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

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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.


Elitch Gardens


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."

But that merry-go-round couldn't continue forever.


The bizarre radium boom of the flapper era ended somewhat abruptly — leaving as a legacy extensive contamination. In the years following the demise of the National Radium Institute plant, the land stayed industrial. A textile factory took over the radium site, and further down the river, in the Platte Valley, a diesel refinery and a storage facility for gasoline were added to the mix that already included the trainyards. "It's a mystery why that land became so popular," says Goodstein. "It's really an awful piece of land."

Nevertheless, popular it became. By the mid-1970s, developers were already eying the area between Union Station and the Platte. One land baron wanted to make it into a commercial district to rival Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills. Another wanted to make it a second downtown. There was a proposal to transform it into the headquarters for the 1976 Olympics — awarded to Denver in 1970 and then famously rejected by Denver voters in 1972. It was one of three potential locations for the new Colorado Convention Center, which ultimately went by the site of the old one on 14th Street.

And then there was Elitch's. Although a small part of Elitch Gardens was still devoted to actual gardens, by the '70s the park was mostly about rides. In fact, the Gurtlers tore down the Trocadero in 1975 to make room for more of them. "They did not like the location or the urban setting," says Goodstein. "They didn't like the street kids of the northside hanging around. They actually put spikes along the planter beds outside the front gates so nobody could sit down on them. It was not very welcoming,"

The Gurtlers made it known that they wanted out of the area, threatening to move Elitch Gardens to the suburbs — a revenue loss that Denver most definitely wanted to avoid. But the city was going to have to come up with somewhere else to put the park, and the area along the Platte southwest of downtown was starting to look like an attractive option. Except for that slight problem of radioactive contamination.

In 1983, the Environmental Protection Agency stepped in and made the old radium plant, as well as other radium-contaminated areas around the city, a Superfund cleanup priority, excavating nearly 100,000 tons of radioactive soil from the site over the next decade. Eventually the fourth generation of Gurtlers ponied up $6 million for the property, and the campaign slogan "Vote for Elitch's — it's Denver!" convinced the city's voters in 1989 to approve spending major dollars on road and infrastructure improvements at the site. Elitch's owners spent another $90 million moving fifteen of the park's twenty major rides to the new location, which opened in 1995. But the reincarnated Elitch's didn't meet sales goals, and two years later Elitch Gardens went to the highest corporate bidder.

The current ownership of Elitch's is complicated. After a decade-long stint as Six Flags Over Elitch Gardens, the park — the only amusement park in the center of a major city — is now the property of an entertainment corporation that leases the operations to another entertainment corporation. Nevertheless, heritage is important at Elitch Gardens. "Unlike a lot of theme parks, Elitch's is known for great live shows," says Elitch spokeswoman Debbie Gibson. "It's a tradition."

This year, for example, the park built a new stage for a show called Rock School for Kids in Kiddieland. (That's another tradition: Elitch's opened the original Kiddieland in 1952, one of the first amusement parks to do so at a time when most still catered almost exclusively to adults.) "It's a cool and funky, silly interactive musical show designed to get kids and grownups dancing," Evans says.

In the building it calls the Trocadero — whose interior echoes the original — Elitch's is now offering Cirque Innosta Verano. "It's a revue-type show with aerial acts, balancing acts, an indoor garden and a lot of great music," says Evans. "We've redesigned the stage this year and put the stage in the center of the theater to really get the guests in the middle of the experience."

Elitch's is also rolling out three new rides this year — unusual for a single season. "In the world of theme and water parks, generally a new ride would be installed once every couple of years," notes Evans. Last year, after a management change at the park, the new bosses decided to focus on customer service rather than add new rides. This year, though, that's changed: "The patrons of Elitch's deserved some new rides," she says. And here's what they're getting:

Rock n Tug: "It literally looks like a tugboat, and it slides back and forth and up and down to sort of simulate the motion of riding on waves," Evans explains. "Kids and adults can ride together on this one."

Tike Bikes: "Little scale-bound motorcycles that kids can sit on and ride around in a circle pretending like they're feeling the feel of the open air through their hair," Evans says.

Tube Top: A big, fully enclosed water slide for anyone 48" or taller. "You ride on a four-person or two-person tube, and as soon as you launch into the ride, you launch into darkness," Evans says. "You go though a funnel-shaped vortex, and then a twisty slide and a waterfall into the pool below."

But there will still be plenty of entertainment, including a concert lineup that kicks off this year with a show by Cobra Starship on June 9 and continues with performances from Roberto Tapia and Hot Chelle Rae, among others. All that's in addition to Reflections, a show on what Elitch's calls "Main Street" that involves fire, colors and thousands of lights timed to the music of nightly performances. And, in case anybody's wondering, Evans promises, "There will be fireworks on the Fourth of July at Elitch's this year."


