For Your Amusement

It's been a great ride at Lakeside.

The night Historic Denver visited Lakeside Amusement Park, Denver's most historic amusement park, you could cut the nostalgia with a knife -- or perhaps a pearl-handled dagger. Some fifty people had gathered in a pavilion almost unchanged since it was built in 1937, and none of them were there for the latest in modern rides or nauseating thrills. That's because Lakeside is still a family-owned amusement park, one of a handful across the country, and as such, it has not moved halfway across town or been given a jazzy new name (twice). At Lakeside, you cannot bungee-jump -- but you can ride the Cyclone, a sixty-year-old roller coaster that's been designated a Classic Coaster by the American Coaster Enthusiasts, who live to ride the "woodies."

"I haven't been here in twenty years," one man said. "Maybe thirty. My God, the memories!"

"But haven't you been to Elitch's lately?" his companion asked.

What goes around comes around at Lakeside.
John Johnston
What goes around comes around at Lakeside.

"Oh, pfff! Elitch's! They always thought they were white-collar, sophisticated. Well, we were blue-collar at Lakeside. We were working-class. God, I used to come here for smooching. Smooching and romance."

"Where?" she asked, scouting possible locations.

"Oh, everywhere. I mean, look around."

And so everyone did. The amateur historians studied the north boundary that once led to the swanky El Patio ballroom, the boarded-up entrance to the long-defunct Casino Theater, the nameless buildings packed with relics. Here were two disembodied Corinthian columns, all that remained of the original 1890s indoor swimming pool, grandly named the "Natatorium." Here was the dock where Skoota Boats once shot out onto the non-man-made lake. Here was a flawless lawn on which picnicking has always been permitted. Here, at the entrance to the almost perfectly art-deco Eataway Cafe, was an ancient scale asking the ghostly (and now impertinent) question: "Have you gained or lost weight?"

And here, in the gloom at the back of the cafe, was a marble soda fountain, its stainless-steel fixtures still gleaming. It had been salvaged from Union Station by Benjamin Krasner, who also salvaged Lakeside, buying it from the Zang Brewing family during the Depression.

"I wish I knew why Union Station was getting rid of it, or how he got it," said Benjamin's daughter, Rhoda, who now runs the park with her daughter Brenda and some 300 employees. "I should have asked. We used to serve all kinds of sodas here. We made our own ice cream -- 11 percent butterfat, too. We probably poisoned people."

But not before those people had a chance to ride the hand-carved horses -- and goats! -- on the old carousel, or swing through the night on the Star Ride, a Ferris wheel that looked like a giant, neon-infused Star of David. The Ferris wheel is still here, but it hasn't worked in decades. It's nearly impossible to find parts for vintage rides, Rhoda Krasner told the Historic Denver crowd.

"Where's the Laughing Lady?" someone asked, recalling the hugely fat, coin-operated mechanical woman who used to harangue passersby.

"Laughing Sally? She's in retirement," Rhoda answered. "There were quite a few Laughing Sals purchased in the 1940s, which is when my father bought her."

"But where is she?" the woman persisted.

" the machine shop?" Rhoda replied, not entirely certain. "I'm not sure I could find her. I can't even find my paperwork from last week."

A few weeks after Historic Denver's visit, both Rhoda's paperwork and the park's business are steadily building. Rhoda sits in one of the Eataway's wood-veneer booths, behind a black, octagonal table installed by her father during the 1930s when such a table was, without question, the latest thing.

"Just think of all the restaurants that have been here," she muses. "Hotdog stands and a Chinese place and a rathskeller. I remember working a popcorn stand when I was nine or ten years old."

The popcorn job was the first of Rhoda's many Lakeside positions, which kept her so busy that she seldom had time to play with her neighborhood friends, even at the park, because someone was always asking her for a key to a storeroom, or for help with a customer, or how to get a ride to behave. "If we manufactured tractors or something," she says, "I might not have been inclined to go to work with my mother and father, but this was so exciting."

Rhoda pauses. "But does this have to be about me? Couldn't we concentrate on the park?"

Is that possible? Can you concentrate on Lakeside without mentioning a Krasner or two?

Benjamin Krasner, who would be over a hundred if he were alive today, had already worked his way up from newsboy on a train to head concessionaire at Union Station by the time he discovered that the Lakeside life agreed with him. After running several food outlets at the park, he eventually found partners and bought out the Zangs, becoming an amusement park magnate in the process. And a train conductor, too.

"He always loved trains," Rhoda remembers. "He'd study timetables and routes at home. And, of course, he built the diesel railroad at Lakeside and studied every aspect of it before he built it."

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