For 50 years, JRA Owner/CEO Keith James has been leaving his mark on some of the biggest theme parks in the world, including Kings Island, Universal Studios Florida, LEGOLAND® and Ferrari World Abu Dhabi. His travels have taken him tens of millions of miles, and his passport reveals a colorful mosaic of stamps. But it is the people Keith has met along the way that have had the greatest impact on his career and life – from the college professor who gave him his first summer job, to the young dancer he met and fell in love with at that summer job, to the hundreds of colleagues, students, family and friends he has collaborated with, mentored, and inspired over his five decades in the industry.
In a heartfelt and humorous interview, JRA Director of Marketing & Business Development, Chloe Hausfeld, takes her father on a trip down memory lane, reflecting on the people, places and experiences that have defined his career journey. They also discuss what the future holds, because Keith James has no plans to slow down.
To listen to the interview, click here: https://tinyurl.com/KeithJames50thAnniversary
CH: Remind us about how you started in the industry. How did it feel to get that email from Jack Rouse on November 11, 1971?
KJ: I was a student at the College Conservatory of Music at the University of Cincinnati. Jack Rouse was my advisor, professor, etc. My mother happened to be Jack’s secretary, so it was all family, and still is. What happened is that Jack and a gentleman named Carmen DeLeon had been hired to produce all the entertainment at Kings Island, and I had approached them, simply because I needed a summer job to pay my tuition to the university, and I was hired as a stage manager in the theater for the first year of operation, and as they say, most of the rest is history.
The second part of your question, Chlo, is how did it feel to receive the letter? I guess probably then, I have no idea about what it felt like, but I think probably then it was a huge relief that I was going to have a job for the summer of 1972, and I was going to have money to pay my tuition, and this job was not one of cutting grass or gardening in the neighborhood. It was actually a real job doing something that I was in the process of being trained to do, so I was thrilled.
CH: This is going to be hard because there are a lot of decades…
KJ: Smart ass.
CH: …can you think of 2-3 favorite moments from each decade?
That is going to be tough. I can give you 2 dates from the 70s, 2 dates from the 80s, and then we’ll have to play it by ear from there. But the 2 dates from the 70s would obviously be during auditions for Kings Island in late ’71 or early ’72, I can’t quite remember, when a young lady named Patti Schmitz came in and auditioned for the entertainment department at Kings Island, and I guess the other date is in 1979, almost 10 years later, when I married that same girl. So those would be the two dates from the 70s that probably made the biggest difference.
And the two dates from the 80s would be the dates when Alexis was born and when Chloe was born. Alexis was in Canada in Vancouver and Chloe was in Sydney, Australia, and those would be the two big dates from that decade.
And there are way too many dates from the other decades. We’ve had so many openings. I’ve met so many friends. There have been so many significant things that have taken place. It’s really hard for me to isolate. Many times people ask me about “most important projects” or “favorite projects,” and things like that. I don’t really have any. It’s the people and the projects I like.
So, the dates that I would isolate would be the dates of meeting Patti, Lexi being born, Chloe being born, and of course later, my grandchildren being born, and Lexi and Chloe being married, but those you know, those dates are all personal. Those are the important dates to me. The business dates are fun – lots of memories, lots of people in those memories, many people I still know, but I don’t highlight any of the individuals, because it all, I guess I could say at this point, at 50 years it’s all kind of a big blur.
CH: Who have been your mentors throughout your career?
KJ: That’s probably an easier question to answer than many people think. There are four. The first one was my mom…most anyone who knows me who knew her knows that I am definitely my mother’s son. I answer questions the same way she did. I use words that she did. And she was the one basically who told me to treat everyone the same and treat everyone the way I would like to be treated. And I think I’ve carried that through my career.
The second mentor would be Jack Rouse, who I spent years and years and years with. And I still see. As I said, Jack was my university professor, my counselor, my boss, my friend, my motorcycle partner…
CH: …your best man.
KJ: The best man in my wedding. And everything else along the way. He has coached me through a lot of very formative years, and I continue to speak with him on a frequent basis.
