Greek's Playland, Stone Museum, and Clown
Jamesburg, New Jersey
What is the sound of a 40 foot-tall armless clown clapping? Just ask "The Greek."
Spiro "The Greek" Drake has crafted an odd triptych of marvels in central New Jersey: the Stone Museum, Display World, and Greek's Playland. Simple signs beckon backroads wanderers to the free Stone Museum -- a building housing a mineral collection adjacent to a landscape materials yard, where contractors buy cobbles, slabs and bricks by the bushel. The owner of both business and museum is The Greek -- philosopher, Zen landscaper, Sculptor of Celebrity Pools -- himself perhaps the greatest attraction, and we are lucky to catch him for a portion of his busy day.
The Greek seals us in the pitch black Fluorescent Rock Room, "built in two hours to look like outer space." He throws a switch. Native Jersey rocks emit pale radiation, and The Greek tells of his origins -- a Depression-era baby abandoned in a coal bin, an orphanage, a vow to spend half of any riches he attained to help the poor. He's fulfilled that vow, giving much of his money away to charity and spending the rest to build Playland and Display World.
The entrance to Display World is guarded by "Monroe the Trackhoe-saurus," a roaring dinosaur fashioned from gunnite and the body of a heavy construction hoe. It slobbers and drools at the touch of a hidden button.
Display World is a pleasant labyrinth of sheltered walkways, waterfalls, lakes, and Japanese-style bridges. Hanging acetylene tank halves chime like ancient Tibetan bells. The "Great Wall of the Greek" is a mile-long stretch of many small walls constructed from different building materials, meticulously labeled with the names of every marble tile, cinder block, and paved stone (and the price-per-square foot).
The Greek leads the way. "See these samples? It's the largest display like this in the world." Proof of his artistic prowess is evidenced in hundreds of captioned photos on display: "Pool of Well-known psychologist," "The Greek likes to build large Jacuzzis," "A Sculptor can create almost any design in brick." In the Display World amphitheater, the Greek shows "Before" and "After" multimedia slide shows of miraculous landscaping transformations. As NJ's Stoneworker to the Stars, The Greek works with many celebrities. "Bon Jovi -- he's very low-key -- you wouldn't think he's a star."
The Greek loves to share his insights with any visitor who cares to listen. "If you like what you're doing, and you're willing to learn, you can become good at anything, but as soon as you think you're good -- you're dead."
Greek's Playland is the back 65 acres of the complex, a barrier-free playground for mentally handicapped adults and children. The miniature golf course has been designed for ease of use, so "the ball practically goes in itself." Playland has hosted over 100,000 visitors, but has been closed in the past by the town due to zoning violations.
"Cyclown," the armless, World's Tallest Clown, stands in defiance. Made entirely of recycled junk, including a 10,000 gallon oil tank torso and telephone pole legs, Cyclown dominates the amusement park. The clown's missing arms were made from irrigation pipe, but an ice storm caused them to snap off. His hat is a huge exhaust hood, a beacon atop to warn off air traffic.
Despite his aerial prominence, the Cyclown was well-clear of the lightning bolt that ignited the Stone Museum in 1997, setting a blaze that destroyed the museum, gift shop, and Greek's business offices. Even the Fluorescent Rock Room went up in multi-hued smoke.
The following year, Drake had everything restored -- now under the protection of a $5,000 lightning rod system. Three years since our last visit, and the Greek catches us standing in the dark of the new Fluorescent Rock Room, on a brief unannounced stop. Well maybe not so brief after all .... he recognizes us, or at least thinks we're from a newspaper. "That fire was the best thing that could've happened to me. We've got it all fixed up, all kinds of new stuff." He escorts us to his Cadillac for a scenic tour...
Display World looks pretty much the same, though there are scattered fake palm trees, thatched huts and pseudo-Polynesian items, leftovers from a theme wedding. "That guy saved a bundle not going to Hawaii." The Greek has constructed a serious rental space for special events: the Rainbow Room, a white, puffy permanent tent-like structure with dance floor and attached bridal party room.
Back in the Greek's Playland section, the Caddy climbs a small hill, as Drake squints forward. "Wouldn't this be a great spot for a driving range? Oh, look..." Yup, break out the clubs. Salvaged satellite dishes mark the distance for golfers; Cyclown is in the opposite direction and not an easy mark.
There are more new, seemingly haphazard thematic areas. A sailboat stranded on a concrete wave is part of a series of pools -- dry today -- and adjacent to a 750-lb granite sphere that rotates on a spout of water. A bunch of old bicycles are impaled on a crooked pole that arcs toward the road. The Greek reaches into his glove compartment and yanks out a photo of an artist's conception of "Military Display World," which will exhibit an M-60 tank, helicopter, jeeps and troop trucks, all on loan from the US Army. Then there's the planned animal preserve, with drive-up bus service, and a neighbor's old farmhouse the Greek has purchased just so he can paint it to look like a giant doll dwelling.
"If you don't keep doing something new, you're dead."