Colorado History

Ten More Long-Gone Denver Institutions, From the Family Dog to Blinky the Clown

This is getting ridiculous. An inhabitant of Denver from fifty years ago, plopped down in the center of town, would be hard-pressed to recognize its streets — much less negotiate them. Few American cities have changed so radically recently as the Queen City of the Plains. (It’s nice to be loved, but we just heard that Pittsburgh is the new Denver. Check it out.)

Maybe it’s because we’re so nice. Denverites are friendly, open, and usually let developers do whatever they want. That sunny disposition is a unique facet of the Denver character, an unassuming, relaxed friendliness that people from more frantic, ruder cultures find unnerving, then take advantage of. Scratch the exterior of the Mile High City, you got a cowtown.

But these days, there's less and less of the original exterior. Here are ten more long-gone institutions, a  nostalgic roster of places and people that made Denver distinctive.
10.  Zeckendorf Plaza
16th Street and Court Place

One of the twentieth century’s biggest crimes against aesthetics took place during the summer of 1996 in downtown Denver. A hotel developer from out of town convinced the city to destroy one of its only distinctive buildings: I.M. Pei’s Zeckendorf Plaza. The internationally acclaimed architect created his largest hyperbolic paraboloid structure — actually four of them, fused together— as the entrance for the new May D&F department store in 1960.

The distinctive wavy line of the building’s seemingly floating roof soon became an emblem of the retailer, as well as one closely associated with Denver. The plaza also featured a mini-golf course in the summer that converted into an ice-skating rink in winter. Visiting this store was a highlight of the Christmas season: The retailer never did figure out how to use the vaulting ceiling space, but crammed it full of decorations and lights every year, and everyone went downtown to take a gander.

Along with the destruction of old Auraria and the Skyline Park Project massacre of 27 city blocks in the 1960 and ’70s, the destruction of Zeckendorf Plaza must count as one of the Denver Urban Renewal Authority’s darkest hours.

9. The Family Dog
1601 West Evans Avenue

It was open for only ten months, but during that time, the Family Dog hosted some of the greatest acts in rock history. Legendary music promoter Barry Fey got his start here, taking a building that had previously held the short-lived Sultan’s Table, a Whiskey a Go Go, the Batcave the Posh, and the Bird, and turning it into a psychedelic showcase. Between September 1967 and July 1968, performers such as the Byrds, Captain Beefheart, the Grateful Dead, the Doors, Buffalo Springfield, Van Morrison, Denver’s own Lothar and the Hand People, Frank Zappa and Cream hit the stage here.

After a show at the Dog on October 21, 1967, a police informant planted weed on Canned Heat and the musicians were busted. They wrote a great song, “My Crime,” about it. Continued police harassment, coupled with lack of revenue, led Fey to shut down the Dog, but he went on to music-biz glory, founding the Red Rocks Summer of Stars concert series, among other innovations. The building still stands, having been home to PT’s Showclub — “healthy, fun adult entertainment”— for more than thirty years.

8. The Denver Drumstick
Six Denver locations

Texas poultry farmer Austin Meyers came to Denver and set up his first family-dining spot at 6801 West Colfax Avenue in 1955. With the slogan “Where everyone eats chicken and shrimp,” the Denver Drumstick was the go-to, nice-yet-affordable dining option in a town where “fine dining” was saved for special occasions. Soon Meyers had five more locations that were feeding most of Denver, especially on Sunday nights. The fare was greasy and heavy, but no one cared: The fried chicken was delicious, served with the Drumstick’s mysterious but awesome yellow gravy.

Kids loved the takeout boxes, shaped like railroad cars and sailboats, and the jazzy neon signage “CHICKEN-SHRIMP-TO GO.” A big draw for the adults was the Drumstick feature of ever-circling tracks of miniature trains that ran suspended from the ceilings; this sight would hypnotize children long enough for Mom and Dad to catch a break.

The chain ran out of steam in the early 1970s, and a recent revamping of the old JCRS Shopping Center meant the last physical vestige of the once immensely popular chain is now gone.

7. Blinky the Clown, aka Russell Scott

He was the longest-running children’s TV host in U.S. history, and the longest-running TV clown in the world. Blinky the Clown started at KKTV in Colorado Springs in 1958, but moved up to Denver’s KWGN in 1966, and his Blinky’s Fun Club was soon the opiate of the childish masses. Faithful viewers tuned in every school day at 4 p.m. to see Blinky’s corny antics interspersed with strange old cartoons, musical bits and safety lectures from police officers and firefighters. Blinky had a funny doggy hand puppet, Barney, who would play tricks on him. “Please stay out of those streets!” were Blinky's daily watchwords to us.

There were other local children’s TV hosts – Captain Ozie, Fred ‘n’ Fae, Noell and Andy, Sheriff Scotty, and the like — but Blinky was our pal. The highlight of every show came when Blinky would fight a birthday cake with a lit candle that went up and down, and then sing, “Happy birf-day to you/Happy birf-day to you . . .”

Blinky got canned in 1998. It was a sad day, and the station threw out the tapes containing his more than 10,000 shows. (About a dozen survive.) By all accounts, Russell Scott was not the easiest person in the world to get along with (one friend who went on the show says that when not on the set, Blinky played barrelhouse piano backstage...and smoked!). But his TV persona, nightmare-making as it was for many impressionable youths, was a constant. Blinky never let us down.

6. The Fun House at Lakeside Amusement Park
4601 Sheridan Boulevard, Lakeside

This marvelous wood-and-steel construction was one of the last of the old-time fun houses in America. It was part of the original Lakeside Amusement Park when it opened in 1908, and featured a perilous, exhilarating analog course across shifting floors, with rollers, slides, rotating tunnels and a spinning-disk segment that would fling you into a corner.

Elegantly and simply designed, it was one of younger children’s favorite attractions; they'd race through it again and again. It was fronted by a memorable automaton, “Laffing Sal,” who gyrated, gap-toothed and fright-wigged, screeching out incessant recorded laughter. Many a childhood nightmare featured her — and if you worked at the park near her, the sound would slowly drive you bonkers.

The Fun House itself had its hazards, triggering falls, bumps and bruises. Potential liability issues drove the decision to tear it down in 1985. Today, the Dragon ride sits where Sal used to cackle the nights away.

Keep reading for more long-gone Denver institutions.

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Brad Weismann became an award-winning writer and editor after spending years as a comedian. He's written about everything from grand opera to movies for a diverse array of magazines, newspapers and websites worldwide.