The devil got down at the Regency one Saturday night.
By Monday morning, Maruca Salazar's entire eighth-grade class was talking about it. "I arrived at school and found all my students with their eyes big and wide, all shuddering and totally talkative. 'Did you hear what happened? Did you hear what happened?'"
Their teacher hadn't heard.
"The devil. He appeared last night at Los Caporales." That's the former grand ballroom at the Regency Hotel, which now hosts big Mexican dances on Friday and Saturday nights. "'My nephew saw it,' said one. 'My cousin saw it.' Oh, they all knew one person who was there," Salazar remembers.
"And they all said: At Los Caporales, this girl was there, and she was very dressed up and beautiful. So this handsome young man asks her to dance. They get to the center of the floor and begin to dance, and all of a sudden, this woman begins to feel hot and uncomfortable, like something is burning her back where the man is holding her. Pretty soon the woman passes out on the floor and the crowd parts, and it's the devil standing there!"
Salazar is a teacher, but she's also an artist who appreciates Mexican culture. And a mother. "I have a teenage daughter," she says. "And I thought, 'Wow. This is magic realism, Mexican style. If I'm a mother and I don't want my daughter to sneak out and go places that allow teenage girls to dance with older men, I'm going to encourage this legend to continue."
And continue it did. The urban legend spread from school to school, bar to bar. As it traveled, the story changed. In one version, the devil -- a handsome cowboy -- left his hoofprints in the Regency's decrepit parking lot. In another, "a good-looking guy was on the mechanical bull in the basement, and his boot fell off, and his hoof was showing," says Debbie Ortega. She's the District 9 Denver City Council representative who's had a devil of a time dealing with complaints about the Regency since the once-upscale hotel at 3900 Elati Street was purchased in 1999 by Art Cormier, the former owner of Smiley's Laundromat. "I want him to run his facility the same way every other establishment has to run their business," Ortega explains carefully -- carefully, because Cormier has threatened to sue the councilwoman. Personally.
Since Cormier bought the place, it's collected dozens of "life and safety system violations" of the city's fire and building codes. But it's also attracted thousands of people to Los Caporales on the weekends.
Joel Carmichael, an owner of the nearby Opera Shop, picks up their trash on Monday. "Our parking lot's shot; our driveway's shot. It's really pretty horrible for us," he says.
Carmichael's been in the neighborhood fifteen years and remembers when the Regency hosted weddings and proms and "our biggest problem was the crowd for the basketball tournament. Then it was closed for a couple of years, and we were actually pretty excited when we heard someone was going to buy it. Be careful what you wish for."
From his business, Carmichael can look right into the trashed hotel rooms in the north wing, occupied by people one step from homelessness, people who aren't in a position to make many demands of management. Whenever he sees a kid in a second- or third-floor room, where the windows open wide without any barriers, he calls the police.
Carmichael's seen a lot at the Regency, but he hasn't seen the devil.
Unless it's Art Cormier.
Six weeks ago, Ortega organized yet another meeting of neighbors and city officials regarding the Regency. And last Thursday, Denver filed suit to prevent the Regency's owners and anyone else "from using and occupying the Regency Hotel until such time as the Hotel property is brought into compliance with the specified provisions of the Denver Fire Code, Denver Zoning Code and Denver Building Code." On March 5, for example, the city's zoning administrator had issued a "certification of imminent peril" because "an uncontrolled and chaotic parking situation" prevented emergency vehicles from accessing the property. And on March 14 -- the day after Westword put the Regency on the cover ("Motel Hell," March 13) -- city elevator inspectors red-tagged all but one of the hotel's elevators, indicating they were unfit for operation. The owner or some third party subsequently removed the red tags, the city claims. Illegally.
Cormier's lawyers have gotten the Regency out of jams before; in May 1999, attorney Manuel Martinez, former manager of safety for the city, negotiated an agreement with the Denver fire and building departments to correct a number of violations. But when those departments reinspected the Regency last December and again in February, they not only determined that the hotel had failed to comply with the agreement, but they found still more violations -- 38 in all, summarized in an "Order to Comply" served the hotel on March 3. Zoning issued its own orders a few days later. And on April 24, the city sued the Regency and Art Cormier.
Martinez was out of town, and so last Friday, Assistant City Attorney Thomas Bigler wound up in court with Craig Silverman, another Cormier lawyer who was once Denver's chief deputy district attorney. By the end of the day, the Regency had secured a temporary restraining order that allowed it to keep operating on a limited basis, closing some spaces -- no more riding the mechanical bull in the basement -- while agreeing to have firefighters patrol others 24 hours a day and limiting occupancy at Los Caporales to 1,400 (provided the wooden stage has been removed). That's down from the 4,000-plus allowed in the space by city zoning, and way down from the 7,000 revelers who sometimes packed the place. The Regency has another day in court set for May 22.
In the meantime, says Silverman, "the Regency is alive and well. You can stay in the tower and the north wing. More important, you can come hear some excellent Mexican music and dance with your partner into the wee hours. On Cinco de Mayo."
In the meantime, "the best thing they can do to help themselves is to take a good, hard look at the property and contract to fix the violations," says Bigler. "The deteriorated condition of the property renders it a very, very dangerous place to be. You have that many people and that many violations, it's a very volatile mix."
"We intend to work with the city attorney's office, and I think communication will improve," says Silverman, adding that even as he speaks, the Regency is working on the parking lot potholes. ("There's a guy out there with a broom," Carmichael observes.)
"The city's been after him for four years trying to secure his voluntary compliance," Bigler says of Cormier. "The property continued to decline, and the owner doesn't seem willing to bring that property into compliance. But now it's time."
To fix the Regency, or sell it, or maybe even scrape it and bury the remains on that prime piece of real estate. Cormier put the hotel up for auction on March 20, but the deal got buried in the blizzard, and he's still negotiating with potential buyers, according to Silverman. (One contender is the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless, which purchased the downtown Denver YMCA almost two years ago, renovating the building to include housing as well as Y facilities.) If a sale goes through, though, Cormier may still continue his dances at the hotel -- or he may move them elsewhere. The Mexican-music audience is too large, and lucrative, to ignore. Even the city's gotten into the act, Silverman points out, offering its own weekend events at the Coliseum that compete with the dances at Los Caporales.
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"It's a wholesome dance environment," Silverman says of the Regency. "They pat everybody down as they come in. Whole families come."
And whole families go. "You can tell your daughter that if you go to places like that, nothing good will happen to you," Salazar says. "But because these girls don't listen, you sometimes have to invoke a higher power and go to the spiritual level, maybe ask for the blessing of Our Lady of Guadalupe.
"For a while, I think some of these girls stopped going there. And the story kept growing. He had horns. People smelled sulfur. There were hoofprints burned into the floor. The girl had a burn mark on her back when she woke up."
The devil's in the details.