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The Ride's Not Over

When they tore it down on January 25, most people didn't even know.
Bob Hooley knew, of course, but he tried to ignore it.
Mister Twister--the best ride of his life, number one on his list--had finally been reduced to a pile of lumber.

"For every year that you live, you lose something important to you," says Hooley, "whether it's a friendship or a relationship or a roller coaster or a house or a car. Repeated loss just makes it easier."

The once-terrifying coaster had actually closed nearly four and a half years earlier, on October 1, 1994, along with the rest of the old Elitch Gardens. The amusement park, founded in 1890 by John and Mary Elitch, had outgrown its 27-acre site between 36th and 38th avenues and Tennyson and Vrain streets, and a new Elitch Gardens--now called Six Flags Elitch Gardens--took its place in 1995 in the Central Platte Valley, a few miles away.

But Mister Twister's white-washed wooden beams had been left to rot in the sun, their paint slowly chipping, their vacant shadows looming over the small brick houses that line West 36th Avenue. Although there had been rumors in the mid-Nineties that it would be moved, plank by plank, to the new Elitch's or even blown up for a movie set, "the crushing blow was that, as that wood aged, it got really hard, and you couldn't even drive a nail into it in some places," says Chuck Perry, the developer who is turning the old Elitch's site into a housing, retail and office development. "We did spend about eight months trying to figure out how to recycle or relocate it. We never really entertained the movie thing a great deal. Mister Twister is very close to surrounding residences, and it would have been hard to take it down like that without imposing on the neighborhood."

That was just as well for Hooley. "I know it's just a bunch of wood," he says, "but I thought it needed to be quietly taken down, in respect for the ride, rather than blown up for a movie set, as some people thought. Once there was no hope of relocation, I'd rather it had been taken down sooner than to see it sit there and become an eyesore. A roller coaster should be a symbol of amusement, not abandonment."

Hooley didn't know it at the time, but his sentiments were shared by others.
Built in 1964, Mister Twister was designed by master coaster architect John Allen of the Philadelphia Toboggan Company. Several years later, it was reconfigured to run in and around the Wildcat roller coaster, creating a special effect for thrill-seekers who could watch one coaster zoom by while having their guts wrenched by the one they were on. "Between my senior year in high school and my freshman year in college, I worked as an usher at the Elitch Theater," says Perry, a Denver native. "I rode Mister Twister every night if I got off early enough. I loved it."

Mister Twister's reputation grew over the years--not just in Colorado, but nationally: In 1974, the New York Times ran a story about coasters and rated Mister Twister third best on a list of ten. It was that article that first peaked Hooley's interest in riding Mister Twister. "The way they described it, as having an exceptional tunnel and the spectacular views you got of the Rocky Mountains," he remembers. "I was truly intrigued."

Hooley was already big into coasters by then. His first major coaster ride, other than the kiddie coaster, was on the Bear Cat at Sans Souci Park in his native Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, at the age of nine. Although Sans Souci Park closed in the late 1960s, Hooley, now 46, went on to ride coasters all over the country. At last count, he had ridden 126 "woodies"--as wooden coasters are called--and dozens of steel coasters. (Many coaster enthusiasts, including Hooley, don't count steel coasters since they lack romance and are mass-produced.)

Hooley now lives in Richmond, Virginia, a mere six miles from Paramount's Kings Dominion park; with four wooden coasters, it's home to the largest collection of such rides in the United States. The music director for St. James the Less Episcopal Church in nearby Ashland, Virginia, Hooley is also a charter member of American Coaster Enthusiasts, a not-for-profit club that caters to coaster nuts and "the conservation, appreciation, knowledge and enjoyment of" coasters. Although ACE is the oldest and the largest coaster club--it was founded in 1978 and now has more than 5,000 members--dozens of other groups also gather at amusement parks every year to talk about their--"I think 'passion' is a fair word," says Hooley. "Maybe 'obsession,' I don't know. But it's not unhealthy. We all have something--or we ought to--that we truly love, whether its hiking or skiing or baseball. For me, it just happens to be coasters."

 

Hooley has chronicled his coastering adventures on a Web page called BobCoaster's Coaster Pages. Complete with vintage amusement-park music and photos of his favorite rides, there is also a two-page tribute to the memory of Mister Twister.

"I had a friend who rode Mister Twister for his first time the year before I did," Hooley says. "It was his goal in life--those of us who are enthusiasts have different goals than most people--to ride it by the time he was 30." The next year, in 1981, at the age of 28, Hooley made the trip to Denver himself. The first time he rode it, Hooley knew he'd found the ride he'd been looking for almost all of his life.

