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Frontier City - Looking Back 50 Years PDF Print E-mail
Written by Steve Lackmeyer   
Monday, 07 September 2009 23:01

Opening day at Frontier City. This image and more can be found at http://matterhorn1959.blogspot.com/2009/01/souvenir-friday-frontier-city-usa.html

Jimmy Burge had a dream – to pack up a frontier town built up as part of Oklahoma’s semi-centennial in 1957 and turn it into a a permanent amusement park that would be the Sooner state’s answer to Disneyland. The park, assembled at the Oklahoma State Fairgrounds, had been a bit hit with visitors and featured for several days on the nationally-televised “Today” show.

But Burge faced one big hurdle. When the town went up for auction, he was out-bid. Burge, not swayed by his bad luck, moved forward with an amusement park built from scratch at U.S. 66-77 (now Interstate 35) and Hefner Road. He would show visitors the Old West in all its bawdy glory, complete with weather-beaten storefronts, chorus girls and gunslingers.

It wouldn’t be easy. Five months before the park was to open, Burge had one building to show. But he was a salesman, and he convinced four Oklahoma City businessmen to help finance the $800,000 project. Within 48 hours, $450,000 was raised. With four months until opening day, only one lease had been signed for a storefront. And with three months remaining, only a few buildings had frames.

In those final weeks, Frontier City shot up from nothing to sprawl a half mile along the highway frontage. Admission was free, the park was open year-round, and tourists simply parked their cars and crawled over a half-mile long rail fence to enter.

Thousands of people lined the streets of the theme park on opening day. They watched Gov. Raymond Gary open the new attraction with gun salutes and speeches. Some spectators picnicked with friends, while others rode runaway mine trains through rickety, dark tunnels. Young boys cheered when the law caught up with those masked "stagecoach robbers ."


In each of its first two years, the park welcomed more than 1.1 million visitors. Guests were treated to rodeos, livestock competitions and exhibitions. About 20 events were held each week. The crowds, of course, were drawn most by rides like the giant Ferris wheel that hailed from Germany and for the half-mile train ride, both of which cost a nickel. More than 42 tenants offered goods ranging from saddles to Western clothes to cameras, taffy, barbecue and souvenirs.

Burge sold his stock in 1960, and Allen Dean, a theater manager from Ardmore, became general manager. But the next 18 years were tough ones. Three major fires burned portions of the park, and a windstorm did extensive damage. Attendance dropped, and in 1968, the park’s owners declared bankruptcy. That's when Howard Slusky took over, buying Frontier City for $185,000 from the Small Business Administration.

The park was run down and needing help. It took four years for Slusky to recreate those early romantic sparks with visitors. He added 13 rides as well as arts and crafts displays, a picnic area, catering service and other amenities. Ticket sales increased by 30 percent from 1971 to 1972, and Slusky kept marketing the park as "family style fun.”

In 1981, the Tierco Corp., which changed its name to Premier Parks in 1994, bought the park and continued its operation. Some speculated the corporation would close the park, and the property would be bulldozed. After all, the land it occupied was valuable, and the demand for real estate was high.

But the oil bust – and the collapse in Oklahoma real estate - saved Frontier City. In 1983, Gary Story was hired over the telephone to take over the ailing park for Tierco. Story began his theme park career in 1972 working on a clean-up crew at Six Flags-St. Louis. He served as general manager of Luna Park in Sydney, Australia, and was working as general manager of Diversiones del Reino in Mexico City when he accepted the Frontier City job.

When he arrived at the park, he wasn't enthusiastic. After completing his first tour, he sat on a bench and almost cried. He concluded he would stay at the park, do a quick turn-around, and leave after six months.

But instead, Story fell in love with the old park. He joined forces with operations manager Manny Gonzales and drew up a plan to revive the park’s fortunes. Their task was massive: the grounds were unkempt, the streets were shabby, the rides were old.

They started a clean-up plan and matched it with the addition of a new ride each season. They studied the park’s history, and watched a lot of old westerns. They made notes of the gunfighters’ outfits, of the building and clothing styles and sought to duplicate what they saw on screen at the park. In 1986 they bought and moved the Silver Bullet rollercoaster from the Texas State Fair, giving Frontier City its first looping rollercoaster ride.

By the mid-1990s, Frontier City was on a roll and Tierco, renamed Premier Parks, had expanded to owning six amusement parks across the country (including Oklahoma City’s White Water Bay). As the park approached its 40th anniversary, Story had big plans: the addition of a 15,000-seat amphitheater, a campground/hotel tie-in with the park, or maybe even an American Indian center. But something bigger was about to pop: Story led the company to purchase the much bigger Six Flags chain for $1.9 billion after losing a bid to operate the flagship park in Texas.

The first couple of years after the acquisition went well. Story closed 2000 predicting revenues would hit $1 billion. The company’s performance then plunged, posting net losses over the next four years capped with a loss of more than $100 million in 2003. When the company announced disappointing attendance numbers in August 2002, several analysts downgraded the stock and the share price plummeted 57 percent in one day.

Story stepped down in 2003, citing challenges controlling his diabetes. Two years later the Oklahoma City-based management was being challenged by a stockholder revolt led by Washington Redskins owner Dan Snyder. Offices were moved to New York with new management taking over, but fortunes continued to decline for the Six Flags empire. With the chain facing bankruptcy, the Oklahoma City parks were sold to Jacksonville, Fla.-based PARC Management in 2007 in a deal valued at $312 million.

With the 2006 closing of the historic Bell’s Amusement Park in Tulsa (a situation forced by Tulsa County commissioners who replaced the attraction with surface parking), Frontier City was now the only amusement park left in Oklahoma. The new owners promised to re-invest in the park, run it as a family operation, and bring it back to its former glory. The next year the owners appeared to be keeping their promises, adding new rides and shows timed to coincide with the state’s centennial celebration.


- Frontier City Continues in Old West Tradition, The Oklahoman, by Tamie Ross, May 17, 1998

- Premier Park Officials Keep Low Profile, The Oklahoman, by Gypsy Hogan, Feb. 10, 1998

- Riding on the Future, The Oklahoman, by Paul  Monies, Aug. 20, 2005

- Family Focus Pledged for City Parks, The Oklahoman, by Paul Monies, Jan. 12, 2007

Last Updated on Sunday, 13 September 2009 01:29