Monday, April 22, 2019

The Next Great Idea

Allen Parkinson was always looking for a great idea.

Parkinson had an entrepreneurial spirit that led him to many successes, as well as a few bumps in the road. But he kept on trying new ideas.

Born in 1919, Parkinson was destined to create some of the most iconic attractions in Orange County. Born in Rexford Idaho, the young dreamer grew up in Salt Lake City during the Depression.  Like so many others who turned to the movies for inexpensive entertainment, Parkinson fell in love with the glamour and pizazz Hollywood brought to his local theater.

Those movies fired his imagination, and so he hit the road and sought his fortune out west, where he first became a salesman of Native American wares.  He came to California and joined the merchant marine in 1939. Following the second world war, he landed a job working for Mercury Records as their international sales representative. And then he represented a wine company.

But dreamers are seldom satisfied, and they are always looking for a great idea. Suffering from insomnia, Parkinson heard an ad for a sleeping aid from Canada with a not-so catchy name called Persomnia.  He was certain he could come up with a better name than that, so he worked with a few chemists and developed a little pill he called Sleep-Eez.  The product became well known, and by the time he sold the business in 1959, it was his first million-dollar idea.

He travelled to London, and it was there where he visited Madame Toussaud’s Wax Museum, filled with heroes and villains throughout British history.  Parkinson got a new idea: People would probably pay good money to see wax figurines of famous movie stars.

He returned to Orange County, now booming with growth and tourist dollars.  Just down the street from a famous boysenberry farm, he began building his ambitious wax museum.  His original plan was to include more than just movie stars. Hoping to cash in on the creepy reputation wax museums held, at one time he even considered creating a wax replica of the most horrifying image he could imagine:  a concentration camp. 

Fortunately, several of the local Temples and Jewish grammar schools got wind of the idea and began a letter writing campaign that convinced Parkinson to back off the idea.  So he went with just the Hollywood stars, and on May 4, 1962, complete with a ribbon cutting ceremony that included scores of movie stars, Movieland Wax Museum opened for business in Buena Park.   

It was a hit, and soon became the most popular wax museum in the United States, if not the world. With over 300 sculptures and dozens of recreated sets, the museum was a highlight of many a tourist’s trip to California. When attendance started to wane, Parkinson added the Palace of Living Art that recreated several famous paintings in three dimensions, as well as such famous sculptures as Michelangelo’s David and The Pieta from St. Peter’s Basilica at the Vatican.

But a true entrepreneur, Parkinson soon became bored, and looked for a new idea. He sold the wax museum to Six Flags, (who duplicated it in Florida) and found a new dream. He visited a tranquil park in Nara Japan, and he thought this would be his next adventure. And it looked for a while it might be another hit.

In 1968, Parkinson opened The Japanese Village and Deer Park, where visitors could escape the hustle and bustle outside the gate, and walk the quiet grounds populated with over 300 deer.  They could feed them biscuits and send pearl divers down in a pool to see if their chosen oyster contained a pearl.

But the deer park was doomed. The deer did not thrive in the park just a few hundred feet off the Santa Ana Freeway, and five years later over 200 of them were diagnosed with tuberculosis.  They desperately searched for other animals that could fill the void, but ten years after it opened, the park land was too valuable, and the maintenance of a zoo was just too expensive for declining visitors. Tourists now wanted bigger thrills, not warm, fuzzy coughing livestock.

Allen Parkinson died at age 83 in 2002, nearly penniless from bad investments, but never broken. His granddaughter said that even to his dying day, he was always asking “What would you think of…?” But Parkinson will be remembered for his many contributions to the OC.  Though the Wax Museum was leveled, for many years the sign remained on Beach Blvd, next to the razed building and the former gift shop, which was converted to a bright yellow, circular Starbucks, across from the watchful gaze of several knights from Medieval Times. 

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