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The Man Behind the Maze: An Interview with Don Frantz
The first corn maze in the world was created by Don Frantz in 1993 at Lebanon Valley College in Pennsylvania. Shortly thereafter, he started the American Maze Company, which still designs the corn mazes at Cherry Crest Adventure Farm today. Read on for an inside look at the man behind the maze!
CCAF: Give us a bit about how the corn maze started… what sparked the idea?
Don: In 1991, I was on the balcony of my room at the Sheraton Universal in LA and I read a four sentence paragraph in the weekly summary of entertainment/tourism that the Disney company sent to their senior employees. It simply said that 1991 was the Year of the Maze in England and they listed old garden mazes like Hampton Court, Leeds and others. I first thought it was just a clever tourism promotion to make something old seem interesting and new. Except it got my attention (and that was the point), and it made me realize that I had NEVER ever been in a maze! I was 40 years old and missed this little adventure. The only one I knew about was the one at the Governor’s mansion in Williamsburg, VA. But despite producing shows at Busch Gardens Williamsburg and loving the old village, I never made it into the maze. So I thought about how I would build a maze…. Because that’s what you do on a summer afternoon on the balcony while waiting for a production meeting for Disney world’s night time parade “SpectroMagic.”
I grew up in an old farmhouse with a 3-acre lawn in the countryside around Hershey PA. I mowed the lawn often, picked out the dandelion weeds, and trimmed the row of hedges by the road. So I had an image of planting more hedges… three acres of them. Well, my dad wasn’t going to get rid of the fruit trees and sugar peas and raspberries and lima beans, and I wasn’t patient enough for hedges to grow, so I dropped the idea.
That night in 1991 I went to see a film starring Kevin Costner – Field of Dreams. Yep, the “build it and they will come” Field of Dreams. I loved it. I walked out weeping for joy and relished every part of it, even more that I could understand at the moment. Across the street from my boyhood home was a cornfield. We helped the local dairy farmer, Mr Ollieg with his haybales and such. So I felt connected to the characters in the film, but nothing more clicked at the moment.
The next morning I flew from Los Angeles to NYC on an early flight. As usual I fell asleep before take-off and woke up somewhere over the “bread basket” mid-west. I opened the window shade and looked down at the perfect farmland with the crops in contour-planted curving lines. I imagined soaring down with the plane over those crops and—LIGHTBULB. I knew how I would build a maze.
If you read up and study articles about creativity, you will find a lot of support for the value in the collision of random unrelated facts, sometimes even the accidental combination of events. For example, the baked oats that dried out when left unattended by the Kellogg brothers which became corn flakes, and eventually probably the most common, obvious household use of maize. Well, that’s what happened: the accidental random series of impressions all within 24 hours – an article, a movie and a trip in the clouds.
CCAF: And how did you come by the name, the A-maze-ing Maize Maze?
Don: Long story short – I’m having lunch with Stephen Sondheim during his first trip to Disney World. He was probably the greatest American composer/lyricist of musical theater in the 20 years leading up to 1991. His talent with the English language is unmatched; his lyrics baffle in their brilliance. I also learned at lunch he was also a great puzzlist, having invented some of the first computer games, and of course was a crossword devotee. After a delightful lunch he asked, “So now that “SpectroMagic” is open, what’s next?” Of course he was asking about my next Disney project, but I said, “I want to build a maze in a cornfield.” Without a breath of air or a blink of the eye, Mr. Sondheim said, “The Amazing Maze Maize.” After I closed my jaw, I said, “I hope you don’t mind if I use that?” He nodded and followed our progress for the first couple years. To me, that name made me feel like the maze in a cornfield was simply destined to be.
CCAF: What makes an Amazing Maize Maze different from other corn mazes?
Don: The Amazing Maize Maze was simply different because it was not only first, but it was fully produced to create an experience for the audience very much like I produce theater. There is music, comedy, characters, a script, an interactive relationship with the audience, drama, and of course a happy ending. Like an original Broadway musical, our productions of the Amazing Maize Maze have the full ‘show.’ The farmers that present the Amazing Maize Maze are committed to this type of quality experience. As farms across America try to survive in challenging times, many corn mazes are built, but many are without this commitment to the audience. They do not have the ability to support the important details inside the maze. They present simpler versions of the experience which is not unlike regional or amateur versions of Broadway shows. Fortunately with our farms—like Cherry Crest—they were the first to invest in the maze and after 20+ years have only gotten better. They have the reputation of not only a great maze, but a great experience for their guests on the farm.
