Knott’s Berry Farm Museum curator speaks

In Features

By Nikki Mao
Daily Titan Staff Writer

Knott’s Berry Farm Museum curator Jay Jennings owns the largest collection of Knott’s memorabilia in the world. Jennings has spent nearly 40 years collecting and wrote the book “Knott’s Berry Farm: The Early Years.” Photo courtesy Jay Jennings.
Knott’s Berry Farm Museum curator Jay Jennings owns the largest collection of Knott’s memorabilia in the world. Jennings has spent nearly 40 years collecting and wrote the book “Knott’s Berry Farm: The Early Years.” Photo courtesy Jay Jennings.
It’s hard to imagine that thundering roller coasters and giant costumed characters would take the place of a humble roadside fruit stand made famous by the Knott family’s special boysenberry pie.

Jay Jennings, a native filmmaker and author, has been diligently collecting Knott’s memorabilia for almost 40 years, chronicling Knott’s Berry Farm from its beginning.

His collections fill Knott’s Berry Farm Museum, where over 50 years of Knott’s history is displayed in six exhibits containing collectibles, menus, maps, souvenir books, tickets and postcards from the 1930s to the 1970s, according to Jennings’ blog. He is currently working on his second book with details about his collection.

Daily Titan: Hello Jay, we are big fans of Snoopy! I’m really excited to learn more about his “hometown.” Everything has a beginning, so why and when did you begin to show interest in Knott’s Berry Farm collectibles?

Jennings: I was 4 years old, growing up in the late 1960s, going to Knott’s Berry Farm at least once a month. This was a long drive to Buena Park for my parents and I since I grew up in Hollywood, Calif.

I always enjoyed the TV cowboy shows on local television back when I was a kid (Gene Autry, Roy Rogers and John Wayne), so my early love of the Old West was magnified every time we’d go to Knott’s.

Before all the rides were put in, you just walked around, went on a train, met an Indian chief or two, rode some burros, panned for gold and basically took your time walking from one end of the farm to the other.

To me, Ghost Town at Knott’s was like being on the set of an old Western TV show. It’s safe to say that 1969 is the year I took home my first piece of Knott’s memorabilia. It was a souvenir marshal’s badge with my first name printed on the front. Flash forward 40 years later and that marshal’s badge is just one of 2,000 vintage relics that I have from Knott’s Berry Farm’s past (which include menus, matchbooks, shot glasses, ashtrays, rare snapshots, short films and Walter Knott autographs).

Cups, glasses, commemorative plates, trays, keychains, spoons, jars, pie tins, ash trays and figurines are among the many collectibles that comprise Jay Jennings’ Knott’s Berry Farm Museum. Photo courtesy Jay Jennings.
Cups, glasses, commemorative plates, trays, keychains, spoons, jars, pie tins, ash trays and figurines are among the many collectibles that comprise Jay Jennings’ Knott’s Berry Farm Museum. Photo courtesy Jay Jennings.
DT: Wow, 40 years … that’s impressive. Are you doing it just for fun, or do you have some personal expectations or goals when collecting Knott’s Berry Farm memorabilia?

Jennings: Of course I enjoy collecting Knott’s Berry Farm memorabilia, and it is extremely fun and rewarding, but my number one goal is to preserve all the vintage items and have them on display so that Knott’s fans of all ages can relive its storied history or learn things they didn’t know before.

DT: It must be interesting to tell stories using your extensive collection. You also wrote a book called “Knott’s Berry Farm: The Early Years.” I think this is another great way of recording the history.

Jennings: Outside of being a filmmaker, I’ve been researching the history of Knott’s Berry Farm and the Knott family for over 25 years.

Last year I was approached by Arcadia Publishing to write a history book about Knott’s that included over 200 rare black-and-white photographs which came from both my personal collection and the Orange County Archives.

My book, “Knott’s Berry Farm: The Early Years” is one part history book/one part time machine. I wrote it in such a way that it takes the reader back to the old Knott’s of the 1930s, ‘40s and ‘50s, right up until the 1960s and ‘70s, with a first-hand look at how the farm began, the people who worked there and all the attractions.

DT: How about your real Knott’s ephemera, do you plan to share them with us in another book?

Jennings: Indeed, yes. Next year I plan on turning my Knott’s collection into a book of old relics, grouped in specific exhibits and by decades. The setup will be very similar to the Knott’s Berry Farm Museum which I am the curator of.

DT: How many Knott’s Berry Farm items have you collected so far?

Jennings: About 2,000 items, spanning more than 50 years of Knott’s history.

DT: No surprise you can fill a museum with all of that. Where did you find all these rare items?

Jennings: Swap meets and estate sales. Sometimes, I’ll luck out and find a big box of stuff (i.e. slides, snapshots, posters), while other times I may find only a single item, like a Knott’s ashtray from the 1940s.

DT: Do you have a favorite one?

Jennings: I get asked this a lot, and it never gets old.

Since the Haunted Shack was my favorite Knott’s attraction as a kid, my favorite Knott’s souvenir is a Haunted Shack brochure from the early 1950s that was given away at the ticket booth in front of the shack. It’s a yellow, four-page leaflet with pictures on the inside of people defying gravity. Pretty creepy stuff for a kid.

DT: Interesting that you mention this creepy “Haunted Shack” since we just had Halloween and Knott’s Berry Farm is always the place to go this season. Some people may be unfamiliar with the historical side of Knott’s Halloween Haunt.

Jennings: Nearly 40 years old, Knott’s Scary Farm in recent years has become the park’s most successful event during the calendar year. It began in 1973 with its first host, local TV boogeyman “Seymour” (Larry Vincent).

After that, radio personality “Wolfman Jack” and horror queen “Elvira” took over hosting duties. The original monsters roaming the park in those days were from old Universal horror films such as “Dracula,” “The Mummy,” “The “Wolfman” and “Frankenstein.”

The evening’s festivities also included monster make-up shows. It’s ironic that fog machines were not allowed back then due to safety concerns, yet fog plays a big part in today’s version of Knott’s Scary Farm, as do many blood-curdling mazes and groaning zombies.

DT: Are there any other memorable experiences that you recall from your interactions at Knott’s Berry Farm?

Jennings: Meeting the different members of the Knott family as well as having old-time Knott’s employees donate their personal Knott’s mementos to the museum are my most memorable moments. I feel honored and blessed to have met them all.

For more information, visit Jennings’ Web site: KnottsBerryFarm.BlogSpot.com.

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