Knott’s Berry Farm puts an awful lot of thought into all those celebrities that it skewers at Halloween Haunt

Knott’s Berry Farm puts an awful lot of thought into all those celebrities that it skewers at Halloween Haunt
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So what happens tonight after the last Hanging is held at Knott’s Scary Farm? Well, the entertainment team at America’s First Theme Park gets a well-deserved night of rest. But after that, these talented folks plunge right into compiling a constantly changing list of celebrity scandals, political faux pas, memorable movie moments and quirky pop culture phenomena which next year’s Hanging can then be built around.

“Since we have to have a treatment of this show ready by the first week of May -- so that the people who handle Haunt then know what to budget for the Hanging -- we have to start that list very early on,” explained Ken Parks, the Vice President of Entertainment at Knott’s Berry Farm. “We’re always on the look-out for that hit TV series or that piece of headline news that everyone’s watching or that everybody knows about which can then serve as our parody center-pole. That comic thread which runs through the entire show.”

“And some years, that event or news item that we can then build an entertaining Hanging around emerges very early on. And other years, it doesn’t happen ‘til much further on,” Ken continued. “But by the first week of June, we have to have something down on paper because we need to start casting that year’s show by July. And then – come August – the script for that year’s Hanging has to already be in pretty good shape because, since rehearsals begin the day after Labor Day, we need to be in the studio recording the tracks for that show ASAP.”

2016 Cedar Fair

Of course, what’s kind of ironic about all of these months of behind-the-scenes effort that go into this jokey juggernaut (where 12 energetic performers – thanks to lightning-fast costume changes – portray a cast of … Well, dozens?) is that Knott’s Hanging wasn’t always quite so elaborate.

“Back a year or so after Knott’s Scary Farm officially started – this was 1976 or thereabouts -- the Hanging was just something that Knott’s stunt team did for Haunt,” Parks recalled. “But back then, this show was just a cowboy hanging. The sheriff and his posse came into Calico with this bank robber or cattle rustler that they’d supposedly just caught. They’d then march this guy up to the gallows and then ask all of the guests standing in the square if they should hang this criminal or not. And after the crowd cried out ‘Hang him!’ … Well, the stuntman who was playing this bank robber would then get hung.”

Of course, it was all an illusion. And after he’d dangled there a while, this still-alive performer would then be cut down and hauled off to Boot Hill. Though this stuntman’s next stop / final resting place would really be backstage in Knott’s employee break area.

2016 Cedar Fair

But then – because Knott’s Scary Farm is a celebration of Halloween – this cowboy hanging was eventually changed into a witch’s hanging. Sarah Marshall (AKA the Green Witch that a lot of the Haunt’s early backstory was built around) would first be paraded through the park in a cart. Then – after she’d been led up the steps to the gallows and sentenced to death for the crime of performing witchcraft – Sarah would somehow always escape just before the Green Witch was supposed to be hung. There’d be this big illusion where she turned into a dove or something like that. And then Sarah would magically appear on some nearby rooftop and then curse the residents of Calico before she again disappeared in this huge cloud of smoke.

“And that show was hugely popular with people who went to Haunt. Until 1988, that is. Which is when the pagan community of Orange County reached out to Knott’s and made park management aware that they found the hanging of the Green Witch incredibly offensive,” Ken stated.

Not wanting to makes waves with those who practiced Wicca, the stunt team at Knott’s then began to search for someone else to hang at Haunt. And since this theme park had once had a Gypsy Camp area in the early 1970s … Well, they decided to hang a gypsy at the next year’s Knott’s Scary Farm. Which – as you might expect -- then led to the gypsies of Southern California lodging a protest with this theme park.

2016 Cedar Fair

“It was about this time that the Hanging shifted from being something that Knott’s stunt team staged at Haunt to being something that Tom Cluff – who handled entertainment here at the Park back then – took control of. Tom was the one who gradually changed the Hanging from being this dark, atmospheric thing to something that made fun of pop culture. He had control of this Haunt show until 1999. And then I was asked to take it over. And then I had the Hanging from 2000 ‘til last year, 2015,” Park said.

And in the 16 years that Parks rode herd of this Haunt favorite, Ken had to deal with some pretty weird requests. Take – for example – what happened just as the 2011 edition of the Hanging was about to open. Which was when Parks got a call from Rebecca Black’s momanger.

“Now Rebecca lives locally. And this was this year that her song, ‘Friday,’ had gone viral. Anyway, her Mom had somehow gotten wind that we were going to hang Rebecca at the end that year’s Hanging. Which is why Mrs. Black was now calling the park,” Park reminisced. “She said that – while the Black family was not happy with the idea of us hanging Rebecca in effigy at Haunt – they’d be okay with us just killing her as part of our show. Because the Blacks recognized that – by featuring Rebecca in our show … What’s that saying? ‘All publicity is good publicity’ ?”

