From Civil Rights to The Who: A Look at Wedgewood Village Amusement Park
text by Lynne Rostochil, vintage photos from the OPUBCO collection at the Oklahoma History Center, present-day photos by author
There’s little that signifies summer more than a bustling amusement park, where patrons get sticky hot while consuming pounds of not-so-good-for-you food and waiting in mile long lines half terrified and half giddy with delight in anticipation of boarding the next thrilling ride. From the late ’50s and all through the ’60s, Oklahoma City boasted three such parks scattered around town — Springlake, Frontier City, and Wedgewood — only one of which, Frontier City, survives today. Of the three, Wedgewood was definitely the most modern … and it was also the first to go.
Originally, Wedgewood started life in 1954 on NW 58th and May as Duffy’s Driving Range, but the young owner (and recent OU grad), Maurice Woods soon renamed the park after two of his favorite golf clubs, the pitching wedge and the wood (driver). Thus, Wedgewood, which sat next to the old Northwest Drive-In Theater, was born:
The Northwest Drive-In Theater closed in the ’70s and was replaced with the Marriott Hotel, while the old Wedgewood site became home to Founders Bank, Founders Tower, and the old Medical Arts building, among other, smaller structures.
Seeing that so many children were sitting around bored with nothing to do while their golf enthusiast parents practiced on strokes at the driving range, Woods decided to add a few kiddie rides to keep the tots entertained. Both parents and kiddos were so happy with the addition that Woods expanded again and added a miniature golf course, more kiddie rides, a roller coaster, and larger rides to appeal to older kids and adults. Soon, the unintentional amusement park was booming.
The following year, Woods brought in talent to draw more crowds. Perhaps the most popular “entertainer” of all was Richard “Dixie” Blandy, who earned his fame as a world champion flagpole sitter. In 1931, the insane, stupid, daring, determined Blandy became champion when he set the world record of sitting atop a skinny pole for a whopping 77 days. Yes, you read that right — 77 days. I did say he was insane and stupid…. The now-54 year old Blandy arrived in Oklahoma City just two weeks after attempting to break his own record in Chicago. There, a storm hit mid-way through his, uh, sit and snapped the pole in half, causing it and Blandy to violently crash to the ground. Although he sustained broken ribs and cuts and scrapes, the dumb … I mean, determined … Blandy came to OKC a mere 17 days later to give it another try:
On a steaming hot day in August 1955, Blandy climbed the 50-foot pole that he would call home for the duration and began to sit. He sat and sat and caused quite a sensation among park visitors, who thanks to Woods’ ingenious idea of installing a phone at the top of the pole, could call Blandy at VI2-3400 and chat with the daredevil. All seemed to go just as planned for the first few weeks … until Oklahoma’s mercurial weather cruelly set out to dethrone the world champion. One evening, the rains came and, as you know, with rain often comes fierce winds. One such 75-mile-an-hour gust was all it took to cause a repeat of Chicago, snapping ole Dixie’s pole in half and causing him to tumble, Humpty Dumpty style, down to the ground. This time, he broke a leg, cracked a few vertebrae, and received a pretty healthy concussion. Even that didn’t stop the idiotic Blandy from trying for a record at Wedgewood in 1956, but this attempt ended in failure, too, just as Woods received word the land the park sat on was to be sold for development.
Not surprisingly, the 30-year-old park owner and veteran of both WWII and the Korean Conflict wasn’t going to let a little thing like development thwart his plans to keep his popular attraction going. Soon, he found a new site for Wedgewood along a quiet stretch of NW Expressway west of Portland overlooking Lake Hefner and hired the architecture firm, Sorey Hill Sorey, to draw up plans to create an even bigger and better park:
All of the building designs would be modern, including the long building in the middle of the park that housed an air conditioned arcade and restaurant. The Quonset hut buildings you see in the plans would contain a skating rink and bowling alley that would be constructed later (but they never were). Interestingly, in 1955 — two years before these plans were made — architect Fred Pojezny designed a similarly-styled building for the exact same location that was to be the private and exclusive Riviera Club:
The $500,000 club building would sit on 13 acres and boast a 3,500 sf dance floor for 2,300 people. Later, the club planned to add a pool and tennis courts, but for one reason or another, that plan fell through, which was a good thing for Maurice Woods.
Ground broke for the new $1.5 million Wedgewood Village Amusement Park in November 1957 and opened for business the following May:
The 30-acre park boasted a driving range and even more kiddie rides, including a train that ran around the perimeter of the park:
… larger rides like a roller coaster called the Tornado (which is under construction in this photo):
… the Roto-Jet:
… the Auto Skooter:
… and Oklahoma’s largest pool, a Z-shaped behemoth that measured 164′ x 60′ and claimed a swimming capacity of 1,000:
Another area of the park, Jungleland, provided boat rides of the canal surrounding the park. The canal also divided the main parking lot from the park itself. Patrons would park their cars on the 1,500-space lot and walk over an arched footbridge to the entrance of Wedgewood. Here are a few photos of the bridge and Jungleland:
There was also this great and oh-so-mod pavilion:
But amid all of the lighthearted fun, times were a-changin’, to quote Bob Dylan. All during their existence, Oklahoma City’s amusement parks were segregated, with very few white park goers ever thinking twice about it. However, during the summer of 1963, eyes all over the country were riveted to television sets as Bull Connor’s dogs viciously attacked and powerful water hoses terrorized non-violent protestors in Birmingham, Alabama. Just a few weeks later on June 12th, NAACP leader, Medger Evers, was assassinated in Mississippi. With all of America now talking about the Civil Rights movement, Oklahoma City’s Clara Luper, youth advisor for the NAACP, and her cohorts decided that the time was right to desegregate the Metro’s amusement parks.
