It was a dreary Monday when I met the Bell family at their home for a rare opportunity to capture four generations of Bells' ownership in one photo. Their home, of course, for more than a half century, has been Bell's Amusement Park, located, for now, at the southwest end of Expo Square, along 21st St. Everybody in Tulsa knows where Bell's is. Thousands of out-of-town visitors know Bell's. Even Hollywood knows Bell's. Portions of movies from The Outsiders, to Rumble Fish to Tex were filmed here.
But, very soon the final chapter of this novel entertainment venue will play out as the Bell family will be forced to pack up its 10-acre collection of rides, concessions and carnival games at the Fairgrounds and head to, well, no one knows where yet, since its lease was recently terminated by the Tulsa County Public Facilities Authority.
It had rained earlier that day, and beads of precipitation still drizzled from the park's trees, many of which were planted by members of the Bell family themselves. I guess it hit me, entering the park's gates and seeing it so bare and gloomy, that this might be the last time I see it here at all.
I knew by now that the park's lease would not be renewed; I had talked to both Robby (Robert K. III) and Bob (Robert K. Jr.) Bell about the situation. They say the County's decision has devastated their family. And from the volume of comments from Tulsans who have grown up enjoying the park, the impact of not having this attraction in town is a big blow to the family entertainment available.
But it had been falling into disrepair for years. Once a sparkling clean gem of a park-patterned much after the example of Disneyland (which opened about the same time), many of the rides have suffered for lack of paint and general upkeep. The putt-putt course, once the best in town, has literally been left to fall apart.
In the summer evenings and especially weekends, late in the night young punks and gangs have caused trouble and fights have broken out.
They Say, We Say
Viability had been the hot topic surrounding Bell's current situation for a number of years, according to the County and Fair Board. On Nov. 8, Rick Bjorklund, Expo Square President and CEO, who was hired May 1 of this year, sent a letter to Robert K. Bell's Enterprises informing the company that Bell's lease would not be renewed and that all property must be off the premises within 120 days.
But after 51 years of business with the Expo Square, Robby Bell said the lease termination--though he knew it had been talked about--came as a shock. County Commissioner Randi Miller and Bjorklund said Bell's lack of financial viability, evident, they said, from reviewing Bell's business plan, was the reason for termination of the lease.
But Robby argues that Bell's, especially in the last two years, has been very profitable.
"We have added $700,000 worth of rides in the last two years with the Mind Melt and Gulls Gone Wild, which were purchased right after the storm," Robby said.
"We included a letter of intention [with the lease renewal] from a lending institution for a new ride with a price tag of between $700,000 and $750,000. The price isn't finalized because my father and I have to travel to the manufacturer and decide on lighting and accessories.
"If I had a contract, the ride would be open this spring. Now, I think a logical person should ask, how can any business secure $1.4 million in debt in a three-year time period and not be financially viable?
There's not a lending institution in the United States that's going to touch a company that can't handle that."
I asked Robby why he wouldn't allow the public to just have a look at the business plan and see for themselves that Bell's is a financially viable business.
"Obviously, for security reasons, we can't let that happen," he answered. "I wish I could, especially not that it's under attack, but I cannot."
Robby said he can't speculate as to why the County and Expo Square would want Bell's gone. The park is Expo Square's highest paying tenant, he said, and suggestions that it might be replaced by a parking lot seem a little fishy.
"We've paid the Fair Board over $12.5 million in rent since 1960. [The records from 1951 through 1959 were lost in a flood.] That's an incredible amount of money for land costs. In our 56-year history, we've had the highest land cost of any amusement park in the United States," Robby said.
"I think the question needs to be asked, 'Who benefits from Bell's being gone from the Fairgrounds?'" Robby said. "That's certainly a question we're investigating, and I think the press should do the same. After all, it is a public trust, and the public has a right to know."
There has been some speculation from the press and public that Murphy Brothers, who have exclusive rights to operate the Midway rides at the Tulsa State Fair, want to install an amusement park in Bell's current location.
