Motel Hell

I was never afraid of elevators until I rode in the elevators at the Regency Hotel. There are three of them, equally spooky, lit with bare white fluorescent bulbs. Carved swastikas and gang symbols scar the wood-paneled walls. The emergency-phone compartments hold dangling wires, pistachio shells, cigarette butts, scorched pizza crusts and broken crack pipes. Some floor buttons are missing, and many of the rest don't light up when pressed. When the elevators ascend, they squeak and rattle and creep along, as if they are being pulled up by hundreds of chinchillas running on treadmills. Going down is worse. Much worse. Going down, the elevators don't rattle and squeak -- they shudder and groan as the lights flicker. And they are prone to sudden, blood-chilling plunges, like small planes hitting air pockets in a thunderstorm.

The elevators behave as if possessed. They randomly freeze between floors long enough for claustrophobia to prowl the edges of your composure. They jolt to a halt on floors where no one has called them, doors sliding open to reveal empty hallways.

I was never sure where these elevators were taking me during a recent Saturday stay at the Regency. But Lee was. Lee is the Regency's self-appointed elevator operator. He lives in the former luxury hotel, paying a little over $100 a week for his room a hundred feet off the ground, in the main tower. All day long he rides the elevators, hitting up passengers for tips. Nights he holes up in his room and smokes methamphetamine. Lee claims to be a wizard. He only rides the middle elevator; he says the other two are cursed beyond his power. All I know is, the middle elevator never dropped when Lee was on it, and several times he coaxed it out of a stall between floors, his hands flitting like spiders over the buttons, pushing four, then six, to get me to nine.

"There are secret combinations," he says. "You just have to know, and I know. I'm numerological."

My introduction to Lee was uncivil. I was on the twelfth floor, having just checked in, and I was trying to get back down to the lobby, except the elevator call buttons on my floor had been torn from the walls. A fellow guest, a Mexican laborer newly in this country from Culiacán, Sinaloa, showed me a trick: He removed the cap from a ballpoint pen and began violently stabbing it into the socket that had once held the "down" button. "Elevator's coming," he said after five or six thrusts, then vanished into a stairwell. (Many hours later on another floor, where the call buttons were likewise missing, I witnessed a different guest achieve the same effect by wedging a bent key in the socket and then kicking it.)

A minute passed, and then I heard squeaks in the central shaft growing slowly louder, accompanied by a coarse voice spewing profanity. The squeaks stopped at my floor. The muffled swearing continued. I heard a warbling chime, and the doors slid open. There stood Lee. He was tweaking -- jaw grinding, eyes vibrating beneath a watch cap low on his brow, ratty black T-shirt pulled tight over the crystal-cut muscles of a natural athlete on speed. Lee looked me over. "I will fuck you the fuck up!" were his first words to me. He paced back and forth in three-step cycles. "You're making me paranoid," he said. The feeling was mutual. The doors began to close, and Lee reached out to part them with both hands like a ghetto Moses. "Well, get the fuck on this motherfucker," he said.

On the way down, Lee told me to give him a dollar. "Gotta tip the elevator man. You don't tip the elevator man, there's no telling what the elevator man might do." I tipped the elevator man, then told him I just wanted to ride along for a spell. He said it would cost me one dollar for each trip up, two dollars for each trip down. In return, he guaranteed safe passage. We shook on it. Moments later we hit the lobby, and two men got on carrying plastic bags stuffed with bottles of strawberry-flavored fortified wine, plastic liters of cheap vodka, chips, orange juice and candy. They both had untrimmed beards and wore torn leather jackets over grimy hooded sweatshirts and Army jackets. They wouldn't have looked out of place standing on a corner during morning rush hour, holding cardboard signs: "Christian Vet. Anything helps. God bless."

"I haven't been here in ten years," one of the men said, checking out the plywood patches in the elevator's ceiling. "I see it's still a shithole."

"Yeah," slurred his buddy. "But it's a shithole with a view."

There's a manila folder in the Western History Department archives at the Denver Public Library marked "Regency Inn." Inside is a color brochure dated 1973, depicting the Regency's trademark gold dome and tower, situated at the intersection of 39th Avenue and Elati Street, just west of the asphalt artery that was then the Valley Highway and is now Interstate 25.

