In Pittsburgh, if you tell somebody “Kennywood’s open,” they will immediately, with some embarrassment, check their pants zipper and zip it up.
For newcomers to Pittsburghese, the expression serves as a subtle heads up, less awkward than saying “your fly’s down.” Everybody around here, from kids to grandparents, seems to know this peculiar Pittsburgh phrase.
The terminology dates back to at least the 1950s, but nobody knows where it originated — not Pittsburgh Dad, not Rick Sebak, not Heinz History Center experts, not Kennywood officials.
“It’s a little bit of a mystery what the roots are, but there’s no denying its recognition and power,” Kennywood Park spokesman Nick Paradise said.
He’s consulted the West Mifflin amusement park’s most veteran staffers, including an in-park historian, and still nobody knows the backstory to what he calls “an absolutely critical piece of Pittsburghese.”
Brian Butko, director of publications at Heinz History Center, is the local expert on Kennywood. He wrote two books on the park, and he’s working on a third.
He grew up in West Mifflin in the shadow of rollercoasters and still lives in the neighborhood. Butko said all of his family members worked at Kennywood in roles from security to waitressing to dressing up as the Kenny Kangaroo mascot.
Even with all of those Kennywood connections, Butko said nobody he knows can figure out where “Kennywood’s open” originated.
“My memory of it would probably be like 1970, when I was hearing it and that embarrassing moment when they tell you that — the panic,” Butko said.
Akin to “XYZ: examine your zipper” or “your barn door’s open,” “Kennywood’s open,” is certainly a nicer way of telling somebody to fix their pants. Maybe that’s one of the reasons it stuck — that idea of Pittsburgh nice, a cousin to Midwest nice, if you will.
“For people decades ago, I think it was just a matter of, it was a politer way of saying things,” Butko said. “There’s just that change that came in the ’60s and ’70s where people were a lot more comfortable saying things.”
The 2011 book “Wicked Good Words,” lists the phrase “Kennywood’s open” and writes “In South Carolina, you could hear a comparable expression in the 1960s: the hot dog stand is open.”
But it pre-dates even the 1960s. Butko runs a Facebook group called Kennywood: Behind the Screams, where he posed the question about the origin of “Kennywood’s open.” Memories poured in, and several people remember the phrase back into the ’50s.
“Everyone remembers it in the ’50s as children, and they tend to remember their parents saying it to them. Was it a parent thing back in the ’30s or ’40s?” Butko said. “It was definitely in the ’50s, but was it there before then?”
Well, that’s the question nobody can answer.
“This is one of those really cool mysteries that it was just a people thing, not a newspaper thing, not a written thing,” Butko said, meaning it somehow spread organically.
In the ’90s, though, newspapers started jumping on the bandwagon, embracing the double entendre in headlines announcing Kennywood’s actual opening in the spring. Before that, newspapers had always announced the park’s opening day in print every year, referring literally to the amusement park.
“Typically every year whether it’s 1905 or 1935 there would be an article that said Kennywood’s open,” Butko said. “In a way, that was sort of in the lexicon, people would say it.”
The phrase gets a mention in Rick Sebak’s “Kennywood Memories,” released in 1988, but even that program doesn’t mention the origin of of the phrase.
You can also spot the expression at some Eat ‘n’ Park restaurants, where a sign on the back of the bathroom door says “Is Kennywood open?” with an arrow pointing down — “kind of looking out for you,” Paradise said.
So basically, sometime between the park’s opening in 1899 and the ’50s, somebody coined this Pittsburghese term. Maybe a class clown? Maybe an overly polite Pittsburgher?
As he works on his third book about Kennywood and reviews 142 boxes of Kennywood archives housed at the History Center, perhaps Butko will stumble on the answer to what he calls “a pretty cool western Pa. mystery.”
“I still hold out hope that there’s some little old lady somewhere that can give us the first or earliest use of the phrase in like 1927 or something like that,” Paradise said, “but I have no idea.”
By the way: As of this weekend, Kennywood’s open. For real.