Thursday, November 20, 2014

Marion Knott Montapert (1922-2014)

Marion Knott at 75th anniversary of her mother's restaurant, 6-13-2009.
Marion Knott Montapert, the last of Walter and Cordelia Knott's children  -- and the only one of their children to be born on their famous berry farm -- died  November 13.  Over the years, she went from selling rhubarb on street corners, to waiting tables in her mother's tea room, to managing Marion & Toni's Dress Shop with her sister, to being a key player in the planning and operations for one of the world's best-known theme parks. She put a fence around the park, added the Fiesta Village and Roaring 20s areas, and introduced rollercoasters. 

An obituary for her appears in the Orange County Register, and a shorter blurb about her passing appeared in the L.A. Times. I won't rehash them here, but I will share a few additional comments...
Marion Knott on "Boomerang" rollercoaster at Knott's Berry Farm, 1990.
When Phil Brigandi and I were bringing the enormous Knott's Berry Farm historical collection over to the Orange County Archives and were trying to organize and make sense of it all,  Marion Knott was a great resource. She not only answered a bunch of Phil's questions, but we also got the chance to scan some of her personal scrapbooks of the farm.

I did not meet her in person until 2009. She had not visited Knott's Berry Farm since the family sold it to Cedar Fair, and had sworn she'd never return. But for the 75th anniversary of  her mother's restaurant (Mrs. Knott's Chicken Dinner Restaurant), she made an exception. She was very much afraid of what she would find. What would the new people have done to the place she and her parents and her siblings had built?

To her surprise, she was very pleased with what she found, and she said so publicly. She was very gracious and patient with all the people who wanted to meet her that day, including me.

Of course, I wasn't going to write about Marion Knott today, until I heard about her passing. I was going to write about the good news that has added a large portion of the old Santa Ana Register to their searchable database. One of my first searches after getting access to a account was to find the Register's earliest references to the Knott family after their arrival in Orange County.

The earliest Knott references, in the mid-1920s, are surprisingly not about the soon-to-be-famous berry farmer, Walter. Rather, they are about Cordelia Knott attending the Jolly Stitchers club of Buena Park, with baby Marion in tow. Today, of course, hardly a day goes by when the Knott name fails to appear in the paper. About 4,000 people a day enjoy the theme park that bears their name, and -- at least for now -- even more enjoy the line of jams and preserves they created. And the philanthropic work the Knott family continues to do in Orange County has had an enormous impact.
The Knott children: Toni, Russell, Virginia and little Marion, circa 1925.

At the time of her death, Marion Knott was next on the list of people to be approached for an interview for the Orange County Historical Society's oral history project. Let this be a lesson to all of us who do local history work: Always interview the older generation NOW, not later.