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20 years in the Amusement industry

Part 2: Bad Concepts: Hootin’ Holler and a "Real" Eiffel Tower

In a 1970s semi-regular Saturday Night Live sketch, Dan Aykroyd appeared as a prissy theater host named Leonard Pimph-Garnell to introduce a “Bad” work of theater, ballet, or conceptual Art. “Welcome to Bad Theatre," he would say, followed by a clip of a hilariously awful musical about the life of Anton von Leeuwenhoek, for example. After the clip he would shake his head sadly, saying “So very, very bad.” It was a recurring one-joke sketch that never seemed to get old.

In the narrow window that theme parks have to develop new themed areas and attractions some fairly lame-brained ideas get kicked around, but almost all of them never getting past that initial concept stage. “Hootin’ Holler” was one such idea presented to Kings Dominion parent company Taft Broadcasting’s design department by a contractor that thankfully never made it further than a sketch.

Had Hootin’ Holler somehow made it past the conceptual blueprint stage and gone into development in 1976, theme park patrons may have expected Leonard Pimph-Garnell to come to Kings Dominion to haughtily introduce it as “A very very bad theme area”.

Hootin’ Holler was, according to the sketch, a wacky re-creation of a dirt poor, ramshackle Appalachian mining town that took the worst socio-economic aspects and stereotypes – unemployment, alcoholism, grinding poverty, laziness, even veiled sexual assault – and twisted them into a fun-filled amusement park themed experience. Taft was going to charge people $29 to enter the park and face for one day the horror people in any hollow of Tennessee or West Virginia experienced every day of their lives. Hills, trees, shrubs and boulders were to be brought in to make up the “mountainous” landscape, and shoddily-constructed shacks, a general store, a church, a bank and other businesses and buildings dotted the bleak landscape. A junked Ford Model-T sat on blocks in a dirt yard.

But the most jaw-dropping component of the idea was that according to the drawing, live actors would portray the rural citizens of Hootin’ Holler. And they were the worst sweeping generalizations, typecasting and politically incorrect portrayals of Appalachian residents imaginable. Nothing like a theme park celebrating the worst aspects of rural poverty. In Hootin’ Holler there were no jobs and no economic stimulus packages, so none of the alcoholic and bearded men worked; they just laid around with a jug of moonshine cradled in their arm. Marriages were forced in Hootin’ Holler, as portrayed by a preacher presiding over an impromptu ceremony with a man presumed to be the homely bride’s father holding a shotgun at the groom’s neck.

Assault and kidnapping was common, as two salivating barefoot bumpkins were chasing a young woman through the woods. Crime was apparently rampant, as proven on the drawing by another barefoot man holding up the Savings & Loan with a sawed-off shotgun. With the noted exceptions, all the portrayed women of Hootin’ Holler were young and pretty, barefoot (but still apparently able to outrun their brothers) and dressed in gingham skirts (except for the bride and the old crone who ran the still up in the holler and chased away interlopers with the ubiquitous shotgun). All the guys wore patched jeans, coveralls or flannel shirts and suspenders. A funeral for a bearded geezer in bib overalls in an open casket was taking place, with the typical tall skinny undertaker in a black top hat salivating at the prospect of another payable stiff in his portfolio.

It is not known if the designers of this hot mess would specify only actors with no teeth or with 6 toes on each foot. A note at the bottom of the drawing (squirreled away somewhere in Kings Dominion’s maintenance blueprint room) indicated that square dancing and other audience participation-style activities would be a regular occurrence in Hootin’ Holler, although it is curious how many park guests would willingly participate in the “blind from drinking bad moonshine” or the “incestual relations” activities.

Very, very bad, indeed.


A “Real” Eiffel Tower: If 333 feet is good, then 1,000 feet is better - Right?

The centerpiece of Taft Broadcasting’s first theme park near Cincinnati, Ohio, was curiously not a distinctly American icon, but a 1/3-scale replica of Paris’ Eiffel Tower that rose about 333 feet into the rural Lebanon countryside.

Incongruity in a theme park setting, especially from the 1970s, is not all that unusual and widely accepted by the public anyway. How many visitors to Kings Dominion wonder why there is a scale model of the Liberty Bell in the Old Virginia themed area – a symbol of our country that in real life has everything to do with Philadelphia but absolutely zero to do with Virginia? (This writer posed that question to a park VP in the 1980s. I was told I ask too many questions. I wisely let the matter drop).

An almost exact 1/3-scale replica of the real Eiffel Tower at 333’-6”, the Kings Island tower was designed exclusively for that park by Intamin AG, a German firm and erected in 1972. Twin elevators carry guests to two platforms at the top, where they could (at that time) gaze off at the flat Ohio countryside or plug a quarter into a binocular and get closer views of the same flat Ohio countryside. The tower was such a hit that another one was built just like it for Kings Island’s brand new sister park just north of Richmond Virginia, with construction starting in 1973.

The Kings Dominion Eiffel Tower is also 333’-6” tall and weighs a little over 800 tons. The top observation platform is 275-ft high. It cost $1,648,000.00 to construct. There are 440 steps from the ground to the elevator motor house. A humongous crane was set up on the small stretch of road at Kings Dominion that leads from the current tower down to the Carrousel.

Construction took about a year once all the parts arrived, and the tower was ready in time for the May 3, 1975 park opening. KD’s tower is the tallest structure up I-95 between Richmond and the Washington Monument.

What many do not know, however, is that Intamin also submitted a concept drawing in 1971 to Taft for a full-size replica Eiffel Tower – a towering 1,000-ft monster that would have dwarfed every other structure not just in Cincinnati or Hanover but almost the entire nation.

The tower as sketched was frankly, ugly. It was not shaped exactly like the real Eiffel Tower, looking more modern and “streamlined” to account presumably for weather, aircraft flight patterns, topography and whatever other considerations existed for an almost Babel-like edifice complex in the middle of a former cornfield in central Hanover. Given the construction, painting and maintenance logistics and cost of a 333-ft tower it is unimaginable to transfer those headaches to one 3X taller. Footings for a 1,000-ft structure would have to tunnel dozens of feet straight down, and filled with hundreds of cubic yards of reinforced concrete.

Years ago it cost over $35,000 and 1,500 gallons of paint just to paint the current tower (in a unique color called “Eiffel Tower green” that is not used anywhere else), so the cost of painting a much larger tower would be inconceivable. It is truly mind-boggling to imagine the Bureaucracy, paperwork, permits, construction cost and upkeep behind such a mammoth undertaking, and Taft wisely discounted the idea of a full-size Tower.

Today that drawing lies buried in a file drawer in Doswell, a curious reminder of a young company with big ideas.

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