Interview with Jack and Frannie Morehart
In 2005 while collecting information about Pacific Ocean Park for a potential book I had the great fortune to interview Jack and Frannie Morehart about their life and times as owners of P.O.P.. Driving up to their beautiful seaside home near Santa Barbara, California I spent the afternoon learning the personal stories and facts about this lost landmark that weren’t part of its public history.
The Moreharts and the Doherty family were interconnected over several generations through friendship, business, neighborhood and schools. At one point a few of their 9 children were in the same classes at Corpus Christi elementary with my 6 brothers and sisters. I had personally not known them well as they moved from Pacific Palisades in 1974. Along for this meeting I brought my brother Ted, who was more acquainted with them being friends with their son Manuel. Arriving at first in the office toward the front of the property I met Frannie and two of her children Missy and Miney as well as Cindy who was Jacks secretary. They were all welcoming and gracious.. Miney mentioned that she had been our family baby sitter many years ago. Hanging on the walls of the office were some of the original architectural elements from “Lick Pier” as well as renderings of POP that I had only seen as grainy, old reproductions in guidebooks. The “Birdseye” view of the park was a real stand out as it was much larger than I had anticipated and still looked fresh 50 years later. Attached to the frame was a rare ticket book that was only issued for the first year of POP’s operation in 1958.
Walking up to the house we met John “Jack” Morehart who was quite a presence. Prior to this I had wondered what it must take to be able to handle the management of such a famous amusement park complex and a very large family at the same time? With a strong stocky build and slightly furrowed brow I could understand that Jack was the type of man for the job. Shaking hands with him he was a genuinely sincere person whose strength and charisma were very evident. An article published back in the 1950’s had described him as being like a “tiger pacing in its cage,” which made Frannie laugh as she knew him to be just the opposite. In my first impression I could see where the writer had come up with the tiger analogy as Jack was someone who seemed to be always thinking and moving forward toward development and improvement.
Frannie’s strength and support were a key part of the Pacific Ocean Park venture as she was the structure behind the scenes that held it all together. Raising their kids and giving Jack the ability to focus on keeping the park safe, clean and profitable was an irreplaceable element in its history. A descendant of the Dominguez family that held the first land grant in Southern California, she posses’ a strength and commitment that are incredibly admirable.
Taking a seat at a table outside on the patio we initially began by catching up on family news and current events. Eventually the subject of POP came up and with my new tape recorder I knew I was listening to the best source possible on the subject. I showed them a book of photos that I had compiled of the park and looking at them quietly for a few moments Jack said “I know all of these places.”
July 22, 1958 Jack and Frannie Morehart attended the opening of one of Southern California’s newest and most anticipated multi million dollar attractions “Pacific Ocean Park.” This mid century marvel was the creation of some of the greatest art directors and designers in the film industry with the financial backing of the Los Angeles Turf Club and CBS television. Little did the Moreharts know but they would own “P.O.P.” within the next year!
A memory that Frannie recalled of the day concerned the “Ocean Skyride” that consisted of bubble shaped pods which were hung from a clamp and cable over the ocean like a ski lift. Each car could fit 4 people and after they climbed aboard the attendant closed the door and their pod left the station. Not too long into this experience Frannie began to feel very uneasy and hoped that it would end sooner than later. In hearing her retell the story so many years later I could see from her expression that this ride really made an impact and it was not a good one. Approaching the station that was attached to the side of the “Banana Train Ride” volcanic mountain she started to feel some relief. Much to her dismay the attendant said that they had to return to the station rather than disembark as that is how the system worked. Shortly after the bubble left the station once again, heading east back to their point of departure, Frannie had an even greater fright when she realized they had no Life Insurance or Last Will and Testament! This was particularly alarming as they had 8 children at the time. Within 24 hours they had contacted an insurance company and a lawyer to remedy this problem.
“How did you end up owning the park?” Jack replied that by the time the park opened the Turf Club and CBS wanted nothing to do with each other. So he proceeded to buy out the CBS contract and became co – owner of the park which lead to his acquiring the other half within the year. The addition of his overall attention to detail and conscience regarding the “Guest” experience are the things that made the place so memorable and successful during his tenure. If something was broken it was fixed or a piling under the pier needed to be replaced, it was done. Based on the initials “POP” his employees, Bill Jaynes and Ben O’Dorisio, adapted it to mean “Pay One Price” which was a huge boost to the park’s attendance. He hosted the “Teenage Fair” in 1962 drawing teenagers from all over the country to the park which was also a big success.
It’s one thing to own an amusement park but one that is built in 1958 on a pier that dates back to the 1920’s is unimaginable. No matter how much you maintained the operation of POP you are at the mercy of the elements and heavy surf is known to topple piers. As the park was seasonal they would have a big event and parade to lead up to it’s reopening every year. Apparently on one occasion a huge storm drove the crowds away from the festivities and they were forced to close for the “Opening” day
Located above the arch that overlooked the midway was Jack’s office where his secretary at the time was the mother of actor Bob Denver of the “Dobie Gillis” and “Gilligan’s Island” television programs. From this vantage point he could experience the energy that the crowds created and literally oversee the operations. Frannie recalled the day when he enthusiastically took her down to the middle of the pier where the crowds were passing on the right and left. As he was looking around he said with a big smile “Isn’t this GREAT!” The pulse of the crowd must have been very empowering for him.
