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Remembering Fess Parker and Frontier World

Remembering Fess Parker and Frontier World

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Yesterday, over the phone, a friend told me that Fess Parker had just passed on.  He was 85 years old.  He died of natural causes.
 
I first met Fess Parker twenty-five years ago, when as a kid, I had a part time job in downtown Santa Barbara.  I ran deliveries for a pharmacy.   But in that same building, behind the pharmacy, Fess and his son, Eli, rented office space—a few rooms that they used while building a large coastal resort.
 
Fess Parker's hotel
 
Years later, as I developed an interest in early American theme parks, I talked to Fess a few times about his involvement with Disneyland and also with other theme parks.  As most of these early theme parks included some type of western town, Fess was often brought out as a celebrity to help open the park—just as he had at Disneyland.  He would appear in a coonskin cap with his trusty rifle, Old Betsy, thrown across his shoulder.   
 
Fess Parker as Davy Crockett with his gun "Old Betsy"
Copyright Walt Disney Productions
 
But two years ago, as I was talking with him about his celebrity appearances at these non-Disney parks, he started mentioning economists that he knew in the theme park industry.  He mentioned that Harrison “Buzz” Price, the great granddaddy of all theme park numbers men, had recently stayed at his house.  And when I asked how he knew Buzz Price, Fess told me that he knew Buzz through C.V. Wood, the very first general manager of Disneyland, as C.V. Wood was married to one of his old co-stars, Joanne Dru, as they both had appeared in the Disney movie, A Light in the Forest.
 
And then, slowly, over the next five or ten minutes, as I attempted to untangle this web, I came to understand the reason why Fess, an actor, was so well connected inside the theme park industry.  The answer was simple yet surprising.  In the early 1970s, Fess, himself, was planning to build his very own theme park.
 
Its name, according to Fess, would’ve been Frontier World—featuring the Frontiers of the Past, Present, and Future.  Its location, Santa Clara, California.
 
Map of California 
 
The project began because Fess was interested in developing land in the Bay Area. “I had 452 acres [in Santa Clara] in a joint venture with Great Western Savings and Loan.”  As part of a land development deal with the city, a portion of this property—a district of about 100 acres—would need to be developed in such a way that it contributed to the entertainment or cultural needs of the city.  Frontier World would have a western area, of course, complete with all the adornments of the Davy Crockett films, and also an area devoted to space travel.  But in addition to this, the park would include a land where the rides would be fashioned after present-day machinery.  “I had cockamamie ideas,” Fess explained, “like using different kinds of farm equipment and industrial equipment [as the basis for new rides].   I always wanted to ride an oil well pump, you know.”
 
While the park was in development, Fess parted ways with Great Western Savings, and when looking for a new partner, he approached Ray Kroc—the multi-millionaire who had grown the fledging McDonald’s Corporation into the largest fast-food chain in the world.  After an initial phone conversation, Fess, along with his attorney, flew to Chicago to meet Kroc in his office.  After explaining the concept for Frontier World, Kroc immediately offered to go into business with Fess. “I’ll give you thirty-two million dollars,” he said, “for half interest.” 
 
Ray Kroc, founder of the McDonald's fast food chain 
    
But as Fess tells it, his lawyer put the brakes on the deal, believing that Kroc might sweeten the offer: “I looked across the table.  There was my attorney, a graduate of Stanford Law School, so I said, ‘Joe, have you got anything?’”
   
Fess’s lawyer said: “Well, what else will you do for us, Mr. Kroc?”
 
Two days later, Fess again talked with Roy Kroc about Frontier World, but Kroc had lost his enthusiasm for the project.  Without a development partner, Fess eventually decided to sell the property, though selling 452 acres in an undeveloped section of Santa Clara wasn’t easy.  He finally persuaded Marriott’s to buy it.
 
“I get a little queasy every time I think about it,” Fess confided, “because that land that I forced Marriott’s to take became the center of Silicon Valley.  [After the 100 acres for the park] I had 352 acres, free and clear.  Money in my pocket.  I describe that year as the year I was certifiably insane.  I made a whole bunch of stupid mistakes.”
 
As you might guess, I, for one, would’ve been interested in visiting Frontier World.  It sounds like a far more interesting and imaginative park than the one that was eventually built on that exact same location—a little park originally known as Marriott’s Great America.
 
Thank you, Fess, for all of your years as Davy Crockett and Daniel Boone.  Though I saw them only in re-runs, I remember them fondly from my youth.
 
 
 Fess Parker holds up his window on Main Street Disneyland
Copyright Disney All Rights Reserved
 
 The staff of JHM mourns the passing of Fess Parker & wishes to extend its heartfelt condolences to his friends & family during their time of sorrow.
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