Ten Long-Gone Denver Institutions, From Sid King's to Stapleton

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The faster old Denver gets torn down and discarded, the longer our lists of long-gone Colorado monuments and landmarks becomes. We've already shared lists of monuments that include a comedian's arm and a plaque dedicated to the other Columbine massacre. Now here are ten more weird and wonderful Colorado landmarks you can't see anymore.

10. Sid King’s Crazy Horse Bar
1201-1225 East Colfax Avenue

Sid King was the Sultan of Striptease: a tiny man, brash but personable, as well as a snappy dresser, with big, round two-tone glasses. He prowled his distinctive ecdysiast showroom from its opening in 1948 until it closed in 1983. (King always claimed that Alain Bernardin stole the name for his more notable Le Crazy Horse Saloon in Paris, which opened three years later than Sid’s.)

This was an old-school strip joint, complete with a jazzy sign that featured a mannequin on a pole, clad in some raunchy outfit or other. Sid’s featured such end-of-an-era burlesque queens as Carousel, Little Egypt and Chesty Morgan, as well as old-school dirty comics. King always made money when the stock show came to town, and profited from the usual run of conventioneers. Appearing in Clint Eastwood’s highly successful comedy Every Which Way But Loose in 1978 didn’t hurt his reputation, either.

Sid King’s was one of the properties that anchored the post-World War II dismalization of East Colfax, turning it from a nondescript arterial into the gauntlet of dives, XXX theaters, hookers, drug deals, thrift shops, greasy spoons and human detritus that redevelopment now threatens to wipe off the map. 

9. Rainbow Music Hall
6360 East Evans Avenue

Even though it was only open for nine years, the Rainbow was one of the most beloved concert venues in Denver history. This despite the fact that the 1,400-seat auditorium was simply the old Wolfberg Valley 3 Theatres, hollowed out into one room in 1979, complete with some really annoying, view-spoiling support columns. But it had an incredible sound system, thanks to Denver’s fabled ListenUp, and you felt like you were right up against the performers. Dylan, Miles Davis, the Clash, Lou Reed, Ray Charles, George Carlin, Bonnie Raitt and countless others played there. After more than 1,000 shows, Warren Zevon closed out the Rainbow in November 1988. Now there’s a Walgreens there.

8. Elitch Gardens
38th Avenue and Tennyson Street

“Not to see Elitch’s is not to see Denver.” From 1890 through the end of summer 1994, this amusement park was the number-one destination for every kid in town. (Lakeside was cheaper and thus less attractive to status-conscious kids, even if it did have an awesome Fun House.) Elitch’s had the best roller coaster — Mister Twister — the whirling Zuggspitz, the mellow Sky Ride (perfect for making out with your date if he or she didn’t mind doing it in full view of everyone, thirty feet in the air), and so much more. There was the ridiculous Splinter water ride, with a line so long it became a ritual to deposit your gum on the layers already present on the legendary “gum tree” near its entrance.

Families could picnic there. Children could be dropped off for a full day and retrieved safely, without worry, at closing time. Elitch’s had beautiful, well-groomed grounds. The giant floral clock near the entrance was iconic, and kept good time, too. There were new plays every week during the summer at the Elitch Theatre, and the Trocadero Ballroom was a key stopover for jazz and swing bands until its demise in 1975.

Originally way past the edge of town, by the end of the last century, Elitch’s found itself hemmed in by houses around it. Its owners moved it to its present location in the Platte Valley near downtown, on top of an old Superfund cleanup site; since then, the new Elitch Gardens has changed hands several times, and today it's owned by Stan Kroenke. The original site was redeveloped. The Elitch Theatre still stands and is moving toward reuse; the immense stucco carousel pavilion remains as well, sheltering neighborhood picnickers.

7. Muddy Waters of the Platte Coffeehouse
2557 15th Street

Like the Rainbow, Muddy's was only open for a decade, but it had a similar cultural impact. There were Denver coffeehouses prior to Muddy’s – the Green Spider, Cafe Nepenthes, the Sign of the Tarot and the Golden Apple – but this site, just across the Valley Highway on 15th Street, had an electric, funky vibe.

It was started by Joe DeRose in 1975, who was looking for space to hang with fellow sociology students at the University of Colorado Denver. Soon everyone cool hung there, and the place was a haven that stayed open until 4 a.m., long after most of Cowtown had gone to sleep. There you could sip your espresso (then a novelty) or Egyptian Sunrise, play chess with a stranger, watch two poets get in a fistfight — all the bohemian splendor an aspiring artist could stand.

Next to the cafe was Left Bank Books, where curmudgeonly Arnold would let you hang out and browse if he liked you; next to that was the Slightly Off Center Theatre, home to many strange and a few brilliant avant-garde productions. For years there was a revenue-producing life-drawing class on the stage as well; some patrons had to be reminded to draw, not just stare.

Redevelopment pushed Muddy's out in 1985. DeRose moved the cafe to 2200 Champa Street, adding improvements such as a windowless employee break room that allowed servers to suck up plenty of weed before going back to work, but that location closed in 1997. The original Muddy's is slated to one day hold the Tavern LoHi; in the meantime, the Tavern Hospitality Group offices upstairs.

