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Ocean City Oddities: The Story of Laffing Sal

Laffing Sal in her exhibit – 2000s.

For decades, Laffing Sal was the star feature at Jester’s Fun House, one of Ocean City’s most memorable 20th century amusement attractions located on Wicomico Street off the boardwalk. Often misspelled as “Laughing Sal,” the large robotic rag doll, the first animatronic of its kind, would shake her head, wave her arms, jerk her torso, and continuously laugh while patrons would stop in wonder and often begin laughing along with her. Sal’s early conceptual design and production made her an influencer and forerunner in the amusement industry and set the pace for a rapid production of animated figures featured around the world in carnivals and amusement parks, including the Disney enterprises.  At the height of her popularity, Sal was featured at venues all over the country, but today can be enjoyed at only a handful of remaining attractions.

Early Sal

Mr. Jester purchased Laffing Sal in the early 1940s for about $360 from the Philidelphia Toboggan Company  based in Germantown, Pennsylvania for his attraction. When she arrived, she was placed in front of the attraction to greet guests, and in later years, was exhibited behind a chicken wire cage to prevent passersby from reaching for her, often resulting in vandalism. Buttons to make her work were wired to a nearby concession stand where the Jesters were able to control her every move at a moment’s notice.

A view of Jester’s Fun House at Worcester Street and the boardwalk where Sportland Arcade is located today, circa 1940.

Famous for her looks, and her intoxicating laugh

Standing over six feet tall, Sal had a simple internal make-up of papier-mâché and pressed card stock mounted on a steel frame comprised of numerous coils. Beneath her famous dress, interior construction was rudimentary consisting of pins, staples, nails, and nuts & bolts as all of her extremities were detachable for simpler shipping and storage. Visible to the public, the laughing lady donned a bright pink dress, handbag, large Mary Jane shoes, and a big floppy hat. It’s rumored that Sals were not originally produced with hats by the PTC and were to be supplied by the buyer, although original ads depicted the display complete with a hat.

Lovely Lady: A closeup of Laffing Sal circa 1950s.

Sal’s famous laugh track was originally transmitted by a 78 RPM record player concealed beneath her pedestal which measured 12” in diameter. It wasn’t until the record stopped that the lucky attraction operator that day would have to restart the record, a cycle that would typically last only a few minutes.  The invention of tapes would eventually automate that task. Interestingly and according to legend, the voice talent that performed the famous Sal laugh was not that of a lady, but supposedly an intoxicated gentleman.

Bruno and Sal

Bruno as he appears in the Live-saving Station Museum.

Jester’s Fun House was originally built in the late 1920s by Mr. Thomas Conway of Atlantic City, NJ. Conway, who also owned several other small businesses, managed it for only four years before selling it to Lloyd Jester due to poor health. The attraction had a large façade with the words “Fun House” clearly displayed on both the façade and on the roofline. Along with images depicting clowns and ballyhoo, the interior featured effects such as air bags, floor obstacles, a tilt room, dancing skeletons, a stunt entitled “Bruno” which was a bulldog that suddenly sprang out at unsuspected patrons, a large gorilla, and even an octopus. Mr. Jester retired in 1970 from the fun house business and turned it over to his son, Lloyd Jester, Jr. The fun house was demolished after only two years of being operated by his son to make room for the nearby expanding arcade, known as Sportland. After the fun house’s closing, Sal was transported to a storage facility in Berlin where she was later vandalized resulting in her face being disfigured and her garment left knackered.

Laffing Sal and Bruno the Bulldog were two of the only stunts retained from the attraction. Sal was donated to the Ocean City Life-Saving Station Museum in the summer of 1980 by Mrs. Jester and was restored soon after. Now, she can be seen and heard on the second floor of the museum in the boardwalk exhibit. With only the push of a button, Sal will laugh as she did for generations on Ocean City’s boardwalk. Unfortunately, her movements have long been defunct.

It’s interesting to note that a lot of paranormal activity has been associated with the old Ocean City Sal. Works have reported hearing her laugh after closing without explanation. Sal was originally featured at venues all over the country and can still be enjoyed at over 30 venues today.

Laffing Sal Ad – October 10, 1942 issue of the Billboard

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