Peter Genovese | The Star-Ledger By Peter Genovese | The Star-Ledger The Star-Ledger
“I’m a non-performing gigolo,” the Greek says by way of introduction,
and where, exactly, do you go from there?
You go to every crazy nook and corner of Greek’s Playland in Monroe, that’s where, your Jeep slip-sliding through the snow in the wake of a plow run by Nick Wang.
The Playland, on 87 acres off Spotswood-Englishtown Road, is part playground, part amusement park, part ongoing art installation, a Mad Hatterish collection of buildings, sculptures and stuff.
There’s a 30-foot-high clown made of recycled materials – telephone poles for legs, an oil tank for a torso, Astroturf for pants and an air conditioner for a hat.
Monroe the Dino, a 20-foot-high dinosaur who growls ferociously, also a recycled-material wonder.
A tower of bikes, a literally twisted piece of pop art made of 90
bikes strung together.
A gold-colored Buick on pilings, each part painted in different colors for easy identification.
A swing set topped by a fearsome-toothed dinosaur, or serpent, or something; one of the swing chairs looks like Cujo on a really bad day.
The world’s largest tire park – so says the Greek, almost daring you to find one bigger.
Outside his stone museum, filled with rocks and minerals from around the world, stands
a Cobra helicopter and M60 Army tank. Where did he get the tank?
“The Army; I called them up,” says the Greek, as if this is something anyone can do. “It took five years. They give it to you for free, but you have to pay for transportation.”
You want an Army tank, or a growling 20-foot dinosaur, or a park made of truck tires, you go to the Greek.
Greek’s Playland making a comeback
Spiro “The Greek” Drake is the mastermind of the quirky Greek’s Playland in Monroe Township. It’s an 87 acre property that includes a stone museum, sculptures, play areas, banquet spaces and party pavilions. The Drake was raised by a woman named Elizabeth Van Fleet during the Great Depression. He made a promise to her that he would devote half the money he made in life to charity especially people with physical and mental challenges. In 2010, The Greek ran into some problems with the Township about a building he put up without a permit. In January 2014, the Board of Adjustment approved the site plan allowing Greek’s Playland and the Stone Museum to continue to operate. (Video by Andre Malok/The Star-Ledger)
His real name is Spiro Drake, although no one around here calls him that. It’s just “Greek,” as in “Greek, do you want me to run the plow?”
After being born at Elizabeth General Hospital, he was abandoned by his mother in a coal bin. He was discovered and brought up by the woman he calls “mom” – Elizabeth Van Fleet, who ran a foster home in Middlesex Borough. He made Fleet a promise that he would donate half the money he made in his life to charity.
In 1970, the Greek – he’s been called that since he was a kid – would buy a farm in Monroe and open a landscaping business called Display World, catering to generally well-to-do clients. He built pools and cabanas, Japanese gardens and waterfalls, patios and tennis courts – and planted a lot of trees and shrubs.
He once did work for Jon Bon Jovi, although the Greek had no idea who he was.
“What do you do?” he asked the rock ‘n’ roller.
“I sing,” the performer replied.
“Are you any good?” the Greek asked.
The Playland opened in the early 1970s, its kooky, colorful bits and pieces added over the years. From the start, it was a place where disabled children and adults could come down for the day and have fun. More than 100,000 children and adults have visited the Playland to date, according to Greek.
The stone museum and the main building of the Greek’s landscaping business were destroyed in a 1997 fire. The day after the fire he drove back to the 30-foot high clown and wondered, ”Do I sell all this now for new homes or do I give it one more shot?”
He gave it one more shot.
He’s out of the landscape business now, although he does occasional consulting work. It’s all about the Playland these days, as the Greek, now 80, works to ensure its future.
The last two years have not been kind to him. He had a stroke, discovered he had diabetes, and had hip surgery, which requires him to use a cane for the time being.
And the Playland was essentially closed when the town denied a zoning variance after he built a large barn on the property without a permit. He said then he would sell the property if he didn’t get the variance. He got the variance, then a neighbor went to court and had it overturned. The issue ended up in Superior Court, and the variance upheld.
Then there was a tussle over the haunted house on the property, a 100-plus-year-old structure with headstones out front that Greek wanted to move closer to the Playland so visiting children could see it.
Finally, last month, the township approved a site plan allowing the Playland to keep operating.
“I’m back,” Greek says simply.
The Playland is set to re-open in April. The school buses – there’s room for 50 in the parking lot – will start rolling in.
The Garden Falls portion of the 87-acre property includes idyllic Japanese gardens that make for good photo ops for events held here. Another portion, Mahal Gardens, is a popular spot for Indian weddings.
“There are three businesses that go on forever,” the Greek says philosophically. “Liquor stores, funerals and weddings.”
All told, there are three banquet halls, ten waterfalls, three Japanese bridges, two colonial bridges, and one Tiki Room, a party space with two giant grinning tiki heads. The banquet halls have rubber-topped dance floors, which the Greek insists are the only ones in the world.
“People can dance and not be hurting the next day,” he explains. “And you can drop a glass and it won’t break.”
The stone museum, he says, is “probably the only museum in the world that’s free and where people can touch rare minerals.”
The barrier-free 9 and 18-hole miniature golf courses are “the only place in the world where someone in a wheelchair can play miniature golf,” according to the Greek.
It’s all happy hyperbole from the guy with the wavy grey hair who wears a green laborer’s shirt and pants every day.
He moved an entire shoe shop to his grounds after a local shoemaker had a heart attack and couldn’t keep up on his rent. The shoemaker worked a day a week at the relocated shop, but eventually passed away. The shop remains as a shoe museum.
The stone museum includes nearly 2,000 specimens from around the world, including three tables of rare minerals donated by Monmouth University.
The display space includes other wonders: a giant clam from China and an egg from the elephant bird, “the largest bird that ever lived.” On the wall: a “spear from Madagascar,” and several framed giant bugs.
There are rows of $1 stones – snowflake obsidian, gold tigereye, green aventurine, moonstone and more.
Some sort of wild beast, fashioned from tree branches, threatens to pounce on anyone entering the banquet office.
His handymen, including Wang and Walt Jasikowski, are always around to perform various jobs.
The Greek has apparently rubbed some town officials the wrong way. When a high-ranking township employee asked him to buy 50 tickets for a fund-raising dance, the Greek replied, “I don’t dance. All my money I give to charities; I don’t give it to politicians.”
Last October, he held an Oktoberfest party for 400 handicapped people; everything – food, entertainment – was donated.
“Things don’t make you happy,” the Greek says. “You can have all the things in the world, but if you don’t have people you don’t have anything.”
He’d love to find a classic Jersey diner and add it to the Playland, not as a restaurant but as an attraction. Maybe someone will donate one. Near the bike sculpture is a sailboat, the SS Minnow, which was donated by a 70-year-old man whose doctor told him he had a year to live.
“He ended up sailing around the world and dying at age 81,” the Greek says. He said, ‘Greek, you can’t always believe what doctors say.’ ”
Near the Army tank is a purple dinosaur donated by late sculptor Jim Gary.
Out back, past the clown, is the haunted house. The headstones in front read R.I.P., which is one thing you’ll never read about the Playland, if the Greek has his way.
“Life’s been good for me,” he says. “I can die the next day and I’ll be happy.”
What, he is asked, would be on his headstone?
“I don’t want a headstone,” he says, briefly agitated. “I want to be cremated and have a big party.”