Yes, I’d created my own thrill ride as a kid. But it all started long before that. Long before there was a Disneyland, or the term “theme park” had even been coined, there was a stretch of highway leading from the edge of Los Angeles to the Pacific Ocean. And it all started there…
With a berry.
A farmer named Boysen had created a new but commercially unsuccessful hybrid. So, in 1932, he gave his last wilting plants to a neighbor, Walter Knott, who began selling baskets of “boysenberries” to beachgoers. To make ends meet, his wife Cordelia also sold chicken dinners. And then she tried making pies out of the new berries, and…
The pies were heavenly!
I know because decades later, we moved to a new suburb just minutes away. Plus, I had family ties there (see below), so as I grew I watched Knott’s Berry Farm grow, as well, from a roadside attraction into one of America’s biggest theme parks. Walter, as much a showman as a farmer, had started adding additional attractions for the waiting customers. By the 1940s he’d transplanted the entire Gold Rush-era ghost town of Calico next to their restaurant!
“America’s First Theme Park” was my home away from home. I’d “pan for real gold” there. Stroll past the Church of Reflections, where my parents had gotten married! Visit the Calico General Store where my Grandma Johnnie Bell worked in authentic 19th century costume. My friends and I would spend summer and weekend days there, nibbling stick candy or pure maple sugar (my wife adds one to my Christmas stocking every year), putting pennies on the tracks and watching the steam locomotive flatten them.
We’d watch old-time “mellerdrammers” at the Bird Cage Theatre—where future stars like Steve Martin got their first acting gigs, and where some of my own acting students would later get their first breaks. My buddies and I were in line opening day for Knott’s first theme ride, the Calico Mine Train, craning our necks to look down the bottomless mine shaft and at all the glittery plaster stalagmites and stalactites. Walt Disney was there too, making notes.
As young teenagers, we’d “cruise for chicks” at Knott’s (we never had the guts to actually speak to any). Years later, two of my comedy acts, Isaac Air Freight and Mitch & Allen, would headline Christian nights at Knott’s (and Disneyland, too, but that’s another story). Zoom ahead further, and my kids, our family’s fourth generation at Knott’s, would experience their first roller coaster ride on the GhostRider, one of the world’s longest and tallest wooden roller coasters!
I can’t wait for our fifth generation of not-yet-born grandchildren to visit. Of course, Knott’s isn’t free anymore, so they won’t end up living there like their Grandpa Mitch did. And to think…
It all started with a berry.