CCAF: With a background in theatre production and management, it’s no surprise that you brought an element of theatricality to the corn maze experience. How did that all come about?
Don: A big shock came when the consulting maze professional from England, the masterful and gloriously witty Adrian Fisher, faxed over his first suggestion. He had actually been the consultant who helped create the 1991 Year of the Maze in England. We talked at length about our ideas for the American maze, but suddenly everything we talked about was abandoned. In order to project an image of size, and to embrace the year’s current hit film Jurassic Park, we chose the image of a stegosaurus dinosaur. We sent the dinosaur image to the design associate and he sent back a design suggestion: one dinosaur, but actually made up of three different mazes, each about one acre in size. I was confounded and asked why? He advised me that nobody would be able to endure a three acre maze. “Why?” I asked again. “They will go nuts with frustration. They can be stuck in there for hours.” Wow! This was from a guy that knows more about mazes than anyone else in the world!
With more than a little patriotic pride, I decided this was an American maze, made with an American crop on an American scale. This is not a back yard garden at the local estate, this is an American farm. That was just plain stubborn. My second thought was much more focused and came from my career in theatrical production. I thought, so what we are talking about is a captive audience for two hours. In my world, that’s actually great! They can’t leave. They have to ‘watch’ the show, they have to ‘live’ the experience. They are mine! And we have the obligation to entertain them for 120 minutes. Necessity, the mother of invention, had arrived, two weeks before opening. Mailboxes, Kernels of Knowledge, Telestalks, Flags with team names and sign language, Maze Master scripts, ribbon maps, water stops, port-a-potties, jokes, puns, maze masters, comic signage, handicap access and the Amazing Maize Maze gameboard were all quickly conceived and created. A couple of us walked thru the bare paths and we realized that after only about three minutes we were bored or anxious. So the rule became within three minutes there had to be some sort of stimulus for the audience to think about. Sometimes it was physical, sometimes audio, sometimes visual. And that’s when we realized the experience was a show, a show that felt like it was totally in the hands of the player but actually designed and pre-programmed by the creative team.
CCAF: The very first corn maze was in 1993 at Lebanon Valley College. How were you feeling that opening weekend, in anticipation of people visiting the maze?
Don: It is an interesting and a seemingly obvious question. The answer is ‘no,’ I was not worried. You worry when you think you may not reach a certain expectation. Frankly no one had any expectations! Honestly it was like a painter who paints a painting. Does he worry that no one will like it? Most of the time he/she just paints. We created first a piece of landscape art, and while doing it we hardly believed that what we were doing would really resemble the design (in fact it did perfectly). Second we created an environment that made us feel happy: music pleasantly playing over three acres of waving green corn, a little brook that babbled under the small bridge, the American flag waving in the tower in the middle of the field, a circle of corn which almost felt magical where each person was introduced to the brand new experience they were about the encounter, flowers, a place for the old times to sit and wait for the kids and tell stories about growing up on the farm. Without realizing it, a speech from Field of Dreams, spoken by James Earl Jones, had somehow made an impression and stuck with me. Years later I watched the film again and I realized that his speech about how people will come to the ball park just to soak up the joy of being on the edge of a cornfield and remember the part of life that is good and clean and honest—that was what we created.
Here is the speech by Mr. Mann, the character played by James Earl Jones. If you read and replace the references about baseball with the American farm, you will realize how close the experience was. I spent the money to create something I was called to create. Some thought it was crazy, but somewhere in the back of my mind I believe that this speech was motivating me through any ‘worry.’
From Field of Dreams directed by Phil Alden Robinson, who also wrote the screenplay, adapting W. P. Kinsella’s novel Shoeless Joe.
