This is a biographical profile of Randall A. Duell, one of the preeminent amusement park designers of the 20th Century. But not only was he distinguished for that – he was also a long time art director for MGM Studios from the 1930s to the 1950s, being nominated for several Academy awards.
Randall A. Duell was born on July 14, 1903, in Luray, Kansas. Duell’s family relocated to California in 1912, and Randall Duell was able to experience amusement rides at the 1915 San Diego Fair.
Duell attended the University of Southern California School of Architecture. Due to a slowdown in construction business because of the Great Depression, he joined Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios (MGM) as a set designer.
Through his career at MGM, he reached the level of Art Director. Duell was on one of the highest levels for an MGM employee (one newspaper labeled him one of MGM’s “big shots”). He would often travel to potential filming locations as part of the negotiating team to reach an agreement with the location of interest.
Duell worked as art director on 65 movies including collaborating with Cedric Gibbons on the movie Singin’ in the Rain. Duell was also involved in The Wizard of Oz, but was uncredited. His earliest film debuted in 1937 – My Dear Miss Aldrich – Duell was associate art director. His first film as art director was Mrs. Parkington, released in 1944, and his last film with MGM, and as art director, was Count Your Blessings, released in 1959.
Duell was nominated for 3 academy awards while working for MGM. He was nominated for:
- When Ladies Meet
- Released in 1941, nominated for Best Art Direction-Interior Decoration, Black-and-White in 1942
- Random Harvest
- Released in 1942, nominated for Best Art Direction-Interior Decoration, Black-and-White in 1943
- Blackboard Jungle
- Released in 1955, nominated for Best Art Direction-Set Decoration, Black-and-White in 1956
“Leave ’em smiling”
Duell retired from MGM in 1959, and re-entered architecture because he was interested in working outside of motion pictures. In the wake of leaving MGM, he went to design firm Marco Engineering and co-designed several theme parks including Pleasure Island, in Boston, and Freedomland, in New York.
He and his wife Rachel formed R. Duell and Associates (R. Duell), with Rachel as the business manager. The first theme park R. Duell designed was Six Flags Over Texas, which opened in 1961. The success of the first Six Flags park put R. Duell firmly in the position of being the premier amusement park designer.
“We want no mad people. What we do want is to please them so much that they leave there with a smile, thinking, ‘my, what a good time we had.’ This is our basis for our whole design.”
— Randall Duell
Subsequent amusement park projects included (this is only a partial list):
- original Universal Studios Hollywood Backlot Studio Tour, opened in 1964
- Six Flags Over Georgia, opened 1967
- Six Flags Astroworld, opened 1968
- Frontier Worlds, never opened
- Busch Gardens Texas, opened 1971
- Six Flags Magic Mountain, opened 1971
- Six Flags St. Louis, opened 1971
- Hersheypark renovation (“Our Project #933”), from 1972-1973
- Opryland, opened 1972
- Carowinds, opened in 1973
- Worlds of Fun, opened in 1973
- Everland, opened 1976
- Libertyland, opened in 1976
- Marriott’s Great America parks, opened in 1976
- Darien Lake, opened in 1981
- United Kingdom and France pavilions at EPCOT, opened 1982
- Parc Astérix, opened in 1989
“Duell was called ‘since [Walt] Disney’s death the No. 1 force in theme park design’ by the Encyclopedia Americana.”
— Los Angeles Times, December 3, 1992
As mentioned, Duell was born on July 14, 1903. His parents were Lewis and Sarah Duell. He was the Duell’s second child, having already had a daughter, Gwendolyn, born in 1901.
Duell met his future wife Rachel and they married in 1925. They had a child, Roger, which was based on Rachel’s maiden name. Roger eventually joined R. Duell and Associates in his professional career.
Randall Duell died on November 28, 1992, at the age of 89, after suffering a stroke.
This is the first in a series of biographical articles on The Amusement Parkives. Look for more profiles on important people related to Hersheypark, West View Park, or the amusement park industry in general, in the future.
I have a wide variety of interests, from sports to politics, music to Star Trek. I write about the history of amusement parks on my website, The Amusement Parkives, which I founded in 2016.