Ten More Long-Gone Denver Institutions, From the Family Dog to Blinky the Clown
The Fun House at Lakeside, with Laffing Sal in the glass case at center.
This is getting ridiculous. An inhabitant of Denver from fifty years ago, plopped down in the center of town, would be hard-pressed to recognize its streets — much less negotiate them. Few American cities have changed so radically recently as the Queen City of the Plains. (It’s nice to be loved, but we just heard that Pittsburgh is the new Denver. Check it out.)
Maybe it’s because we’re so nice. Denverites are friendly, open, and usually let developers do whatever they want. That sunny disposition is a unique facet of the Denver character, an unassuming, relaxed friendliness that people from more frantic, ruder cultures find unnerving, then take advantage of. Scratch the exterior of the Mile High City, you got a cowtown.
But these days, there's less and less of the original exterior. Here are ten more long-gone institutions, a nostalgic roster of places and people that made Denver distinctive.
Zeckendorf Plaza was one of the few public-friendly spaces in Denver.
10. Zeckendorf Plaza
16th Street and Court Place
One of the twentieth century’s biggest crimes against aesthetics took place during the summer of 1996 in downtown Denver. A hotel developer from out of town convinced the city to destroy one of its only distinctive buildings: I.M. Pei’s Zeckendorf Plaza. The internationally acclaimed architect created his largest hyperbolic paraboloid structure — actually four of them, fused together— as the entrance for the new May D&F department store in 1960.
The distinctive wavy line of the building’s seemingly floating roof soon became an emblem of the retailer, as well as one closely associated with Denver. The plaza also featured a mini-golf course in the summer that converted into an ice-skating rink in winter. Visiting this store was a highlight of the Christmas season: The retailer never did figure out how to use the vaulting ceiling space, but crammed it full of decorations and lights every year, and everyone went downtown to take a gander.
Along with the destruction of old Auraria and the Skyline Park Project massacre of 27 city blocks in the 1960 and ’70s, the destruction of Zeckendorf Plaza must count as one of the Denver Urban Renewal Authority’s darkest hours.
How much did it cost to see Lothar and the Hand People, Captain Beefheart and the Doors? $3.50.
9. The Family Dog
1601 West Evans Avenue
It was open for only ten months, but during that time, the Family Dog hosted some of the greatest acts in rock history. Legendary music promoter Barry Fey got his start here, taking a building that had previously held the short-lived Sultan’s Table, a Whiskey a Go Go, the Batcave the Posh, and the Bird, and turning it into a psychedelic showcase. Between September 1967 and July 1968, performers such as the Byrds, Captain Beefheart, the Grateful Dead, the Doors, Buffalo Springfield, Van Morrison, Denver’s own Lothar and the Hand People, Frank Zappa and Cream hit the stage here.
After a show at the Dog on October 21, 1967, a police informant planted weed on Canned Heat and the musicians were busted. They wrote a great song, “My Crime,” about it. Continued police harassment, coupled with lack of revenue, led Fey to shut down the Dog, but he went on to music-biz glory, founding the Red Rocks Summer of Stars concert series, among other innovations. The building still stands, having been home to PT’s Showclub — “healthy, fun adult entertainment”— for more than thirty years.
The Denver Drumstick was the place for family dining for years.
8. The Denver Drumstick
Six Denver locations
Texas poultry farmer Austin Meyers came to Denver and set up his first family-dining spot at 6801 West Colfax Avenue in 1955. With the slogan “Where everyone eats chicken and shrimp,” the Denver Drumstick was the go-to, nice-yet-affordable dining option in a town where “fine dining” was saved for special occasions. Soon Meyers had five more locations that were feeding most of Denver, especially on Sunday nights. The fare was greasy and heavy, but no one cared: The fried chicken was delicious, served with the Drumstick’s mysterious but awesome yellow gravy.
Kids loved the takeout boxes, shaped like railroad cars and sailboats, and the jazzy neon signage “CHICKEN-SHRIMP-TO GO.” A big draw for the adults was the Drumstick feature of ever-circling tracks of miniature trains that ran suspended from the ceilings; this sight would hypnotize children long enough for Mom and Dad to catch a break.
The chain ran out of steam in the early 1970s, and a recent revamping of the old JCRS Shopping Center meant the last physical vestige of the once immensely popular chain is now gone.
Blinky the Clown, aka Russell Scott — Denver's TV clown for decades.