“People will come. They’ll come to Iowa for reasons they can’t even fathom. They’ll turn up your driveway, not knowing for sure why they’re doing it, and arrive at your door, innocent as children, longing for the past. ‘Of course we won’t mind if you look around,’ you’ll say. ‘It’s only twenty dollars per person.’ And they’ll pass over the money without even looking at it. For it is money they have and peace they lack.
“They’ll watch the game, and it will be as if they’d dipped themselves in magic waters. The memories will be so thick they’ll have to brush them away from their faces.
“The one constant through all the years has been baseball. America has rolled by like an army of steamrollers. It’s been erased like a blackboard, rebuilt, and erased again. But baseball has marked the time. This field, this game… it’s a piece of our past. It reminds us of all that once was good. And that could be again. People will come. People will definitely come.”
And they did.
Finally, the complex Amazing Maize Maze game was created mostly out of fear for our audience. I was more worried not about if people would come, but whether whoever might come would be entertained. For this I was downright scared. Why? For two years I conceived the basic idea and pitched it dozens of times with conceptual art. But it was only in the last weeks before we opened that friends, associates, team mates, consultants, farmers, and passers-by hit my panic button. We invited people into a cornfield with 1.3 miles of path where no one could find their way out on a hot summer weekend. A prominent opinion was, “But people could die.” There could be snakes, bee stings, lighting strikes, a cigarette butt lighting a flash fire, stroke, water dehydration, stress related heart attacks, or a twisted ankle on the furrows. Or simply the maddening frustration of being lost in a stupid cornfield. Who likes to be lost anyway? That’s what I was worried about… about being good!
CCAF: So tell us about that first weekend.
Don: Through these efforts we were still just trying to create something. It was entirely possible that only our friends and family would be with us for three days in a cornfield. Yes, we did all this work for just one three-day weekend. There was no data to suggest that anyone would be interested after a weekend of absurd fun.
There was one fact that we did not know, which I should have guessed when no one wanted to build a three-acre maze. The public relations direction of Lebanon Valley College (which hosted the event) called me up to say, “Do you realize that you are building the world’s largest maze? As a matter of fact, it’s twice the size of the current record size at Leeds, England. I’ve researched all day. There’s nothing bigger. I’m telling the press if it’s OK with you.” Who knew?
The press release landed on the desk of the ABC’s Good Morning America. Joan Lunden called: they were sending a TV crew. When the local newspapers found out Good Morning America was coming to Annville, Pennsylvania and turning north at the one red light in town, the press covered the press. And the buzz started. In the end, during the three days we had 11,000 people came to find out what the Amazing Maize Maze was. And no one died! A lot of people laughed. And one friend’s husband, who flew his family from Chicago to see what the fuss was about, called me up to say thanks. When I demurred and asked if he thought the $3 ticket was too much, he said, “Don, my family is a better family because we went to your maze.” I was baffled by such a comment. How could you possibly feel that way? “We worked together, we argued, we came close to marital breakdown, and the kids yelled, but after 72 minutes we were jumping up and down hugging each other and cheering, ‘We did it, we did it!’ We never had that experience as a family. We all contributed, we all were part of it, we never felt so close.” That was one of the magical moments that foretold what was to come for the next 20 plus years
You can read more about the first corn maze at LVC here.
CCAF: And what happened after that first weekend?
Don: Although it was a sensation in 1993, the weekend was a quick flash and was gone before it began. I could not repeat it in 1994 because I was fully committed, engrossed and in love with my current role as Broadway’s Associate Producer of Disney’s Beauty and the Beast. But in 1995, we got back to the cornfield.
The first maze in 1993 in Annville PA, had all the bones, all the critical elements of design, story, interactive and presentational scripts, entertainment and educational elements. The second maze in 1995, in conjunction with the Shippensburg Corn Festival, allowed us to invest and polish all the elements of the Amazing Maize Maze with more confidence. Annville was ‘creative development’ and Shippensburg was our official opening with all the details refined and enhanced, and with a sense of authenticity with our hosts, dairy farmers Jim and Miriam Witter. We were ready for critical review and we were ready for our audience. So, when the national and international press showed up to report and critique the experience, the ‘show’ was a hit. The attention to detail, the ‘theater,’ the audience experience was simply at a level that TODAY, GMA, NPR, People Magazine, Tokyo Broadcasting System, Canada’s Power Play all praised.
