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Fast Times at Legend City

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Fast Times at Legend City
Published July 2013 by Times Publications

By Jimmy Magahern

Toward the end, Legend City was more of a sprawling teen hangout than a family amusement park. Although it had originally been designed as Arizona’s scaled-down, westernized version of Disneyland—complete with a railroad, a riverboat, a frontier village and underground mine ride, in addition to the standard carousel, spinning teacups and roller coaster—by the late ’70s, many of its old attractions had either stopped operating or had simply stopped amusing. Teens back for their millionth visit to the place (admission, after all, was still affordable, and in Phoenix, there was still no better place for young people to congregate) had to pretty much make their own good times.

“They weren’t opening new attractions,” says Richard Marsh, who worked at Phoenix’s fabled theme park for its first two years, 1963 to ‘65, and then came back to work a season after college. “And you could see people looking around, saying, ‘What rides haven’t we been on?’ Young people would come back at night, and occasionally they would have some bands there. But they weren’t spending any money. You paid your admission, you came here and that was it.”
Fortunately, with packs of high schoolers let loose on a winding playground of carnival rides, snack bars, a tree-lined lagoon and western movie-set storefronts, it was fairly easy to find something to do at Legend City. And the “Twilight Zone” vibe of wandering a dilapidated western theme park frozen in time provided the perfect backdrop for more edgy adolescent adventures.

“There was so much sameness to it,” Marsh says. “But for us, that was the fun of it! Everybody knew every square inch of the place. We’d go to the Red Garter Saloon and they’d play Dixieland music, and it was kind of fun. It was just a cool throw-back feeling, even back then.”

If a ride was out of order, or simply too familiar to sit through one more time, Legend City’s aging kids took to engineering their own adventures. “On the river ride, people found out that you could jump out of the boat—in some places, you could jump right out of the boat and onto the shore!” Marsh says, with a laugh. “At that point it was all pretty unsupervised. The rule was basically just have fun!”

Employees were having the most. “One of the great secrets of Legend City was the life at night after the park closed,” Marsh reveals. “I remember when they brought in the Ferris wheel. That was the biggest after-hours ride in the park. That’s when we’d let our friends in and we’d just ride it forever. You didn’t turn the lights on, because that would make it too visible, but you’d have couples riding the carts up to the top and then making out in the darkness. Just goofy kids, having fun.”

Growing Pains

While it didn’t exactly age gracefully over its 20 years, Legend City matured perfectly in sync with the original generation of Phoenix Baby Boomers who began going to the park as kids. As they all got a little older, and the boys’ attention went from cowboys to girls, the park itself seemed to lose interest in maintaining its own “Bonanza”-era theme attractions in favor of wilder (and, inevitably, more dangerous) thrill rides. As the girls grew closer in age to the can-can dancers kicking up their heels at the Golden Palace, the park sprouted a teen dance hall and booked local Top 40 bands on the Lagoon Stage.

By the time Legend City reached 18 (then Arizona’s legal drinking age), the corner of the park that once held the Gay ’90s miniature golf course had given way to a full-fledged concert amphitheater, Compton Terrace, with a portion of the old Main Street buildings re-purposed into an “Encore Plaza,” retaining the ice cream parlor and snack bar while adding a beer garden and concert T-shirts concession area.

“The idea was that you’d go to a concert and then hang out in the park for a while,” says John Bueker, who runs a tribute website to the park, http://www.Legend-City.com, and is writing a book on its history. And, for a while, it worked: the same kids who had played putt-putt golf on its southeast grounds in the ’60s were rocking out to the Go-Go’s, Pat Benatar, Jackson Browne and Def Leppard on the same plot of land in the ’80s.

Inevitably, as many in that generation were finding jobs, settling down and, against their earlier ideologies, “selling out” to corporate America, Legend City itself was sold to Salt River Project in 1982, which closed the park permanently the following year and leveled it to make room for its corporate offices.

