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A Page Right Out of History

Journeys: The people behind the Arizona Flintstones park prove that the family that works together stays together.

June 23, 1997|BOB SIPCHEN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

BEDROCK CITY, Ariz. — We returned to Bedrock to make sure it's real.

On our one previous visit, we'd been like most tourists, hurtling south on Highway 64 after visiting the Grand Canyon. Like most tourists, we'd seen the signs for the Flintstones' Bedrock City. Unlike the vast majority, we pulled through its giant concrete bone entryway. Exhausted, we stopped next to the cartoon-cave entrance, alone in the vast gravel parking lot.

Pam and Bobby, a baby then, dozed in the car, kept company by a scratchy audio loop of the Flintstone characters that issued from a hidden speaker. Half-asleep myself that first time, I ushered Ashley and Emily through the gift shop and into an unsettling dreamscape.

I've since decided that what we stumbled upon was a modern mythic shrine to the American family.

This time we pull our RV into Flintstones Campground around midnight and sleep as if the star-filled desert sky has sucked us into peaceful oblivion.

Early the next morning, after a 50-cent shower in a cavelike bathroom and a 5-cent cup of coffee at Fred's Diner, I enter the park on my own while Pam and the kids bicycle around the campground.

It's just as I remember it: a purple, green, yellow, red and blue pseudo-Stone Age ghost town, a pop and folk art Stonehenge fighting the overwhelming beauty of Arizona's high desert for attention.

Like a crypto-archeologist alone in prehistory, I pass a sculpted likeness of Fred, a caveman car and a rounded hut labeled "Goatasaurus." Two bearded creatures poke through the fence and let loose lonesome bleats.

I step away, and again the crunch, crunch, crunch of my boots on red gravel is the only sound.

Then, in the distance, I hear Wilma and Betty plotting to straighten out their ever-errant spouses. I step into the big dome of Bedrock Theater and part dusty, leopard-skin curtains. The cavernous room is empty. A blank movie screen flickers white as the characters continue a conversation recorded in the cartoon's 1960s prime time heyday.

It was in that simpler time that a group of investors obtained licensing rights to the Hanna-Barbera characters and opened a Flintstones park in Custer, S.D.

In 1972, one of those investors, Woodrow Speckels, sold his stake and leased 40 acres of land 25 miles south of Grand Canyon National Park. His son, Francis, a South Dakota building contractor, agreed to take on the challenge of sculpting another Flintstones park.

Francis' wife, Linda, was a young mother of five girls at the time. She never thought twice about heading farther West.

"You'll move anyplace with the man you love," she says, as the two of us sit at a concrete table just inside the park. "As long as you have your family and husband, you're happy. We made the trip in two days, in a Buick Limited packed full of kids and clothes."

When they arrived, the site was barren. "Not one tree on it."

The stretch of highway that became Bedrock was just a gas station, a rock-hound shop and small Air Force outpost. By the time Linda and the girls arrived, Francis was already at work shaping the park's goofy buildings and massive, bone-capped walls from angle iron and wire mesh. As he plastered the frames with gunite, the cartoon-inspired vision rose from the desert like a mirage.

"He was an artist at what he did," Linda says.

*

The family was to stay only until they finished the park. They meant to return to South Dakota, a plan that suited Linda fine, because the desert didn't.

"I like green grass and broad-leaf trees," she says. "It has taken me 20 years to get used to Arizona."

Those first years were tough. Francis' parents divorced in 1974, and when his mother was awarded the family's share of the business, Francis bought it from her. Slowly, his family--kids, grandparents, in-laws--were drawn into the venture, reluctant pioneers in the early days of the family entertainment boom.

"It's the family farm," Linda says, brushing back a strand of red hair teased by an increasingly assertive wind.

But this frontier, too, had its hardships. No sooner had the family opened the park's doors than the oil embargo brought tourist traffic to a crawl. They had to truck in all their water. And the desert, eager to reclaim its turf, fought back with thistles and tumbleweeds. More recently, graffiti has appeared.

"It has never been as lucrative as the one in South Dakota," Linda says of her park. "It has a different atmosphere.

"We're an overflow attraction, not a major destination. . . . If the Grand Canyon campgrounds get full, our campground gets busy. Get rich? We didn't have that mentality. We wouldn't know how to do that. What we had was perseverance. Or ignorance."

*

Gina, the youngest daughter, joins us. Now 26, she has worked at the park for two decades. When she was 6, she'd slap buns onto the grill as her grandmother flipped the hamburgers at Fred's Diner. She played house in the Flintstones' cave dwellings with her older sister Heidi.

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