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Off to that Windmill in the Sky by Stan Silliman


Silliman on Sports
By Stan Silliman
Off to that Windmill in the Sky

           Robert Taylor, who with his brother Joseph revolutionized miniature golf with elaborate obstacles and custom layouts died February 14th. His funeral Friday in Johnson City, New York was attended by lovers of the game and everyone who likes slapping it in a clown’s mouth. Attendees signed the guestbook using those little eraserless pencils. It was an open casket funeral but you had to step over the giraffe’s neck to get to the casket. 

    Robert and Joseph built their first course in Williamsport, Pa. in the 1940s and shocked the miniature golf world by adding light houses, wishing wells, pinball machines and windmills to their courses. Prior to that time hazards consisted of old wagon wheels, rusty stove pipes, barrels, rain gutters and the like. The Taylor’s course design became so popular the US Army ordered courses sent to Asia and Africa. We can only imagine Rommell peering over a sand dune and then saying “Which way did we turn? Is that a windmill I see?” Only he would have said it in German.

    For those not familiar with miniature golf, it’s a game very much like real golf, except when you get mad you only have one club to throw. To play miniature golf you don’t have to be a well conditioned athlete as opposed to real golf where you must… no strike that. The game was invented in the early 1900s and originally played on real grass. In the 1920s and 30s, “bumpers” and “rails” started appearing and the playing surface was changed to hard pressed cottonseed hulls.  During the 30s there were 50,000 courses around the country. It became known as “Rinkiedink” golf and if you’ve ever wondered where the word “rinkiedink” came from, now you know. The first trade name course was named Tom Thumb Golf. Every course was the same and they all seemed like a beautiful long course, if you were 5 1 /2” tall. There was even a line of Tom Thumb mini-golf fashions – jackets and berets – for those out there “Lilli-putting.” With the stock market crash and country clubs closing up everywhere, mini-courses, especially lighted night courses replaced the stodgy large courses faster than you could say “Brother, things look Grimm.” Eventually the packed cotton-seed hull courses with the heavy mixture of oil became disaster for shoes and gave way to goat hair and vulcanized rubber.    

    Mr. Taylor saw this and said “If you’re going to come home smelling like goat hair you might as well say you shot the ball through a giraffe’s butt, chipped it through a light house, visited a windmill and fell down a wishing well. She’s not going to believe you anyway.” That was the genesis for his tricky hazards, that and loving to see people laugh and smile. Nothing gets your tickle going like watching a clown’s eyes light up when you successfully drive the ball through his throat. I know I always enjoy that, both on and off the course.

    Fred Astaire was said to be quite the mini-golfer and played many of the roof top pocket courses in New York City. At one time there were 150 roof toppers. There is a famous picture of him playing at the Hotel White. There is also a famous cartoon showing “Runt Golf” sitting at the same corporate table as GM and GE as the mini-golf business was the only thing thriving during the depression. The caption was “The boy who made good.”

    And we must say the same of Robert Taylor. And even though there was quite a reception line at his funeral, everybody eventually did turn in their putters and scorecards. This is the way Taylor wanted it. You eventually got to go to the procession area but the cars had to pass under a dinosaur, wait for a drawbridge, circle back through an overpass, and then start over again if you went through the wrong tunnel. Somewhere up there Robert Taylor chuckles.

Off to that Windmill in the Sky by Stan Silliman
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