Colorado History

Author David Forsyth on Lakeside Myths, the City Beautiful and Laffing Sal

A mythical and misunderstood place, Lakeside Amusement Park stands as one of Colorado's most enduring and fascinating cultural treasures. Opened and in operation since 1908, the family-owned park was not only a prominent player in Mayor Robert Speer's vision for Denver as part of the City Beautiful movement, but also a home to a popular speedway and host to some of the country's hottest and most influential big bands. For retro junkies, Lakeside today is a living architecture museum displaying examples from the Beaux Arts, Art Deco and mid-century-modern eras — but most visitors treasure the modest park for its thrill rides, carnival-style games and affordable prices.

Local author David Forsyth recently published Denver's Lakeside Amusement Park: From the White City Beautiful to a Century of Fun, an in-depth look at the park and its role in shaping Denver. The book's pages are thick with information culled from old newspapers and magazines, city-produced literature and interviews with people involved with Lakeside over its 106-year history. Westword chatted with Forsyth about his findings, what it took to write this book, and what fascinated him enough about Lakeside to even take on the project.

Westword: Until now, there hasn't been an even close to comprehensive history compiled about the 106-year old amusement park; a lot of factual information has seemingly been overshadowed by lore. Along those lines is the standing myth that Lakeside was once known as "White City." You found that not to be true at all: It has always been Lakeside Amusement Park.

David Forsyth: Even the Wikipedia entry says Lakeside is the "the lone remaining American amusement park to have had the name White City." That was one thing that I kind of wanted to get out of the way right at the beginning: It was never named that. I go to Lakeside about once a week; it started out as research, but now I just go to have fun. Rhoda Krasner [Lakeside's owner] and I, we have a very delicate relationship. I talk to her as much as I can when I'm there, and I think she's realized that I'm friendly. She was talking to a guy who was writing a children's book set in an amusement park — he was there doing research to make it accurate. He found Rhoda in the park, and I just happened to walk by.  She pointed to me and said, "You really need to talk to this guy!" The man said something about White City, and before I could even say something, Rhoda said, "No, it was never named that. It was always Lakeside." I imagine that's something she hears a lot, too. 
A theme that emerges in your book is Denver's Mayor Robert Speer and his involvement in the national "City Beautiful" movement, which included Lakeside Amusement Park and clearly contributed to the park's success. In your research, did you come across other amusement parks in the county that received so much interest from government officials? Was Lakeside unique in that sense?

As near as I can tell, it is unique — until you get to the Disney era of theme parks, and Disney World especially. When you see the kind of interest and things Disney World was getting, Lakeside had that back in 1908. I tried to make a list of all of the major cities that had City Beautiful programs, and then I tried to find the amusement parks in those cities. Nowhere that I can find was there city involvement in an amusement park the way that Denver was involved with Lakeside. I think it is incredibly unique; I would argue that it is the only park like that, though there may be some obscure park out there somewhere that I never found.

I see an entity like Disney getting city involvement in the form of tax breaks and such. With Lakeside and City Beautiful, it felt like Mayor Speer's vision was to really make the city beautiful — it wasn’t necessarily about creating something that was a tourist attraction in the monetary sense. From what I understand, the City Beautiful movement was about creating an urban core that valued and involved public space. Along those lines, I was surprised to see so much involvement in the promotion of the park in its early years by local newspapers and the premier amusement park magazine at the time — the current-day entertainment magazine Billboard. In your book, you also detail how Lakeside became a very polarizing entity among politicians. Over the years, city officials either really loved the park or wanted it shut down. Was that kind of involvement specific to Lakeside?  I think some amusement parks did see that same interest. Like Riverview Park in Chicago: Politicians took kids there for "children's day." Sometimes cities would help build a road or fix a beach or something for a park. But I believe there was more involvement in Lakeside — and the passion when it comes to the park, I don't pick that up when I read about other parks in the country. You have core groups that are passionate about amusement parks — for instance, Palisades Park in New Jersey. There is still a very passionate group of people who love that park and still have reunions and websites devoted to it. Lakeside is obviously different, because the park is still there and Palisades isn't.

