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There's no business like show business

John Keeter

Kings Island Blog Contributor

One of the key ingredients to a successful theme park will always be its live entertainment. Ever since it opened its gates in 1972, Kings Island has been peppered with literally thousands of entertainment offerings. Never one to stagnate, the park has not only expanded its shows, but they’ve also expanded the facilities that house them.

In the early 1970’s, most of the live entertainment was housed outdoors. On International Street, guests could watch the roving “Clown Band” or catch a big band-era show on the Royal Fountain Bandstand. At dusk, the Firestone Air Show entertained guests thousands of feet above the park. Children could enjoy a live character show at the outdoor “Happy Theater” in “The Happy Land of Hanna-Barbera.” “Saltwater Circus” and its live sea mammals performed multiple times daily. At Oktoberfest Gardens, polka dancers and an authentic German oompah-pah band routinely serenaded guests. Rivertown visitors got a kick out of the melodrama that played out several times a day on the porch of the General Store, or watched some pickin-and-a grinnin at the gazebo, not to mention the melodies of “Pianola Girl” playing on the Kings Mill and Miami Valley Railroad station platform. Meanwhile in the Coney Island section of the park, guests enjoyed watching a barbershop quartet and Dixie-Land band performing on the “Lunch Basket Stage.” At the nearby Show Wagon, vaudeville acts such as “Professor Farrini’s Miracle Wagon” magic show delighted onlookers. 

Originally, the lone indoor entertainment venue at the park was the original, and highly intriguing, “Kings Island Theater.” The unique air-dome venue was completely supported by air pressure and held up to 1,100 guests. Inside, spectators watched a Broadway-revue style show while enjoying a much-needed break from the heat. It was the most popular show facility in the earliest years of the park. In December 1974, heavy snow during the parks off-season caused the original air theater to collapse, so it was replaced with a duplicate version lasting another three years. In its last seasons at the park, the air-theater housed the over-the-top and elaborate Sid and Marty Krofft puppet show “Follies.” However by then a larger, and more sophisticated, theater had been built at the park so the original park air theater was removed and replaced with “Tower Gardens” in late May 1978.

In 1976, Kings Island added the “American Heritage Music Hall” to support the ever-growing interest in the Broadway revue shows that had previously performed in the air theater. At a (then) cost of $1.8 million, the venue seated 1,300 guests and allowed the park to produce bigger and more elaborate productions.  It was designed by Paul Shorrtt, the renowned and prolific designer and original founding faculty member at Cincinnati’s College Conservatory of Music. The exterior façade featured Colonial-style architecture, the interior featured an ornate lobby, and the large house features a raked floor allowing much improved visual sight-lines. The industrial back-stage, and above-stage area included fully fitted dressing and green rooms for performers and ample fly-space to store much more elaborate drapes and scenery. It was the first facility at the park to utilize computer controlled sound, light and scenery. “We the People” (a 30-minute bi-centennial celebration) was the first show to perform there and in the years since, the venue has housed countless magic, cirque-style, ice-skating and Holiday-themed shows.  Most notably, the venue housed “Celebration” in the early 1980’s, a much lauded show that proved so popular that an original cast-album was recorded and its run extended multiple seasons.

After operating for 30 years with pew-style seating, the theater’s interior was completely overhauled with individualized seating in time for the return of Winterfest in 2005. During the Paramount Parks ownership, it was called the “Paramount Theater.” It is now called the “Kings Island Theater” (the second venue in the park to use the title) and continues to operate as the park’s premier live show venue.

Also in 1975, the “Wild Animal Safari Amphitheater” was added to the Lion-Country Safari area of the park. It housed the “Foul Play” bird show – entertaining guests with the comic acrobats of exotic birds and reptiles. This complimented the afore-mentioned “Salt Water Circus” that opened with the park in 1972, and existed near Rivertown. Housed in a 2,000-seat covered amphitheater, “Salt Water Circus” featured a 100,000 gallon salt-water pool where famed dolphins “Skipper and Dolly” (who had been transplanted from Cincinnati’s Coney Island) marveled onlookers. Later, dolphins “Noah and Buddy” replaced the originals while Jane the Sea Lion shared the spotlight. The dolphins ceased to perform at the venue following the 1991 season and it featured sea-lions. For its final season in 1994, the venue housed the former “Foul Play” bird-show which re-located from the former safari-themed section of the park. The venue was demolished prior to 1994, and the land on which it resided still sits vacant today.

As the years passed, guests continued to flock to the razzle-dazzle song and dance shows, so the park again found a need to add another high-capacity venue. In 1977 the 1,800-seat, canopy-covered “International Showplace” was added. Built adjacent to the Eiffel Tower, and across from the French-building on International Street, designers based its architectural style on elaborate steel-work of the 1889 Paris Exhibition. The venue allowed the park to combine high-energy dance shows with children’s-themed Hanna-Barbera character performances (the small “Happy Theater” in “The Happy Land of Hanna Barbera” could no longer support the draw of crowds.). The Showplace ultimately replaced the aging air theater located nearby (the two venues only operated simultaneously for the 1977 season). It was located directly next to the “Salt Water Circus” facility, so its performances had to be scheduled as to not conflict with the dolphins! Notably, the venue hosted the “Dinah Shore Show’ for a week in June 1978, when the immensely popular daytime talk-show host took part in the Women’s Open at the adjacent Jack Nicholas Golf Center.

