If the lady has the proprietary look of queen of all she surveys, it is not without reason. At 57, Marion Knott has emerged as the mastermind behind Knott’s Berry Farm, the exceedingly lucrative amusement park 20 miles south of Los Angeles.
Theme parks have sprung up like Erector Sets in the past decade, and Knott had the foresight to keep her family’s onetime berry stand in step with the times. With four million visitors a year (and more than $100 million in revenues), Knott’s ranks behind only Disneyland and Disney World in attendance. But Knott is quick to point out the difference between her operation and the competition just six minutes away in Anaheim. “Disneyland offers Fantasyland and Tomorrowland; we offer nostalgia and roots,” she explains.
To be sure, the operation that former sharecroppers Walter and Cordelia Knott founded off Beach Boulevard in Buena Park back in 1920 retains its family appeal. Still selling well are jellies, jams and home-cooked chicken dinners (though the price has risen from 85c to $4.95). But now parachute drops, a catapult ride called Montezooma’s Revenge and Southern California’s largest ballroom compete for space with a nondenominational church and a replica of Independence Hall. Last summer names like Debby Boone, Beverly Sills and the Oak Ridge Boys turned out to celebrate the farm’s 60th birthday. “My sister has brought a little pixie dust to the old homestead,” says Russell Knott, 65, who is in charge of administration. (Their mother died in 1974; Walter, 91, still lives on the grounds.)
Until 1967, when Marion served on a grand jury investigating Orange County accounting procedures and discovered that Knott’s’ bookkeeping was dismally out-of-date, she had little interest in the park’s operation. “Even though the farm had become a large business,” she recounts, “it was still being run like a simple country store.” With family approval, Marion began to update Knott’s’ financial management. In the process, Marion also updated her own self-esteem. The youngest of four children, she had quit USC in her junior year to marry college sweetheart Andy Anderson. After his tour in the Navy, the couple returned to the Berry Farm in 1946 and Andy took charge of amusements. “I had always been Walter’s daughter, Andy’s wife or Darrell’s mother,” she observes. “I finally realized somewhere there had to be me.”
When rampaging teenagers on motorcycles necessitated enclosing the park and charging admission in 1968, Marion assumed creative control. Though Knott’s remains a family business, most decisions nowadays fall to her as director of design, planning and entertainment. (She divorced Andy in 1975, but he remains director of amusements and they are still “the best of friends.”)
“Mom has a pretty canny sense of what people are looking for,” says facility director Darrell, now 36, adding, “She’s the first one to tell you when she makes a mistake.” One clinker was the $5.5 million gypsy camp, which was remodeled into the Roaring ’20s amusement area after four flagging years. “I goofed,” confesses Marion. “I learned you can’t build an area without rides.” Ironically, Knott herself is scared silly by roller coasters and the like. “I go on them only when I have to,” she confides. “And then I usually keep my eyes closed.”
She also keeps her mouth closed when it comes to future projects. After all, she says with a nod south toward Disneyland, “The little mouse up the road has ears.” As Knott’s Berry Farm flourishes, so does its impresario. “I don’t ever want to go back to being just another housewife,” declares Marion. “I want to be up there with the big kids.”