The third one would be Mike Bartlett. I worked for, or reported to him, I guess, at Canada’s Wonderland and again at Expo ’86 in Vancouver, and again at Universal Studios in Orlando when I worked there. Mike was a dreamer in our industry and basically taught me that if you get the right people around you, you can probably do just about anything. That was a huge lesson that I have followed through the years and has made me focus so intensely on building good teams, because Mike had a knack for doing that. I remember the teams that I worked with that Mike put together as being some of my fondest memories in the industry.
And then the fourth mentor that I wanted to mention was Barry Upson. Barry was my direct superior at Universal. We sat in the same trailers together. We spent long, long hours together. We commiserated. We laughed. We enjoyed one another. We partied together. We yelled at one another. He was a tremendous influence and a tremendous boss during probably one of the most rewarding – and one of the toughest – projects I’ve ever worked on.
So again, the four would be my mom, Jack, then Mike Bartlett, then Barry Upson. I don’t think there would be any question about that in my history. They are the most influential people, other than my immediate family, that have ever been involved in my career.
CH: How has the industry changed over the last five decades?
KJ: Okay, an impossible question to answer. But I will [say], it’s grown up. It’s expanded. There’s more. The technology is amazing. It changes all the time and has become more sophisticated.
But I think the fundamentals haven’t changed at all. We are still a “please” and “thank you” business. We’re still here so we can provide people with smiles and memories. Everything we do comes down to that. We provide people with memories that last a lifetime. We hopefully make them smile or laugh or cry or scream or whatever during the day. And we’re only as good as the young people who say “please,” “thank you,” and “have a nice day.” And everything comes back to that. It always has, still does, and I think it probably always will.
CH: I think that’s why it’s always so nice to be able to talk about, you know, people like you and [JRA COO] Dan and [JRA Senior Project Designer] Scot Ross and all the others who, you know worked in the park…It’s easy to sell JRA drawings when we know what it was like to actually work in them.
KJ: Well, when you walk around in a crowd of 25,000 people, you have to know the names of your staff. You have to pick up the trash as you walk around. You have to find the child who has lost his or her mom and dad. And, you know, that’s the important stuff. It’s seeing somebody getting their picture taken with Scooby-Doo or Yogi Bear, or obviously, Mickey Mouse, or any of those folks. That’s what makes it all tick. Yeah, we do amazing things nowadays. The sophistication is way beyond my imagination or knowledge base. But if the young person who puts you on the ride is not having a good day, you’re gonna know it. And you’re gonna remember that. ‘Cause the ride’s always going to be good. We work so hard, and we spend so much money to make those things be so good and be so good over and over and over again. But a smile is an amazing thing.
CH: How have you changed over the past five decades, and what impact has the industry had on you?
KJ: I assume you’re not talking about my knees or my feet…
CH: …well, you never had hair, so it’s not like people can remember that.
KJ: That’s true. That’s true. I was bald before the fifty years began. You know, I think I’ve…I think in many, many ways I’ve gotten smarter, because of the things that we’ve done, the things that I’ve been exposed to, the places I’ve been able to go, but, in an equal number of ways, I’ve become less smart. Because the longer I live, the less I know, and the more I ask questions, and the more things I learn, and the more things are new. It’s one of those things that the older you get the more things you realize you don’t know. And as long as you keep that in perspective, it’s really good, because you learn new stuff every day. And I love that part of the business. And I hope that what I’ve done is had an open mind to all of that, through all these years.
You know, sure, we learn how to do certain things. We grow up. We mature. We all do that. But that’s an aging process. The knowledge process is considerably different. The older you get, the more you learn, and the more you realize there’s so much more to learn. And I love that part.
CH: I don’t know if this number is right, but you’ve traveled over 20 million – I think it’s more – miles on Delta alone. Is there any place you haven’t traveled that you want to travel to, or anything in your career that you still wish to accomplish? You finally went to Boston!
