FAIRYLAND'S ARCHITECT Howard Adler, chief wizard behind Enchanted Forest, crafts fanciful playhouses


If you believe in fairyland, clap your hands.

Aha, a few of you are still not clapping! Need convincing? Meet Howard Adler. He's got plenty of hands-on experience in the fairyland business -- although his fairlylands are built not with gossamer and moonbeams, but with Fiberglas and plaster and wood.

He has designed a chocolate Easter egg for Peter Rabbit to live in, a teacup train that leads into Alice's uncanny Wonderland, a rainbow slide that ends in a pot of gold, and a whimsical Wild West populated by wicked cactus bandits. Lately, though, his efforts have been in behalf of his favorite dwellers in worlds of fantasy: his five grandchildren.

Having Howard Adler as a grandfather is something like having the undivided attention of Santa Claus and his whole workshop full of elves. Not only does the founder of Adler Display Studio Inc. have a rare ability to think like a kid (or like a bunny or an elf, for that matter), but he can make just about anything. After all, Mr. Adler, who calls himself "one of the grandfathers of the theme park," designed the Enchanted Forest, a fairy-tale landmark well-known to two generations of Baltimore-area children.

Mr. Adler opened Adler Display in 1939, only to close it two years later, when he was called to the Italian front in World War II as a member of the Army Special Services. (The young sergeant didn't fly bombing missions, he admits, but made his mark designing air safety displays and painting mascots on the noses of B-52s.) In 1945 he returned to Baltimore and reopened his business. Since then Mr. Adler and his team of designers and artisans -- and more recently his son, Ron, a Parsons graduate who took over the company's helm several years ago -- have worked on an incredible variety of projects, from trade show displays and museum installations to such whimsical creations as the 23-foot red fox that sits atop Fox Chevrolet. Recent jobs have included travel information pavilions at two Interstate 95 rest stops, and a new miniature golf course, complete with a 25-foot waterfall, for Frontier Town, an Ocean City theme park that Mr. Adler designed in 1958.

"I was always pushing creativity in our stuff. Instead of doing the same kind of thing anybody could do, I wanted to make it different and unique and unusual," explains Mr. Adler, who still puts in an eight-hour day at the company he founded. "I would always try to use imagination, and to look at things from a different viewpoint."

His interest in unorthodox points of view served Mr. Adler well when his company was hired in 1955 to design the Enchanted Forest, a storybook-inspired amusement park on U.S. 40 near Ellicott City.

"I wanted the buildings to be made like Papa Bear would make them, or Peter Rabbit," he says with a smile. "You have to put yourself into the mind of a silly rabbit: What would I like? How would I build my house?"

The answers to these questions cued both the design and the construction. The three bears' house, for instance, was coated with thick plaster that looked as if it had been applied with a big bear paw (complete with claws), and had a stuffed hunter over the fireplace.

In September 1955, the Enchanted Forest (which opened just a month after Disneyland) made the front page of Variety, which noted that the "Big Juve Lure" had drawn 20,000 customers in its first week.

The gentle, old-fashioned park closed two years ago. Plans were being made by new owners to expand the attractions and add a supermarket and specialty shops, but the expansion was put on hold when a fire destroyed part of the park in early 1990. (A reopening is now planned for 1992.)

People still associate Mr. Adler with the place, and tell him how much they miss it.

"A very attractive lady with a child came up to me and told me how much she enjoyed the Enchanted Forest," he says with a smile, remembering the nicest compliment he ever received. "I felt so good, I said, 'Thank you. You made my day!' She said, 'Thank you, you made my childhood!' "

Last year, he had the chance to bring a little of the Forest's enchanted spirit back into the world.

The saga began when Howard and Renee Adler gave their daughter and her family a trip to Disney World, says daughter Marcia Rohrbaugh, who admits to getting a little teary when she tells the story. The Rohrbaughs' three young sons were particularly taken with the Swiss Family Robinson's ingenious treehouse.

"I came home and said, 'Dad, it's all your fault! Since you sent us to Disney World, the kids all want a playhouse in the back yard!" Mrs. Rohrbaugh says.

Ed Rohrbaugh had planned on building the kids something, but his father-in-law told him to hold off for a little while. Then Mr. Adler sat down at the drawing board.

A little house in the woods, he thought, should be made by elves -- Enchanted Forest elves. And since elves lived in trees, he reasoned, they would make a house that looked a little like a tree. So he designed a cottage right out of the Brothers Grimm, with a thatched roof supported by arching branches. There's a little "eye" window in the roof, Dutch doors, a door knocker that looks like a woodpecker, and a built-in puppet theater.

Inside is an "open letter" to the boys, Brandon, 9, Justin, 7, and Travis, 4, discussing the elves and their friends, and concluding: this never-never land, let your mind roam, This is your 'very special place' you can call HOME." The playhouse is a getaway gazebo for the boys' parents, too, and a quiet place for Ed Rohrbaugh, a medical sales representative, to do creative writing.

Mr. Adler did all of the construction himself over a three-month period.

"It was a labor of love for my grandchildren," he says. "I wanted it to be mine, from the design concept to the finished product."

He made it to last, as well: The construction is solid wood, with a weatherproof base. But it was made and bolted together in sections, so that if the family ever moves, the playhouse can move right along with them.

But Mr. Adler's task had only begun. His son Ron has two children of his own, and when Daniel Adler, age 6, saw his cousins' splendid new cottage, he said, "Pop-Pop, when are you going to build me a playhouse?"

"What do you want?" asked Daniel's indulgent grandfather. Daniel thought a minute. "A castle!" he said.

A few months later, Camelot was reborn in Ron and Barbara Adler's back yard. The two-story castle has a faux drawbridge, an impressive (if child-size) Gothic door, a spiral staircase leading to the gilded battlements, and separate turrets for Prince Daniel and his 4-year-old sister, Princess Jenna.

The playhouses, which are just a couple of blocks apart, have been a great spur to imaginative play, the kids' mothers agree.

"They love it," Barbara Adler says of the castle. "When it's nice out, they spend all their time in there. It's become quite a neighborhood thing. Daniel has gained many friends from people who wanted to come over and play."

Thanks to Camelot, the Adler children have become fascinated with the days of the knights. (Daniel, wearing the sword and shield his parents bought him at the Renaissance Festival, dressed as a knight for Halloween.) And over in their own enchanted woods, Brandon and Justin Rohrbaugh like to pretend that their playhouse is a boat, stranded at sea, and their little brother Travis hosts parties there for his assortment of imaginary friends and pets.

"I'm going to develop this tract of land into playhouse condominiums," jokes Ed Rohrbaugh. "Time-shares will be available!"

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