"Have a love affair with Denver at the Regency," the brochure invites. "Visit a world of friendliness and gracious living. A world of splendor and grandeur amid the majestic Rocky Mountains."

Once the favorite Denver hotel of Elvis Presley, the Regency is no longer fit for the King.

Gang graffiti mars its stairwells, where pine-scented disinfectant fails to mask the reek of urine. A banner above its lobby advertises "Low Weekly Rates." Gutter punks beg for change in a stone courtyard by the drained swimming pool. The gift shop sells Army surplus MREs -- pasta in Alfredo sauce, nine for a dollar. The hotel's soda machines are perpetually empty of everything except diet cola, and its rooms are chambers of the surreal, where the decorative prints on the walls are three copies of the same crude painting: evergreen trees before a setting tropical sun, framed in fake gold.

The Regency once rated four stars in travel guides. Denver developers Victor and Martin Lederman were its first owners, having built the hotel's original tower and lobby complex in 1969 at a cost of $4 million. There were 180 guest rooms in the tower, and two lounges, two dining rooms and a coffee shop on the first floor. The hotel was successful, and in 1973, the Ledermans hired local architect Richard L. DeGette to design a $5.5 million expansion. It added 230 rooms, an outdoor pool, a 16,000-square-foot ballroom with two-story-high ceilings, a conference center and a 12,000-square-foot exhibit hall beneath a massive golden dome. The Regency was then one of the few luxury hotels of its size in America to be independently owned. In addition to Elvis, President Gerald Ford and Olympics track-and-field star Jesse Owens stayed there when they came to town. It was a popular spot for weddings, black-tie fundraisers and high school proms.

Denver's economic slump in the 1980s hit the Lederman brothers where it hurt, and in 1990, they declared bankruptcy and put their landmark hotel on the auction block for $20 million, blaming the reconfigured Mousetrap at the junction of I-25 and I-70 for the hotel's decline in business. The Regency languished throughout the 1990s. Meanwhile, local entrepreneur Art "Smiley" Cormier, owner of the gargantuan 24-hour Smiley's Laundromat on East Colfax Avenue, was hoarding his quarters, ever on the lookout for new investment opportunities. In 1995, Cormier opened El Fugitivo (The Fugitive), a Westminster nightclub catering to fans of Mexican folk and dance music.

Cormier's operation was the subject of numerous disputes with city officials, who claimed the club was the scene of too much violence and allowed underage drinking. Cormier, who is white, countered with charges that officials were illegally discriminating against his predominantly Mexican and Hispanic clientele. In 1997, security cameras in the club captured footage of Westminster police officers apparently breaking into El Fugitivo and then illegally searching the premises while uttering racial slurs. Cormier sued, and in an out-of-court settlement reportedly agreed to surrender his liquor license and close El Fugitivo in exchange for $550,000.

In April 1998, Cormier resurfaced on the music scene, launching a series of wildly popular and profitable Mexican dance nights in the Regency's ballroom and conference center. Hiring the biggest names in ranchera and norteño music, he regularly drew more than 5,000 sharply dressed Mexican-music fans to his club nights every weekend. In June 1999, Cormier bought the hotel for a reported $4.6 million, pledging to put another $5 million into renovations.

"Since I've acquired the Regency Hotel, I've spent millions and millions of dollars on improvements to the facility, making it a safer place for its guests and entertainment clientele, including a new $600,000 fire-alarm system," says Cormier. "When I came, the elevators weren't working at all, and we put a lot of money into getting them running again. They're old, but they're safe. They just haven't figured out the numerical sequence of the floors. Maybe in another 35 years. One of the features of the elevators is the doors open a lot more than they should. But a lot of people say that when the doors open and nobody's getting out, they'll say, 'Elvis just got off the elevator,' because we have the ghost of Elvis Presley here at the Regency. And we have Elvis fans coming into town who stay at the Regency, and they're not the clientele you would see at the nightclub, or someone like Lee. These are people who could stay at the Hyatt Regency or the Adam's Mark just as easily, but they come here to see the ghost of Elvis Presley."

