Encouraged by the best picture award for “Spotlight,” a movie about real-world investigative reporting, I thought this might be a good week to share what I find to be a highly interesting piece of investigative reporting trivia. It is also good timing because of this week’s forced renaming of some of our favorite Yosemite landmarks. Yes, there is a connection.
On a hot day in June 1976, Don Bolles started his Datsun in the parking lot of a Phoenix hotel only to have it explode. Bolles, 47, was an investigative reporter for the Arizona Republic and he had done as well as one man could at finding the links between organized crime, Arizona race tracks and corrupt public officials.
His last words, according to those who rushed to his aid, were “Telephone my wife. They finally got me. The Mafia. Emprise. Find John Adamson.”
Adamson, a petty thug, was tried and convicted for his part in arranging Bolles’ death but the murder was never directly tied to Emprise, which had been a focus of Bolles’ reporting largely because of its organized crime connections and its major role in the world of sport, both in Arizona and well beyond.
Forgive yourself if little of this rings a bell. It wasn’t long after Bolles’ death that Emprise changed its name to Delaware North. That should be more familiar because it’s the company that has claimed ownership of the names of various Yosemite landmarks, resulting in the loss of longstanding monikers such as the Ahwahnee Hotel, Curry Village and Wawona Hotel as of today.
After losing the concession to run the money-making operations at Yosemite, such as the hotels and ice cream sales, Delaware North demanded the National Park Service fork over $51 million for the intellectual property attached to the place names, on the theory that it had marketed and enhanced the names during its 23-year management of the facilities. Unfortunately, there is some precedent because an earlier concessionaire long ago had been allowed to sell what should have been publicly owned trademarks.
The old signs come down Tuesday, though litigation could prevent the Ahwahnee from permanently becoming The Majestic Yosemite Hotel. There also is legislation that seeks to prevent something like this from happening again, before someone changes the name of the Big Sur Lodge to Just Another Lodge or something like that.
But prevention is not the point of this piece. The point is historical, an effort to make sure that when people consider the Yosemite naming controversy they also remember who is involved. This is not the case of some little company from Delaware trying to stand up to the big, bad National Park Service.
What today is known as Delaware North began as a partnership known as Jacobs Brothers and formed to operate theater concessions in Buffalo, N.Y. The operation quickly grew, however, with the three Jacobs brothers taking over concessions at baseball stadiums, first in New York, then in Cleveland and then just about everywhere baseball is played for money.
They moved into racetrack ownership and operations in the 1930s and into airport concessions in the 1940s.
The company became notorious in the 1970s when Sports Illustrated and congressional investigators linked it to a number of well known mobsters. In 1972 the company was convicted on federal racketeering charges for its role in a mob takeover of the Frontier Hotel in Las Vegas. It was still known as Emprise at that time.
Despite the tarnish, the company continued to grow, still under Jacobs family control, taking over ownership of the Boston Bruins NHL hockey franchise, Boston Garden and additional concession contracts nationwide as well as in England and Ireland.
When it won the concession at Yosemite in 1993, it was the largest national park concession in the nation. It later took over concessions at the Grand Canyon, Niagara Falls and the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex and continued to expand its holdings in horse and dog racing.
Despite the high profile dispute over the Yosemite names, Delaware North remains best known as the operator of concessions at major league ballparks nationwide and as the operator of slot machines in five states.
Though company officials seldom comment directly at times of controversy, the company does defend its name by offering statements such as this response to a critical piece in a Boston magazine:
“Delaware North Companies is regarded as one of the most admired family owned companies in the world. This is reputation that they earned through integrity in business dealings for nearly 100 years. The company has operations on four continents and 55,000 employees and operates at locations ranging from Kennedy Space Center to national parks. Delaware North is a partner with more than fifty professional sports teams and the Jacobs family is highly regarded for their reputation in the sports and hospitality industry. The Jacobs family is also one of the most philanthropic families in the United States. In fact, last year they were named Philanthropist of the Year and Philanthropic Family of the Year. While I know it won’t sell as many magazines, that might have been a nice story to tell. But let’s not let the facts get in the way of a good story. ”
So there you have it.