Bueker says the final years of Legend City were hard on those who’d remembered the park at its prime. At times, seeing the peeling paint and broken parts on the once magical animated figures were enough to make an angst-y adolescent mourn his own loss of innocence. Bueker remembers riding the Lost Dutchman Mine—the last of the original theme rides still running until the end—in the summer of 1980, after having been away for a few years.

“I was 22 at the time, and it was a really sad experience, because everything was run down,” he recalls. “We went on the mine ride, which to me was always the greatest ride at Legend City, and none of the animated figures worked anymore. They hadn’t been able to keep them up.”

Part of that may have been due to the animatronics’ inventive do-it-yourself construction, says Dick Kraus, who designed many of the park’s original moving figures and effects out of whatever machinery he could find. “After I left they brought in some engineering students from ASU,” he says. “Trouble is, they probably couldn’t find half of the motors I made, ‘cause I buried them around the attractions!”

Working parts or not, nobody ever expected Legend City to fall victim to the wrecking ball. Behind the scenes, the park had been struggling to stay open since its second year of business, temporarily closing from 1965 to 1969 after a bankruptcy judge placed the park in receivership and undergoing three ownership changes (and a few extended off seasons) before its last owners, the Capell Brothers’ carnival operation, finally took SRP’s $21.5 million offer for the land and auctioned off the rides and buildings.

Until that point, Legend City had always miraculously come back from a closed season. To the generation that grew up in the place, from the Iron Horse train ride to Fleetwood Mac at Compton Terrace, it seemed almost a state-preserved playground, an old rickety treehouse the city’s parents couldn’t bear to take down.

“It was like a museum of our childhood,” says Bueker—adding, with a laugh, “a run-down, dusty museum! But it was ours. And we never imagined that some day it would just disappear.”

Teen Town

“How many of us can share great stories about the experiences we had at Legend City?” asks longtime Valley magician and comedian Brad Zinn, working the stage at the Arizona Historical Museum’s auditorium. “I’ve heard people say, ‘I had my first kiss at Legend City.’ ‘I had my first job at Legend City.’”

Zinn, one of many local entertainers who got their start at Legend City, is here emceeing a 50th anniversary reunion of the park’s founders, employees, entertainers and former visitors, organized in large part by Bueker, and the auditorium is filled to capacity. A few of the luminaries who take the stage, from Legend City’s visionary founder Louis Crandall to the beloved Bill “Wallace” Thompson of the long-running local kids’ program “The Wallace and Ladmo Show” (who, along with Pat McMahon and the late Ladimir “Ladmo” Kwiatkowski, performed at the park’s Lagoon Stage nearly every weekend for most of its run), appear worrisomely frail—although Wallace, when he can be heard, still manages to crack the audience up with his ever-sharp, mischievous wit.

But the audience members who stand up when Zinn asks for a show of former park employees look surprisingly youthful for having worked at a place that’s been closed for 30 years. That’s because most in attendance were pretty young when they worked at Legend City, surely the city’s single biggest employer of teens at the time. Even in its final years, the park was employing between 200 to 300 young people, average age 20, each season. In the summer of ‘69, after U-Haul founder Sam Shoen bought the park, even the administrative staff hired to oversee the 125 high school and college kids working the rides and sno-cone machines was made up entirely of young men and women under 25.

Bonnie Gallagher Osborn was just 15 when she was hired to work at the Candy Store at Legend City in 1973. She had used a fake ID to get the job.

“I was only 15 years old with a fake ID when I was hired,” says Bonnie Gallagher Osborn, sporting the same nametag she wore back when she worked at the Candy Store. “I got started there because my older brother worked in the arcade, fixing pinball machines.” Her first summer there, in 1973, she was given the title of midway sweeper, which entailed carrying a broom and dustpan around the park sweeping up trash, cigarette butts and whatever splashed up around the Krazy Kups. It wasn’t the most glamorous job, and Osborn only cleared $27.01 on her first paycheck for a weekend’s work. Nevertheless, she loved it.

“The fun part about that job is I got to meet, like, everybody the first weekend I worked there,” she says. “Most of the people who worked there were teenaged boys, running the rides and the games. And I got to meet them all right away. But I was my brother’s little sister, so they all knew I was off bounds!”