Cormier resides in the former Elvis Presley Suite, a round penthouse atop the Regency's tower. "It has probably one of the nicest views of any high-rise in the city, overlooking Coors Field, the lights of the cityscape and the hustle and bustle of I-25 and I-70," he says. "I appreciate it very much."

Far below are the multitudes of Mexican immigrants who frequent Cormier's tequila-drenched dance nights in the hotel's grand ballroom, which he has rechristened Los Caporales (which, loosely translated, means "bosses of the ranch hands"). The revelry also spills over into the hotel's basement-level conference center, which now holds a mechanical bull and a pool hall. Legend has it that the Devil visits Los Caporales from time to time, appearing as a handsome cowboy. About three years ago, one story goes, the Devil rode the mechanical bull, going faster and faster until there was a flash of light and one of his boots fell off, revealing a hoof. "Everyone screamed," says Cormier, who wasn't there himself.

The Hotel Regency's original discotheque on the same floor, which was initially called Shakespeare's Boogie, is now packed on Friday and Saturday nights with Mexicans in their teens and twenties dancing to Latin-infused techno music of the sort favored by DJs in Sonoran and Chihuahuan border towns.

The cover charge at Los Caporales ranges from $15 to $40, depending upon the star status of the headlining band in the ballroom. The hotel's liquor license allows Cormier to legally serve more than 7,000 people, based upon the huge square footage of the ballroom. Yet very little of the money that Cormier rakes in at the door or from his bar sales appears to have been devoted to restoring the Regency to grandeur or splendor. The vibe inside the hotel's eighteen-story tower and adjoining 230-room expansion is that of a grim public housing project transplanted to the innards of a decrepit hotel. Street kids, binge drinkers and gangbangers pool money for rooms, where they party and crash. They are the temporary neighbors of cleaner-living Mexican immigrants, some of them families with small children. On weekends, many of the rooms are occupied by groups of friends or couples who get a room after dancing until the wee hours at Los Caporales.

Early on the morning of March 21, 1999, after Cormier took over the Regency's ballroom but shortly before he purchased the entire property, the hotel's manager called 911 to report a riot in the tower. Hundreds of people were running amok in the halls, the manager reported, and two people had been stabbed. Cormier later claimed that none of the people involved in the hotel fracas had attended his club night next door. The only other high-profile emergency call to the Regency in recent years came in February last year, when a guest set his bed on fire on the fifth floor. Because the Regency was built before 1970, it was not required to have a sprinkler system, and the blaze spread quickly. Numerous motorists on I-25 called police to report flames shooting out of the tower's windows. Sixty rooms were damaged, but no one was killed or badly burned (one guest was hospitalized for smoke inhalation).

Official scrutiny of the Regency has focused far more on the nightclub portion of the business. The City of Denver briefly suspended Cormier's liquor license in 1999 after undercover investigators reported that at least of a third of the crowd inside the hotel's ballroom appeared to be underage, that patrons were passed out inside and that bartenders were serving after hours. Denver City Councilmember Debbie Ortega says that in 1999 and 2000, she received dozens of complaints from constituents who lived or owned businesses in the largely Hispanic neighborhood near the Regency. They told her about drag racing and public urination in their neighborhood on weekend nights, all of which they attributed to Cormier's clientele. Ortega branded the Regency "a nuisance property" and called for stricter police and building-code enforcement.

In June 2001, echoing his defense of El Fugitivo, Cormier went public with accusations that his club was being unfairly targeted because his customers were mostly Mexicans. "With Los Caporales, we cater to hardworking people who come here to the United States to help build our highways and clean our offices and build the new high-rises in downtown Denver," he says. "That's who my clientele is, the hardworking people who make Denver the beautiful city it is. And it's time to leave them alone and give them the respect they deserve."

Cormier also threatened to sue the City of Denver and Ortega for $4 million for "engaging in a prolonged, organized, and deliberate effort to ruin the hotel and nightclub business."

Ortega backed off. "I got a little gun-shy," she says, "because when the attorneys representing Mr. Cormier told the City Attorney's Office that I would be named in the lawsuit, the City Attorney's Office told me, 'Gee, sorry, we can't represent you.'" Ortega still logs many complaints about the Regency, she adds: "It's still a nuisance in my district."

