Motel Hell

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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."

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David Holthouse
Contact: David Holthouse