Radium and roller coasters: A brief, dirty history of Elitch Gardens

Radium was hot at the turn of the twentieth century. Discovered by Marie Curie in 1898, it quickly became big business. People loved radium. They put it in watches, in dials, in paints. They figured it had some kind of curative powers, so they also put it in toothpaste, in hair cream, in food — even, for some reason, in underpants.

And since the Colorado Plateau was one of the few places in the world where a person could mine radium-bearing ore right from the ground, it made sense for the newly formed National Radium Institute to build its first plant in Denver, which, working with the U.S. Bureau of Mines, it did in 1914, on the banks of the South Platte River just before its confluence with Cherry Creek. A second plant opened in 1915.

By the mid-1920s, though, reports of the health effects of radium were less than glowing. A group of women who'd worked as dial painters at a radium plant in New Jersey filed suit, claiming the bosses had been aware of the possibility of radiation poisoning and had taken protective measures for themselves but none for their workers, many of whom were dying by the time the suit was filed. The workers started getting sick, they estimated, around 1917 — the same year, it so happened, that Elitch Gardens opened its famed Trocadero Ballroom, the year after Mary Elitch finally broke down and sold the place to one John Mulvihill on the condition that the name never be changed.

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Elitch Gardens was not originally an amusement park. Rather, as its name suggests, it was a botanic garden. When the park opened at 38th Avenue and Tennyson Street back in 1890, there was already an amusement park in north Denver: Manhattan Beach at Sloan's Lake, which had opened in 1881. The initial vision for Elitch's was more refined: John Elitch and his wife, Mary, dreamed of creating a cultural center for Denver, a destination for arts purveyors and performers.

Elitch Theatre was to be the centerpiece of the park, and John made a lot of friends in Denver's performing-arts community in order to keep it filled. So central to the Elitch's aesthetic was the theater, in fact, that one of the main stipulations in Mary Elitch's contract when she sold the park to Mulvihill in 1916 was that she would have two box seats there for as long as she lived. (She also continued to reside in a small bungalow on the Elitch Gardens property until she died, in 1936.) The original incarnation of Elitch's also featured a zoo — the first zoo west of Chicago. P.T. Barnum, a familiar figure around Denver, donated many of the animals. The park even had a dancing bear.

But in a seriously rough turn of events, John Elitch died the year after the park opened — leaving the place to Mary, who became the first woman in the United States to own and manage a zoo, not to mention run a theater.

It was Mary, in many ways, who developed the character that would define Elitch Gardens. This is the place you went to have good, wholesome fun — emphasis on wholesome. "Elitch's was built in the town of Highland, originally, which was a no-alcohol, white, super-puritan community," notes Phil Goodstein, whose book North Side Story, published last year by New Social Publications, is probably the most in-depth and entertaining read anywhere on the seedy underbelly of northwest Denver. Highland was absorbed by Denver in 1896, but its upright protestant sensibilities remained. "They had ushers from the local church actually patrolling the dance floor," Goodstein says, "and you'd better not try any hanky-panky."

In 1904, Elitch Gardens ramped up the fun quotient by installing its first roller coaster — but that wasn't enough to fend off the competition. Lakeside Amusement Park opened right up the street four years later (Manhattan Beach closed six years after that, in 1914), so close by that when Elitch's built Mister Twister, its then-tallest roller coaster, in 1964, riders on that coaster and riders on Lakeside's Cyclone could actually see each other. "Lakeside was pushed by a group of German investors as a traditional German beer garden," Goodstein says. "There was alcohol, there was gambling; it's no accident that the first building on the site is called the Casino. And they deliberately built it right outside city limits so they could do that. So back then, Elitch's is sort of the upscale, puritan snob location, while Lakeside is the grittier side of amusement parks. Which is basically the way it is today."

But Elitch's has definitely evolved over the years. By the time Mary Elitch died and Arnold Gurtler, son-in-law of John Mulvihill, took over the park in the 1930s, the zoo was phased out and the gardens de-emphasized. In place of those two main attractions came more rides and more focus on entertainment. Elitch Theatre was the city's premier playhouse, while the Trocadero pulled in some of the biggest touring acts of the day.

"It was the cultural center. This is where the first film ever in Denver was shown," says Jose Mercado, now executive director of Historic Elitch Gardens Theatre. "Duke Ellington and Glenn Miller and all these amazing pioneer musicians passed through the Trocadero. There's a scene in The Glenn Miller Story, the film about his life with Jimmy Stewart, that was shot at the Elitch Theatre. The Trocadero and the Elitch were where we went on our first dates, where we asked our girls to marry us."

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