Bonnie’s brother Joe was only 20 himself, but already a supervisor of the arcade. Most of the other managers were little older than that, and a certain permissiveness prevailed.

“We were all young,” she says. “One of the best parts of when I worked in the Candy Store was, if the park wasn’t too busy, my supervisor would come around and say, ‘One of you can clock out.’ And all three of us girls who worked there always volunteered for that, because then you got to play in the park all night!”

Osborn, too, remembers the after-hours parties. “We’d have fun in the park after it closed, and then we always went to the V.I.—Village Inn Pizza—where there was always a little underage drinking. The managers were old enough to drink, but some of us weren’t.”

Jonathan Abel, one of the guides on the Cochise’s Stronghold river ride in the mid-‘70s, recalls the after-hours parties at the park, too, but says they really were mild compared to things kids do today.

“The times were different, you know. And a ‘wild time’ then really wasn’t that wild,” he says, with a laugh. “Mostly, we were tired! We worked our butts off for eight or 10 hours each day, and it was hot. So maybe 30 kids would hang around after closing, and we would just sit and talk, and maybe have a drink or two until dawn. But that was about as wild as it got!”

Lou’s Playground

With his four daughters and one son taking the stage along with him at the Arizona Historical Museum, Louis Crandall is introduced by his eldest daughter, Janie, and the crowd erupts in cheers, everyone in the house rising to deliver a standing ovation to the man who created Legend City.

It’s a long-overdue “thank you” to the founder who left Phoenix broke and defeated after his dream of building a Disneyland in the desert failed to make enough money to stay open beyond its first three years. After Legend City closed down in September 1966, Crandall, in debt and without a home, moved his family to Provo, Utah, where he built a second business and never returned to Phoenix—except, once Legend City reopened, to take his children back to visit what remained of the theme park he had originally built for them.

Legend City was hardly recognizable by the time it closed its doors in 1983, as illustrated by the very different billboards from when it opened and when it closed.

Before the reunion event, Louis Crandall says that he still carries regrets over losing Legend City. “It breaks my heart to see that park, that was destined to be the greatest park in America, not make it because we didn’t have just a little more money to carry it on properly,” he says. And certainly, Legend City became a harsher place as its quaint western buildings faded under the shadows of the big iron carnival rides, brought in by the Japanese ride manufacturer that became its third owner. The costumed bandits who once held up the train in re-enacted robberies were replaced by the occasional real gangs on the midway, according to Mike Marryat, the park’s general manager from 1976 to ‘78. In the summer of 1977, a 12-year-old girl, Esther Urbalijo, was killed when the door on the Zipper ride flung open, throwing her and her 15-year-old sister 60 feet to the ground (the family was eventually awarded $1.3 million in a lawsuit).

Marryat says Legend City never felt quite the same after that tragedy, at least for him. “Something I saw that night changed me,” he says. “After we called the fire department, I closed the ride, and I had people screaming at me to open that ride back up. And they had been there and had watched what had happened. I couldn’t believe it.” After suspected arson burned down some of Crandall’s original western-themed buildings, Marryat left. “It was a different world,” he says.

It’s Louis Crandall’s kinder and gentler Legend City, however, that’s celebrated at the 50th anniversary reunion today. For all its changes, the park retained at least a little of Crandall’s quirky flavor (most of the buildings were still standing, however vacant and faded, until the end), and the generation that grew up letting their imaginations—and sometimes, themselves—go wild on its sprawling acres did it all against the defining backdrop Crandall gifted the city, back when Phoenix was a smaller, simpler place.

“My dad always wanted to make everyone happy at Legend City,” says first daughter Janie Crandall Hjorth. “And he inspired us that way. We five actually go on trip together once a year,” she says, motioning to her siblings. “It’s all due to the love that he and my mother, who’s been gone 15 years, showed us.”

Sharing in Crandall’s grandiose dream to give Arizona its own dusty Disneyland, Hjorth says, his own kids were inspired “to love each other and be happy people.”

Weren’t we all.

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Written by Jimmy

July 4, 2013 at 2:24 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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