Gerald Murphy, Chairman, sent the County Public Facilities Authority a letter claiming non-intent.
"This is an absolute fictitious rumor that someone has put out there," the letter states. "I have no desire to operate an amusement park in that area or any other in the City of Tulsa for that matter."
Operating from the Heart
"I'd rather be mad than sad," said Sally Bell of the situation. "I feel more productive when I'm mad."
But she, like Vera Bell, Bob's mother and the wife of Bell's founder, Robert K. Bell, Sr., and the rest of the family have bad days and good days. Today was a good day. The day Sally began packing her office was a bad day.
"It's a long story, and the way it started, well, I guess that's a good place to begin," were the words Bob Bell used to begin our nearly two-hour interview, discussing the history of Bell's Amusement Park almost in its entirety.
"Christmas of 1946, my father built me a little gas-powered car, way before the advent of go-carts or anything like that. No one had anything like this, not even the super rich," Bob said.
Bob Sr. powered the motorized car with a gasoline Maytag Washing Machine motor, which he found at a junk yard downtown that once existed just north of Urban Tulsa Weekly's offices at 8th and Elgin, in what is now an empty lot. In fact, Bob said, his dad got a lot of parts for his homemade contraptions from that junkyard.
Robby recounted stories his father told him about driving that little car from their home at 8th and Lewis to Wilson Junior High School, right up 11th Street.
Bob's car was so popular with the neighborhood kids that he and a neighbor decided to use his ingenuity to make a little extra money on the weekends. Bob Jr. helped his dad build a train, and Bob Sr. would sit on the engine of the train with kids piled into the cars behind him, and back in and of the driveway.
Bob Sr. sold that first train after a little while, and he, Bob Jr. and Vera continued to make and sell kiddie rides. Their rides were installed at the base of drive-in movies (the still-standing Admiral Twin boasted a few), at the Zoo and various other places.
Local football legend Glenn Dobbs owned a driving range at 21st and Pittsburgh in what was an open field, across from where Bell's stands today. In 1950, the Bells installed three kiddie rides at the driving range--a train, a Farris Wheel and a merry-go-round-like car ride.
The rides were such a success that summer, that the Fairgrounds opened bidding on a kiddie amusement park in Bell's present location. Bob Sr. won that bid in October of 1950, and in 1951, Bell's moved in.
There were nine rides in all opening season; the Bells built eight of them, the train, a Farris Wheel, a merry-go-round, an airplane ride, the car ride, a boat ride and constructed a Shetland pony ride.
They also bought their first ride, a miniature roller coaster called The Little Dipper.
Imagination and Ingenuity
Perhaps one of the most interesting aspects of Bob Jr.'s story (though they're all interesting; it's hard not to become completely enthralled when he talks. His eyes light up and every now and then he lets out little vocal bursts of excitement when he recalls something especially amusing or exciting) is how his father came to develop all of these rides.
You might be thinking he should have been serving in World War II in 1946, but he was 4F, unfit for military service, due to burst eardrums--eardrums he burst himself, actually, by accident.
Bob Jr., who is a scuba diver, among many other things, knows a few things about deep-water diving that his father didn't when he tried to make his own diving helmet.
Bob Jr. laughed when he told the story about how, in the 1930s, long before the Aqualung, his father made his own diving helmet from a found hot water heater tank.
"He didn't know any of the physiology of it, and he put this special glass on the hot water heater tank and pressurized it," Bob Jr. recalled. "And he had this guy on the surface putting, I'm sure, unfiltered water into the top of the helmet to equalize the pressure.
"Have you ever felt the pain in your ears that comes from diving into really deep water? It's excruciating, especially in the first 10 feet. But my dad was this real macho guy, and he would tolerate the pain, and it perforated his eardrums."
Bob Jr. said his dad always had a natural blacksmith sort of talent, so when he couldn't enlist into the military, he went to work for an oil company called Lee C. Moore building oil rigs, and that's where he built that little car in 1946.
Bell's was successful from the get-go. The first ticket prices for the park's rides were nine cents each, or you could get the discount rate--three tickets for a quarter.
