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Go West, Terp

Alum Educator Discovers Second Career as “Mayor” of Wild West Theme Park

By Sala Levin ’10

Go West

Some goals seem to be ubiquitous on bucket lists: Skydive. Go to Paris. Watch the sun rise over the Grand Canyon.

James VanSciver Ed.D. ’85 had a mission that isn’t on the “Bucket List: The Greatest Hits” album. He wanted to return to Frontier Town.

The native of Lewes, Del., had last visited the Western-themed theme park in Berlin, Md., as a boy in 1961. He left with a souvenir: a wanted poster declaring him an outlaw suspected of bank robbery and murder. Decades later, remembering the poster, VanSciver and his wife “were sitting at McDonald’s or something and I said, ‘You know what I’d like to do? I’d like to go back to Frontier Town.’”

For the last four years, six days a week from the second week of June to Labor Day, VanSciver has enthusiastically served as its mayor.

The tall, baritone-voiced VanSciver spends his days introducing himself as “Sal Manella” to parents who laugh and children who ask what the joke is, announcing can-can dances and generally ensuring that all runs smoothly at the 1870s-set theme park, all while wearing a cowboy hat, boots, bandana and a sheriff’s star. VanSciver’s wife, Paula, works in Frontier Town’s restaurant, the Golden Nugget Saloon.

It’s a long way from his primary career as an educator: He’s an adjunct professor at Wilmington University—sans cowboy hat—following his retirement as an administrator, then superintendent in Maryland and Delaware public schools.

“We came four years ago and said, ‘We’re old, we’re dependable and we’ll work weekends,’” says VanSciver. “They said, ‘Oh, come on in.’”

“Jim is invaluable to us,” says Jeff Conley, who plays Doc Holliday at Frontier Town. “We’d be lost without him.”

Frontier Town, long owned by a pair of brothers but bought last year by a real estate investment trust, is something of a time capsule. Open since 1959, it’s a throwback to a time when chaps-wearing, gun-slinging cowboys were uncomplicated American heroes, riding in on their horses to save the day.

A sandy main street, lined with a general store, a leather-goods shop, a 19th-century-style barbershop, the Long Horn Saloon and other storefronts, is the heart of blast-from-the-past Frontier Town and the scene for staged shootouts and bank robberies. (“It’s like Groundhog Day,” says VanSciver. “We shoot them today and they come back tomorrow to do the same thing all over again.”)

There’s also a large pen for the Wild West Stampede, where actors show off their whip-cracking and horse-mounted marksmanship skills and, through a small patch of woods, an Indian village, where a group of four of both Cherokee and Navajo descent demonstrate traditional dance and song.

Some 300 to 700 people, mostly beach vacationers, visit daily. The park has devoted fans—on a recent day, several guests told VanSciver that they’d come as kids and were now bringing their own children. One couple, perhaps wanting a Pinterest-perfect Western theme for their wedding, even got married in the chapel on the grounds.

For VanSciver, the appeal is in the park’s ethos of fun for all—including staff. “You don’t work here, you play here,” he says.

Maryland Today is produced by the Office of Marketing and Communications for the University of Maryland community on weekdays during the academic year, except for university holidays.