Will Russell has been YOLO-ing all over the region for almost a month now. YOLO is stereotypical frat-dude speak for “You Only Live Once.” It was coined by Canadian rapper Drake and was popular in 2011.
Whatever. Why not?
For Will Russell, it means something like carpe diem; it means going out and embracing life. Having adventures. Driving (far) too fast. Blasting your favorite music (way) too loud. Dropping bank at a random antique store on a bunch of random stuff.
It means never saying “no” to things you want or want to do. It means never saying “I can’t.”
It means walking into a cold, dusty arcade/putt-putt course/former barbecue joint just off the interstate in Cave City and saying, “I’m going to buy this!” and having your real estate agent take you seriously.
This is the Will Russell Experience, and I’m just along for the ride.
I recently joined Russell on a road trip down to Guntown Mountain, the Old West-themed roadside attraction in Cave City that Russell is in the process of purchasing and repurposing. He has a signed letter of intent, and he’s put down a deposit that will soon become nonrefundable.
Upon arriving at Guntown, we met up with Karter Louis, owner of the multiple variations of Hillbilly Tea, who was scoping out the site for possible partnerships. We also were met by Guntown Mountain’s current owner, Lee Bartlett, who bought the business last May with the hope of resurrecting the tourist attraction; he soon realized it would take more work than anticipated and decided to sell.
Back in the 1970s, Guntown Mountain saw as many as 40,000 visitors in the summer, Bartlett said, but attendance has plummeted over the years. If Russell could bring that number back to around 20,000, Bartlett believes he would make a handy little profit. As we stood in the parking lot admiring the view, Bartlett added, “It’s kind of a shame to sell it.”
Russell already has shared the proposal with the Cave City Tourist and Convention Commission and was met with enthusiastic response. He’s scheduled to go to Frankfort later this month to present his plans to the Kentucky Tourism, Arts and Heritage Cabinet. He hopes to score some funding in the form of state tax incentives, but he swears he’ll make the project happen no matter what.
Guntown Mountain is seriously run down. Apparently the chair lift still works, though, and Bartlett offered us a ride. Before the complete sentence left his lips, Karter Louis and I turned down the offer.
Russell told us he proposed to his wife on the lift. They’ll be divorced soon.
Atop Guntown Mountain
As we sped up the mountain via an old service road, with real estate agent Ray Hishmeh — the most patient man in the world — behind the wheel, I feared for my life. It would not be the last terrifying moment of the trip.
Russell is working on buying additional land; a new road up the mountain needs to be the first investment. Guntown Mountain was built in 1970, and it’s a replica of an Old West town. Back in its heyday, there were country music shows and can-can girl shows in the Lady Luck Saloon. Live shootouts regularly occurred throughout the day with the actors brawling in the streets and falling off roofs. There was a petting zoo, an old time-y photo studio, and an outdoor amphitheater. For a buck, the town sheriff would put your loved ones in jail for five minutes. There was a magic show and cowboys who did gun tricks.
As recently as 2010, Guntown Mountain still was receiving positive reviews on the website Roadside America. To be fair, it also was receiving its share of negative reviews.
These days, what used to be a fake Old West town is a fake Old West ghost town lacking only the tumbleweeds. But as Russell said, “It’s the land of a million Instagrams.” (And he’s taken close to that many himself).
Inside and out, every building and view is eerie, gorgeous, retro, hilarious, magical. The mix of ruin and whimsy lends itself to artful juxtaposition. But Russell and his crew have their work cut out for them. Stuff is falling apart. But, YOLO, right?
Russell told me his secret to getting things done is making decisions quickly, not wavering, and then getting his people on it. Russell points out that Walt Disney’s older brother Roy was the practical business person who managed all the moving parts so Walt could be the dreamer. Art Embrey, who is essentially the project manager for Funtown Mountain, is the Roy to Russell’s Walt.
Embrey said via email: “Many visionaries don’t have the courage to let someone manage their dream and as a result get mired in the day-to-day issues that arise in developing the project. So perhaps the most important contribution I will be making is freeing Will up to focus on, and fine tune, his dream to inspire the creative and fun imaginations of the Mountaineers.”
So what does the visionary envision? It’s a wild ride…
Making Plans, Dreaming Big
During our time touring Guntown Mountain, Will Russell rattled off countless colorful details about his lofty plans for transformation.
The old opera house will become a movie theater with comfy chairs with cup holders. It will be a digital theater that includes a holographic projector (think Tupac), featuring holographic performances by popular musicians, comedians and other performers. The Lucky Lady Saloon will be renovated but will stay a performance space.
Russell is still trying to get his head around the pop culture museum, but it will definitely be imagination-themed. It will house a bunch of his many pop culture collectables. He also plans to buy vintage animatronic bands and have them play tunes from Kentucky artists like My Morning Jacket and Will Oldham. There already is an amphitheater, which will be gussied up.
Beyond that, a giant rainbow bridge will lead to the wooded Lolley Land, populated by characters from artist Kathleen Lolley‘s imagination, including a dragon you can climb into and from whose mouth you can watch the sunset. The Weber Group from Sellersberg, Ind., has been brought on to build Lolley’s creations. They’ve worked with places like Six Flags and King’s Island.
In the other direction from Lolley Land will be a treetop village inspired by the Ewok village in “Star Wars.” There was something about a giant owl with light-up eyes and possibly a Kraken waterslide. And maybe somewhere down the line, a roller coaster and zip lines.
Down the mountain, the gift store will be transformed into a WHY Louisville store for Cave Hill and Kentucky. The older gift store may or may not house a coffee shop — Russell says good coffee is at least a 30-minute drive from Cave City.
The Haunted Hotel is still in operation and will remain open but with a face lift provided in part by the people from the Alley Theatre. Charmin’ Charlie, the piano-playing ghoul, is still there and playing away. But Russell plans to update with cooler music.
The Haunted Hotel was built in 1972 and is the oldest operational walk-through dark house in the country. And it’s beloved. When the Funtown Mountain Facebook page posted something about it being RIP (totally not true), the post received 74 mostly angry comments accusing Russell of ruining their childhood memories. It’s not going away. It’s just going to get fixed up.
Its neglect makes it both more and less scary. The stuff that pops out at you is mangled enough to look fake, but walking through a pitch dark, rickety building is a terrifying thing. We all survived. There was a lot of screaming. Some by me.
Attached to the Haunted Hotel is a black light putt-putt course that Russell plans to keep, but he wants to make all the obstacles Kentucky-themed.
But can Embrey and crew really make all of these visions a reality? Remember, part of YOLO is never saying no. Do you really want to say no to Will Russell?
He says people who own roadside attractions are the heart of the American dream, the heart of entrepreneurship. He thinks the people who have the world’s biggest ball of string are heroes.
And, at least, as an entrepreneur, Russell has a pretty keen success record. He counts only one failure: Kentucky Rushmore, a proposed monument featuring the faces of icons from the Bluegrass. Russell says he might eventually build Kentucky Rushmore at Funtown Mountain.
He’s dreaming big. He wants to buy huge swaths of land to “protect” the attraction from Walmarts and “other crap.” He’s taking Gill Holland to Cave City soon to see what he thinks. Karter Louis seemed seriously down for bringing the Hillbilly concept to Cave City or the Mountain.
Collaboration, said Russell, is the way you get things done.
For every “no” thrown at Russell, he has a “yes.” For every “you can’t,” he comes back with a “why not?”
So, Funtown Mountain. Why not?