Art News

Professor of Fun: Why Casa Bonita Is Better Than Meow Wolf

Evan Semón
The magic is about to start, says the sign by the door.

Without the crowds that once flooded Casa Bonita, I expect to see nothing but tawdry kitsch filling the 52,000-square-foot pink entertainment palace. But instead, I'm surrounded by promise.

It's magic, just as the sign by the entrance says.

"When you finally see it," agrees David Thomas, the University of Denver executive director of online programming who's also known as the Professor of Fun, "it's like, 'Wow, this place is a treasure.' It's not an accident, it's not kitsch — well, it is — but it's really remarkable."

We've just walked in the door, and the fun is already starting. "We were outside, and then we came inside, and now we're outside again. It was nighttime, now it's daylight," Thomas says of the space where dozens upon dozens of people once waited patiently in line. "The fun is all about this ambiguity.... It is a really unusual building to be inside."

Especially now. Although Casa Bonita has been closed to diners for more than eighteen months, it's been open to all kinds of speculation since the Colorado-bred creators of South Park, Trey Parker and Matt Stone, made a deal last month to buy the restaurant out of bankruptcy, and then came to a separate agreement to purchase the intellectual property from Summit Family Restaurants and CEO Robert Wheaton — beating out the Save Casa Bonita group headed by superfan Andrew Novick.

Casa Bonita was founded by Bill Waugh, and this location at 6715 West Colfax Avenue in Lakewood, which opened in 1974, was the second in what was once to be a national chain. Now it's the last one left. Waugh sold the restaurant 25 years ago to Wheaton and Summit Family; in April, with $900,000 outstanding to the landlord and a couple million more to other creditors, they filed for bankruptcy protection. But while the case made its way through the courts (and the South Park creators worked on their deal), Wheaton opened up the place for tours led by some of the entertainers.

We've been joined on this particular tour by Paul Karolyi, lead producer of City Cast, and City Cast host Bree Davies, one of Casa Bonita's biggest fans, who wrote about it frequently for Westword — including when Casa Bonita was named a Lakewood landmark in 2015. The year before, she'd penned a piece titled "Happy 40th birthday, Casa Bonita. We love you so much we could puke."

In a fun way, of course.
click to enlarge David Thomas, aka the Professor of Fun, pontificates on the meaning of Casa Bonita by the stage. - PATRICIA CALHOUN
David Thomas, aka the Professor of Fun, pontificates on the meaning of Casa Bonita by the stage.
Patricia Calhoun
Thomas has promised to show us exactly why Casa Bonita is fun. And not just why Casa Bonita is fun, but why it's even better than Meow Wolf Denver, which opened just last month.

Helping immensely in this mission is our official tour guide, Jason Wurz, one of Casa Bonita's legendary divers, who usually leads the curious around as a Black Bart character. Now his wiry, tattooed body is clad in a Speedo and a bathrobe.

"Rule number one," he advises, "is have fun all the time."

He takes us along the narrow cobblestone street of what is meant to be Guadalajara, spewing facts — at its height, the restaurant had 500 people on staff and can seat 1,111; there's real gold on the dome outside — as we head through the "coolest school cafeteria line" ever.

All diners at Casa Bonita had to go through the line, collecting their food. While once servers would take the trays to the table where a group had been assigned, in recent years people had carried their own meals as they scoped out empty spots on a bridge, in a mine, by a cave, overlooking a grotto.
click to enlarge The coolest school cateteria ever. - EVAN SEMÓN
The coolest school cateteria ever.
Evan Semón
"You're really compressed in the line, and then it opens up," Thomas points out. He marvels over how many levels the designers managed to pack into a two-story building that got its start as a Joslin's department store, how the layers upon layers of fantasy pile up.

But it was at this point that those people who are not fans of Casa Bonita lost the fantasy. "Why do they hate it? They take kids, their kids run around, they eat some sloppy Mexican food...and then they leave. They never really experience it," Thomas explains. "But I don't think you're even going there for Mexico, or Mexican food. You're going there for Casa Bonita."

And the strolling musicians, and the pirates, and the outlaws, and the gorilla, and the divers. Especially the divers. As we move through the multiple dining areas, Wurz points to the thirty-foot-high waterfall over a  fourteen-foot-deep pool, all "Acapooolco style." We stroll over a bridge past the plaza where kids once broke piñatas (and their parents could frequent the only bar outside of the food line), and through Black Bart's cave (where I once was trapped after a child in front of me actually did puke and other explorers piled up behind me).

