The Ride's Not Over

When they tore it down on January 25, most people didn't even know.
Bob Hooley knew, of course, but he tried to ignore it.
Mister Twister--the best ride of his life, number one on his list--had finally been reduced to a pile of lumber.

"For every year that you live, you lose something important to you," says Hooley, "whether it's a friendship or a relationship or a roller coaster or a house or a car. Repeated loss just makes it easier."

The once-terrifying coaster had actually closed nearly four and a half years earlier, on October 1, 1994, along with the rest of the old Elitch Gardens. The amusement park, founded in 1890 by John and Mary Elitch, had outgrown its 27-acre site between 36th and 38th avenues and Tennyson and Vrain streets, and a new Elitch Gardens--now called Six Flags Elitch Gardens--took its place in 1995 in the Central Platte Valley, a few miles away.

But Mister Twister's white-washed wooden beams had been left to rot in the sun, their paint slowly chipping, their vacant shadows looming over the small brick houses that line West 36th Avenue. Although there had been rumors in the mid-Nineties that it would be moved, plank by plank, to the new Elitch's or even blown up for a movie set, "the crushing blow was that, as that wood aged, it got really hard, and you couldn't even drive a nail into it in some places," says Chuck Perry, the developer who is turning the old Elitch's site into a housing, retail and office development. "We did spend about eight months trying to figure out how to recycle or relocate it. We never really entertained the movie thing a great deal. Mister Twister is very close to surrounding residences, and it would have been hard to take it down like that without imposing on the neighborhood."

That was just as well for Hooley. "I know it's just a bunch of wood," he says, "but I thought it needed to be quietly taken down, in respect for the ride, rather than blown up for a movie set, as some people thought. Once there was no hope of relocation, I'd rather it had been taken down sooner than to see it sit there and become an eyesore. A roller coaster should be a symbol of amusement, not abandonment."

Hooley didn't know it at the time, but his sentiments were shared by others.
Built in 1964, Mister Twister was designed by master coaster architect John Allen of the Philadelphia Toboggan Company. Several years later, it was reconfigured to run in and around the Wildcat roller coaster, creating a special effect for thrill-seekers who could watch one coaster zoom by while having their guts wrenched by the one they were on. "Between my senior year in high school and my freshman year in college, I worked as an usher at the Elitch Theater," says Perry, a Denver native. "I rode Mister Twister every night if I got off early enough. I loved it."

Mister Twister's reputation grew over the years--not just in Colorado, but nationally: In 1974, the New York Times ran a story about coasters and rated Mister Twister third best on a list of ten. It was that article that first peaked Hooley's interest in riding Mister Twister. "The way they described it, as having an exceptional tunnel and the spectacular views you got of the Rocky Mountains," he remembers. "I was truly intrigued."

Hooley was already big into coasters by then. His first major coaster ride, other than the kiddie coaster, was on the Bear Cat at Sans Souci Park in his native Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, at the age of nine. Although Sans Souci Park closed in the late 1960s, Hooley, now 46, went on to ride coasters all over the country. At last count, he had ridden 126 "woodies"--as wooden coasters are called--and dozens of steel coasters. (Many coaster enthusiasts, including Hooley, don't count steel coasters since they lack romance and are mass-produced.)

Hooley now lives in Richmond, Virginia, a mere six miles from Paramount's Kings Dominion park; with four wooden coasters, it's home to the largest collection of such rides in the United States. The music director for St. James the Less Episcopal Church in nearby Ashland, Virginia, Hooley is also a charter member of American Coaster Enthusiasts, a not-for-profit club that caters to coaster nuts and "the conservation, appreciation, knowledge and enjoyment of" coasters. Although ACE is the oldest and the largest coaster club--it was founded in 1978 and now has more than 5,000 members--dozens of other groups also gather at amusement parks every year to talk about their--"I think 'passion' is a fair word," says Hooley. "Maybe 'obsession,' I don't know. But it's not unhealthy. We all have something--or we ought to--that we truly love, whether its hiking or skiing or baseball. For me, it just happens to be coasters."

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Jonathan Shikes is a Denver native who writes about business and beer for Westword.
Contact: Jonathan Shikes