Colorado History

The Future of Casa Bonita Is a Real Cliffhanger

The Future of Casa Bonita Is a Real Cliffhanger
Jay Vollmar
“I made it a goal that before I’m done being mayor, I want to cannonball from the waterfall,” says Lakewood Mayor Adam Paul about Casa Bonita, the city’s most beloved landmark, which has been closed since the start of the pandemic in Colorado. “So that’s another motivation that they stay open, so I can get that done.”

For Coloradans, the mere mention of Casa Bonita is likely to conjure joyous memories of the strangely beautiful thirty-foot indoor waterfall; of the claustrophobic Black Bart’s Cave; of an actor in a gorilla costume barreling wildly through the 52,000-square-foot facility; or of endless platters of sopaipillas, the best dish available from the kitchen.

The restaurant’s current reality, though, is a far cry from its past, and a telling reflection of this past year, when nothing has been certain. Casa Bonita owner Robert Wheaton has been notoriously elusive — and then evasive — regarding Casa Bonita’s current status.

Decades ahead of the “eatertainment” boom of the early 2000s, the first Casa Bonita opened in Oklahoma City in 1968, with other locations soon branching off in Tulsa, Fort Worth and Little Rock. Colorado’s came in 1974, built at 6715 West Colfax Avenue on the site of a former tuberculosis sanitorium at what is now Lamar Station Plaza (formerly the JCRS Shopping Center), which owns the property that houses Casa Bonita and even features the pink palace on its home page.

“There were other Casa Bonitas, and they were all varying degrees of themed, but they were nothing like the Denver location,” says Casa Bonita aficionado Andrew Novick, a lifelong Colorado resident who’s visited the restaurant over 300 times. Indeed, the other locations closed unceremoniously: The Fort Worth Casa Bonita shut down in 1985, the Little Rock and Oklahoma City locations in 1993, and the Tulsa outlet in 2005 (though it briefly reopened in 2008 before an apocalyptic snowstorm shut it down permanently in 2011).

“That’s probably why [the Lakewood location] has lasted so long,” Novick continues. “When it was built, there weren’t really clear blueprints or plans. It was an art project.”

“It’s like Meow Wolf or something,” says Stephanie Simon, a former Casa Bonita entertainer and manager. “It’s a giant piece of interactive artwork.”
click to enlarge People came from miles away for the opening day of Casa Bonita. - COURTESY OF CASA BONITA
People came from miles away for the opening day of Casa Bonita.
Courtesy of Casa Bonita
People came from far and wide to experience what Casa Bonita had to offer at its grand opening, pulling into the nondescript shopping center and marveling at the 85-foot pink stucco tower. “My mom drove down from Wyoming for opening day,” recalls Hannah Herron, a former Casa Bonita entertainer and server. “The line stretched all the way out onto the street, so here’s this little lady being exposed to West Colfax. … It was such an eye-opener for her.”

The restaurant, which seated 1,000 and offered not just food, but nonstop entertainment, quickly became a source of local fascination. As visitors entered the building, they maneuvered through a queue done up as a cave shaft, received their food on a cafeteria tray, then entered the dining area — an expansive, elaborately detailed interior that read a little like a delirious and undoubtedly problematic facsimile of how the chain’s founder, Bill Waugh, must have imagined a Central American rainforest. The lights were dimmed, the smell of chlorine wafted through the air, and lit-up artificial palm trees lined the walkways between tables, some of which were located at least a full quarter-mile away from the kitchen.
click to enlarge Bill Waugh opened his pink palace in Lakewood in 1974. - COURTESY OF CASA BONITA
Bill Waugh opened his pink palace in Lakewood in 1974.
Courtesy of Casa Bonita
“If you opened it now, it might be popular for six months and then fade away,” says Novick. “Things come and go, but because Casa Bonita has been here for so long, anyone under fifty probably went there when they were a kid, and most up to their eighties probably brought their kids there. … It builds up a kind of lore.”

Over the years, that lore became so alluring that many kids grew up with a fascination for the place, determined to work there. “When I was a little girl, it was my ultimate goal and dream to jump in the water at Casa Bonita,” says Herron, who would go on to jump into the water several times a day during her entertainer shifts. “It was like, here you go, eight-year-old Hannah. You made it.”

In 2004, an episode of South Park titled “Casa Bonita” helped to dramatically increase the restaurant’s national profile. The episode — written by Coloradans Matt Stone and Trey Parker, who’d gone there as kids — portrayed the restaurant as an almost mythological source of joy. “So many people visit Denver, and they’re just like, ‘I didn’t know this place is real. I just thought this was a made-up place from a cartoon.’ And then they’re inside the cartoon,” says Novick. “South Park played a big part in Casa Bonita’s resurgence.”
“Honestly, if South Park hadn’t done that episode, Casa Bonita probably wouldn’t still be around,” says Herron. “Visiting is like a pilgrimage for South Park fans.”