6. KIMN AM 95
The spot at 950 on the AM dial started as KFEL in 1922, but in the heyday of AM radio, nothing was bigger in Denver than KIMN (pronounced ‘Kim’). It was the number-one station in town from 1958 through 1971, spinning Top 40 discs and boasting a wacky, live-wire set of DJs that included local legends such as Pogo Pogue, Jay Mack, Danny Davis and Steve Kelley. Kelley was noted for his wild stunts that raised money for charity, such as swimming around and around Sloan’s Lake, or sitting in every seat at the old Mile High Stadium. (He's now on afternoon drive at KNUS/710 AM.) 

KIMN disc jockeys were ever-present, working at promotions, personal appearances and live broadcasts all over the region. KIMN promoted every big concert, published a weekly “official Colorado hit parade” that was picked up in record stores and studied faithfully, and printed compilation albums. (My precious copy of The KIMN Gold Mine (1968) contains hits by groups such as Mountain, the Cowsills, Sugarloaf and more!) The KIMN Chicken was the station's zany costumed station mascot, and KIMN bumperstickers could win those who displayed them fabulous prizes.

Such was the power of KIMN that, long after the superior sound, freeform programming and stoner vibe of FM radio attracted younger listeners, the station remained a key part of city life until its demise in 1988. Its slick, silly style characterized an era.

Keep reading for five more long-gone Denver institutions.

5. Denver Bears
Denver used to have a great baseball team! Just not a major-league one.

Founded in 1913, the Denver Bears semi-pro team wandered between the American Association, the Pacific Coast League and the Western League, serving as a farm team for many major clubs over the years. It moved from Merchants Park near Broadway and Exposition Avenue on August 14, 1948, to the state-of-the-art, 16,000-seat Bears Stadium – right about where Mile High Stadium stands now.

The great catcher and manager Ralph Houk led the Bears from 1955 through 1957, winning the AA championship and greatly increasing the prestige and fan base of the team. Strong performances earned the Bears seven more championships between 1970 and 1983. Other standout managers included Billy Martin and Felipe Alou, and players such as Marv Throneberry, Steve Boros, Tim Raines, Terry Francona, Greg Nettles, Barry Larkin and Greg Vaughan came through the organization.

After the original Mile High Stadium was built, it felt funny to attend Bears games there – with only a thousand or fewer in the stands, it always seemed like a bunch of kids had broken in and were playing in that vast expanse before they got caught, their buddies egging them on. Then the Bears became the Zephyrs and lasted nine more years, winning one more championship in 1991, until MLB and the Colorado Rockies hit town in 1993. Still the Zephyrs, the team now plays in New Orleans

4. Jolly Rancher
5060 Ward Road, Wheat Ridge

Bill and Dorothy Harmsen ran an ice-cream shop in Golden. They liked it; trouble was, they didn’t like the candy that suppliers were offering, so they made their own. They invented Jolly Rancher candy – and the world was suddenly a better place.

The mouth-puckering intensity of the translucent hard candies, with only four flavors — grape, apple, watermelon, and the painfully spicy cinnamon Fire Stix — made them a big hit locally. The Harmsen family farm on Ward Road housed their candy-making operation in various incarnations from 1949 to 2002. Jolly Rancher gave away free candy every Halloween. I went to school across the street, and we could always tell what they were making that day as the breeze wafted in the open classroom windows. Racing over after school, we would prod through the barrels of misshapen, discounted candy in the factory gift shop, buying enough to get us through until the next supply run.

The Harmsens eventually retired, selling the operation to Beatrice Foods, which sold it to Leaf. Today the candy enjoys greater popularity and features a wider array of flavors than ever. 

3. Bonfils Theatre
1475 Elizabeth Street

The Bonfils was one of the most splendid and best-funded community theaters ever built, opened in 1953 by heiress, theater buff and philanthropist Helen Bonfils, daughter of one of the co-founders of the Denver Post. Until the birth of the Denver Performing Arts Complex, it was the premier place for staging shows in town, and its ranks were open to one and all – making it a top-notch entry to the theatrical profession. The theater was renamed the Lowenstein, in honor of its longtime guiding light, Henry Lowenstein, in 1985 – then unceremoniously closed a year later. The exterior remains, as part of the complex that includes Twist & Shout and the Tattered Cover; The Good Son occupies the old theater lobby.

2. Stapleton International Airport
Quebec Street and Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard

Denver's airport opened in 1929 as the Denver Municipal Airport. In 1944, it was renamed for Ben Stapleton, a popular and effective Denver mayor who was once a big supporter of the Klan. Stapleton was nothing fancy: It had a simple, straightforward layout, it was easy to get into and out of, and above all, it was close. Of course, that had to change — so in the '80s boosters pushed to build Denver International Airport. It finally opened in 1995 — at 53 square miles the biggest airport in the country, with the longest runway, and nineteen miles farther from downtown than Stapleton. If you really miss Stapleton, you can see a bit of it in Die Hard 2. Happy ending: The land became the booming Stapleton neighborhood!

1. 16th Street
Before the 16th Street Mall was completed in 1982, 16th Street was the main drag through downtown Denver. The popular stores of the day lined it: Neusteter’s, the Denver, Joslins, Penney’s, Fashion Bar, May D & F, a behemoth Woolworth’s. A few movie palaces still showed blockbusters into the '70s and teenagers cruised 16th on weekends, but Denver was a pretty sleepy place back then.

The mall’s development was meant to trigger foot traffic and promote business, but for a time it only succeeded in killing off all the venerable retail tenants. It took a decade, and the rise of LoDo, to really start the revival of downtown Denver. Now that 34 years have passed, few can remember when they really did roll up the sidewalks at night...and replaced them with a mall.

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