Who the Hell is Wild Willie?

An up-from-nowhere theme-park promoter has set off a land rush in tiny Canton - and he's just gotten started with his crazy schemes

On his birth certificate, Dwight Martinek uses his legal name, the one that reflects his grandparents' Czech roots.

But on the streets of the East Texas town of Canton, Martinek--a large, ponytailed, sculptor-turned-theme-park promoter--introduces himself as "Wild Willie."

Sure, the handle's hokey. Martinek borrowed it from a now-defunct Western-style department store in Topeka, Kansas.

But it seems just about right for this 50-year-old wheeler-dealer, who has set Canton on its ear since he roared into town just 15 months ago.

Martinek has managed to stir even more debate in this community of 3,000, 60 miles east of Dallas, than a city animal-shelter worker did in 1987 when he shot 17 stray dogs--and buried some alive.

Martinek started doing it by developing "Wild Willie's Mountain," a 36-acre shopping village with a Western-pioneer theme. The complex somehow competes with Canton's supreme civic tradition, the mammoth "First Monday Trade Days." Open the weekend before the first Monday of each month, the flea market draws so many visitors a year--about two million--and generates so much revenue from leases of public land that Canton residents no longer have to pay city property taxes.

Yet on a hill just two blocks east of Canton's courthouse square, outside the city limits on Highway 64, Martinek has tossed up a rival complex that includes some 500 craft shops, seven restaurants and food booths, donkey rides, artisan demonstrations, strolling entertainers (some of whom perform shootouts), and even a "Teepee village," offering overnight accommodations for a mere $150 a night.

And Martinek isn't stopping there.
He already has broken ground on a new 1,000-seat indoor theater for touring national country-music acts. At the end of this month, he is scheduled to close a deal to buy another 150 acres for $1.75 million from former Canton city manager Gerald Turner; he's planning a Bonnie-and-Clyde theme park there.

Martinek has talked about creating a new restaurant in Canton out of the hull of a grounded Boeing 747. And he's started to pitch the notion of a movie house, hotel, restaurant, theater, museum, and shop--all tied to the image of Hopalong Cassidy, the all-American television and cinema character wildly popular in...the 1950s.

But the biggest, wildest buzz yet is about a project based on so-far unfounded rumors: that Martinek, in collaboration with some major star--local talk mentions "everyone from Charley Pride to Dolly Parton," says Van Zandt county appraisal district director Brenda Barnett--is planning a massive country-music entertainment that will turn Canton into another Branson, Missouri.

Ever the shrewd promoter, Wild Willie isn't saying much. "I will be real up front with you: There are rumors," he declares unhelpfully. "No one has bought anything yet. But I've met with some of them. Can't say who they are. They'd always hold that against me, you know."

The recent arrival's penchant for flamboyant schemes has generated both wonder and skepticism. "It's the damnedest thing I've ever seen in my life," says Ben Monning, an attorney in nearby Wills Point and a major area landowner.

Recalls former city manager Turner: "Most of the coffee-shop talk when he started building was, 'He'll never make it.'"

Naysayers notwithstanding, Martinek is clearly a phenomenon. The success of his theme park won him the Canton Chamber of Commerce's Business of the Year award. And with his fast and furious talk of wacky new projects, Martinek has single-handedly generated a local land boom. The appraisal district's Barnett says she has had to hire two part-time employees just to record the rising property values that Martinek's building boom has helped spur. In the Trading Days area, land is now worth $174,000 an acre, Barnett says--compared to $61,000 just three years ago.

"Some question the validity of what he's doing," says Claudette Anderson, a local real-estate agent. "But it's just that he's doing more innovative things than people are used to."

"I was like everyone in town at first--kind of leery," concedes Linda Brown, managing editor of The Canton Herald, the local paper. "But so far he's done everything he said he was going to do."

It's about noon on a blissfully sunny Saturday in late February-- a First Monday weekend in Canton. All over town, cars are crawling by, as their drivers crane their necks, looking for that one lucky empty space.

At the foot of his tree-covered hillside, Dwight Martinek, set for a busy day of dealmaking and promoting, squeezes his lanky frame into the driver's seat of a white motorized golf cart. That's the only vehicle he allows to climb up and down the hill of his theme park.

Before turning the key, Martinek barks out a few orders for his business partner, Dustin Martinek--the boss' 24-year-old son, known around town as "Wild Willie II." (In addition to his son and daughter-in-law, Martinek employs his wife, his brother, five nephews and nieces, and his mother.) "Keep an eye out for the Hopalong Cassidy guys," the elder Martinek yells.

That afternoon, Martinek is expecting a visit from Holger Wede, a New York lawyer who owns the rights to Hopalong Cassidy's 66 full-length feature films and 52 half-hour television shows--not to mention his image and likeness. And what an image (at least for those old enough to remember it). In his heyday, Hopalong never spat or kissed on screen, only pulled his gun as a last resort, inspired a fan club with membership larger than the Boy Scouts of America, and closed the streets of Manhattan with a ticker-tape parade in his honor.

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