"We tried to add a new ride each year," said Bob Jr. "The first teen/adult ride we added was the Bumper Cars, our first big ride, and it was very popular. We were starting to graduate from a kiddie park to an amusement park, but it was really difficult for us to shake that image."
Other adult rides added to the park were the go carts and then the Tilt-a-Whirl's, still in operation. In 1960, the Mad Mouse roller coaster was added.
"It was very tame to today's standards, but back then it was really something," Bob said, as he demonstrated how the coaster's cars zipped around sharp corners.
By then Bob was a sophomore at the University of Tulsa and a cheerleader -- that's where he met Sally. Five years later, in 1965, Bob had graduated from law school at TU and was working full-time at the park. That year, Bob Sr. started making plans for a roller coaster.
A Real Amusement Park
Bob Sr. had a time trying to convince everyone around him that a roller coaster was a viable addition to the amusement park. It took a year and a half alone to convince Zingo's manufacturer that the park was big enough to support a coaster.
Then, Bell's bank, with whom he had been banking for 15 years, refused to loan Bob the money. Finally, Houston Adams, a lender with F&M Bank as well as a member of the Fairgrounds' governing board at the time, agreed to help.
Adams believed in the benefit a roller coaster would bring to not only Bell's but to the Fairgrounds as well, said Bob Jr.
Bell's built Zingo for $235,000, about half of what most roller coasters were going for at that time, according to Bob Jr, and was built by Bob, his father and other high school-age employees.
The ride was completed the first week of July 1968, not until halfway of the year's season. Even so, the rest of the park doubled in revenue that season.
"Oh, this is dramatic," Bob Jr. said, his eyes widening at the extravagance of it all. "At that time, we had one of the most expensive roller coasters in the U.S. Most rides were 50 cents per ride, and we were charging 75 cents. People thought this was really pushing the envelope."
The ride paid for itself in only two and a half years.
"So we were right, and everyone else was wrong," Bob said. "We proved to everybody that we could do it. It kind of reflects on the present situation."
When I asked him how so, he told me, "We are the experts. We have gone through several wars, wage and price controls, three recessions, the death of my father [who, incidentally, died in a small house on the park's grounds], a death and the loss of the number three ride in our park [referring to the shutting down of the Wild Cat roller coaster upon the death of a 14 year-old boy in 1997], a fire in 2000 that caused a tremendous amount of damage and the microburst storm earlier this year that caused the park to shut down during our most profitable month, from June 6 to 20.
"That shows viability, through all that diversity and with competition and everything, and it's because we know what we are doing and we have the proper management philosophy."
No Where To Go?
Besides sending tight-lipped letters back and forth through attorneys, neither Bell's nor the Fair Board is saying much. Bell's attorneys sent a letter asking the Fair Board for more time to move, stating, "As you know, the Bells are both disappointed and a bit surprised that their lease at the Fairgrounds will not be extended for any period. Nonetheless, they have set out to comply with the Trust's request that they vacate the premises.
"As you can imagine, after 56 years of adding improvements to the park, including many recent and very expensive ones undertaken in the mistaken belief that their lease would be renewed, they now find it would be impossible to vacate the premises in the 120 days given them."
Bell's attorneys asked the park be given until Sept. 1, 2007 to vacate, and they expect a reply sometime this week.
Robby said the news has devastated his entire family, especially Vera, his grandmother, who could, at one time, dismantle, move and reassemble every ride in the park, he added.
Robby has spoken with or plans to speak with a number of local communities whose leaders have expressed the desire for the park to relocate to their towns, including Jenks, Broken Arrow, Sand Springs, Owasso, Bixby and Vinita.
Tulsa City Councilor Roscoe Turner has also expressed a desire the City of Tulsa annex the park.
As far as the future goes, Robby said he doesn't even know at this point where the park will end up or if it will shut down completely.
Citizens have been vocal about their desire to see the park remain in operation, if not in Tulsa, then somewhere close.
Chances are, the park won't fold without a fight.
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