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.
"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.
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"Oh...in 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."
"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."
It was then that the lake the train still runs around, originally known as Sylvan Lake or "that lake at Lakeside," was rechristened Lake Rhoda, after Benjamin's only child, who was embarrassed by the notoriety. Today the view from the train encompasses I-70, Lakeside Mall, a bank of ATMs and a Mexican restaurant. None of that existed in the 1940s, when passengers instead strained for a glimpse of the "kiddie ride" ponies pastured near the current Sears auto department.
"That was what we had instead of the Kiddie Park," Rhoda recalls, "but I always loved to ride the Tumble Bug, which I don't have anymore, and the Satellite, where you pilot the planes and they actually go up in the air." (That ride's still there, should you or your kiddies get the urge.)
"We also still have one of the few Wild Chipmunks in captivity," she continues, pointing out the small roller coaster that was sold to her father as the Wild Mouse. "But he didn't think, despite the middle-aged mouse from Orlando, that the mouse was an appealing animal. And one day we drove up into the mountains and saw the tourists feeding the chipmunks, and they were so cute, running in every direction. And luckily, the musical group the Chipmunks had just become popular, so we named the cars Simon, Theodore, Alvin...and when did we go up to the mountains? It couldn't have been during the summer."
So it must have been during the winter, Rhoda decides, a bit pensively, "since summer's nothing but work, but it's so captivating. It is the business of entertainment, of working hard doing fun things. It doesn't always come together, but when it does -- oh, it's fun to throw a party. In the off-season, it takes a little while to adjust, to find your house and your desk...and then you restore. Try to put everything back the way it should be."
But given Benjamin Krasner's passion for the most exotic materials of his time -- the cobalt-blue glass, the neon and ornamental iron, the stainless-steel ticket-booth fronts -- restoration is a never-ending challenge. "It's the fun part, trying to find a guy who can still restore marble or paint a carousel horse," Rhoda says, "but it's also very, very hard. If my father were alive today, he'd be horrified at how some things look. But he'd also understand. These are different times."
In those times, fifty-odd years ago, her father would be wearing his usual three-piece suit, even in the summer heat, and going about his business: making sure the train ran on time, setting up early-morning confabs with booking agents -- could Stan Kenton or Count Basie stop by Denver as they toured the country? -- estimating just how much of the Cyclone's wooden super-structure had to be replaced the next winter.
"My father didn't ride the coaster very often," Rhoda says, "but always once or twice, toward the end of the season. Before he got on, he'd spend hours watching it run, parked over by the fence, just standing there. And by the time he got on in September, he could feel the places where it needed to be worked on. I never rode it till I was twelve or thirteen, and that year I went with my father.
"And it was a thrill, I loved it; I learned to move with it. It doesn't turn you upside down, but it's a great ride."