KJ: Yeah, after all these years, I did go to Boston. I think it’s probably closer to 12 million, and Delta has the vast majority of them. It’s a lot of miles – regardless of how many, it really is. Things I’d like to accomplish? I don’t have a lot of places I’d like to go. Patti and I talk about that. It’s one of those things where if we think there’s a place we’d like to go, then we do.
You know, the [industry] world that we work in has taken me all around the world. So, I’ve been lucky enough to see so many things. I haven’t been to Antarctica. I haven’t been all over South America. So, there are places I am sure that I will get to, because work will take me there. But the places aren’t so much the things that I look for – the people are. So, whether it’s the different cultures, the different clients, the different friends, the different co-workers – that’s the fun part. I mean the places, sure, I love to see new places. I love to experience new cultures. And I hope to continue doing that for as long as I am able. Do I have a target for a place to go? Not really. Not right now. I’m sure I can think of one, and I’ll probably get there.
But being able to share all this with the people I work with, the people I live with, the people I love, the new people who are coming into our world – that’s what’s special to me, and that’s what I really enjoy doing, is, you know, working with people from around the world and hopefully listening and paying attention to their perspectives on what we do. I’d like to think that we help cater the things that we do to fit where they are. But again, it all comes down to people. Always has, always will.
Geography? Yeah sure, I can’t hardly wait to see someplace I haven’t seen before, but I don’t have a list of names of places that I want to tick off. That’s just not the way my brain works.
CH: What do you think your legacy to the industry will be? You’re not done. We know.
KJ: That’s a very, very interesting question. The legacy I hope is the people I’ve touched. The projects I’ve worked on? Sure. You know, I’ve been blessed with having had an amazing, amazing, life, doing things all around the world for amazing people. But again, it’s really the people. I can still see friends that I met at my first IAAPA, which I think was in 1973. And I can list a lot of people who were involved before Kings Island opened that are still very, very close friends of mine. If there’s such a thing as a legacy, I hope that’s it.
CH: Well I think, you know, without your legacy being finished (I’m obviously biased), but I think you’ve definitely accomplished that before the end is here, you know. Nobody ever does or ever will be able to say a bad thing about Keith James.
CH: If you could give advice to that young man back in 1971, what would it be?
KJ: I am probably one of the luckiest people in the world. And the advice I guess I would give is that, looking back, I’ve loved every day of it. I still do. And, like we said, I hope there are a lot more days, because I’m not planning on doing anything other than this for as long as I possibly can.
But any advice I would give to the young man then? I was lucky before I ever went to work. I was an athlete, and I was on really good teams, and so the advice I would give myself then and I still give myself today is, “be a part of a really good team. And everything will work out really, really well.”
You know, I don’t look back and say, “I should have done this. I should have done that.” Obviously, there are things I could have done a hell of a lot better, but would I do it differently? Probably not. I love it. I still do. Always have. Probably always will. And I love everybody in it. If I had the ability to give the advice back then, it’s “enjoy it. Enjoy every day. Because you are very lucky.” That would probably be it.
I was lucky enough to…I don’t want to say teach a class, because I wasn’t teaching a class, but it was participating in a class. And the young people coming in have so much knowledge. They need to grab hold of the business in whatever way they can – whatever way they can. And get in. You won’t necessarily get in the way you want to or the way you expect to or the way you’d like to.
But once you’re in this world, there really is no escape. But you probably don’t want to escape. But somehow get in, and then always say “yes.” Because you and your friends can always figure out how to do something. And you know, the young people that I’ve met lately are so bright. They have so much to offer. And all I would ever say is, as I said, I got in because I needed a summer job. Maybe 50 years later I have the same summer job, but the business grew up. I didn’t. Maybe they can have the same experience. I hope so.
Stop by Booth 1666 at the IAAPA Expo November 16-19, and help us celebrate Keith’s 50 years of dedication to the attractions industry. While you’re there reminiscing about the past, discover what the future holds for JRA – including over a dozen museum, attraction, and brand destinations we’re rolling out around the world in 2022.