Downtime

Oklahoma City’s Completely Bananas Children’s Museum Devoted to the Joys of Capitalism

Children at Enterprise Square, USA.
Children learn to love capitalism at Enterprise Square, USA.
Oklahoma Publishing Company Photography Collection, courtesy of the Oklahoma Historical Society.

Never has capitalism been honored more deeply, never has its essence been more fully expressed, than it was in Oklahoma City in the late 1970s. The city had long been a place of booms and busts, and now it was booming harder than ever. A new oil reserve had been tapped in the Anadarko Basin, and local energy companies were swarming all over it, sucking up the wealth. In downtown OKC, they competed to build increasingly grand headquarters. Out on the fringes of town, formerly empty patches of prairie fizzed with new construction. The city’s infinite roads filled up with Cadillacs. Oilmen traversed the region on private jets like kids riding bicycles. Helicopters whisked people off for quick lunches in Dallas. Local banks gushed loans toward anyone who happened to glance in their direction—private or corporate, rich or poor, qualified or not. Everyone was suddenly investing in everyone else’s investments. From all over the world, fortune hunters streamed to Oklahoma City. It seemed like more than a normal boom this time—it seemed like an everlasting bonanza. Adam Smith’s invisible hand wore gold rings on every finger.

Capitalism had blessed Oklahoma City, and the city wanted to express its thanks. It did so by constructing probably the most elaborate interactive tribute to an economic system the world has ever seen: a high-tech museum of capitalist propaganda called Enterprise Square, USA. The place was funded by OKC’s business elite and housed on the campus of Oklahoma Christian University. It was designed to make visitors, especially children, really feel the sanctity of the free market. For generations of Oklahoma elementary school students, the capitalism museum would become a staple on the field-trip circuit.

Inside Enterprise Square, USA, the indoctrination was blunt and relentless—as blatant as anything going on in the USSR. Visitors rode up a huge glass elevator that showered them with financial advice: “Spend! Save! Buy!” They proceeded through the Hall of Giants, among effigies of great capitalist heroes such as Alexander Graham Bell, Henry Ford, and Sam Walton. In the course of researching Boom Town, my new book about Oklahoma City, I spoke with a resident who told me he grew up believing these capitalist heroes actually founded America. Next to the world’s largest cash register, four enormous paper bills hung on the wall; inside were the animatronic heads of four Founding Fathers, whose faces jerked around like figures in a Chuck E. Cheese’s band as they sang a barbershop quartet about freedom. (“Freedom, that’s the key/ We said freedom, yes sirree.”) Unfortunately, the museum wasn’t all fun: At a certain point, visitors were accosted by the Talking Face of Government, a creepy giant head covered with flashing TV screens programmed to terrify everyone about taxation and regulation. Futuristic touch-screen games allowed visitors to compete for profits as ranchers or bankers or oil magnates. One particularly elaborate exhibit involved a pair of stranded aliens; kids had to help them earn money for spaceship repairs by establishing a profitable donut business.

Many of the museum’s exhibits were sponsored by local corporations—dairies, energy companies—and nakedly designed to promote their products. At the gift shop, you could buy bumper stickers that said, I LOVE CAPITALISM.

Enterprise Square, USA, opened in November 1982. Ronald Reagan himself sent a statement to be read aloud. On its editorial page, the Oklahoman published a touching cartoon in which a man labeled “John Q. USA” realizes, with a smile, that “American free enterprise is a good thing!!”

Boom Town book jacket.

The celebration, however, was not quite the full-throated triumph its organizers might have expected. Enterprise Square, USA, launched four months too late. Although the capitalism museum was built at the height of the boom, it opened in the depths of a bust. In July 1982, OKC’s banking economy, with its house-of-cards loans, finally collapsed. Customers lined up, by the hundreds, to get their money—but the money, insofar as it had ever existed, was gone. OKC’s bank failures set off bank failures across the United States, and eventually—contrary to everything preached so fervently inside of Enterprise Square, USA—the federal government had to step in with a multibillion-dollar bailout to keep the blight from destroying the national economy. All over Oklahoma City, companies crashed and folded. CEOs had their Cadillacs seized and auctioned off. Oil executives found themselves mowing lawns. Construction projects went quiet. Downtown OKC was largely abandoned; for years, it would have only one functioning hotel. Energy companies started to sneak off to Houston. The chamber of commerce polled the citizens and found that 65 percent did not think Oklahoma City was a good place to live. You could shoot a cannon through the middle of downtown, the mayor said, and it wouldn’t hurt anybody.

Meanwhile, Enterprise Square, USA, soldiered on, proselytizing—against all available evidence—about the panacea of supply-side economics. As the years passed, the touch screens and talking robots began to break down, and capitalism provided no money for repairs. Like the rest of Oklahoma City, the museum grew shabby and sad. Although the field trips continued, soon children were learning different lessons than the ones the museum intended to teach. The place managed to straggle on into the 1990s, but eventually all its equipment was wrecked and obsolete, and it was forced to close. (Today, the building is used for storage—the old glass elevator, according to the Oklahoman, “is now little more than a cavernous cement shaft surrounded with a plywood railing.”) Meanwhile, all over OKC’s deteriorating roads, cars sported a new bumper sticker: PLEASE GOD JUST ONE MORE BOOM. I PROMISE NOT TO PISS IT AWAY THIS TIME.

Excerpted with permission from Boom Town by Sam Anderson. Published by Crown, an imprint of the Crown Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright 2018 by Sam Anderson.

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