Remarkably little changed at Casa Bonita over its nearly fifty-year history. One of the biggest developments that Novick, who’s visited the restaurant at least once a year since it opened, can recall was the addition of chile rellenos to the menu.

The consistency of this beloved, idiosyncratic oddity was part of its charm, however. Going to Casa Bonita “is really about the experience and the wonder. Subconsciously, it’s been an inspiration my whole life,” says Novick. “Last year was the year I went to Casa Bonita the least in my life.”

Until the pandemic, you could count on Casa Bonita being an entertaining amusement complex that happened to serve food — but you could also imagine that it was a place where anything could (and did) happen, from alleged ghost sightings to wild The Book of Mormon after-parties, to patrons showing up in banana costumes to try and goad the actor in the gorilla costume into an altercation. “Some of the craziest, wackiest times that I’ve ever had were at that place,” recalls Corey Rhodes, a former entertainment director.

And the crowds kept coming. “I never test these figures,” admits Lakewood’s Paul, “but one year more people went through Casa Bonita than through Nuggets and Avalanche [games] combined.”

click to enlarge Ricardo Montalbon filmed a commercial for Casa Bonita. - COURTESY ANDREW NOVICK
Ricardo Montalbon filmed a commercial for Casa Bonita.
Courtesy Andrew Novick
Appreciation of Casa Bonita went way beyond its cult, kitschy status. There’s history here, too. In March 2015, the Lakewood Historical Society recognized Casa Bonita as an actual landmark that had contributed to the local economy for over forty years. “There isn’t another structure like [Casa Bonita] anywhere in the United States,” said Ann Moore of the Lakewood Historical Society in announcing the award. And despite the long-running, ubiquitous jokes about what came out of its kitchen, Casa Bonita was named the 2016 Public Health Champion of Jefferson County for its above-and-beyond attention to culinary safety.

“Casa Bonita should be declared a state monument, if not a national one,” says Gustavo Arelleno, creator of “Ask a Mexican” and author of Taco USA: How Mexican Food Conquered America. “It is a testament to the lengths that Americans would travel or endure for a taste — a rumor — of Mexican food. And it gave America the first clue that Den-Mex cuisine existed, gracias to Cartman...although fuck that guy: Team Randy all the way!”

Perhaps inevitably for a restaurant with such high operating costs and such a specific business model, Casa Bonita has been rumored to be on the brink of closure for years, bolstered in no small part by its current ownership moving in and out of bankruptcy. In 1982, founder Waugh sold his Casa Bonitas to British food manufacturer Unigate, which passed the remaining establishments to CKE Restaurants in 1992; CKE spun off the last two survivors as part of Star Buffet, which today owns 21 other (considerably less high-concept) restaurants across the country, as well as this last Casa Bonita.

“Every year or two, a rumor comes out that Casa Bonita is closing,” says Novick, who can occasionally get owner Wheaton on the phone. “I’m kind of the go-to person for these things. Whenever anything happens with Casa Bonita, people always call me — but there was never any authentic truth to the rumors that it was closing.”

Then came COVID-19. Every restaurant in Colorado was ordered to close indoor dining on March 17, and although some eateries continued to offer takeout, Casa Bonita did not. On May 27, when Colorado restaurants were allowed to reopen their doors, Casa Bonita’s remained closed. Novick reached out to Wheaton. “I just wanted to talk to him about my love of Casa Bonita,” he says. “And how I was afraid it was going to close.”
click to enlarge Casa Bonita has been closed since May 2020. - ANDREW NOVICK
Casa Bonita has been closed since May 2020.
Andrew Novick
Other than a brief conversation with a local television station this fall, Wheaton dodged all press inquiries. Until now.

“Every day that [Casa Bonita] stays closed, it’s increasingly difficult to get it reopened,” Wheaton admits, detailing the ongoing weekly maintenance of the restaurant’s interior. “Our top priorities there are the dive area and the waterfall, which require constant attention even when not in use.”

But he can’t imagine when they can be used again. “I don’t expect a change in regulations until the vaccine is more broadly distributed,” Wheaton continues. “The message to the community is that we expect to be back in operation by the beginning of the summer.”

Those who hold the restaurant close to their hearts are counting the days. “Casa Bonita is such a big part of my life that it’d be tough to lose it,” says Michelle Moonie, a former diver. “I had been hoping that one day I could bring my kids there.”

“We tear enough shit down in Denver to put up crappy apartments and storage garages,” says former manager Simon. “This is a piece of history.”

