Bible Storyland

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Sketch of Bible Storyland’s proposed Hanging Gardens of Babylon restaurant

Bible Storyland, you say? It’s the theme park that never happened. Planned for 220 acres at Foothill and Rochester in Cucamonga in 1961, it was the scheme of ex-Disney salesman Nat Winecoff, “Wizard of Oz” Tin Man actor Jack Haley and yo-yo magnate Donald Duncan. They needed $15 million to launch the Bible-based theme park and never got it after opposition from local clergy and, presumably, tepid response from investors to the strange concept.

I wrote a column about the whole thing in 2005 — read it as the extended entry to this post — and figured that was the end of it. Hardly.

Harvey Jordan, a San Fernando Valley man who became fascinated by the theme park after finding dozens of sketches and documents about it, is planning an exhibit on the park at the Victoria Gardens Cultural Center in August 2011. (He works ahead.) He’s got a Bible Storyland website. And he’s also financing a documentary.

His crew, consisting of a producer and a cameraman, interviewed me in a Daily Bulletin conference room last Monday, capably and at some length. I’ll probably be edited down to a sentence fragment — that is, if the documentary is even completed. Jordan hopes to have it done in time for the exhibit.

I’d suggest you keep your fingers crossed, except that 15 months is a long time to keep one’s fingers crossed.

This column originally appeared on July 17, 2005.

[headline]
Bible park plan for Rancho wasn’t exactly heaven-sent

Disneyland today celebrates its 50th anniversary, but if a promoter had had his way, Rancho Cucamonga would be in the 44th year of its own highly unusual theme park: Bible Storyland .

The Bible? Now that’s what I call a theme.

Never built — I’m guessing because a thunderbolt from the heavens smote the construction site — Bible Storyland was pushed by a former Disney vice president, a yo-yo magnate and the Tin Man.

I swear this is true. It’s too strange to not be.

Announced in January 1960, the development was described in press materials as “a $15 million park and amusement area devoted exclusively to dramatizing Biblical lore.”

Park-goers would have seen versions of the Tower of Babel, the pyramids of Egypt, King Solomon’s Temple, the Colossus of Rhodes, the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, the Circus Maximus in Rome and the Ziggurat of Ur.

As envisioned, they could ride a hollowed log through the Garden of Eden, a camel to the pyramids and a donkey in Nazareth, where they would see an animatronic Joseph working in his carpentry shop.

Compared to this, Victoria Gardens sounds like a strip mall.

“We are sure that Bible Storyland will become a major attraction in the Los Angeles area. It will complement Disneyland and like Disneyland will become a “must’ for tourists from all over the world,” showman Nat Winecoff said in the press release announcing his project.

All on 220 acres of vineyards at Rochester Avenue and Foothill Boulevard, land near today’s Epicenter Stadium in what was then unincorporated Cucamonga.

Winecoff envisioned a park of 60 acres, parking on 100 acres and another 60 acres for a Bible Storyland Hotel.

“We expect to break ground in April and hope to open Bible Storyland to the public on Easter Sunday, 1961,” Winecoff said. He turned out to be a little optimistic.

Credited with selling the concept of Disneyland to investors, Winecoff dreamed up Bible Storyland and assembled a high-powered team to help.

Donald Duncan, who invented the parking meter and made Duncan Yo-Yo’s, and “Wizard of Oz” actor Jack Haley were among the project’s backers.

And as designer, Winecoff hired Bruce Bushman, a Disney artist and “Fantasia” animator who created Disneyland’s Mad Tea Party ride.

Some of Bushman’s color renderings for Bible Storyland were on display in April in a North Hollywood gallery. They were part of an exhibit, “Dream Parks,” about theme parks that were never built.

That’s how I first heard of Bible Storyland . And now that I’ve heard of it, I’m unlikely to forget it.

The drawings belong to Harvey Jordan, a North Hollywood art consultant and collector whose actress wife happens to voice the Jimmy Neutron cartoon character.

