Chatper 3 - "Houston, We've Got A Problem" -1994
When the gates opened on Memorial Day 1994 and the balloons went up, we braced for the tidal wave of tourists. We got a ripple, but they loved the show. The local townspeople who came swore up and down that before long the tour busses would be filling our parking lots.
We did a summer of shows for big audiences, and small ones. Sometimes two shows a day with a day off on Mondays. Let me tell you that doing the same show over and over, day after day, like we used to in the sixties when we were on the college tour circuit works magic. We became a smooth, tuned and oiled entertainment express train. Together we were magical, and individually, we each had the luxury of our moment of glory in the spotlight. We were as good as we ever were. And with the push from Larry’s Association back-up band, we were better. We rocked. If you don’t believe this, check out the CD on Barry’s web-site at the top of this page.
McGuire emceed the show like he was Warren Buffet entertaining his shareholders. I’ve never seen him happier or more full of life.
Dolan morphed into The Arizona Rhinestone Cowboy right before our eyes. You could swear Trigger was waiting outside for him. Jackie, Gayle and Ann were explosions of color, femininity and glitter, and they sang like it was opening night at Caesar’s Palace. They were funny too.
Paul Potash was hysterical as only Paul can be. McGuire, Dolan and I almost fell off the stage laughing one night. One of Paul’s particularly hysterical moments is on the CD McGuire is selling in his store. And Paul’s incredibly rich baritone voice hadn’t been equaled since Nick Woods.
Clarence’s tenor gospel arias had people praying in the aisles. We had to help some of the older folks in the audience off their knees and back into their walkers after ‘Glory Glory’ some nights.
Larry Ramos brought The Association with him, and that in itself made our show first class in its own right. We’d never performed with our own rhythm section of drums, keyboard, and sidemen. Oh yes, we’d sung with orchestras and house bands, but these guys knew what our music was all about, and they played like they were part of the group. They were. And when Larry was center stage, he ruled!
The boys in the orchestra pit. Donnie Gugeon on keyboard, drummer Bruce Pictor (on bass in the picture), Del Ramos (Larry’s brother – not pictured) on bass. And of course, Larry’s little cousin Miles Unite played up and down the banjo neck so melodically that I stopped singing a few times and found myself gaping along with the rest of us.
What’s more, our show was staged – lighting, movement, not just nine folk-singers in a boring line. We were entertainers! Denny Bond, who was in charge of the management team had managed some pretty serious entertainers in his career, like Paul Williams, Harry Nilsson, and the like, and he had an instinct for the stage that was pretty much what the doctor ordered for us. We did all the songs we always wanted to do and some new ones too. Clarence sang 'Bridge Over Troubled Water', we sang 'City of New Orleans'. Larry, his brother Del from the Association and little genius banjo king Miles rocked with blue grass, the ladies did the country hit 'Men' with the guys swaying in the background (ever see three soloists backed by six Pips?). And of course all of our old stuff rang with the old energy and sound. It was an experience none of us will ever forget and I don’t think our music ever sounded better or our show ever looked better. To this day, I’ve never been part of anything like it.
Reality sets in...
By late July it became painfully obvious that we needed at least another few years to cultivate the tourist trade necessary to support such a top heavy venture, something we should have anticipated, but we just didn’t have the resources. When we built the park, the county forced us to build an infrastructure for a permanent theme park and that about drained any reserve investment we had. We ended up with bathrooms galore, parking lots, and road access for thousands, and very little left to pay anyone. We had standing ovation after standing ovation but the crowds were slim most of the time and it just wasn't enough to feed the beast we had created. The tour companies begged us to stay open and swore that all we needed was more time, and that it was a cumulative business, but time was running short and someone had to pay for dinner.
I was feeling particularly bad because I had arranged for most of the financing and had been pretty instrumental in assembling the management and planning team along with some help. The rest of the group came along on faith and hope and if we had been successful, everyone would have raked in a small fortune since we were the stockholders in the company. Some even invested money, but the bulk of the endeavor was on my shoulders and the shoulders of the team. By the time things were souring, even the local townsfolk were looking at us like we were stupid. Guess what?
Well, we had meetings, we had long discussions, we had more meetings. We sacrificed paychecks, held hands, and went down the long paths of denial, faith, all the stuff you go through when something you love is slipping away. Before long we were breaking up into cliques with management on one side of the aisle and the rest on the other. I suppose that’s always the danger when things are going bad and the guys most responsible are keeping mum about it. Maybe Denny and the rest of the team, including me, thought that we were protecting everyone, but it sure didn’t play out that way. It’s a good lesson for the future if you’re going to be managing a group of individuals. Everyone’s got to be a part of it from the get go, no matter how bumpy the ride, even if management gets to make the final decision. No quarterback ever scored without his guys knowing the game plan. I was feeling like I had led my family into a blind abyss. By mid-August, we were trying not to talk about it much and we were grabbing for straws, looking for rays of hope.
'This is the way the world ends...not with a bang, but a whimper'
By Labor Day, it all rolled to a slow grinding stop despite the infusions of money some of us kept pumping into it. Bless us all, they, we, I, tried. But one by one, the gang packed up and left. Some had other obligations, but mostly, everyone was just plain disappointed and downright exhausted.
They came for the lighting system in a big panel truck. Our sound system went a week later, and by September, the park was a ghost town of weeds and memories in the damp Oakhurst autumn, while I hung around like Blackbeard’s ghost, cursing the weather, the fog, myself, for the collapse and hoping for a miracle. I was the last Minstrel standing when the big gray crane came to repossess the tent one drizzly day in late autumn of 1994, and I sat in my car, parked on Highway 49, and watched the last vestige of a dream being dismantled.
The rest of the gang had gone by then. Denny and our construction manager Larry Brock were gone. Ann and her husband stayed. They had fallen in love with the place, made some friends and bought a home in Oakhurst and settled into mountain living. I haven’t seen them since.
I should have left with the rest of the group, but I stuck around, and tried to figure out a way to either salvage the dream, or go see the lawyers.
Epilogue - The Chinese Connection - A Glimmer of hope - Minstrels '95 (coming next)