Thursday, January 06, 2011

Bud Hurlbut (1918-2011)

I'm sad to report that themed attraction entrepreneur/genius Wendell "Bud" Hurlbut passed away on Wednesday at age 92. He designed, built and operated Knott's Berry Farm's best attractions, including the Calico Mine Ride (1960) and the Timber Mountain Log Ride (1969). His business understanding with Walter Knott -- to operate rides on his property -- rested for all those decades on a simple handshake deal, never a signed contract. A gentleman's word was his bond in those days, and both Walter and Bud were, by all accounts, honorable gentlemen.
The photos immediately above and below show Bud tinkering with the inner workings of the Calico Mine Ride. (All of today's photos come from the Knott's Berry Farm Collection, which is held by the Orange County Archives.) This ride turned 50 just three months ago.
Hurlbut was an innovator, and his inventions, like flume rides and various motors, were adopted later by much of the theme park industry. Anyone I've ever talked to who worked for him loved working for him. His obituary in the O.C. Register states that "Even into his nineties, he could be found in the middle of his workshop, just across La Palma Avenue from Knott's Berry Farm."
In the photo above, Bud shows a scale model of his proposed Log Ride to an intrigued Walter Knott in 1967. In the image below, the Hurlbut and Knott families gather to announce the groundbreaking for the Log Ride.
Unlike Disney, which has teams of talented Imagineers and other specialists to help create each new attraction, Bud had mainly himself to rely on. This is all the more amazing when you consider how much more elaborate, say, the Calico Mine Ride was in comparison to Disney's Matterhorn -- opened just a year apart from one another.
Walter and Bud took the log ride for a test "spin" or two (or more) well before John Wayne and his son Ethan became the first official guests to brave this thrilling ride.
Although the Timber Mountain Log Ride and Calico Mine Ride stand out as Bud's masterworks for Knott's, he also provided most of the other early amusement/theme-park attractions. In fact, the first such attraction at Knott's was a Merry-Go-Round (seen below in 1955) which Bud had to talk Walter into allowing onto his property. Other Hurlbut attractions included the well-loved Antique Auto Ride (seen below), which was later renamed the "Tijuana Taxi" when that area of Knott's was re-christened "Fiesta Village." Bud made sure the ride was not simply a car on a track, but that the passengers would experience an adventure going through all kinds of terrain and past a variety of colorful and amusing scenes.
Bud's miniature trains are somewhat legendary in the industry, and one of them circled Knott's Lagoon, which is now parking area behind Independence Hall. (Shown below in 1958.)
Another Hurlbut addition to the Lagoon were miniature paddle-wheelers. Below is the Cordelia K in about 1963. At least one of the boats reappeared years later, across the street in the Reflection Lake.
Walt Disney knew Bud and would come over to see his progress on various projects. When Walt came to see the new Calico Mine Ride, he had no idea that the apparent entrance to the ride was only the beginning of a hidden, winding, and attractively themed queue area. Even with a long line, it would appear to passers-by that the line was short. And once in line, the guests were appeased by the colorful and dynamic surroundings. "You sneaky S.O.B.!" Walt exclaimed to Bud, upon discovering about a hundred people were already ahead of them in line.
Today, of course, Disney uses this innovation in all its theme parks.
When Walter Knott announced he was building an exact replica of Independence Hall, Bud set to work on a gift for Walter: An exact replica of the Liberty Bell to place inside the Hall. Cast in the same alloy as the original, and with attention paid to the tiniest detail, the bell still adorns the Hall's entrance today. In the photo above, Bud and foundry workers toil away at what became a major undertaking.
Many of the older attractions in Fiesta Village also began as Hurlbut concessions. Many of these were relatively familiar rides from a mechanical perspective, but were made colorful and unique by Bud's focus on appropriate theming and detail.
The photo above shows the Happy Sombreros, a "Tea Cups" clone that featured colorful chili bowls topped with huge fiberglass sombreros. Note that even the operator's booth and wrought-iron fencing and arches reflect a sense of Old Mexico or Early California.
When Bud finally sold his attractions to Knott's outright, the changes were almost immediately evident. Soon such touches as the beautiful hand-painted murals on the back of each "Mexican Whip" (Tilt-a-Whirl) car were replaced with simple blocks of color.
Bud continued bringing rides to Knott's into the early 1980s. One of the last was the Dragon Swing (a favorite of mine, as a child). The photo above shows Knott's executives with Bud (center) during the installation of the Dragon Swing in 1980.
But by the time of Walter Knott's death, the whole business arrangement became less appealing to Bud. As I noted earlier, he soon sold many of his attractions to Knott's. Others (and parts of still others) reappeared at Castle Park in Riverside -- a theme park Hurlbut established himself in 1976. Bits and pieces of some of your favorite old Knott's rides can still be found out there.
You can also find a refurbished Hurlbut miniature steam train (formerly of Santa's Village) at the the Santa Ana Zoo in Prentice Park.
The 2007 photo below shows (L to R) Walt Disney Imagineering Sr. V.P. of Creative Development Tony Baxter; Orange County's Assistant Archivist Chris Jepsen; Bud Hurlbut; and renown Disney artist Kevin Kidney. We all drove up to La Crescenta to hear Imagineer and "Knott's Preserved" author Christopher Merritt give an excellent talk on the history of Knott's Berry Farm. Bud's work was heavily featured during the presentation.
Bud will be missed. But it's hard to think of a better legacy than pushing the boundaries of your industry forward and upward while simultaneously bringing joy to millions and millions of people.
I'm one of those people, and I suspect you are too.