None of that would have happened without the New York Times. Not unlike a $15,000,000 Broadway musical, the NY TIMES can make or break an artistic endeavor. Because of a friend’s New York theatrical connections, we were able to invite a TIMES reporter to take the 4 ½ hour drive to down to Central Pennsylvania. He did it because he trusted the tip that something unusual was going on in Jim Witter’s cornfield. This Amazing Maize Maze, our second Guinness Record World’s Largest Maze, grabbed his imagination and we received the benefit of the gold standard in marketing press. The New York Times story and aerial photo ran on the front page of the National Report section, above the fold. The rest of the nation few in to tell the rest of the story: newspaper, magazines, radio and television. Soon media stations from around the world picked up the amazing ‘build-it-and-they-will-come’ story.
And none of any of this would have happened without the gift and talents of so many friends and family who were all collaborators over the four years of creating the art form and the industry. Allen Frantz, Rick Stepanchak, Adrian Fisher, Marie Fisher, Chase Senge, Suzie Lalone, Eileen Briggs, Gentry Akens, Susan Lee, Chris Anderson, John Synodinos, Jennifer Evans, Diane Frantz, Chester Frantz, Rich Whorl, Tim Whorl, Steve Spiese, Fred Lauver, Murphy Swift Homes store, Mayor Tim Constanza, a Disney employee who compiled the weekly news report, Mr. Sondheim, Phil Alden Robinson’s film of W.P Kinsella’s novel and three unwitting advisors to the maze aesthetics: Garrison Keillor, Charles Kuralt and Ralph Waldo Emerson.
CCAF: Who or what inspires you, whether in regards to the Amazing Maize Maze, your theatrical endeavors, or in your personal life?
Don: I am inspired by two things. One is singular artists with a vision that is unique and out of the box. The current artist in that space is Lin-Manuel Miranda and his incredible vision for the musical, Hamilton. These artists are sometimes commercially successful and most times not, but our world is a better place for each of these gifts. The second thing is foreign cultures that have deep traditions and expressions, sometimes with entirely different art forms than our American experience. This was the great joy of The Lion King as the African culture as revealed to me by those artists. Recently this is why I spend so much time in China and specifically inner Mongolia. This again is where I look for ideas that I can merge with my American experience to create something new.
CCAF: Tell us honestly… did you ever imagine that the simple idea of a maze cut into a cornfield would turn into such a widespread fall-time tradition for families?
Don: No. I never did… until the first maze was created. Then it all seemed so obvious! That’s often the case. But even after the first maze, I think every five years or so, I, and most of us in the new business of agritourism/agritainment, thought that we reached a plateau. Instead we have all been constantly amazed that it just keeps on growing… like a good crop of corn!
What I did not expect is the effect the maze experience would have on individuals. I did not expect proposals and marriages at the maze. I did not expect annual traditions for families, scout troops and churches. I always thought maybe we would be on the back of a cereal box, and in 2013 the back of Kix cereal featured the Maize Maze and Kernels of Knowledge. But I did not expect to be an answer on TV’s Jeopardy or referenced in a Simpsons episode. The corn maze is indeed part of the American culture.
Most emphatically, I also did not expect testimonials like the following letter we received from one special visitor.
“On October 10th I went to the ‘Amazing Maize Maze.’ It was gigantic fun. When we got in the tremendous corn field it was raining and cold. The smell was almost like manure but in the winding maze the atrocious smell was gone. The ground was so muddy, slippery and very smoothly that you could fall. The sight was beautiful and when you go in—all you see is tall yellow corn.
“We stayed at the winding maze over an hour. When we finally got out, I had never felt such freedom. I had experienced true freedom. It is not like when you don’t have homework, that’s not true freedom. But getting out of the winding maze is one true freedom.
“Even though I can’t hear, I could feel the vibration of people walking loud or screaming for help. Now you know about the American Maize Maze.’ –Noah Beckman”
Noah was part of a group of deaf students that visited the Howell Living History Farm in New Jersey. This I will keep forever.
Thanks Don, for sharing a bit of your story and the journey of the A-maze-ing Maize Maze!
©Don Frantz 2016