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Documentary unearths story of failed theme park: Bible Storyland

by Jerry Gorin | Off-Ramp®

Bruce Bushman

Harvey Jordan was running an art gallery in North Hollywood when a man came in and told him he had some very rare Disney drawings that he wanted to sell.

"Immediately my eyes lit up 'Disney, Disney'," says Jordan. "He invited me over to his apartment to see them. He had about 250 of these originals drawings by an artist named Bruce Bushman and I was taken right away."

Jordan desperately wanted the drawings, but owner Jeffrey Todd spent the next 3 years wavering on his price. One day Jordan learned Todd had died in a house fire. He rushed to Todd's house and found 75 of the drawings had survived. He quickly bought them from the estate and took them to Disney's studios in Burbank.

"It turns out they were for a theme park that was never built. I grew up in Southern California and never heard of Bible Storyland."

In 1960, just five years after Disneyland opened, Jack Haley, the actor who played the Tin Man in The Wizard of Oz and a devout Christian, teamed with Donald Duncan of Duncan Yo-Yo's. Together they planned to build a new theme park in Cucamonga, one that would rival Disney in its ambition. They even hired two former Disneyland designers, Nat Winecoff and Bruce Bushman. Bible Storyland was their dream.

"They wanted to create it in a heart shape," says Jordan, "which supposedly represents God's love of humanity. And the park was going to be divided into 6 different lands. You'd be in the Garden of Eden, then Rome, then Egypt, then Israel, and Babylon. And each place would have rides relating to the Bible.

"Take Noah's Ark, a double carousel. It would be a typical carousel, but built inside a large ark and filled with zebras and camels going around the carousel. That's a very biblical theme, of course. But to the left of it is the 'Carousel of Mythical Beasts'. You see this girl riding on a half horse, half mermaid, with dragon feet. The mythical beasts! I never found that in the bible myself."

And neither did the local clergy. Todd Pierce, a Cal Poly San Luis Obispo professor who's currently working on a book about early theme parks, says the designers didn't really put much thought into what their audience would think.

"They hired people with minimal contact with religious communities," says Pierce, "to create a theme park for Protestants and Catholics. Nat Winecoff talked about the trip to hell, and he would get so animated and excited about seeing Satan and the sulfur baths and fire fountains. And then you could go to Circus Maximus and see a recreation of the lions and the Christians played out on stage, and then afterwards you could eat lion burgers. So there was this type of cavalier attitude, this junkiness to it, that smacked of religious profiteering."

There was the the "Garden of Eden" boat ride, which looks a lot like Disneyland's jungle cruise, with scenes of Adam and Eve standing side by side with cavemen and dinosaurs. And there was a ride into King Tut's tomb, which has nothing to do with the Bible at all.

"It was supposed to open on Easter 1961," says Pierce. "In the summer of 1960, the Catholic clergy were organizing to picket the construction of Bible Storyland while earth movers were out there grading the land and getting ready to build."

The project was called off, and ex-Disney employees Winecoff and Bushman went on to work on other eventual theme park flops, like Apache-land and Hanna-Barbera land. Yet the dream of Bible Storyland lived on, all the way into 2001, when a park called the Holyland Experience opened in Orlando, Florida. Harvey Jordan reviewed it for his documentary.

"The big difference is that the Holyland Experience is actually backed by a Church, so there's a religious agenda there. Also there are no rides there, really. Most of the people are going for a religious experience. Frankly, it was boring. They re-created scenes from the Bible and you walked around and looked at old Jerusalem, but where was the excitement? Where are the roller coasters? Where's the carousel of mythical beasts?"

For now, the carousel is still spinning in Harvey Jordan’s fantasies. He’s toured Bushman’s drawings around the country and produced a documentary about Bible Storyland. And what reviving the park itself? Let’s just say, "Next year in Jerusalem!"

Bible Storyland has been awarded Best Documentary Film at the Hollywood Reel Independant Film Festival. It will make its West Coast premiere this coming Monday, December 3rd, at 5pm at the New Beverly Theater.


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