Despite Cormier's litigious tendencies, the city has blocked his plans to expand Los Caporales. One month after he threatened to sue in the summer of 2001, Cormier appeared before a liquor-license hearing officer, asking to build a 10,000-square-foot patio at the Regency that could accommodate another 600 drinking patrons. Assistant City Attorney Kurt Stiegelmeir and half a dozen business owners from the area testified against the expansion, claiming Los Caporales clientele engaged in drug dealing, public sex, fighting and theft in the surrounding area. Allegations that the Regency generates criminal activity are "outrageous, unprofessional and totally false," says Cormier, especially when it comes to the hotel's reputation as a junkie palace.

"There are people in every hotel in the world doing drugs, and we have less people doing drugs in this hotel than you have in any other hotel of comparable size in the city. So the drug problem here does not exist. Period. The police have investigated and investigated and investigated the claims of certain city officials, and Chief Whitman has told me, 'Art, you do not have a drug problem.' And if in fact he ever feels that we do have a problem, he will personally call me and we'll discuss it, and we'll work together to take care of it. And I know we don't have a drug problem, because I've never received that call." (Whitman could not be reached for comment).

"Nobody goes to the extreme measures that we go through to ensure that we have never had a drug problem and never will," Cormier continues. "You don't see meth labs here, because we go through every single room of this entire property on a weekly basis. And if anyone's staying over a week, we go through and check every single thing in their room. We go through their dressers. We go through their suitcases. We look under the beds, in the closets. We do a thorough investigation, and we have proven it not only to ourselves, but to any official from any agency, that we have not had and do not have and will not have a drug problem in this hotel."

Such repeated assurances may be intended for prospective buyers as well as public officials. This January, Cormier announced plans to sell the hotel to the highest bidder. According to his California auctioneer, bidding on the hotel will be closed March 20. Cormier refuses to reveal how many bids he has received or the size of the offers. A brochure put out by Accelerated Marketing Group, the firm Cormier hired to manage the sale of the hotel, entices with this pitch: "Located at the gateway to downtown Denver and Coors Field, the Regency Hotel offers the savvy investor an outstanding opportunity to either upgrade the existing property or to redevelop. With approximately 1,600 feet of freeway frontage and over 235,000 cars passing by daily, the site offers excellent access, visibility, and recognition. Currently the property is being used as an extended stay, budget hotel and concert facility."

While Ortega would like to see the Regency under new management, she's not getting her hopes up over the announced auction.

"I don't think he's going to sell unless the price is just right, and I don't think he's going to get a price that's going to make him happy, because he's rolling in dough over there," she says. "I wouldn't be at all surprised if this is the first of many times we see that property put up for auction by Mr. Cormier."

Cormier swears he's serious about selling. "My opinion is it will be sold, and someone will be the proud owner of the Regency," he says. But he plans to stay in the music business. "I don't think the Mexican-music scene and Art working together will ever cease in Denver," he adds. "When the hotel is sold, I'll simply relocate to another metro Denver location and continue to do the same thing."

It was nine at night, and I was in my room on the Regency's twelfth floor, looking down over one of the two gigantic Los Caporales parking lots, where four or five diesel-powered pickups were spinning doughnuts and drag racing in the freshly fallen snow. Dozens of smaller pickups, lowriders with neon blue and pink accents, were parked in rows along the edges of the parking lot, their lights turned on to illuminate the doughnut-spinning and drag racing, Rebel Without a Cause style.

Wary of the elevators now that Lee was off duty, I walked seven floors down through the stinking stairwells and came out on the fifth floor, where the hallway trash can was filled with pizza boxes, diapers and an unopened package of rotten ground beef.

I took an elevator the rest of the way down. Five minutes and $15 later, I was standing in the scarecrow position while a Los Caporales bouncer patted me down for weapons and contraband. A stenciled sign above the entrance to the nightclub read, "No gangsters, no baggy pants. Playerz 05, 13, 18 SouthPole not allowed," a message to street gangs whose members are barred.