7. Blinky the Clown, aka Russell Scott
He was the longest-running children’s TV host in U.S. history, and the longest-running TV clown in the world. Blinky the Clown started at KKTV in Colorado Springs in 1958, but moved up to Denver’s KWGN in 1966, and his Blinky’s Fun Club was soon the opiate of the childish masses. Faithful viewers tuned in every school day at 4 p.m. to see Blinky’s corny antics interspersed with strange old cartoons, musical bits and safety lectures from police officers and firefighters. Blinky had a funny doggy hand puppet, Barney, who would play tricks on him. “Please stay out of those streets!” were Blinky's daily watchwords to us.
There were other local children’s TV hosts – Captain Ozie, Fred ‘n’ Fae, Noell and Andy, Sheriff Scotty, and the like — but Blinky was our pal. The highlight of every show came when Blinky would fight a birthday cake with a lit candle that went up and down, and then sing, “Happy birf-day to you/Happy birf-day to you . . .”
Blinky got canned in 1998. It was a sad day, and the station threw out the tapes containing his more than 10,000 shows. (About a dozen survive.) By all accounts, Russell Scott was not the easiest person in the world to get along with (one friend who went on the show says that when not on the set, Blinky played barrelhouse piano backstage...and smoked!). But his TV persona, nightmare-making as it was for many impressionable youths, was a constant. Blinky never let us down.
6. The Fun House at Lakeside Amusement Park
4601 Sheridan Boulevard, Lakeside
This marvelous wood-and-steel construction was one of the last of the old-time fun houses in America. It was part of the original Lakeside Amusement Park when it opened in 1908, and featured a perilous, exhilarating analog course across shifting floors, with rollers, slides, rotating tunnels and a spinning-disk segment that would fling you into a corner.
Elegantly and simply designed, it was one of younger children’s favorite attractions; they'd race through it again and again. It was fronted by a memorable automaton, “Laffing Sal,” who gyrated, gap-toothed and fright-wigged, screeching out incessant recorded laughter. Many a childhood nightmare featured her — and if you worked at the park near her, the sound would slowly drive you bonkers.
The Fun House itself had its hazards, triggering falls, bumps and bruises. Potential liability issues drove the decision to tear it down in 1985. Today, the Dragon ride sits where Sal used to cackle the nights away.
Keep reading for more long-gone Denver institutions.
Cricket on the Hill was a dive, but it was OUR dive.
5. Cricket on the Hill
1209 East 13th Avenue
It was a dump, a dive. The bathrooms were frightening, and someone always seemed to be buying drugs in there. Musicians loaded their gear through the front, as the ridiculous back door to the alley was too narrow. The stage was tiny, the air was smoky and reeked of stale beer. Gee, the Cricket was wonderful.
This misbegotten venue was a social center for the Denver dysfunctional of Capitol Hill from 1963 to March 15, 2008. Its emblematic emcee/bouncer, the mighty Denver Joe, reigned over the scene like a scary uncle. Most important, though, it was a viable place to play music – any and every kind of music imaginable. Newcomers, local faves...almost anyone with a pulse and two chord changes could try his or her talents at the Cricket. The place was small enough that a band could pack the place with a few friends, and the in-your-face energy when an act was on top was electric. That kind of ground-level opportunity at a long-term sustainable venue, one that gave its performers free license, was invaluable for musicians. And there were very few fistfights.
It came to an end, though, when another iconic Capitol Hill business, Nicolo’s Pizza, expanded into the space.
Pete Smythe welcomed you to Tincup.
4. Pete Smythe
He was the prototype of a local media personality, with a familiar voice and face that people trusted. Pete Smythe hailed from Glenrock, Wyoming, and attended the University of Colorado Boulder, forming a dance band there. In 1941, he started the city’s first disc-jockey show on KMYR, spinning records and telling jokes. He wrote for radio in Hollywood, tried to start a dude ranch, then settled in Denver again, creating a folksy, genial persona as the mayor of the mythical East Tincup, Colorado, one he played for decades as a host on radio and fledgling TV at KOA.
Even after he retired in 1969, he became the familiar TV pitchman for First Federal Savings and other local businesses. One of his last jobs was serving as the first instructional “voice of the train” at DIA, welcoming travelers to Denver in the same affable way he'd greeted his listeners and viewers over the years.