<p>Viral singing sensation Rebecca Black</p>

Viral singing sensation Rebecca Black

But if Ken honored Mrs. Black’s request and then didn’t hang Rebecca at the close of this Haunt show, who then would fill in for the singer of “Friday” at that year’s Hanging? Parks says that he honestly didn’t stress when it came to this last minute problem.

“All throughout my career, I’ve never fought things like this. Production hiccups that suddenly pop up. I’ve always believed that they bring about happy accidents,” Ken said. “Luckily 2011 was the year when Charlie Sheen had been acting up quite a bit. So what we did with the end of that year’s Hanging was – after Rebecca’s neck had been placed in the noose – we then had Sheen suddenly appear onstage and insist that he’d been a far more annoying celebrity in 2011 than Black had been. Which is why he deserved to be hung far more than she did.”

“With that, Charlie runs up the steps of the gallows. And after he pulls Rebecca out of the noose, he then places the rope around his neck and hangs himself,” Park continued. “Which was a real win-win for us. Because not only did the people at Haunt really love the climax of that year’s Hanging but we’d also managed to make the Black family happy. Rebecca could still be spoofed in our show but the Black family then didn’t have to watch their daughter die onstage.”

2016 Cedar Fair

That’s what Ken loved about all those years he spent working on Halloween Haunt. That most of the celebrities & public figures who met gruesome ends in this Knott’s Scary Farm show understand that the Hanging is basically (as Parks so accurately describes it) “ … a roast with blood.” Which is why it’s actually kind of an honor for a performer to be skewered (sometimes literally) as part of this satirical seasonal entertainment.

Ryan Seacrest certainly got that idea. Which is why – in 2004 -- when Ryan learned that he had been selected to be the celebrity that would be hung at the very end of that year’s Hanging, he actually volunteered to come down to the Park one night and then come onstage to pull the lever. So that Ryan could then hang himself in effigy,” Ken enthused. “And we actually almost made that happen at Haunt. Ryan flew down to Buena Park one night, fully intending to take part in that night’s Hanging. But because there was fog in the area, his helicopter couldn’t safely land at the Park. So he had to turn around and then fly back up to LA.”

These days, since Cedar Fair has kicked Park upstairs, it’s Rob Therman who now rides herd on the Hanging at Knott’s Scary Farm. He’s the one who has to keep track of which sports stars have said and done stupid things. More importantly, decide whether or not these athletes-who’ve-made-asses-of-themselves are still worthy of being mentioned in each year’s show.

2016 Cedar Fair

“That’s the thing about pop culture. It moves so fast these days. And the Hanging has to reflect that. Which is why – even though Rob had written all of these great jokes that referenced the Summer Olympics back in August – he had to start cutting them out of the show in September because these gags had already out-lived their shelf life,” Park stated. “People who come to the Haunt these days expect the Hanging to be both super-funny and super-topical. And Rob and I have to do everything we can to deliver on those expectations.”

Which brings us to perhaps Ken’s proudest moment from the years that he called the shots on the Hanging. It was October 30, 2012. And The Walt Disney Company had – just that morning – revealed that it was acquiring Lucasfilm for $4 billion.

This was obviously huge entertainment news. But given that that year’s edition of Knott’s Scary Farm was just a day away from closing for the season, there was just no way Haunt attendees could realistically expect that the 2011 Hanging could comment on Disney purchasing all of those Star Wars characters, right?

2016 Cedar Fair

“We actually went back into the studio that morning and put together a brand-new song parody. One that sort of sounded like a Disney song medley but featured all of these lyrics that comically referenced Star Wars characters. Before that night’s performances at Haunt, we quickly rehearsed this new number with our Hanging cast. And then – when they did this Disney-just-bought-Star-Wars number in the show – you should have heard the roar of laughter coming off of Calico Square. The audience at that night’s Haunt couldn’t believe that news that had just broken that morning, that they had just heard about themselves, had already been turned into a song-and-dance spoof,” Parks smiled.

But that sort of instant comic commentary can only happen when you’re dealing with real entertainment professionals. People who know how important it is to sometimes spend an entire year slowly building a list of topics that they can maybe make fun of. Or – better yet – know when it’s entirely appropriate to throw that carefully compiled list right out the window and then go with something silly & spontaneous.

And the list for possible topics to spoof in the 2017 edition of the Hanging at Knott’s Scary Farm gets started first thing tomorrow morning. With – I’m betting – quite a few Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton-related jokes.

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