Many friends, family and colleagues have lauded Keith James over the past few days in celebration of his Thea Lifetime Achievement Award from the Themed Entertainment Association. But perhaps the most heartfelt tribute came from the man who gave Keith his career and the 45 years of memories that have come with it. That man is Jack Rouse, founder of JRA and a Lifetime Achievement Award recipient in his own right.
Here is Jack’s tribute to Keith as written in the Thea Awards program, which offers a history of the life and times of this respected leader.
If you are in the themed entertainment business or are in any way involved with the Themed Entertainment Association, then you know the name of Keith James. And if you are like many of your colleagues, the words that came to mind when describing Keith are likely to be: honest, great integrity, thoughtful, loyal, consummate businessman, straight as an arrow. And while those words are all true, they are also part of a TEA myth, because such was not always the case.
Jack Rouse and Keith James
When Keith was 17, he had his driver’s license suspended for drag racing with his girlfriend in a buddy’s Corvette. In 1970, he embraced then-prevalent hippie culture and – perhaps channeling Peter Fonda or Dennis Hopper – embarked on a 10-week, 15,000-mile motorcycle trip across the United States. It was on that trip that Keith visited Disneyland – is that where the infatuation with themed entertainment began? Who knows?
In the 1960s, he was a fiercely competitive swimmer, garnering numerous regional and state awards for the Cincinnati Marlins, an elite swim team. (Yes, Keith was once an “elitist”). And while doing all that, he graduated from Walnut Hills High School in Cincinnati, entered the College Conservatory of Music at the University of Cincinnati, where he did not study piano, but rather earned a BFA in technical theater. “Nervous nights lighting Man of La Mancha,” his brother Sandy remembers. He graduated in 1970 and shortly thereafter went to work for Taft Broadcasting. Taft had recently acquired Coney Island in Cincinnati and Hanna-Barbera in Hollywood as foundational elements for a theme park they were just beginning to build in Ohio.
Patti and Keith James
There, he became production manager for the live shows program and later assistant director of operations. While auditioning performers for the first year of the live shows program, an aspiring young performer named Patti Schmitz entered his life. Mythology has it that she may have stretched the truth about her age to get the gig; in any case, she was hired and a few years later became Mrs. Harry Keithan James. During the early years of the Taft parks, Keith and some colleagues formed Kings Productions, which for many years was the creative division of the Taft family of theme parks.
ON THE ROAD!
A few years later, Taft’s theme park expansion began. In 1979, Keith was re-assigned to Toronto as the Director of Planning and Development for Canada’s Wonderland, later becoming Director of Park Operations.
ON THE ROAD AGAIN!!
In 1983, Keith trekked across the continent (this time not in a motorcycle) to Vancouver, where he became Vice President of Operations for Expo ’86. More importantly, it was in Vancouver that Keith and Patti’s eldest daughter, Alexis, was born.
Keith, Lexi, Patti and Chloe James
ON THE ROAD AGAIN, AGAIN!!!
Keith remained with the Expo organization only a short time – in 1983, Taft recruited him back to the fold and sent him to Sydney, Australia to become Managing Director of Australia’s Wonderland. It was in Sydney that Keith and Patti’s youngest daughter Chloe was born.
ONE MORE TIME ON THE ROAD AGAIN!!!! (IS THERE A THEME HERE?)
Wanderlust set in again in 1987, when Universal Studios hired Keith as Vice President of Show Production for Universal Studios Florida. Shortly thereafter, he was promoted to Senior Vice President of Planning and Development.
ON THE ROAD – OMG, NOT AGAIN!
Then in 1992, Keith returned to Cincinnati to join Jack Rouse Associates. Now known as JRA, he remains there today as CEO/Owner.
Keith has spent his professional life moving from gig to gig. From Cincinnati to Toronto to Vancouver to Sydney to Orlando to Cincinnati:
Solving problems, creating a better place, taking the best from where he worked and leaving the rest behind. In view of that first, momentous 1970s motorcycle trip that started in Cincinnati, maybe there’s some thematic symbolism here: shooting for the stars, aiming for the best, constantly learning, constantly improving…at least, that’s what his sister Carrie remembers (full disclosure: brother Sandy and sister Carrie are twins – not relevant, but interesting).
Keith has always made the most of opportunities to be activiely involved with the important associations of the industry: the TEA (several years as president) and IAAPA (board of directors). And in spite of the revocation of his driver’s license for drag racing, and in spite of a 1970s biker/hippie image, Keith has become one of the themed entertainment industry’s most respected leaders. His entire professional career has been in themed entertainment, and his passion for the industry is evident to all who know him.
What might not be quite as evident, unless you know Keith well, is his passion for his wife and two daughters. That should probably earn him an award that recognizes a lifetime of achievements in supporting those whom he loves.
In our next blog post, Keith tells his story in his own words, imparting his wisdom along the way.