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Regarding Sad Eye Joe and the Haunted Shack

1 April 2010 Stories and Appreciations 14,549 views 7 CommentsPrint This Post Print This Post Email This Post Email This Post

My parents told me some dynamite fibs back in the day. Before I turned eight years old and began my long slide into world-weary cynicism, they managed to convince me that a freshly-roasted turkey was really Big Bird from “Sesame Street”; that the candy bars in the fridge were formulated for adults and would make my teeth fall out if I chanced a bite; and that my pinkies and little toes would fall off as I grew older. (“You won’t need them,” Mom said.) Today, they deny that they ever told me any of this — except for the Big Bird thing, which they still think is pretty funny.

“You cried for two days!” Dad says.

“No, a week!” Mom corrects him.

And they laugh, and laugh, and laugh some more.

That’s not so say there weren’t times in my childhood when I was happy to be fooled and surprised. I’d receive gifts of toys for no special reason (as Jehovah’s Witnesses, we didn’t celebrate Christmas or birthdays), and I was taken on unexpected trips to various Southern California theme parks (Disneyland, usually). Sometimes my parents would take me to a theme park instead of driving me to school; they would tell me to lie down in the back of our Pinto station wagon so I couldn’t see where we were going.

(One time, my father even tried to extend the subterfuge as we passed through the toll booths at the entrance to Disneyland’s parking lot: “No, this isn’t Disneyland. We’re paying to get onto the Buck Owens Memorial Expressway. It’s a dollar per person, so don’t sit up. If they see you, we’ll have to pay extra.”

Occasionally, we’d mix things up by going to Knott’s Berry Farm, a theme park now celebrating its 70th year of operation. Back in the 1970s, Knott’s was still more roadside attraction than full-on theme park. It began its operational life as a free-admission “Ghost Town,” a collection of Old West structures that Walter Knott had relocated from abandoned mining towns to keep people occupied as they waited to dine at the Chicken Dinner Restaurant he ran with his wife Cordelia. It wasn’t until the 1960s that the Knotts began adding rides to the park — the looping Corkscrew roller coaster, the Calico Mine Train, and the Timber Mountain Log Ride, which remains my favorite water ride of its kind.

Surrounding these thrill rides was a wonderful collection of true-blue roadside attractions. There was scale models of California’s missions; a petting zoo; a sluice where you could pan for gold; a push-button volcano; a replica of Boot Hill (complete with a grave with a “heart” beating under it — still creeps me out to think of it); and two attractions that warped my young mind, the Haunted Shack and Sad Eye Joe. Both of the latter attractions operated on low-tech, dirt-simple trickery, but even knowing what I know now, I can’t help but remember the both of them as having some sort of mystical aura.

Knott’s has changed a lot since the 1970s — it’s now crisscrossed with off-the-shelf steel roller coasters like those you’d find in any regional amusement park, and has far less soul than it once did. But the last time I visited the park, back in autumn 2000, Sad Eye Joe was still there. He’s the sole occupant of Ghost Town’s jail — a carved-wood mannequin who not only speaks to you, but also addresses you by name and asks you questions no stranger would know to ask.

Sad Eye Joe

As you may have guessed from the postcard, Joe’s a fraud and a phony. Couldn’t distinguish Keanu Reeves from a fistful of baked beans. There’s a counter around the corner from the “jail” where you can tell an employee a few facts about someone — in my Dad’s case, he related my name and age — and that employee passes the information to yet another employee with a microphone and a discreet view of Joe’s lair.

The first time I met Joe, I didn’t see any of those preparations taking place. To me, he was simply a wooden man (A) who could speak, (B) who knew my name and (C) who knew I was six years old. At the time, it made perfect sense. And if I hadn’t returned to Knott’s Berry Farm as an adult and learned the truth about Sad Eye Joe, a part of me might still be wondering if Joe could read minds. (I do wonder, though, what crime Joe committed that got him locked up in an eight- by eight-foot room for a half-century. He’s so good with kids!)