"For me, it is a sense of speed," he says. "I like the feeling that the ride is out of control. I fully understand that they are in control, that you are probably much more out of control on the interstate highway, but there is something to me that is fun to be tearing along. The very thing I love about them is what terrifies non-coaster enthusiasts.

"It had two great drops, wonderful swooping and diving curves, great speed, a fine tunnel, a double helix, air time and an out-of-control feeling. I think I found the perfect ride in Mister Twister," Hooley says, his speech slowing, his breath becoming choppy. "It was almost a need to ride it as many times as I could after that, to ride it enough times to last a couple of years." Hooley returned to Denver two more times to ride Mister Twister. "I don't count how many times I ride something," he insists. "Some people do. It's not terribly important to me. I'm sure it was a couple of hundred between three visits. In two of the three trips, I spent multiple days at Elitch's. The last time I visited was in '93. When I rode it then, it was running well. I had no idea I'd never ride it again."

A new coaster--called Twister II--opened at the new Elitch's, but it was made of steel and has yet to appear on anyone's list of favorite rides. Hooley is diplomatic. "I haven't ridden Twister II," he says. "I've heard it's a good coaster, but no Mister Twister. You should ride it and judge it--and this is fair for anything you do in life--on its own merits and not compare it to Mister Twister. People tell me it's not as good, but they're satisfied. It's faster but milder."

Just as Hooley was relegating Mister Twister into memory, however, even going so far as to name the Texas Giant at Six Flags Over Texas his new favorite, he found out that the ride--the ultimate ride--might not be over.

On November 2, 1998, the owners of Knoebels Amusement Resort in Elysburg, Pennsylvania (a mere five hours from Hooley's home), announced plans to build a variation of Mister Twister based on the original design. "I've already made two trips just to see the construction," Hooley says.

"We spent a couple years investigating the possibilities, and we were all familiar with Mister Twister. It has always been high on people's lists," says Knoebels spokesman Joe Muscato. Representatives of Knoebels talked to Perry and to former Elitch's owner Sandy Gurtler before deciding to build a version of Mister Twister from scratch. (Gurtler, whose family sold Elitch's in 1997, couldn't be reached for comment.)

Already respected among coaster enthusiasts for buying the San Antonio Rocket--which had been slated to be destroyed--then taking it apart and rebuilding it in Pennsylvania in 1985 as the Phoenix, the resort's owners thought about doing the same for Mister Twister. "But it wouldn't fit here. We didn't have the same footprint available," Muscato says.

Moreover, Perry adds, after five years of not being cared for, the coaster was in no condition to be moved. "They said the lesson they learned from moving the one in Texas was that it was more economically efficient to rebuild one than to dismantle one and put it back up."

Knoebels's staff engineer reworked the coaster's blueprints to maintain the same ride experience. "Physically, it will not appear the same, but all the pieces are there. They are just organized in a different fashion," Muscato says.

Instead of stretching the coaster out, as was done in Denver, the new ride, simply called Twister, will fold back in on itself. To maintain the feeling of passing another ride like the Wildcat, the new Twister will actually pass itself 36 times (Mister Twister only had 13 crossovers), and as in the original, there will be a tunnel. Set in the shady foothills of east central Pennsylvania and filled with tall, leafy trees and cool streams, the new location will be perfect for the ride, Hooley says. "It's a charming park, done in a way that only Pennsylvania can do."

 

Knoebels' engineer did salvage a bolt from Mister Twister, which will be painted gold and added to the new Twister. "We've intended to place it last, as our tribute to Mister Twister," Muscato says.

Perry saved some pieces of wood and parts of the old track as well, which he plans to sell or auction off to help pay for restoration of the Elitch Gardens Theater, which has been designated a historic landmark. A few homes and a park--which may be called Twister Park--will be built on the site of the old ride, Perry says.

The new Twister will open sometime in early July. "We're hoping by July 4, but there are no guarantees," Muscato says.

Hooley will be there on the first day if he can.
"We have to keep an open mind in knowing that it is brand-new and needs a couple of seasons to break in," he says. "An exceptional roller coaster, lost, was not good news for people in Denver. But if this is as good as hoped, it's Denver's loss but our gain, because we don't have to go halfway across the country to get to it.

"You can't build character, though," he adds. "For that, you have to wait a little bit.


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