“I’d love to see it continue,” concludes Lakewood’s mayor. “I want the ownership to know that we’d love to help them any way we can to see that they succeed. And if that doesn’t seem like it’s in the cards for them, I’d love to see somebody else come in and make sure that they can continue. There’s just so much history and so much potential.”
click to enlarge Andrew Novick is Casa Bonita's biggest fan. - ANDREW NOVICK
Andrew Novick is Casa Bonita's biggest fan.
Andrew Novick

Great Moments in Casa Bonita History

While fans wait for word on Casa Bonita’s future, insiders offer a look back at some of the pink palace’s most memorable moments:

Andrew Novick’s Extreme Casa Bonita Adventure
Novick, Casa Bonita’s biggest fan, put on an absolute banger to celebrate his 300th visit. Benefiting a local food bank, the 2019 event featured live mermaids, stickers of Novick’s face in the vending machine, a scavenger hunt taking guests on a tour of his favorite Easter eggs, a yo-yo expert, a psychic and much, much more. “I tried to customize it as much as possible,” remembers Novick. “It was a huge success.”

Underground Burlesque Show
“Burlesque babes love Casa Bonita,” says Hannah Herron, a former Casa Bonita entertainer. In 2019, a local troupe rented the magician’s theater for a private event and — without management’s knowledge, much less approval — put on an underground burlesque show. The troupe only allowed those on their list into the room, and the rest of the guests “were none the wiser,” Herron recalls.

Proposal by Gorilla
Ah, romance. Casa Bonita has been the site of everything from proposals to actual wedding ceremonies. A man once asked the actor in the gorilla costume to deliver a proposal to his future wife. Recalls Herron: “The actor asked for a volunteer from the audience — which never happens — and then pulled his girlfriend up on stage. Then the gorilla got down on one knee. She said yes, thank goodness, and the whole audience cheered.”

Waterfall Jumpers
Far more common than guests proposing to one another were nostalgic daredevil patrons plotting to jump into the lagoon. The problem became so persistent that Casa Bonita eventually had to hire security guards, and violators were banned, ticketed and fined. “I’d hear a splash and think, ‘Oh, jeez, I don’t think anyone’s performing right now,’” recalls Corey Rhodes, a former entertainment director. “I’d run down to the pool as they were climbing out, and I’d try to cut them off as they ran away.” But some jumpers evaded capture by mapping out an escape plan, memorizing the fastest route to an exit and having a getaway driver waiting outside.
click to enlarge Casa Bonita is quiet today. - ANDREW NOVICK
Casa Bonita is quiet today.
Andrew Novick
Denver Broncos Draft Announcement
In April 2018, alumni of the Denver Broncos convened at Casa Bonita to broadcast their fourth- and fifth-season draft picks. The choices were announced by Casa Bonita’s resident magician, and the event featured onetime Broncos quarterback Jake Plummer moonlighting as a cliff diver.

The Fray Album-Release Party
In 2009, members of the Fray celebrated the release of their second, self-titled record in the theater at Casa Bonita — one of their favorite spots to visit when they were kids.

“A Huevo” Music Video
In 2015, Denver punk band SPELLS filmed a music video for “A Huevo” inside Casa Bonita. The video showed the band jamming in front of Casa Bonita’s waterfall, stepping into the dragon’s mouth in Black Bart’s Cave and — of course — dancing with the gorilla.

Book of Mormon After-Party
Having brought Casa Bonita national attention with a 2004 episode of South Park named for the iconic establishment, hometown heroes Matt Stone and Trey Parker returned in 2011 for a Book of Mormon cast party during the show’s initial run in Denver. “It was wild,” recalls former diver Michelle Moonie. “They kept us performing until one or two in the morning.”

click to enlarge An authorized show in the theater. - COURTESY CASA BONITA
An authorized show in the theater.
Courtesy Casa Bonita
Secret Concert
In January 2003, local band Carrion Crawler conspired to put on a secret show in Casa Bonita’s theater. “They’d wanted to play a show there forever, but [management] would have never allowed it,” says Novick. “So they reserved the [theater space] for a birthday party, and then brought in their guitars and amps dressed as presents. They set up on the stage and just started playing.” Although the musicians had anticipated that they’d be kicked out after only a few seconds, management let them play a couple of songs before shutting down the concert.

The Casa Bonita Art Show
Although not technically taking place at Casa Bonita, the annual Casa Bonita Art Show that Novick helps organize has become a tradition over the past few years at the nearby Next Gallery. The event, which includes art depicting or inspired by Casa Bonita, is one of the biggest shows the cooperative puts on every year, and usually features chips, salsa, sopaipillas and chocolate banditos donated by Casa Bonita, as well as trophies modeled after the restaurant’s signature sopaipilla flag. This year’s exhibit will run from February 19 to March 7.

But while the annual show is a big hit, Novick recognizes that Casa Bonita on its own is enough. “As much as I’m into all that stuff, Casa Bonita doesn’t need big, crazy, extravagant events to always be happening,” he says. “Because it already is its own big, crazy, extravagant thing.”
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Chris Vanjonack is a Denver-based MFA candidate at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and a former language arts teacher from Fort Collins. His writing has appeared in One Story, Hobart, The Rumpus and elsewhere,
Contact: Chris Vanjonack