Legend City

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Legend City, a former theme park in Phoenix, was established 50 years ago. Phoenix-area historian John Southard will discuss the history of the park.

Ted Simons: Legend city debuted 50 years ago this summer. The western themed amusement park was to be Arizona's answer to Disneyland. It's long gone but Arizona long time residents remember it. Phoenix area historian John Southard join us to talk about legend city. All sorts of memories flood back. For those who were here after like 1983, what was legend city?

John Southard: It was according to many people the Disneyland of the desert. It was western themed park that was built on the idea of presenting Arizona history in a very popular fashion. We're not talking about academic history but the legends, the red ghost, lost Dutchman gold mine, things like this.

Ted Simons: Where was it located exactly?

John Southard: It was located in Papago Park where the SRP buildings are now.

Ted Simons: Between Van Buren and Washington.

John Southard: The address was something like 58th and Washington.

Ted Simons: How big was the park?

John Southard: The rides, the attractions, there were 20 rides and a number of other attractions on 30 acres. They set aside 20 acres planning for legend city hotel, but that never materialized.

Ted Simons: We have a bunch of photographs here, the Arizona Republic helping us out with these. We'll start with construction photos. Whose idea was this?

John Southard: It was an advertising executive named Louis Crandall. He visited Disneyland and got the idea of building a theme park here in the Phoenix area. The real issue, one that he didn't perhaps foresee at the time, was that in the 1960s, the Phoenix metro area had approximately 660,000 residents with the L.A. area had about million residents. L.A. of course had a far more significant tourist base on which to draw visitors to the park. We also have this issue of L.A. having wonderful year round weather and Phoenix that's not really the case. Disney being an established brand had something they could market nationwide and worldwide where in Arizona that wasn't the case.

Ted Simons: With all that in mind, the thing opens up, obviously some money was secured. Weren't these things taken into consideration? It opened in the summer.

John Southard: It did, on June 29, 1963. There was a great deal of enthusiasm. Community support, the Scottsdale progress article from the daze prior to the opening case that 10,000 Arizonans purchased stock in the amount of $4 million to help this come into fruition. It was well received but within the first year they were running a deficit and had to find emergency financing and a year and a half later the founder was out.

Ted Simons: A year and a half later. Bankrupt.

John Southard: Yes.

Ted Simons: We're looking at the entrance there. I think I actually remember that entrance. I don't know for sure. Do you -- as we look at some of these photographs, boat rides, you had trains, you had log rides. This was quite an endeavor. This was quite the investment.

John Southard: Absolutely. More than just a bit overambitious on the part of Louis Crandall. Not only did you have the infrastructure, the trains, but there were constant shows, gunfights, defense of the fort against Native Americans, actors and things. Also a saloon, a number of acts. This was a very costly facility to run.

Ted Simons: We're looking at the log right there. I think next we'll see the zipper, which was a hair-raising ride. That resulted in a fatality.

John Southard: Yes, in fact there was more than one fatality at the park unfortunately. They were accidents that such as you endure on a ride like this, safety violations. One of the abandoned rides caught fire and burned very quickly. The Tempe fire department deemed most of the park unsafe.

Ted Simons: With that in mind, was legends city ever a success?

John Southard: Yes, it actually was a success ironically toward the ends of its life span the Capell family, who had experience in the Carnival industry purchased ledge end city and made it a going concern. They were grossing over $1 million a year. They indicated that the majority of their business took place in the evenings, of course. But unfortunately by that point despite what they were grossing, the land value had appreciated so much that they stood to make a better profit selling the land to SRP, as they did, than continuing to run the park.

Ted Simons: This us, what, September of 1983?

John Southard: The park closed in September of 1983. They had actually sold the land to SRP just a few months prior.

Ted Simons: Was there much -- I don't remember much of an outcry when it went away.

John Southard: It went out with a whimper. It really did.

Ted Simons: Correct me if I'm wrong, wasn't there some sort of rock 'n' roll pavilion? Some sort of entertainment center built before they built all the SRP buildings? We're looking at the last vestiges of legends city. That's a ghost town of a ghost town.

John Southard: It is indeed. You're right about the performance venue, the original Compton Terrace was there. It was later moved, of course, and there was a change in the instance of Legend city from this western themed mutual park to something that was more inviting to teenagers and those who were perhaps more inclined to spends their disposable income so they opened dance facilities, things like this, over the years in a constant attempt to breathe air into the park.

Ted Simons: They finally said let's build some office buildings.

John Southard: Absolutely.

Ted Simons: When you talk about legend city what kind of response to do you get? I'm sure some folks get a wistful look in their eyes, others go, what?

John Southard: If you talk to somebody who has lived in Phoenix for some time, particularly who grew up here during the time legend city operated, there's a great deal of nostalgia. People are very excited this year. When you talk to people who weren't here, they long for the idea of this amusement park which of course has never come about in Phoenix since legend city closed. So yes, it's a top their really excites people.

Ted Simons: The western theme was very big. It only makes sense. Yet the reason it's a western theme and you see a lot of sand and -- the weather, just seems like it's prohibitive almost, you're too cold in the winter or too hot in the summer.

John Southard: Although again the Capells indicated that weather if it were to be open now they don't think it would have necessarily have been an issue. The population growth has certainly helped but that's certainly the issue cited most frequently, who would open an amusement park where it's 115 degrees in the summer. Contextually the western theme was very appropriate at the time. You think about TV listings you have Bonanza, you have Have Gun Will Travel.

Ted Simons: Gunsmoke?

John Southard: I don't know if us that on in '62, '63, but right around there. John Wayne's movie the Alamo. In 1962 John Ford's last major western, the man who shot Liberty Valance. Arizonans love to sell this image despite the fact that Phoenix was never a wild western community.

Ted Simons: Is the museum still going on or is that over?

John Southard: I believe there was an event at the historical society museum last Saturday. It celebrated the 50th anniversary of the opening of legend city.

Ted Simons: You miss the whole kit and kaboodle.

John Southard: Absolutely although there has are a number of people online with pages paying tribute to the park.

Ted Simons: This is fun. It brought back weird memories. I'm not sure if they are accurate but weird ones. It must have been fun for you. Thanks for joining us. We appreciate it.

John Southard: Thank you for having me.

John Southard:Phoenix-area Historian;

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