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Signature wall marks good times at Ponderosa Park

May 17, 2010

SALEM - This is history.

More precisely and perhaps more importantly, this is Salem, Ohio, history.

With the closing of Ponderosa Park next month, nearly 40 years of country music legends, legions of fans and good times under the outdoor theater are gone for good.

Overflow crowds, spilling outside the 3,800-seat covered theater, resonant in memories of hundreds and hundreds of thousands of people who came to see the kings and queens of what was then called country and western.

The music was in its craze trajectory, exploding everywhere into a national consciousness in the 1970s and then-manager Tom Pauley was right on top of it.

And unknown to those hundreds of thousands of fans who viewed the stage from wooden bench seats and sloping inclines surrounding the stage, the wall behind the stage evolved, performance by performance, into a bonafide piece of Northeastern Ohio history, according to Bruce Howell, who now manages the property for Ponderosa Parks, Inc.

"Thousands and thousands of people have been here, and only a few know about it," Howell said.

The iconic wall stretches the full length of the stage, 28 4x8-foot whitewashed plywood panels, and there are additional walls and doors reaching down the steps into the star's dressing rooms, and each one has tons of autographs.

Johnny and June Carter Cash, Loretta Lynn, Tammy Wynette, Waylon and Willie, Dolly Parton, Randy Travis, George Jones, The Oak Ridge Boys, Alabama, Pam Tillis, Billy Ray Cyrus, Sammy Kershaw, The Statler Brothers, Tanya Tucker, Box Car Willie, Desperado, Ricky Van Shelton, Patty Loveless, Lee Greenwood, Dwight Yokum, the Bellamy Brothers, Lee Roy Parnell, Kenny Chesney, Mark Chestnutt, Mel McDaniel, The Kentucky Headhunters, Gretchen Wilson and even Pee Wee King are all there.

Nobody knows how many. The stars listed above are just a sampling. One of the remaining staff at the park estimated there are between 500 and 700 autographs, dated drawings, artwork, messages and memorabilia.

If this isn't memorabilia of the highest order, strike the word.

"I want it preserved," Howell, who calls Tom Pauley a genius, said.

"It's part of Northeast Ohio history," he said, adding that Pauley "had the ability to spot up-and-coming talent ... (and) back in those days there was something called loyalty."

Howell was unsure how the practice of autographing the wall began.

The wall, and some doors actually, are in excellent shape and have been protected from the sun's ultraviolet rays, said Kerry Smolira, the entertainment director.

"If it wasn't for the fact it was in here and out of the sun ... they wouldn't be here," Howell said,

The autographs were made mostly with black magic markers and the newer more common version, the "Sharpie."

Some autographs are mildly faded, others worse, but far and away the majority are outstanding and easily legible.

Howell is from southern California and has managed the park since last summer. He heard of Ponderosa Park when he lived out West.

People in Salem know the story. On a trip, out of state, you mention you are from Salem, Ohio, and the reply was usually, "Oh yeah, I've heard of that. That's where Ponderosa Park is. I've been there."

Or, they mentioned Quaker City Dragway and Timberlanes ... usually in that order.

And when the big stars sold their T-shirts after the show, you could read the tour schedule on the back with show dates and ... there it was: Ponderosa Park, Salem, Ohio.

Howell said, "I'd really like to see this go to someone who will appreciate it. I don't want it to be purchased and then disappear. I want it preserved for display."

He compared it to putting it in a sports halls of fame-type setting.

"It would be a real shame to lose this," Howell said and then threw some added emphasis on the thought.

"It'd be a horrible thing to lose."

Wherever it goes, Howell's due diligence has three non-negotiables.

Number one, it must be removed properly.

Number two, it must be preserved.

Number three, it must be placed on public display.

At the top of his list of possible owners: A university.

"I'd love to see it go to a university," Howell said.

"I didn't ever want to take this down."



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