The now defunct Haunted Shack was something else again. Located just steps from Joe’s place and advertised with signs worthy of Barnum (the attraction’s exit sign even read “This way to the big egress!“), the Shack is the kind of attraction that could only have worked its magic on the children of bygone generations, who didn’t yet know from Playstations or “Avatar,” and could be easily wowed by things that didn’t make immediate sense.

My last visit to Slanty Sam’s abode happened long before the attraction was closed and removed in 2000, so I was never able to consider it through my cynical adult perspective and figure out exactly how its occupants were able to stand at gravity-defying angles, to grow and shrink at will, to get water to flow uphill, to get stuck in the chair that seemed magnetized to the wall, and to get that gnarled broom to stand on its bristles. I can certainly hazard a guess on how the gravity and perspective tricks worked — the Shack was built on the slope of a steep hill, and leaned in such a precipitous way that you had to embrace that obtuse angle to stand up straight — but here’s the thing: I didn’t see the Shack again as an adult, so I don’t know if I’m right. And you know something? I don’t want to know. I want those mysteries of my past to remain mysteries, even if I know better.

So, yeah, I’ve mostly grown out of my gullibility. I realize that Sad Eye Joe needs to be told who I am before he can talk to me, that Big Bird is still clucking, and that my pinkies and toes aren’t going anywhere. But there’s still a part of that’s happy not to know better, and for that, I thank my parents for taking me out of class and to the Haunted Shack, and Knott’s for taking the trick away before I had a chance to really look at it. As far as I’m concerned, there is still a place, somewhere in this wide and mysterious world, where water flows uphill.

Geoff Carter

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  1. (Fool me once, shame on…um…how’s that go again, Mr. President?) Thanks for the trip down Memory Lane, Mr. Carter. Even as a kid (when everything unfamiliar is larger than life) I could tell that Knott’s Berry Farm was on a considerably more modest scale than the Mecca of theme parks, but for reasons I can’t recall, I loved it–if not more, at least as much as the Magic Kingdom. My poor father: I’m sure he hated every minute of our So-Cal amusement park pilgrimage, but he soldiered on. After all, he was the only one who could drive.

  2. We never said your toes would fall off.

  3. I have been going to SoCal for vacations all of my life (I live abroad) and I have a load of cool memories related to Disneyland and Knott’s. It’s been almost 10 years since I last was in Knott’s. I have even dined in the Chicken restaurant, but in fact I am almost afraid of going and finding out that Ghost Town is no longer what I remember.

    But then again, I remember discovering Sad Eye Joe’s secret (all by myself, or so my 12 year old self thought) and using it to surprise my younger brother, who was confused about all the things he was being told about himself!!!

    Great Article! I will probably go back sometime soon…!

  4. Not sure what it is about this article, but it’s touching, if you don’t mind my saying so! Innocent youth, etc. I’ve got a big grin on my silly cynical old face!

  5. I found a watch fob of Sad Eye Joe in the Trigo MT. with a metal Detector, could you email me the history of it? Thanks a Bunch.

  6. This brought a smile to my face!! I haven’t been to knotts since 1964, but I remember EVERYTHING!! and I too am afraid to go back and see it from adult eyes. I LOVED JOE!! I panned for gold! LOVED the mine ride and the roof almost caving in on me. VERY sad to see the haunted shack has gone, but I still totally believe it WAS haunted!! Will NEVER believe otherwise!!! We met my Uncle/aunt and cousing every Fri for a chicken dinner.. before you had to pay to get into the park, before there were fences. it WAS a happy time. Didn’t the train used to get attacked by Indians? or robbed by cowboys? Do they still do that? thanks all for sharing.

  7. Just visited Sad Eye Joe with my 12 year old, just as fun as when I was her age! I had written a note ahead while driving to the park just hoping he was still there. The older gentleman was great in the “secret” booth, a fun thing that only old timer would know about.

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