outsidetheberm said...

A great tribute for a great man. Thank you, Chris.

Connie Moreno said...

Great post and once again, I learned a lot!

Unknown said...

Great tribute with well-chosen photos.

Matthew Smith said...

Amazing article! Bud you will be missed.

Chris Jepsen said...

I've been getting a lot of email about Bud today, including this from my friend Chris Merritt, author of the excellent history, Knott's Preserved:

Apparently, Bud Hurlbut passed away in his sleep last night. I'm very sad - but he lived a truly amazing life, and obviously, was a great help to all of us who worked on the Knott's Preserved project.

He was a titan of the industry, and I will surely miss him.

Chris Merritt
Art Director Dreamworks Zone

Chris Merritt said...

Thanks Chris - excellent tribute.

Anonymous said...

He was 92 not 93.
June 13, 1918
You don't round up when a person passes away!

Chris Jepsen said...

I have a good source telling me he died at age 93. I have another good source telling me he was born in 1918 (which is why I added the date to the header today.) I'd be happy to get something definitive to settle the discussion, but I'm not sure a post from an anonymous source is much of a tie-breaker.

Major Pepperidge said...

I was at the event in La Crescenta, and was thrilled to be sitting behind Bud!

Dr Bitz said...

I enjoyed the images you posted Chris. They also show Bud and Walter as great collaborators having some "hard fun". This reminds me of Walt and Roy in that Roy provided the fiscal means for Walt to grow his ideas. Walter Knott had a need and Bud filled that. He gave Bud a chance to play in his world famous "berry patch" and grow his ideas right there in the shadow of Disneyland. What a great time they must have had. No lawyers, focus groups, or movie franchises to tie in. Just handshakes and ideas. I got my start at 21 with no experience as a theme designer. The farm gave me a shot when WED and others rejected me. It was a family owned culture that was open to ideas and I believe that Bud's success paved the way for others like me to have an audience. Bud was tapped by Marion to help me and had the precious trust of the family. He was a humble and generous man with a loyal staff to support him. As much as I knew and miss Bud, I also miss the incredible "incubator" that Knott's was and the great projects that came out of it. I wish there were more places like that for ideas to organically grow. Great tribute to Bud, thank you.

Eddie Sotto

doug mcintosh said...

An amazing legend. Do they make guys like this any more?
Bud brought a lot of joy to countless people.

Unknown said...

What a great tribute to Bud, Chris!
I had the pleasure of freelancing for him for roughly 7 years. I was just informed today of his passing from a loyal employee of his.
My heart is heavy today and I am very sad about his passing. Although he was in his early 90's, he was still as sharp as a whip.
I feel very honored and proud to have known him! He will definitely be missed!!!

Anonymous said...

One of my Brothers who knew and did odd jobs for Bud was given company shares in his trust and didn't even know it until they contacted him. Wow!!! What a guy to look at for the "little guy"!!

Anonymous said...

He was 92. Im his next door neighbor and friend of over 30 years. I never paid as much attention to his achievements in the business world, as I did him and his wife Lou. He was a born story teller and I can remember most of them to this day. Lou was just as dear to me as Buddy and I was crushed when he told me she past away back in 2004. I dont know anybody besides myself that can say they used to play catch with Buddy Hurlbut after school as a child. We used to pitch pennies against the curb from time to time as well. Yes he was great at that too!!! Love Rainman.