Burns Is Scary Guy

June 20, 2002
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GRAND RAPIDS — When he was 10 years old, Jim Burns went to a haunted house in Sparta.

“Sheer terror,” Burns recalled, laughing. “From that moment I knew I wanted to have my own haunted house.”

Of course, most pre-teens don’t just up and start their own business.

“Naturally, at age 10 you don’t have all that much business sense,” Burns added.

But the dream never really died.

After graduating from West Catholic High School in 1984, Burns passed on college and became a partner with two of his older brothers in the Grand Rapids Popcorn Co.

In 1993, Burns wanted a change, so he sold his share of the company to his two brothers and began plans for his own business. Burns’ wife was opening a day care center, and in their search for educational toys, they discovered how few retailers were in that market. Sensing a niche, Burns later that year opened his own specialty toy store, Ready-Set-Grow.

“Retail was a completely new experience for me,” Burns said. “I hadn’t had to deal with the general public much before that, having a wholesale background. I learned a lot with that company and I have a huge respect for anyone in retail.”

Last year, Burns folded the store and sold the Grow building, but not before he knew his next move. One of the many trade journals Burns subscribed to — this one dealing with a variety of public attractions — detailed a new kind of haunted house located in Salt Lake City, Utah.

The dreams of a 10-year-old again were piqued.

The haunted house used original make-up, theatrical sets and local actors to “create the next level of haunted house.”

After visiting the Salt Lake attraction, Burns began plans for his own haunted house. He put together a six-person team that would focus on specialized areas he knew would be crucial in developing his attraction, including construction, set design, artistry, sound and lighting, acting and safety.

“I knew Grand Rapids was ready for this kind of quality entertainment,” Burns said. “And I wanted to do it right the first time out.”

Burns utilized contacts from his many years of business in Grand Rapids and established new contacts in Hollywood. For make-up Burns recruited Chris Hanson, known for work on the hit movie “Men in Black” and the smash TV series “X-Files.” For set design he found John Kluff, a construction coordinator for blockbusters like “Independence Day” and “Maverick.” Local talent was found in Grand Valley State University’s Scott Crampton and artist Tami Plont.

Everything was in place to build Burns’ haunted attraction, The Haunt, except a building. Burns contacted real estate agents in the area, describing his need for a building that could house his 19,000-square-foot attraction.

“All the buildings had something missing. Either bad location, low ceilings, no parking.”

Finally, Burns discovered a building while having dinner at a restaurant adjacent to where the The Haunt now stands, on 28th Street SE near Breton Road. Burns contacted the realty company, Eyde Co. out of Lansing, and pitched his idea to owner Lou Eyde. Eyde soon became a partner in The Haunt, which is his company’s first Grand Rapids venture. Other sponsors, including Clear Channel Broadcasting, Coca-Cola and the Star Theatre, would later sign on with The Haunt, which will donate a portion of its profits to the Grand Rapids Youth Commonwealth.

“If you have a good plan and lots of enthusiasm, people will join you,” Burns said.

Built with close contact with fire and zoning officials, Burns said inspectors declared The Haunt the safest haunted house in Michigan. Eight officers from DK Security are on staff at all times, as is a trained EMT.

Not only did Burns want to make his haunted house safe for the whole family, he wanted it appropriate for today’s 10-year-olds as well.

“I wanted to stay away from blood, gore and profanity,” Burns said. “I have a 3-year-old daughter, and I don’t want her exposed to anything like that. I wanted to build The Haunt to be a family attraction, safe and fun.”

The $500,000 attraction opened its doors on Friday, Sept. 28, featuring a cast of 65 actors and Disney World-like special effects. In the first weekend, six people wet their pants, Burns said, all of them middle-aged men.

“It was the evil clown,” Burns said, smiling. “Some people have a thing with clowns.”

Burns is planning on expanding The Haunt into as many as three other Michigan markets in 2002. His company, J.M. Burns Productions, is developing attractions for other seasons as well.

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