Russell Wintner, the owner and manager of the Memphis Kiddie Park, a treasured hidden gem in Brooklyn, died peacefully Monday at his home in Florida, according to his obituary. He was 70.
Wintner was born in Cleveland and worked as an industrial engineer with Proctor and Gamble in New York City, but returned home to join his father in operating a regional chain of movie theaters, his obituary states.
The Memphis Kiddie Park was another family legacy Wintner was proud to carry on; the beloved landmark opened on the day he was born in 1952.
“I consider Kiddie Park my little brother, and it really is like a sibling to me,” Wintner said last year when News 5 profiled the park on its 70th anniversary. “The Kiddie Park and I were born on the same day.”
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The park, filled with rides for kids, concession stands, an arcade and a mini-golf course, has become a rite of passage for generations of Northeast Ohio families. In many respects, the kiddie park was emblematic of Wintner's personality.
"Russell was a really good guy. He will help anybody. I’ve seen him actually get taken advantage of from helping people out but he just continued to do it," said park manager and longtime friend Mike Kissel. "He was a great guy. I've known him for 30 years. He was my friend — not just a boss."
Kissel, who fought back tears as he spoke about Wintner, said the two became very close friends roughly a decade ago after Kissel's wife died. His wife's death coincided with Wintner's retirement. The two spent countless hours at the kiddie park, smiling constantly.
"He was a big kid like myself. He would come in here and the first thing he would do is have a big smile on his face," Kissel said. "He truly loved this place. He really did. It's still hard to wrap my mind around [his death]. The last time I talked to him, he was fine. That was about a week ago."
Since the day it opened, the kiddie park has endeared itself to generations of families in Northeast Ohio. Wintner ensured that the park always remained true to itself.
“I'll walk up, and they’ll say, ‘thank you very much for today.’ And I ask, ‘shouldn’t I be thanking you for coming?’” Wintner said last year. "They’ll say ‘No, you don't understand. I came here when I was a little kid. I brought my children here, and now I'm bringing my grandchildren here.”
Wintner credited the park’s sustained success to providing a consistent experience to a specific audience — younger children.
“One of the things that has killed a lot of small parks like this is it's really easy to get tempted to put in a big Ferris wheel or a giant slide,” he said in 2022. “Once you do that, you're inviting older kids, teenagers and the whole environment just changes.”
While the park is smaller in scale than some of the other amusement parks in Ohio, one of the park’s 11 rides, the Little Dipper, has been recognized as the oldest continuously operating steel kiddie coaster in North America.
"I truly hope the park continues in his name," Kissel said. "He will always be here."
The park was also recognized by News 5 in 2021 as one of Cleveland’s 100 Hidden Gems.
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“We're not a carnival. We don't have the big splashy stuff. We are just a kid park and we're consistent,” he said. “I like to call ourselves the training wheels for Cedar Point. You get to the point where you're eight years old and you're ready to go to the big park.”
According to his obituary, Wintner operated the park continuously with his wife from his retirement in 2012 until his death.
Funeral services for Wintner will be held at Berkowitz-Kumin-Bookatz, 1985 S. Taylor Rd. in Cleveland Heights Friday, Jan. 27 at 12:00 p.m, his obituary states. Interment will follow at Mayfield Cemetery, 2749 Mayfield Rd in Cleveland Heights.
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