Friday, September 22, 2017

Not Just Hot Air: The Forgotten Legacy of Jack Steadman

There is an old saying; you never want to meet your hero as you are bound to be disappointed.  It is no secret to those who know me personally that I have a great deal of respect, and in many ways “hero-worship” Jack Steadman, primarily because I view him as the father of Worlds of Fun.  For many years I had attempted to contact Hunt Midwest to set up an interview with him, it never ended up working out and sadly in 2015, he passed from this world.  Personally, there was some sadness, and a great deal of regret, but from what I have heard it is probably isn’t entirely a negative that I never got to meet him, as from what I have read and heard, his personality was shall we say “forceful”.

With that being said with recent events, specifically the removal of Steadman Plaza plaque from Worlds of Fun, and the recent comments that are best paraphrased as “who was he anyway?”.  I felt it is my duty to share what I do know about the man that was Jack Steadman, the best of Jack Steadman, in regards to Worlds of Fun. 

And the quite honest truth Jack Steadman is EVERYTHING to Worlds of Fun. 

Jack Steadman at the ceremonies for the 1974 "Grand Opening" (second year of operation)

It could be argued that Hunt Midwest hasn’t owned the park now for over twenty years and Steadman’s influence now almost fifty years ago doesn’t matter anymore.  I couldn’t disagree further, and to prove my point let’s look another Cedar Fair park, Cedar Point.  In the 1960’s Cedar Point almost became a residential subdivision.  The modern father of Cedar Point, George Roose, was a real estate developer that became an amusement park operator after visiting Disneyland and witnessing its own success.  George Roose quickly realized he had Ohio’s own Disneyland slated to become cute suburban homes… so he did the unthinkable.  He changed his mind and instead set on the road to make Cedar Point the Disneyland of the Midwest.  And he did.  Today, the depot at Cedar Point is named in his honor, the modern father of Cedar Point.  No serious Cedar Point fan would argue against his importance to the park’s history.   How then is Jack Steadman any less important because he has not been involved in his park’s operation for twenty years? 

A lot look to Lamar Hunt, the founder of Worlds of Fun, and let’s be honest; Lamar Hunt played a significant role in the development of Worlds of Fun. But it wasn’t his idea.  It wasn’t his brainchild, and for that story, we need to go back not to 1973, not even to groundbreaking in 1971, but to 1957.  In 1957, Jack Steadman went on a trip to Disneyland with his family, and to quote the Kansas City Star:

““Steadman told yesterday’s luncheon guests a thing like the theme park “doesn’t just happen” in informal comment after the meeting Steadman said he had continued discussions with Hunt about the possibilities of such a venture until 1966 when he got a go-ahead to develop it” Roberts, Joe (1971, Aug 4), “Worlds of Fun Work to Start” Kansas City Star, p. 1a

 One thing is certain, Jack Steadman wasn't the type to speak quietly, lord knows how he sounded (or what he said!) coming out of that bull horn.

The story even goes on to elaborate that between 1957 and 1966 the Steadman family continued its unofficially sanctioned research and visited parks across the country discussing between children and parents ideas and attractions they liked and thought should be included in the new park if it was ever to be built.

Then there were the trees, and Steadman had more than a few words to say on that, and for those that know me his views feed my views and became a big part of why I am so protective of the park’s arbor development.  In a story from the KC Star Jack Steadman was quoted saying “Worlds of Fun will be designed to preserve and enhance the natural beauty of the heavily wooded park site” Roberts, Joe (1971, Aug 4), “Worlds of Fun Work to Start” Kansas City Star, p. 1a.  In a Clay County special edition regarding the opening of Worlds of Fun Steadman further elaborates that serious negative consequences imparted by Steadman himself, awaited anyone that removed a tree from the site.

 Jack Steadman at the ribbon cutting of his last and latest "baby", Timberwolf.

So many other stories could be used to elaborate his impact on Worlds of Fun, how he discussed obtaining investors for the park by using the “Hunt Name”, instead of Lamar Hunt himself, implies that even on the financial side, Steadman was very much in charge of pushing forward his own “World”.  Or for example, how virtually every quote or comment made by park executives during the park’s construction came from Steadman himself.  Then there is my personal favorite which can’t be found in newspapers and is a more personal telling of the story, that goes that Steadman himself pushed from a significant upgrade to many of the park’s star attractions, especially Tivoli, which was originally planned to be an outdoor theater.

However, no story about Steadman could be told without his last great legacy to the park, and that’s not the soda stand named after him (Big Jack’s), but one that though Cedar Fair has arguably made attempts to destroy, has refused to soar off into the sunset and that is THE landmark, the Worlds of Fun Hot Air Balloon.  Steadman states in his own words:

We chose the large, multicolored ascension balloon for our symbol because it represents fun, adventure and travel reminiscent of the movie “Around the World in 80 Days” These are the things we want Worlds of Fun to represent” Roberts, Joe (1971, Aug 11), “Gala Start to Fun World” Kansas City Times, p. 1a

Jack Steadman and his ascending hot air balloon.

It was never my plan to write an editorial regarding Jack Steadman, and instead to write detailing his extraordinarily large investment and endowment, in my forthcoming book detailing the history of the park that is currently in progress.  However, within a span of a few weeks, I saw the removal of “Big Jacks” sign and more notably “Steadman Plaza”, and to be honest what I saw dismayed me more than the removal of almost any other attraction at the park.   I saw the destruction and erasure of everything that formed the bedrock, the foundation of the park I loved. And you will forgive me for saying this… everything that is GOOD about Worlds of Fun.  It concerned me that Jack Steadman’s impact and devotion to making Worlds of Fun a world-class attraction so many years ago was being forgotten and lost.  Regardless of who owns the park, and who operates it, the simple fact still remains there would be no Worlds of Fun, whether past, present or future, there would have been no Forum concerts, no Zambezi Zinger, no Mamba, nor no Prowler, certainly no hot air balloon, and most importantly no memories without him, and for that I am eternally grateful.