3. Taylor’s Supper Club
7000 West Colfax Avenue, Lakewood
When Denver postal worker Sammy Toole bought Taylor’s Supper Club in February 1948, it was a barbecue joint out past the edge of town (the streetcar stopped at Sheridan). Toole turned it into a swanky Vegas-style eatery that featured live jazz and comedy. At a time when Denver fielded little in the way of sophisticated nightlife, Taylor’s was a place to get your glam on, washed down with a slurry of martinis.
Touring acts such as Rosemary Clooney, the Four Freshmen, Kaye Ballard, Chet Atkins and other Caucasian hitmakers of the period headlined the bill. Toole hired local talent as well, giving up-and-comers a chance and retaining a highly popular crew of musicians/laugh-getters dubbed variously the “nationally famous” Taylor Trio or Taylor Four. The act's members included once-familiar names such as Al Fike, Buddy Greene, Kenny Smith and Frankie Burg; later the Lawmen, comprising three Jefferson County Sheriff’s Department officers – Bo Cottrell, John Ray, and John Grout – would serve as the house act.
Business was so good that the original building was torn down in 1969 and replaced with a bigger one. But in the 1970s, Taylor’s suffered as people began to reject the Rat Pack aesthetic and started hitting the discos and fern bars that sprang up in Glendale and along Leetsdale Drive. The Taylor’s shows were always squeaky-clean, and when times changed and humor got rougher, Toole found he didn’t want to be in business any longer. He sold the place in 1980, and it rapidly went downhill and then disappeared altogether. Now the site holds some medical offices and a parking lot.
The Yum Yum Tree amazed its customers, who had never seen a food court before.
2. The Yum Yum Tree
Three metro locations
When Villa Italia Mall opened in 1965, it was the largest enclosed mall between Chicago and Los Angeles (shortly to be eclipsed by Englewood’s Cinderella City). It featured fountains, Roman-style statuary – and the most amazing restaurant anyone had ever seen. The whole family loved it, as everyone could order exactly what they wanted! Touting itself as “eight restaurants under one roof,” the Yum Yum Tree featured an array of cuisines – Mexican, Chinese, Italian et al. – and let you go from one mini-restaurant to another, eat in a central area littered with tables, and pay as you exited.
In other words, it was a primeval food court.
Naturally, it was wildly popular, even earning the commercial endorsement of our favorite TV clown, Blinky. Incessant chipper singing commercials reminded us that “For a real fun family place to eat/Try the Yum Yum Tree Food Bazaar!”
When the novelty wore off, business fell off, and the food got worse and worse. The restaurant moved to a location on South Colorado Boulevard, then to South Havana, and then it winked out of existence. Villa Italia is long gone, replaced by the Lakewood City Center.
Rocky Flats in 1995, right before cleanup began.
1. Rocky Flats Nuclear Weapons Plant
State Highway 93, Jefferson County
When it did exist, no one was supposed to talk about it. Now that it’s gone, everyone’s trying to pretend it was never there.
The Rocky Flats Nuclear Plant manufactured plutonium “triggers” for nuclear bombs, beginning at the heart of the Cold War in 1952. The race for arms superiority against the Soviets was seen as a national priority, and some 10,000 workers flocked to the gates. The pay was great, and those who worked there saw themselves as patriots.
But there were problems: fires that released radioactive waste in 1957 and 1969, for example, and repeated instances of leakage raised warning flags among the citizenry. In 1976, Jefferson County Department of Health Director Carl Johnson blew the whistle on the contamination of down-wind and -stream communities. Meanwhile, political protests featuring high-profile left-wing figures such as Allen Ginsberg and Daniel Ellsberg periodically circled the plant, blocking the two fiercely guarded gates as well as train tracks in and out of the site.
On June 6, 1989, the FBI raided Rocky Flats after getting reports of mismanagement and illegal activity. The plant never made another plutonium trigger. A special grand jury was called, but its report was sealed and a deal was cut with the plaintiffs by the U.S. Attorney — the story untold until revealed by Westword in September 1992.
Rocky Flats shut down, was designated a Superfund site, and its cleanup was declared complete in 2005. The Rocky Flats National Wildlife Refuge now occupies much of the area (the most contaminated core is still off limits) and scads of subdivisions are being built to the east and south of it – precisely where wind and water deposited radioactive pollutants for decades. The refuge is not yet open to the public.
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