumbelina Tunnel (shuttered for more than 30 years) as the Fairy Music Farm.
“We could come out to the world,” says Hirschfield. “It created a momentum and people started to notice. Fairyland has a longstanding policy: No child can be admitted without an adult; no adult is admitted without a child. Lots of people think that’s just a safety measure. And safety does have something to do with it, but also the park founders wanted this to be a place for families, a place where they could experience togetherness.”
Although Fairyland is a place for families to enjoy a relaxing day out, Hirschfield is adamant that the park should do more. To her, Fairyland should be a partner in improving the lives of children and families in Oakland. It is doing so in small ways. When Hirschfield heard that the Colgate toothpaste company has a bus that provides free dental checkups to disadvantaged kids, she contacted local Head Start programs and invited those kids to come to the screenings.
“We rolled that bus into the Fairyland parking lot and they were able to help 300 people,” says Hirschfield.
Fairyland has also helped find jobs for teens transitioning out of foster care with the help of the Alameda County–based group, Beyond Emancipation.
Hirschfield brought her expertise in nurturing partnerships to bear on Fairyland’s behalf. She’s working with groups like the Oakland Pollinator Posse, that collects monarch caterpillars at Fairyland to create a monarch butterfly way station at Lake Merritt, and with the Oaklandish fashion line to sell Fairyland-themed T-shirts. Oaklandish also sponsors Fairyland’s annual Grownups Night.
“Most of the guests are 20- to 30-somethings who grew up at Fairyland, but who can’t get in now because they
don’t have a little one,” says Hirschfield.
In fact, Hirschfield met her current husband through her outreach work when he was the president of the Rotary Club of Oakland.
Hirschfield also created the park’s outreach program to low-income children, offering 25,000 half-off admissions for school trips and free admissions to needy families. On Head Start Day, the park admits Head Start kids and their families for free.
The animal outreach program helps children with emotional or learning problems learn empathy and confidence by pairing them up with a Fairyland animal friend like Mini the rabbit or Dori the Shetland pony. Fairyland is working with over 20 children in a six-week program that includes time with the animals, animal keeper, and new education specialist.
“For children who have experienced trauma or have social or emotional challenges, time relating to animals (who don’t judge), and time serving as ‘animal experts’ at the park is hugely powerful,” says Hirschfield.
The park also boasts a brightly lit reading room, where kids can borrow books or apply for a library card. There’s another important, if subtle, magic to Fairyland’s attractions: Everything—from the crooked old man’s crooked old playhouse to Anansi’s spider web Ferris wheel—is based on children’s literature or fairy tales, which Hirschfield hopes can foster an interest in reading.
“The literacy rate in Oakland is not where it should be,” says Hirschfield. “We know we can hook kids on storytelling and, from there, it’s just a little leap to reading.”
Many amusement parks provide a fun diversion for a day, but Fairyland is something more. Oaklanders have come to the park for generations; it’s become a community staple and a point of civic pride. When it came down to the wire in 1994, locals did not want Fairyland to close. “That just wasn’t acceptable,” Hirschfield says. “People came together to make sure Fairyland stayed.”
“The sense of community made me want to stay in Oakland,” Hirschfield says. “And Fairyland is such a big part of that community. You see how kids react, how shy kids come out of their shells. That’s one of the most gratifying things.”
There’s No Place Like Fairyland—Children’s Fairyland 18th Annual Gala Dinner—enlivens the park after dark, Thursday, June 6, 6:30-9:30 p.m., 699 Bellevue Ave., Oakland. For info and tickets ($75-$125): (510) 452-2259 or fairyland.org.
Mike Rosen-Molina is an East Bay writer and a longtime contributor to The Monthly. His favorite fairy tale growing up was “Frau Trude.”
Photographer Margaretta K. Mitchell’s work is currently exhibited in a retrospective at the Photo Gallery, 473 25th St., Oakland, through June 1, with a reception and artist talk on the final day, Saturday, June 1. For info: photogalleryoakland.com or margarettamitchell.com.