People would ask me what I was doing my dissertation on and when I told them Lakeside, their eyes would just light up. They would tell me all of the things they did at Lakeside... and what all of their aunts and uncles and grandparents did there. Everybody had a story about Lakeside. Then I would try to talk about Elitch's, and it just wasn't the same. I don't know if it's because old Elitch's is gone or what it is, but people just didn't seem to have that same passion. Plenty of people told me Elitch’s was nice and that they used to go there, but there's just a passion when it comes to people talking about Lakeside.
You book details so much of old Lakeside that is no longer there — the El Patio Ballroom, the swimming pool building and, of course, the old Fun House. I wondered: Were you able to go into any of the places now off-limits to the public that still exist — like the Casino Theater? Did you get any behind-the-scenes looks at anything?

No. I still have this fantasy that the book will be so successful and it will bring so much business to Lakeside that Rhoda will come to me and say, "What can I do for you?" I would say, "Can you let me up in the tower? Can you let me in the Casino?" [Laughs] I kind of hinted at getting into the Casino building once — I still have never found a picture of the theater from inside. I know there has to be one out there somewhere. I asked Rhoda about it — she says I know more about the park than she does, which I find hard to believe. She said she had never seen a picture of the theater. either.

So much of the closed-up space on the park's grounds is sort of hidden in plain sight; the Casino Theater looks like it's used for storage. It makes me think that there have to be archives or at least piles of old Lakeside stuff somewhere! Though if we know anything about amusement parks through the decades, it’s that — and Lakeside is included here — most have suffered serious damage by fire or been totally lost to fire.

It's funny how many people would talk to me off the record about what's inside Lakeside — but from what I have heard, there are just boxes of pictures and papers from the past. I know they have old admission tickets, because I did a tour of the park for one of Tom Noel's classes last year, and Rhoda gave me an envelope of old tickets for the swimming pool, the ballroom, the speedway — it was really cool. She let us ride the train for free and gave us old tickets to use, and even the guys running the train had never seen these tickets.
I have heard so many rumors of what is stashed inside the Casino building. I've heard that there are speedboats that were never even put into the lake; I've heard that Rhoda has the saddles from the old pony-and-donkey track; I've heard that she has a limousine that belonged to one of the Smaldones and that there's still a bloodstain on the seat — I mean, I hear this kind of stuff, and then I'll talk to someone else and they'll deny it.

One person swore to me that the Casino Theater was still set up inside; I asked a security guard one night and she said, no, there's nothing in there. I heard a story that Rhoda's father Ben's office is still set up the same way it was the morning that he died — that he was doing payroll and that the money is still sitting there, waiting to go into envelopes. A guy who had worked at Lakeside for years had insisted that it was true. He told me all of this stuff, and none of it was information I could use in the book. He told me that Rhoda's father died at the park, but the obituary said he died in his home. That guy actually got in trouble for talking to me. I could never figure out how anybody knew that he had even talked to me, because we were alone [at the park]. Well, there were security cameras, and they're watched by someone all day. It's to the point that I don't know who to believe, and that's why none of it made it into the book. None of it can be confirmed.

My final question may be unanswerable, then. Have you heard if the original Laffing Sal from in front of the old Fun House is still in the park? I read in an interview with Rhoda a few years ago that the scary-jovial puppet woman was in storage but has yet to come out.  She is there. She was supposed to come back in 2008, and a giant Plexiglas box was built for her where the rocket-ship ride used to be; it's to the right of the train station. There's a popcorn stand that used to be a photo booth, and next to that there's a ball game, and on top of that was where the rocket-ship ride was. That big tower with the orange lights on it — that's the tower from the rocket ships. The rocket ships are stored in what I call the junkyard: If you ride the train, directly across from the boathouse that is still there, there is a gap in the fence, and you can still see the rocket-ship cars sitting over there.

Anyway, they built this big Plexiglas box for Laffing Sal up on top of there, and she was totally restored and functional. The reason that I heard she didn't come out in 2008 was that they couldn't find the right clothing for her. She just never came back. That Plexiglas sat there forever, and eventually they just took it down. According to Rhoda, [Sal] is there and resting comfortably in retirement.

David Forsyth's new book, Denver's Lakeside Amusement Park: From the White City Beautiful to a Century of Fun, is available from University Press of Colorado; it can be ordered from the nonprofit's website or by calling  1-800-621-2736. Reach Lakeside Amusement Park on its website.