The Fad Passes
Cooley made a series of records for Decca during the early 1950s, but none produced a hit. As quickly as the western swing fad had arrived, it seemed to evaporate. By 1955, the musical style was passe, shoved aside by rock 'n' roll.
Cooley's record contract expired, movie studios stopped calling, and concert bookings petered out. The Hoffman Hayride went off the air as crowds stopped turning out at the Santa Monica Ballroom.
KTLA tried replacing that with the scaled-down Spade Cooley Show, shot in a television studio.
But Cooley's drinking had gotten worse over the years, and in 1956, the station canned him. His irascible nature was tolerable when he was a star, but not as a crotchety has-been.
Besides, KTLA had a new hit musical program to fall back on: the champagne music of The Lawrence Welk Show.
Cooley made his final recording, "Fidoodlin'," for the Raynote label, in 1959. It included a single called "Rockin' the Square Dance," a sad attempt at a crossover to the new music fad.
He turned 50 the following February, and he announced his retirement. His final public concert was a New Year's Eve gig in 1960.
He had $15 million in the bank — more than enough to allow him to walk away and enjoy the rest of his life.
But he hadn't lost the ambition that drove his success, and he wasn't ready to retire to the desert. He woke up every morning with a new idea about how to make money.
One scheme involved the creation of an all-female western swing novelty band. Its featured performer would be Anita Aros, 28, a classically trained violinist who was a member of Cooley's last band — and his lover.
When that failed, he pressed forward in a new direction.
Cooley had noted with interest the resounding success of Disneyland, which opened in 1955 in Anaheim, south of Los Angeles in the vast suburban sprawl of Orange County.
He envisioned another theme park that might attract customers from the San Fernando Valley, the booming suburbs north of the city.
Cooley signed on business partners and hired planners to develop Water Wonderland. He bought additional land near his ranch in Willow Springs, 50 miles north of Los Angeles in the Antelope Valley at the edge of the Mojave Desert.
He reasoned that a water park would be an oasis in the desert, and Willow Springs seemed a reasonable distance for day trip from the cities sprouting like mushrooms along L.A.'s northern fringe.
He may have been correct. But other events would render moot his dream of a water park.