Jordan told me he bought the renderings a couple of years ago from a man who got them from Winecoff’s estate.

Intrigued by the sketches, Jordan made inquiries in Rancho Cucamonga but couldn’t find anyone who knew about the project.

Only this spring did he track down the eight-page press release from Winecoff, a document found in the files of a defunct newspaper, the San Francisco Call-Bulletin.

The release describes the project in jaw-dropping detail.

“It was going to rival Disneyland,” Jordan marveled.

According to that release, the park would be heart-shaped (“symbolic of God’s love for humanity”) and divided into six areas: the Garden of Eden, Rome, Egypt, Ur, Israel and Babylon. Each would have rides, streets, bazaars, restaurants and dioramas.

Park-goers could race in slot car-style chariots in Rome, buy handmade pottery in a marketplace patterned after the 5,000-year-old walled city of Ur, and dine in a floating restaurant, Cleopatra’s Barge. (Before you ask, no, Cleopatra doesn’t have anything to do with the Bible , and neither does King Tut, whose tomb inspired another ride.)

Perhaps the strangest two attractions — and there’s plenty of competition — involve the afterlife.

In Dante’s Inferno, Charon’s ferry would take customers across the River Styx past monsters, “devils cooling off in showers of steam” and Lucifer himself.

In the companion attraction, the Ride to Heaven, a golden litter drawn by three cherubs would take customers to the Pearly Gates, passing by signposts for Hell, Purgatory and one joke sign: “Los Angeles City Limits.”

Even small touches had questionable taste. Near the Circus Maximus in the Roman area, where Christians were fed to the lions, a restaurant would have sold a sandwich called the Lionburger.

And the park prospectus, quoted in one contemporary account, said that scenes of revelry at Nero’s Pleasure Island would be “lit by the soft glow of burning Christians.”

This was too much for history buff Don Clucas. He quoted that Upland News story in last fall’s Rancho Cucamonga Historical Society newsletter for an article headlined “How Many Remember … Cucamonga’s Bible Storyland ?”

Clucas had stumbled across Bible Storyland in microfilmed editions of the Upland News from 1960 during unrelated research, and was dumbfounded.

“I can’t fathom what was going through this guy’s mind,” Clucas told me, referring to Winecoff. “It would have been offensive to anyone.”

It was also too much for Upland in 1960. The News opined that Bible stories should be left where they belong: “in our churches, Sunday schools and homes.”

And Clucas found that two Upland ministers organized 35 local churches to adopt a resolution opposing the project in March 1960, as they decided in essence to chase the money-changers out of the temple.

“We feel the proposed park, conceived as a commercial venture, will further enhance the erroneous impression that religion is a commodity …” read the statement, decrying the “gross misinterpretation of Biblical literature,” “insensitivity to religious values” and “lack of taste.”

The Ontario YMCA and Foothill Council PTA were among other groups in the anti- Bible Storyland effort.

The New York Times reported on the controversy the following month, in a story headlined “Showmen Chided on Bible Project.” According to the Times, an Episcopalian bishop in L.A. called the theme park “blasphemous.”

Winecoff tried to turn the controversy to his advantage, telling the Times that clergy had given his park “$1 million worth of publicity.”

However, the scheduled ground-breaking was said to have been postponed from April until August. It never seems to have occurred.

Clucas said news coverage stopped, probably along with news, so he was unable to say why Bible Storyland was never built.

Can we chalk it up to God working in mysterious ways?

Winecoff died in 1983 at age 80. His daughter, Shaaron Gray, who lives in Glendale, told me she didn’t know why Bible Storyland wasn’t built but said: “Maybe it was the clergy.”

Gray described her father as creative, charming and dynamic, a man who “could sell anything to anybody,” and did just that with the unproven concept of Disneyland.

Cucamonga was no more remote than Anaheim and was probably considered a growth area in the future, Gray speculated.

Was Winecoff disappointed by the park’s failure?

