Marion Knott, a sharecropper’s daughter on a little Orange County spread that offered berries by the basket but decades later grew into one of Southern California’s signature tourist attractions, has died. She was 92.
Knott, who was raised on and later guided the development of Knott’s Berry Farm, died Nov. 13 at her Newport Beach home. The last surviving child of berry farmers Walter and Cordelia Knott had been in failing health, her son Darrel Anderson said.
“She represents the end of an era, the last of her generation,” Anderson said Wednesday. “She was born on the farm, lived through the Depression, sold rhubarb on the roadside, and then came into what I think of as the golden years of California and the U.S.”
Tall and elegant, Knott picked berries as a child and helped out at the tea room her mother started in their home. When Cordelia Knott started offering 65-cent dinners of fried chicken, biscuits, mashed potatoes and rhubarb in 1934, Marion and her two sisters served hungry customers on their mother’s wedding china.
“We were really grateful for every 10-cent tip that was left for us,” she told The Times in 1978.
Knott, who also went by her married name of Montapert, later became known as a philanthropist. In 2007, she donated $8 million for a film and TV studio at Chapman University, where she served on the board of trustees. She also funded the Marion Knott Nursing Education Center at Hoag Hospital in Newport Beach.
But Knott spent her career on what she, her sisters and brother kept calling “the farm,” although it had morphed into a huge amusement park that drew 4 million visitors a year for boysenberry pie, a nostalgic stroll through the Old West and a few stomach-churning minutes on roller coasters like Montezooma’s Revenge, where thrill-seekers went from zero to 55 mph in five seconds.
The transformation wasn’t exactly something envisioned by patriarch Walter Knott, but it seemed to spring from a sense of showmanship that he and his daughter shared. Walter conceived of the farm’s Ghost Town, a collection of weathered old Western buildings moved from abandoned town sites, and Marion added to it with Fiesta Village, a complex of adobe buildings and flower stalls with strolling mariachis.
She later supervised the design and construction of park features including areas devoted to the Roaring 20s and, in Camp Snoopy, the characters of “Peanuts” cartoonist Charles M. Schulz.
“She had a canny sense of what people were looking for,” said Jay Jennings, author of a Knott’s Berry Farm history.
Born April 22, 1922, on the Buena Park farm where her parents had moved two years earlier, Marion Genevieve Knott grew up in tough circumstances. Although her family managed to keep the farm throughout the Depression, they had to pay their workers at one point partly in jam, a family member told TV personality Huell Howser in 1995.
In the 1930s, Cordelia’s chicken restaurant turned into a tradition for locals and for Angelenos willing to make the trek south. By 1941, the Knotts were serving 10,000 meals a week. To keep the waiting crowds occupied, Walter Knott offered them his Ghost Town as well as oddball attractions like his son Russell’s rock collection and a “volcano” that would rumble and steam at the press of a button.
“It’s not half as fool a thing as it seems,” he told the publications Farm Journal and Farmer’s Wife in 1941. “When the customers pile up so we can’t see them, the girls send them out to … play with the volcano. They get so interested that I’ve had to install a loudspeaker system to call them to their meals.”
Marion left the farm for USC but dropped out in her junior year to marry college sweetheart Andy Anderson. They were divorced in 1976.
Meanwhile, she worked back at the farm but didn’t assume a leadership position until about 1967, when she successfully urged her family to adopt more efficient financial practices.
“We were still hand-writing our checks and hand-posting items in ledgers,” she later said, crediting a year spent on the Orange County Grand Jury with opening her eyes to modern management.
In 1968, the Knotts started charging admission to most of their attractions.
“We had to put up the gate,” she told the Orange County Register, “because we were losing it to the hippies.”
Over the years, Marion assumed control over development at the farm while her siblings were responsible for personnel, maintenance and other business functions.
“She was always comfortable around creative people,” her son said. And even though the prospect of nearby Disneyland made her father nervous, she took Walt Disney’s reassuring word on its impact.
“He said there’d be enough business for both of us,” Anderson said.
Marion’s generation of Knotts held periodic meetings around the family’s old dining table. Later they met in their father’s brick-by-brick replica of Philadelphia’s Independence Hall.
“It didn’t matter what we disagreed on at the board meeting,” she told The Times in 2001. “We always left on good terms and had lunch together afterward.... The rule was, we had equal votes — but if any one person felt very strongly against something, we would try not to do it.”
Marion traveled internationally trying out prototype rides and other attractions.
But her day-to-day involvement with Knott’s Berry Farm faded in the 1990s. In 1997, Marion and her siblings sold the park to Cedar Fair, an Ohio-based entertainment company.
Jennings, the historian who also maintains a large collection of Knott’s Berry Farm memorabilia, said the park’s old-time feeling has also faded.
“No one could completely bring back that time where you didn’t feel rushed,” he said.
In addition to her son, Knott is survived by Anthony Montapert, her husband of 35 years; daughter Diane; four grandchildren; and three great-grandchildren.