While Wurz credits much of the architecture to a Disney team, Thomas has talked to one of the original artists, who says the creation was far more organic. "It's psycho-geography," Thomas says. "Like going into someone's dream."
click to enlarge Casa Bonita takes you to a Mexican fantasy land. - EVAN SEMÓN
Casa Bonita takes you to a Mexican fantasy land.
Evan Semón
A dream with a special gazebo over the grotto, where Wurz says that Broncos always like to gather (although no one has eaten here for more than a year, our guide often uses the present tense). When the Denver Broncos held their NFL draft party at Casa Bonita in 2018, though, they used the room with the big stage, which has been home to magic shows and other special events.

A table that was a favorite of Clint Eastwood's when he would come with a niece is also a favorite of Cartman, as evidenced by the 2003 episode of South Park devoted to Casa Bonita that turned a regional landmark into an international sensation. When the Colorado heads of the CIA met here, though, they ate in the most private area, which is covered with bullfighter memorabilia.

Past that room is the hall of fame for employees who worked at Casa Bonita for more than a year — but those walls were filled up long ago. Wurz himself started at Casa Bonita in 2006, after he went there on a date and realized that working at Casa Bonita was on his bucket list. He took lessons to master the dives that he would need to execute. As the tour continues, he leads us through a cave designed to look like the Carlsbad Caverns, which replaced a green room and represents the only major update at Casa Bonita in over 45 years. Overhead is Bob the Bobcat, rescued from the attic of the old Joslin's.

Wurz excuses himself to head to the bridge above the grotto, and executes three perfect dives.

It's magic.
click to enlarge Tour guide Jason Wurz is ready to take the plunge. - PATRICIA CALHOUN
Tour guide Jason Wurz is ready to take the plunge.
Patricia Calhoun
Wurz isn't the only one who's immersed in Casa Bonita's magic. Even after we exit, the inside-out insight continues.

Thomas has been an integral part of Immersive Denver, a group that's been meeting and putting on events since 2018, when Meow Wolf announced that it was coming to Denver. But even then, there was plenty of immersive art already in Denver. Lonnie Hanzon was wrapping up immersive art projects long before he started Camp Christmas; Novick, an artrepreneur who's staged extravaganzas around town, had eaten at Casa Bonita over 300 times before a Meow Wolf advance team arrived and made a pilgrimage to this immersive pioneer. And a couple of artists produced a bumpersticker that pronounced "Casa Bonita Is Better Than Meow Wolf" to remind the Santa Fe imports that Denver had its own legendary attractions.

"There's this joy for Andrew," Thomas points out. "It's a play place."

Novick was one of the more than a hundred local artists who contributed to Convergence Station at Meow Wolf; his room there includes an homage to the Denver Drumstick, which once shared space with Casa Bonita in this shopping center off Colfax. "At the end of the day, Meow Wolf is an art gallery," Thomas says. "It's fantastic. You're looking at deep, interesting art, but when you get overwhelmed with the art, there's not that much more."

Not like at Casa Bonita, he says with a completely straight face.

Because at the core of fun theory is the idea of ambiguity. "Is is not," Thomas explains. "When you look at
Casa Bonita, it's full of that. You have to first understand that Casa Bonita is kind of a possibility machine. It's kind of Mexico, it's kind of not. It's kind of a restaurant, it's kind of not.... It's Acapulco, but not Acapulco. There's a waterfall like a waterfall, a gorilla that's not a gorilla.... You can even go so far to say food that's not food. It's fake in an authentic way."

Well, perhaps not that far. Everyone agrees that Casa Bonita could use an update on the food, and maybe a half-dozen more bars.
So what would Thomas advise that Parker and Stone do with Casa Bonita, if the bankruptcy judge approves the deal? "I would say you should call Andrew Novick," Thomas answers. "People talk about it as nostalgia, kitsch and irony. I'm worried that South Park could come in and treat it as those three things."

When it's really so much more. "It's not just their own personal experience of nostalgia or irony," he continues. "That building works on your psyche in ways that I don't think people appreciate.... Don't take Casa Bonita away. Don't turn it into a set. Parker and Stone are comedians. But Casa Bonita isn't funny."

It is fun, though.

"If you had to choose one," the Professor of Fun concludes, wrapping up his comparison with Meow Wolf, that other Colfax landmark, "keep Casa Bonita. It's one of a kind."