“He moved on. When you’re a developer, you move on. But … he believed in his park. It wasn’t just a gimmick,” Gray said, noting that her father held onto the original sketches.

She said she is Winecoff’s only heir and that there was no estate sale. The materials may have been given away by her then-teenage daughter to a friend several years ago.

Retro author Charles Phoenix, an Ontario native who is familiar with Bible Storyland , said Disneyland’s success “prompted a lot of dreamers to dream up theme parks in Southern California,” many of which never became reality.

Bible Storyland ‘s mix of religion and entertainment was “farfetched” and “odd,” Phoenix said, “but based on the illustrations, it was going to be amazing.”

In the understatement of the year, Phoenix added: “Rancho Cucamonga would’ve never been the same.”

God knows.

David Allen writes Sunday, Wednesday and Friday, even more mysterious ways.

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  • Andy

    Was The Simpsons’ episode that included a Bibleland based on this?

    [I'm not familiar with it, but I'd guess not, since Bible Storyland was forgotten until a couple of years ago. -- DA]

  • Alex Villa

    As I live across the street from Victoria Gardens, and can’t think of a place I would rather live, I’m thankful Bibleland never happened.

  • http://empoprise-ie.blogspot.com/ John E. Bredehoft

    Interesting story. By the time I moved to southern California in the early 1980s, I recall that there was a “Bible Land” out east of Redlands, but this was an unrelated, much smaller operation — a diorama or two or something like that. Does anyone else remember this?

    As for Foothill and Rochester, I’m sure that the people who successfully kept Bible Storyland out of Cucamonga/Etiwanda were not pleased when the Cowgirl Topless Theater ended up there some time later. Talk about Dante’s Inferno…

  • http://www.hughcmcbride.com hugh.c.mcbride

    What a fantastic (and yes, I mean that in every sense of the word) article — & a wonderful Monday morning gift.

    Since the first 23 thoughts I had for this comment were in no way appropriate for a family-oriented blog, I’ll just leave you with this: I have updated my Entirely Official & Completely Comprehensive List of Greatest Sentences in the English Language, and the relevant section now reads as such:

    #31: But soft, what light through yonder window breaks?
    It is the east, and Juliet is the sun. (Bill Shakespeare)

    #32: Bible Storyland was pushed by a former Disney vice president, a yo-yo magnate and the Tin Man. (David Allen)

    #33: We were somewhere around Barstow on the edge of the desert when the drugs began to take hold. (Hunter S. Thompson)

    You’ve earned it, DA — you’ve definitely earned it :-)

    [Bill had better watch out; I'm gaining on him. -- DA]

  • Bob House

    Mr. Bredehoft — Bibleland was in Calimesa, early 60s to early 90s; see the story here: http://www.roadsideamerica.com/story/12261

  • Aaron in Rancho

    Not to point out the obvious, but everyone knows this park is alive and well in Orlando, FL

    http://www.holylandexperience.com/

  • Harvey Jordan

    Great reading all the wonderful comments on Bible Storyland Theme Park. If you can come to the Victoria Gardens Library on Friday June 4th 7-9pm I will be presenting some original artwork from the park at Rancho Cucamonga History night. I would also enjoy meeting and talking to anyone about the park.

    Remember, though there are now other Bible themed parks, Bible Storyland would have been the very first!

    Regards,

    Harvey Jordan
    Producer, “A Forgotten Dream: The Legend of Bible Storyland Theme Park.”

    P.S. Cross your fingers no more, Mr. Allen, the documentary WILL get done! (Thanks for your great interview also.)

  • Chris Bushman

    Nice job on a very obscure bit of history. I thought I was the only one in the world that remembered it.

  • Harvey Jordan

    To Aaron in Rancho who said that a Bible Theme Park exists in Orlando. If you are referring to the Holyland Experience then you are way off the mark. The Holyland Experience offers reenactments with actors of bible stories. Bible Storyland Theme Park was to be an amusement park, like Disneyland, with rides as well.