In northwest Denver, the only vestiges of the original Elitch's are a sign and the old Elitch Theatre; the rest of the property is now a residential complex/shopping center anchored by a Sunflower Market. (The redevelopment won an EPA "smart growth" award in 2005.) The theater sat vacant for more than a decade — the last production here was in 1991 — before the Historic Elitch Gardens Theatre Foundation took it over in 2002. Then it sat more or less vacant for another decade while the non-profit organization struggled to make improvements and get the building up to code. The group has been hosting events outside for a few years now, and is hoping to open up the inside soon.

"The foundation lost some money; it went on hiatus," Mercado says. "Which was okay, because it allowed the organization to reinvent itself and take a look at its mission."

One of the things it did was hire Mercado, who had made his name around town when he put on a production of Zoot Suit at North High School that was so popular that the students presented an encore performance at the Buell Theatre. Not surprisingly, kids and theater remain central to Mercado's interests. "I wanted my return to my roots in Highland to be about working with the youth," he explains. "I found there was a need, considering that arts programs are the first to be cut — and that's not the Denver Public Schools' fault. The resources just aren't there. I envisioned Elitch's working with DPS to help provide the arts education DPS can't provide, because I really think this is what motivates kids toward academic success. The kids loved the attention they got from Zoot Suit, but they didn't dig math, you know? But to be there on opening night, they had to make the grade in math — I mean, our program had a graduation rate of 97 percent. That's an amazing figure. A lot of these kids had never even seen theater before."

And with any luck and a lot of hard work, they may get to again see theater at the original Elitch Theatre. Back in the day, this facility was Denver's premier playhouse — and many stars who went on to big careers in Hollywood were featured in Elitch casts. So in addition to a still-TBA run of Bilingual Barrio Shakespeare (Mercado's second annual production of North High kids performing famous Shakespeare scenes in English and Spanish), the Historic Elitch Gardens Theatre Foundation will host a series of outdoor movies outside the theater building this summer, all with roots close to home.

The original A Star is Born, released in 1937, will kick off the series on Friday, June 15. "This one stars Fredric March, who used to perform at the Elitch," says Mercado. "Also, the screenplay was written by Dorothy Parker and Alan Campbell, who were both Elitch Theatre veterans. I think Parker was actually living on Meade Street when she wrote it."

The Day the Earth Stood Still, from 1951, will screen on July 6. "Patricia Neal, who had been an actress at the Elitch, plays Helen Benson in the film," notes Mercado.

On July 20, Alfred Hitchcock's Rear Window, made in 1954, is the featured film. "Grace Kelly made her final stage performance at the Elitch in 1951," says Mercado. "She actually got the telegram that she was going to be cast in High Noon with Gary Cooper while she was on stage at the Elitch."

But there are newer — and more unexpected — films in the lineup, too, including 1988's Beetlejuice. "The character June, the woman who's helping Gina Davis and Alec Baldwin, advising them on how to deal with going back and forth between the real world, was Sylvia Sidney; she performed here back in the '30s," says Mercado. And 1974's Young Frankenstein makes the cut because "Cloris Leachman, who had a really great role in that film, used to perform here," he notes. "She actually did a fundraiser for us once."

And the fundraisers will continue until Elitch Theatre is up and running again, Mercado promises.

"Besides the educational value, we're introducing the arts to a group of people who have never been invited into the arts before. That's what I want for Elitch's," Mercado concludes. "To be a vibrant cultural center."

Elitch Gardens

Elitch Gardens, 2000 Elitch Circle in Denver, is open daily (weekdays 10 a.m. to 8 p.m., Fridays and Sundays 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. and Saturdays 10 a.m. to 10 p.m.) from now through August 18, when the park goes to a weekend schedule. Tickets are $37.99 for adults and $27.99 for kids under 48 inches high, and season passes run $69.99 for admission to basically everything through the end of the season, which is October 31. For more information, visit www.elitchgardens.com.

Elitch Outdoor Film Series

The Elitch Theatre Outdoor Film Series begins with A Star Is Born at 7 p.m. on June 15, with other showings on July 6, July 20, August 3, August 17, September 7 and September 14; there will be live music before each movie. Tickets are $5 at the door or free with a Historic Elitch Gardens Theatre membership, which will run you $35 or $50 for the whole family. All showings are at the Historic Elitch Theatre Outdoor Plaza at 4500 West 38th Avenue; for more information, visit www.historicelitchtheatre.org.

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