Our Towns

Remembering Fred, the ‘Rotor Man’

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio — I imagine most reporters have a dream interview that they fantasize about from time to time.

Maybe they want to interview the president of the United States. Perhaps they would love to go back in time and sit down with a famous figure from history.

While as a lover of history that certainly sounds intriguing, for this reporter, Julius Caesar, Sun Tzu and George Washington have nothing on my dream interview subject: Rotor Fred.

Right now most of you are probably scratching your head, but if you’re one of the few who know whom I’m talking about, you likely understand where I’m coming from.

I became aware of Fred – also referred to as the “Rotor Man” – for the first time when I was about eight years old, on a family trip to the former Geauga Lake Amusement Park in Aurora. The park closed in 2007, but for a kid growing up in the late 1980s, a visit to Geauga Lake was always one of the highlights of summer.

Next to the Ferris Wheel was the Rotor, a ride that never attracted much interest, although it was a mainstay at the park for as long as I can remember.

It was quite simple. Kids and adults entered a round, rubber-padded room through a door that swung in from the outside. The rotor spun faster and faster until all the riders became stuck to the wall, which is when the floor would lower, and you would sort of float there until it was over.

It was neat when you were little, although the novelty soon wore off. The only reason I ever rode it again was to see Rotor Fred.

So who is Rotor Fred and why the interest?

Rotor Fred, to my knowledge, was simply a middle-aged man who rode the Rotor all day, every day, for years and years and years. Seriously.

No matter what day it was, no matter what time it was, if you got on the Rotor, Fred was already there. When the ride finished, he hid behind the door, waited for the new passengers to board, and then he rode it all over again.

At no time did the ride operators tell him to get off and get back in line – they all seemed to know him, although their knowledge of him, like mine, was limited.

We only knew his first name, and aside from a few bathroom breaks, he did indeed ride the Rotor all day, every day. He even had a shirt that said “Rotor Man,” which he usually wore. Why didn’t we just ask him why he rode the Rotor every day? It wasn’t that simple.

For one, I can’t say that I ever heard Fred speak. Second, he seemed extremely shy – I’m not exaggerating when I say he hid behind the door – and when I saw someone try to talk to him, the only response the person got was a nervous smile as he turned his back.

Third, even though Fred was apparently independent and quite happy, I was pretty sure he was a unique person – so to speak – something I regret to admit made me a little nervous to be around him when I was growing up.

I grew out of my fear of Fred, but every summer there was a fresh crop of children, and some weren’t as reserved as I was.

As more people began to notice Fred, he started to become an attraction, not unlike the old freak show at the circus, it pains me to say. It wasn’t uncommon to see kids teasing him before the ride started. I always felt bad for Fred, but he seemed to take it in stride.

Despite all that, or because of it, he fascinated my siblings and me. Who was he? Why the Rotor? Our curiosity meant that no trip to Geauga Lake was complete without a visit to see him.

Many times we found ourselves engaged in conversations about Fred with several strangers while we stood in line waiting to get on the ride. It often seemed at least half the people waiting in line were there simply to see if he were on the ride, just as he was the last time they visited.

And so the legend grew.

Over the years I’ve heard theories about who he was and why he did what he did. One legend was that he used to be a test pilot for NASA who became addicted to the G’s, and this was the only way he could get his fix.

Some people said he was a teacher on summer break. Another theory was that he was born on the Scrambler, and this explained his love of spinning. That’s my favorite.

I think people always find comfort in things that don’t change, and for at least 16 years I found a sort of comfort in knowing that Fred would always be on the Rotor, waiting, should I decide to ride it.

Fred is still around, apparently living somewhere in the Mahoning Valley. Since Geauga Lake closed, I’ve spotted him a couple of times at the Champion Roller Rink and at Mahoning Valley Scrappers games.

There’s even a “Rotor Man” fan page on Facebook where people report sightings and post pictures with him. People who don’t have the nerve to approach Fred snap blurry photos of him as if he were Bigfoot.

I know I said I hope to one day interview Fred and tell his story, and I do, but sometimes I’m not so sure.

What would I gain?

Maybe with Fred what you see is what you get. He was a man who found something he truly loved and he devoted himself to enjoying it as much as he could with what time he had, no matter what anyone thought.

What insight could George Washington possibly give me more valuable than that?

Copyright 2019 The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.