Elsewhere in the park, other venues have served up entertainment to visitors.  Oktoberfest received the “Festhaus” in 1982, which enabled the park to house large shows on a 40-foot wide stage. Its theatrical stage was also designed by Paul Shorrt who had previously designed the “American Heritage Music Hall.”  The Festhaus premiered for the very first Winterfest festival, and eventually became home to the parks first ice-show in the early 1990’s.

Rivertown eventually saw the addition of its own stage area in the 1990’s called “The Back Porch” located adjacent to the General Store. The stage was located where the entrance to Diamondback now exists, and was demolished following the Diamondback media announcement in 2008. Hanna-Barbera Land finally got its own venue when “The Enchanted Theater” a 550-seat indoor facility premiered in 1992. It housed character-themed shows for 10 years, and although it still exists, it is currently unused and serves as a bit of a mystery to those that remember it.  In 1995, the park added the “Slime Bowl Theater“”in the (then) new “Nickelodeon Splat City” themed area. Originally home to green-slime themed shows like “Mega-Mess-A-Mania” it was remodeled in the 2000’s and currently operates as “Peanuts Playhouse” in the Planet Snoopy section of the park. 

One of the most fondly recalled theatres in the park’s existence was “The Puppet Tree.” Added with the expansion of “Hanna-Barbera Land” in 1982, children of all ages were delighted by an elaborate marionette and puppet show housed in a large fiberglass “tree.” At each performance, the tree (complete with happy face and wearing a tuxedo) would open up to reveal a show taking place inside.  It later was re-named the “Woodlands Ampitheater” and served as a performance space through the 1991 season. “The Puppet Tree” has a unique Hollywood connection. Joe Kovacs, one of the original puppeteers, later became the performer of the (in)famous “Madame.” He was chosen by the estate of her original creator, Wayland Flowers, to resume her performances for a period of time. 

Speaking of Hollywood, many may recall that while Paramount owned Kings Island, a stunt show took place on a “Paramount Water Tower” built in the center of the (then) new Action Zone. During the 1999 season, stunt men would replicate movie scenes complete with (fake) gunfire, zip lines, falls and explosions.  However the show was closed promptly in early 2000 after all firearms and explosions were cut due to guest sensitivities. It was also deemed too intrusive to the flow of patrons in the heavily congested area.

Dating back to the early years of the park, Kings Island has played host to concerts by celebrated musicians of the time. A never ending list of bands, pop singers and musical artists have all played Kings Island. As a matter of fact, the increasing draw of concerts eventually necessitated the addition of a venue specifically utilized for the events. Initially, in 1977, the park opened “Stadium of the Stars” created using several of the stadium bleacher seats they had purchased for the Evel Knievel jump in late 1975. It was constructed across from the “American Heritage Music Hall” and located directly behind the Bavarian Beetle coaster in Oktoberfest. It could hold several thousand people, however, the ever-increasing draw of popular artists necessitated that Kings Island expand their concert venue even further.

This resulted in the addition of Kings Island’s largest live entertainment venue to date.  In 1982, the park premiered its new 10,000 seat outdoor concert venue “Timberwolf Ampitheater.” Located in the (then) Wild Animal Safari section of the park, the facility first premiered with a concert by Air Supply on July 9, 1982. It would continue to operate for nearly 20 years as one of Cincinnati’s premier concert venues. Through the years it hosted an endless list of musicians including Jimmy Buffet, the Go-Gos, Culture Club, Patti LaBelle, The Beach Boys, C&C Music Factory, Michael W. Smith, Hall & Oats, The Everly Brothers, a very young Britney Spears and many more!  Timberwolf Amphitheater still exists at the park, and annually houses the park’s highly successful “Spirit Song” Christian music festival. One of the more unique facets of Timberwolf is that for years it was adjacent to the park’s popular “Screamin Demon” coaster. This necessitated that the ride be closed early on concert nights since the loud coaster would interfere with the concert sound not to mention that its high rise platform gave non-paying guests the ability to watch the concert from above!

The list of live entertainment performances, shows and musical events at Kings Island is a virtual never-ending one. However, it’s also worth mentioning that the park’s live entertainment department has been the training ground for literally hundreds of actors, character performers, magicians, acrobats, jugglers, mimes, clowns, musicians and singers who all got their first break working at the park. Countless Kings Island alumni have gone on to successful recording contracts, performing on Broadway, acting on television and in film, as well as becoming celebrities in their own right. The contribution that the park has made to the local, and national, entertainment industry is one rarely surpassed by any other seasonal theme park.

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John Keeter

Kings Island Blog Contributor

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