Luper began by talking with the parks’ owners, but when that didn’t get far, she declared that it was time to protest. On June 22, dozens of protestors — black and white — gathered at a local church and walked in files of three to the east entrance to Wedgewood. When they were refused admittance, the group stayed put, singing protest songs and talking with Woods, who claimed that he wouldn’t desegregate the park because Oklahoma City wasn’t ready for it yet. Within an hour, the police came and arrested over 50 protestors and took them to jail.
In response to the arrests, Luper declared, “We’ve heard the word ‘no’ before. We think Oklahoma City should be an open city.”
Woods told a reporter that, to him, this wasn’t a moral issue but a financial one. “I’m not just being arbitrary. I’m trying to hold together a financial investment (of $2 million).” He also stated that, “This problem (desegregation) will work itself out on its own. Demonstrations just cause hard feelings.”
After the protestors were released from jail, Woods kindly drove several of them back to their cars, but before the day was out, they voiced their commitment to return the following week to continue putting the pressure on Woods to change park policy. Perhaps secretly wanting to desegregate Wedgewood and definitely realizing that he was on the losing side of the battle, Woods announced on June 23rd that his park would thereafter be open to all, with the caveat that “these people must prove to me that Oklahoma City wants to accept them as equals.”
Over the next month, Wedgewood remained fully desegregated, with Woods claiming at one point that the transition was going “beautifully” and he had received many shows of support since June 23rd; however, he claimed on July 24th that integrating the park caused a heavy financial toll that resulted in Woods almost filing for bankruptcy. Even though there had been no racial problems at the park, the financial cost was too high, so Woods amended his decision and declared that the park would be integrated just one day a week — Thursdays. As you might expect, the call for demonstrations was immediate, and a steady stream of people from all walks of life showed up to the amusement park on a daily basis to protest Woods’ newest policy:
Housewives arrived to protest, with one saying, “We wanted to do something to show we’re against segregation. Integration is as much the white people’s responsibility as it’s the Negro’s.” Day after day, demonstrators showed up carrying signs (“Are Negroes Equal only on Thursday?”), chanting, and singing songs like “We Shall Overcome.” Behind the scenes, Luper, Woods, and others met to try to negotiate their way out of the situation, and they finally came to an agreement on August 1st. Once again, the park would be open to all (except for the pool and dance hall because I guess that was just going too far), and all of the hoopla finally died down.
Now that Wedgewood was desegregated — well, for the most part — it was back to fun times for everyone. Woods got back to the business of running his park and bringing in some pretty incredible talent to entertain his guests. In 1966, Johnny Cash came to town over the 4th of July weekend, with Erick, Oklahoma’s own Roger Miller making several appearances soon after.
The Troggs (love that band name!), Johnny Rivers, and Mitch Ryder also booked engagements:
Herman’s Hermits were here in 1965 and even did a pretty funny interview that you can see on YouTube:
But perhaps the most famous concert that people still talk about is when The Who came to town on their Magic Bus tour for a two-night gig on August 23rd and 24th, 1968:
Here is a hilarious Oklahoman article detailing the weekend concerts, one of which occurred on drummer Keith Moon’s 22nd birthday:
And here’s another article about the local opening band for the event, The Noblemen:
Finally, you can listen to the band playing “Substitute” and “I Can’t Explain” at Wedgewood:
Even with all of the concerts and rides, however, Maurice Woods never financially recovered from the summer of 1963 and, in 1969, he declared that the park would close at the end of the season and all of its assets would be auctioned off:
Wedgewood Village was quietly dismantled a scant 12 years after it opened. As the ’70s dawned, the land was sold to developers, who built the Wedgewood Condominiums on most of the park’s former grounds.
Today, 45 years after it closed, you can still find a few remnants of the old Wedgewood Village if you know where to look. Perhaps my favorite holdover is the footbridge I remember skipping over in eager anticipation of spending the day at the park with my parents. Amazingly, it still stands, forlornly awaiting guests who will never arrive:
Every time I drive by, I check on the old bridge, always half expecting it to be gone, crumbled into piles of broken rock and nothingness in the riverbed. But, so far, I’ve always been pleasantly surprised that this token of my young childhood is sad looking but still there.
The staircase leading to the old Jungleland launch is still there, too…:
… but the long-quiet lagoon hasn’t seen a boater in decades:
The giant pool is now used by people living in the complex, and even with the biggest bash, I’m sure it hasn’t seen 1,000 swimmers at one time since its glory days:
There’s still a Wedgewood street, the Wedgewood Pet Clinic occupies what used to be Chi-Chi’s, and of course, there’s the Wedgewood Apartments:
And, finally, here’s a photo of my dad and a very little me at Wedgewood around 1968. Within a couple of years of this photo, the park and almost everything in it was nothing more than a memory:
To see more great photos of Wedgewood, go here: www.picturemeonline.com/wedgewood/
And check out these great home movies of the park: