An article in today’s Los Angeles Times states that Knott’s Berry Farm will be sold to the private equity firm Apollo Global Management for $2.4 billion. While several other amusement parks and hotels are included in the transaction, the article made it clear that Knott’s was the main attraction.
Knott’s has undergone tumultuous upheaval since its origin as a roadside tourist stop in the 1940’s. In the process it became an iconic Southern California institution and a repository for its symbols and semiotics. As a child growing up in La Jolla, every year or so we would make a two-day pilgrimage to Disneyland, with a one-day stopover at Knott’s. Knott’s always seemed realer, a more authentic invocation of a mythical past.
There came a time when we stopped going and then I lost track of it until a few years ago, when we went there for somebody’s holiday party. I was shocked at how much it had changed. Even though their construction probably was dictated by economics, the giant large-scale, roller-coaster type rides were utterly incongruous. One of my favorite exhibits always had been something called “Death Valley Days.” It was no more than a diorama, really. One would walk into a small room and see miniature figurines of a mule-driven wagon crossing the desert. A plaintive tape-recording played in the background. A small girl asked her mother, “is there any more water?” The mother tried to comfort her, but one knew in one’s mind they both were goners. An aged lady attendant sat next to railing separating the attendees from the set. The scene was poignant and even at 10 years old it affected me deeply. In fact I still think about it. I asked her, “I hope you keep this open as a reminder of California’s past.” She replied, with a combination of optimism and wisdom, “It always will be here.”
Another set-piece I remember clearly was a circular pathway around a park-like parcel, with dioramas of all of California’s missions. Having been to most of them I could discern the murals had been constructed with a high degree of versimilitude. Walking around the enclosure that last day I was astonished and shocked to see the park and the walkway were being demolished for yet another massive theme-park ride. The mission dioramas had fallen into a state of abject decrepitude. With a few inquiries I found the construction crew’s foreman. “Take them away,” he said, “you can have them.” I would have, too, if I had anywhere to store (and restore) them. I don’t know what happened to them in the end, but I suspect they were demolished on the spot.
I look back on that earlier version of Knott’s with a wistful melancholy. It is redolent with association. It is reminiscent not only of my youth but also of an earlier time in Southern California history. It also is a metaphor for the passage of time, the lack of any cultural or institutional memory, and (ultimately) the transience and impermanence of culture and the institutions that support it.