While I was searched, I watched through a window as bouquets of young women in slinky spaghetti-strap dresses, wearing no jackets in spite of the biting wind and swirling flakes, trotted on high heels toward the entrance to the gold dome. The bouncer patted me on the shoulder twice, my sign I was free to go. I went into the ballroom, where tequila shots are served with tiny packets of salt and fat, juicy wedges of lime. Fiberglass sculptures of stallions lined the dance floor. It was still early, but there were a few couples moving to the music, the women hooking their thumbs in their dates' belts between songs as they stood close, waiting for the music to resume.

I grabbed a seat at a bar next to a lithe young woman wearing a backward beige beret. She introduced herself as Angelica Romero, age 22, born and raised in Denver. "I don't really fit in here," she said. And she didn't. She was the only female among hundreds in the place to sport any sort of headwear, just as I was one of the few men without a cowboy hat. I asked her why she was there. "I'm fourth-generation Mexican-American, and I'm coming here to get back in touch with my roots," she said. "I want to learn Spanish so bad, and I come here to learn." She shrugged. "It's better than taking a class."

Wherever I went inside Los Caporales, I felt eyes follow me -- which was understandable, since I was the only white guy there who wasn't a cop. There were four of them, off-duties hired by Cormier. They were in uniform, and from what I could tell, three of them spent most of their time in a back corner of the downstairs billiards room talking shop, while the fourth, a portly, white-haired officer, walked a beat between the upstairs and downstairs restrooms.

The stall doors in the basement men's rooms at Los Caporales have been removed, possibly to discourage cocaine snorting. If so, it's not working. Those who wished to indulge simply posted a lookout at the entrance while they dipped car keys into tiny bags of coke. When the lookout saw the cop coming, he barked an alarm, and men flocked from the stalls, sniffling and thumbing glistening white crumbs off their upper lips.

Watching them, I realized I was in Tom Tancredo's vision of hell. Cinnamon-skinned men speaking Spanish, wearing thousand-dollar outfits and doing cocaine in bar bathrooms like they think they're white professionals in LoDo or something, all set to the soundtrack and bouncing accordion riffs.

"Do you like Spanish music?"

The question snapped me from my reverie.

An urban cowboy was in my face. He had one friend behind him. They were drunk and grinning.

He repeated the question.

"I said, do you like Spanish music?"

Sure, I said. I like Spanish music.

"Do you like to get the heinie?"

I gave them a look that said, "The what?"

"The heinie, bro. The beautiful little Mexican girl."

I wasn't sure how I should respond. On the one hand, I didn't want them to think I was there to pick up Mexican women. On the other, I didn't want them to think I didn't like Mexican women.

I settled for "Maybe not tonight."

"Are you a faggot?"

I didn't answer.

"Do you like to dance to Spanish music?"

Oh, shit, I thought, is this guy asking me to dance?

"I'm not very good," I said.

"That's because you don't have a hat."

His friend chortled.

"And you don't have a belt," he continued. "That's why I asked you if you're a faggot. Faggots don't have belts, so you can take their pants off easy."

My interrogator had on a hell of a belt -- embroidered cowhide with a silver buckle the size of a serving tray. He kept up his critique of my fashion sense.

"You need new boots."

I was wearing scuffed-up Doc Martens. He was wearing full-quill ostrich-skin shitkickers dyed flaming orange to match his pearl-buttoned shirt. He pointed down at his feet for emphasis.

"Five hundred dollars," he said. "You need to get some of these if you want to get the heinie."

He and his buddy left, laughing all the way. I had just been thoroughly dissed by a dude with flaming-orange cowboy boots. I took this as my cue to go back to the hotel. There are stairways and passages that lead from the lobby of the Regency to the gold-domed conference center, but on weekends, they are roped off and guarded to keep out the riffraff.

So I walked outside, through the snow, transitioning between the Regency's dual universes of hot spot and squalor. Back in the pool area, I crossed paths with a kid who looked like Eminem come back from the grave -- buzz-cut, peroxide-blond hair, pale, gaunt face, dark crescents of lethargy beneath dull blue eyes. He asked me if I had a "point," a needle that I would trade for a taste of black-tar heroin. Then he asked for fifty cents for the bus. Then he muttered about searching out the syringe a traveling companion had stashed on the tower's tenth or maybe eleventh floor.

I gave him the only good advice I thought he might follow: Take the stairs.

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David Holthouse
Contact: David Holthouse