It rose like a specter of a bygone era when Buckhead was first gaining a reputation as Atlanta’s entertainment district, when the city’s population was less than half of what it is today and the village was still defined largely by mom and pop businesses. If there was a gateway to the burgeoning bar scene that featured the legendary Limelight, Aunt Charlie’s and Otto’s, it was Animal Crackers with its peculiar four-story glass and steel tower.
With a high-end restaurant in the front and a cavernous night spot off the back, Animal Crackers opened in 1980 with a performance by 1960s teen heartthrob Ricky Nelson. The draw of Animal Crackers, what really distinguished it from just about everywhere else in Atlanta, was the bright yellow 1920 Ferris wheel that was housed in the tower.
To call it popular would be misleading. It was more like the Big Chicken in Marietta, a landmark or a curio more than a draw. It worked well enough and people rode it. From the top it offered an unparalleled view of the city.
The Ferris wheel was the idea of Bill Swearingen, himself an institution on the Atlanta dining scene who owned The Mansion and the Abbey, among others. According to former Animal Crackers General Manager Terry Colwell, whose uncle Bob designed the space including the tower, Swearingen found the amusement park attraction in a junkyard in Florida and had it brought to Atlanta to be a centerpiece of his newest endeavor.
It fell to Terry’s brother Doug to get the wheel in working order, which required a lot of sandblasting, replacement parts and the distinct bright yellow paint. Several lights illuminated the inside of the tower allowing the wheel be seen up and down Peachtree.
Animal Crackers only lasted a year but the Ferris wheel caught the imagination of the world in 1981 when a radio deejay named Chuck Boozer set a world record by spending more than 41 days riding it. The always reliable Weekly World News chronicled the feat. The Ferris wheel stayed in the building through much of the next decade as bars came and went.
When I was coming up, it was called Buckhead Beach and had a sand volleyball court and lifeguard chairs. By the time it was Three Dollar Café, the village was at its zenith. At some point the Ferris wheel was removed and the tower has stood empty ever since.
The property got swept up in the spending spree in the mid-2000s. The last news report on the corner from 2008 said Ben Carter planned to open a movie theater there.
Regardless, I don’t imagine the glass tower will stand for much longer, but when I look at it I always see that bright yellow Ferris wheel high above Peachtree, an homage to a different Buckhead when our local showmen brought their imagination to bear on our diminutive skyline.
Northsider Thornton Kennedy is a sixth-generation Atlanta resident and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.