In the early 1960’s a television production company created a half hour special called “Sweet Success” all about Jack and the park. I am not sure when it may have aired but they have a 16mm copy of the show somewhere but it hasn’t turned up yet.
Hopefully the full show will surface some day soon.
He was instrumental in the capture and containment of a whale for the “Sea Circus” show which up to that time had not been done successfully by other parks. On one of his trips he was riding in a very small plane up in the frozen northern country and was taken aback at how the pilot was so blase’ about the dips and dives they were encountering in the Arctic air. Jack thought they were going to crash the turbulence seemed so treacherous. A few months later the same pilots were visiting Southern California and he invited them to be his guests at POP. Riding along with them on the huge “Sea Serpent” roller coaster he was surprised that at its conclusion these men who previously seemed unemotional were now wide eyed and practically traumatized by the ride they had just taken!
Over the course of this trip down memory lane it was great to see how the moments that were brought up made them both smile. I was curious how many times they had been interviewed on the subject and it appears I was the first one.
Two or three times my anxious, excited, cross examining style of questions had Jack furrowing his brow and looking at me intensely ” Are you a lawyer or something?” Then he would smile and I knew he was just having fun.
One of the artists that worked on the park was Jim Casey who became a very good friend of their family. He had carved all of the tiki poles and assorted other sculptures that were throughout POP and had a studio under the Aragon Ballroom. In the Moreharts living room they have a pole carved by Casey with all the faces of the character’s from the story “Treasure Island.” This was in recognition of the fact that their home was once part of the estate of the widow of its author Robert Lewis Stevenson.
I asked about the animals that were part of the show and Frannie mentioned “Popsie,” the small pink elephant and how loveable the chimpanzees, “Dinky” and “Rob Roy,” were when they were young. “Dinky” was a female and very docile like a small child where “Rob Roy”, a male, grew up to be very aggressive and occasionally violent. One day before the park opened Jack was walking past the Sea Circus and he saw “Rob Roy” fall off of a bike while rehearsing, making him laugh out loud. In a split second he saw the trainer who was standing near by turn to him in a cautionary gesture of “Don’t do that!” but it was too late – the chimp launched the bike through the air directly at Jack. Luckily it missed and he left before any other incidents could occur.
“Why did you sell it?” He looked slightly down thoughtfully and smoking his cigar said, “I don’t know”. After thinking for a moment he went on to explain that it had something to do with their owning the park for 5 years without any major accidents and were concerned about pushing their luck. In light of there not being an accident in the park up to that point Frannie mentioned that “Lloyds of London would not insure them”.
I could see that it was a good time in his life and full of fond memories. At one point he asked me, “Where can I buy another one?”
The topic of who assumed the ownership of the park at that point was a tough subject to pursue. Frannie began to explain some of the new managements mishandling of the park and how it lead to rides breaking and remaining permanently closed. The maintenance declined and the profits were not being reinvested in its upkeep. I don’t know whether there was a legal problem or something of that nature but Jack said in so many words “not to go into it.” He did tell me some details, off the record, about what happened but I have to respect his privacy as far as this was concerned.
I had brought a few videos with me as well and we watched “The Lawrence Welk” special from the park made in 1959 and they told us some of the background on what we were seeing. In one of the scenes the Lennon Sisters were appearing on stage in the Aragon Ballroom and Frannie explained that since they were not all over 21 years of age the owners could not serve liquor while they were in the building. There was also a rule during the show that men with bald or thinning hair were not allowed on the dance floor while filming because the glare from the extensive television lighting would bounce off of them and cause “flares” in the camera.. We watched another clip from the film “Dogtown and Z-Boys” of the surfers navigating between the pilings of the pier. This was a surprise as they were not aware that their property had been part of the phenomenal surfing culture spawned in the 1960’s.
The story of POP has many facets and phases to its beginning, middle and end. Jack and Frannie had been integral parts of the place from the opening day to its untimely closing and those of us who saw it are extremely fortunate to have been in the right place at the right time to share it.
Ted and I stayed in one of the small cottages that are also on the property for the night.. After waking up and eating breakfast we prepared to leave and I went back into the house to say “goodbye” to Jack. He was standing in the den with an expression that I would imagine is similar to how he had looked during the first meetings of negotiations on acquiring POP in 1958. Breaking his concentration Jack looked at me very directly and asked, “Did you ever cheat anybody?” I knew that if I said “No” he wouldn’t have believed me. I replied “Well I expect there are people who will say that I have cheated them, so I guess I have to say yes.” He seemed satisfied with the answer. Once again he asked me “Where can I buy another one?” I replied that “amusement parks can cost anywhere from $200 million to over a billion dollars these days.” He took that scale of investment in stride as it was probably as steep of an investment as the money he pulled together to buy POP . We shook hands and I left very impressed and inspired.