Remember Frontier Village? A Show for the Grown-Up South Bay Kid

This clock from Santa's Village in Scott's Valley marked the months of the year for children counting down the days to Christmas. (Photo: Adrienne Blaine)

On Nov. 7, the New Museum Los Gatos (NUMU) hosted over 500 people for the opening of It Takes a Village: A trip back in time to Frontier Village, Santa’s Village, and Lost World. Presenting three lost-but-not-forgotten local theme parks, NUMU’s exhibition was not unlike a theme park on opening day.

Miss Wild West, Chyrle Bacon, shows off some of the trick roping skills she shared as an entertainer at Frontier Village in San Jose between 1978 and 1980.
Miss Wild West, Chyrle Bacon, shows off some of the trick roping skills she shared as an entertainer at Frontier Village in San Jose between 1978 and 1980. (Photo: Adrienne Blaine)

Whether it was learning to lasso with “the one and only” Miss Wild West of Frontier Village, mailing a letter to a perennial Santa’s Village or posing with exotic animal statues from Lost World, children and adults -- but mostly the adults -- were giddy with excitement at NUMU.

If you were a South Bay kid in the 1960s and '70s, you were probably begging your parents to take you to Frontier Village in San Jose, or trying to convince them to stop at Santa’s Village and Lost World on your way to and from the beach.

Today, the most prominent remnant of these parks is probably the sign for Santa’s Village Road on Highway 17, which tends to confuse more than excite. Santa’s Village was more than just a quirky pit stop though; it was a part of the first franchised theme park in history.

After World War II, when McDonald’s was just starting to open franchises and Disneyland captured the imaginations of children and investors, undeveloped property in the South Bay seemed perfect for theme park development.

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Later, investors would trade these unique parks for standardized suburban tract homes. One such development in San Jose bears the name of the park it replaced: Frontier Village.

Just as that park was ready to expand into a new decade (the 1980s), its land was sold to property developers. After nearly 20 years of operation, employees and visitors were not ready to let go. Every year, Frontier Village enthusiasts meet for a picnic to remember the good ol’ days.

Cowboy hats hanging on low hooks for children to wear at NUMU's "It Takes a Village" exhibit. Photo by Adrienne Blaine.
Cowboy hats hanging on low hooks for children to wear at NUMU's "It Takes a Village" exhibit. Photo by Adrienne Blaine. (Photo: Adrienne Blaine)

And although these parks have been missed, their ephemeral perfection preserves them in the memories of many locals -- including those who were born long after they closed.

Nestled between the Santa Cruz Mountains and San Jose, the small town of Los Gatos is the perfect location for an exhibition that unites the three parks’ legacies. NUMU’s History Curator, Amy Long, said, “I’ve been blown away by the response. It’s really become something that I couldn’t have predicted.”

Long knew she was on to something when she saw that the Facebook page for Remembering Frontier Village had over 12,000 fans. Through these online networks she was able to meet collectors and orchestrate the dynamic exhibition at NUMU, which features an antique auto from Frontier Village, the calendar clock from Santa’s Village and a large grizzly bear statue from Lost World, along with eclectic memorabilia and relevant historical documents.

A memory from Frontier Village in San Jose posted in the NUMU 'It Takes a Village' exhibit.
A memory from Frontier Village in San Jose posted in the NUMU 'It Takes a Village' exhibit. (Photo: Adrienne Blaine)

The most impressive part of the exhibition, however, is the wall where visitors can share their memories of these parks. Some remember specific rides: “I could NEVER keep my eyes open when entering the Dutchman’s Mine!” Others focus on the connections made: “If I hadn’t gone to F.V. to interview for a job. I’d never have met my future husband or have the great pleasure of working at such a great place.”

Baby Boomers at the opening expressed a desire to pass along these happy memories to their children and grandchildren. It makes one wonder what Generation X, Y and Z will preserve from their childhoods for future posterity.

As the defining landmarks of the area continue to disappear, what will we leave future generations? Engaging the community with memories of lost parks, NUMU makes us think about our own place in history -- not with doom and gloom, but with a whimsical and wistful peek into a bygone era.

It Takes a Village is on view through April 3, 2016 at New Museum Los Gatos. For more information, visit numulosgatos.org.

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