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The First Decade of Elitch Gardens

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January 9, 2015 by Pamela Nowak

The first decade Elitch’s Gardens was in operation was full of change. This was true for both Mary Elitch and the park itself.

After the successful opening season in 1890, John Elitch invested the park’s profits in the Goodyear, Elitch, and Schilling Minstrels, formed with two of his friends. The group left Denver for a winter tour in California in hope of earning money for the 1891 season. John returned to Denver briefly in December, to celebrate Christmas with Mary, who had remained to care for the park and its animals. In February, during a performance run in San Francisco, John fell ill with pneumonia. Mary was summoned and rushed to be with him. Three weeks later, on March 10, 1891, John died at the Melville House hotel at the age of 40.

Mary accompanied John’s body back to Denver, and he was buried in the Fairmont Cemetery. She marked his grave with an ornate tombstone and would eventually be buried next to him. Mary was 34 years old. She and John had been married 18 years.

After John’s death, Mary faced hard decisions. John had been the management force behind Elitch’s Gardens and much of the vision for the park had been his. She spent a short time in San Diego sorting things out then made the difficult decision to continue operation of the park on her own. She returned to Denver determined to carry on. In her autobiography, she writes of the certainty that overtook her once she stood in the gardens, surveying what she and John had already begun to create. She began by tending the gardens themselves.

As a widow, Mary encountered an uphill battle with her new park—the first being the financial aspects. Because John had invested in the acting company, she needed to raise money for the upcoming season. She responded by selling shares in the business and was able to purchase all of them back within three years. To attract business, she advertised with newspapers, postcards and posters.

An advertisement from 1891 read, in part: “Come see the bears stand up and beg for peanuts; the monkeys slide down their toboggan slides, and the fierce billy goat engage in deadly conflict with the sacred bull of India (actually an elderly water buffalo named Kelly). And the baby lions—why, they’re a whole zoological park in themselves.”

The advertising, combined with an innate knowledge she didn’t even realize she had, led to a national and even a worldwide reputation for Elitch’s Gardens.

Mary was the first woman in the world to run a zoo and became known throughout the word for her skill with animals. During the 1890s, animals were a major attraction at Elitch’s Gardens. But when the Denver Zoo was created in 1896, Mary Elitch donated many of her animals. She kept her special pets and some of the more interesting exotic animals and began to shift focus at the park. (I’ll explore the animals more in depth in my January 30 blog.)

From the time she took over sole management of the park in 1891, Mary looked for ways to make the park more appealing to customers. She spent the first ten years building attractions, expanding acts, doing more landscaping, and enhancing the theatre. John had designed a theater building for the park modeled after the famous Globe Theatre. Mary pursued construction and opened the Elitch Gardens Playhouse in 1891.

During the early 1890s, Mary continued vaudeville entertainment at the playhouse, experimenting with various acts. Then, she added light opera. Still, she wanted to expand the offerings and make the theatre something John would be proud of. She was determined to offer quality productions and changed the focus to summer stock theatre in 1897. (Further discussion of the theatre evolution in the March 6 blog.) Mary hired Thomas D. Long to manage the playhouse in 1899. Long was twice-widowed and had previously managed a Denver drug store owned by his first wife’s father.

Tom and Mary were married in November 1900 in a small ceremony at Mary’s house in the park (the Cottage). Denver celebrated with them. Local newspapers said, “Perhaps nowhere in the city of Denver is to be found a more honestly popular woman…public spirited in the broadest sense.” Tom was described as having “a uniform courtesy and a naturally magnetic personality.”

The couple spent the next six months on an around-the-world honeymoon. They rode elephants in India and camels in Egypt, saw a theatre production in Japan while seated on the floor, and climbed Mount Vesuvius. While in Paris, they were overheard discussing Denver only to have a foreigner interrupt to offer praise of Elitch Gardens. Upon their return, Tom and Mary formed the Elitch Long Management Company.

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Please join me next week as I explore some of the exciting attractions of early Elitch Gardens. Each Friday, I will blog about some aspect of Elitch Gardens, early Denver, or other topics related to my next novel, Escaping Yesterday. In between, I will post small factoids on my Facebook page. You can join me there and I love new friends (https://www.facebook.com/pamela.nowak.142).

Due for release in September 2015, Escaping Yesterday is set in Elitch’s Gardens, in 1905, and follows the story of Lottie Chase. Lottie is willing to take any risk to save her daughter from their abusive uncle. Stranded in Denver, Lottie meets Caleb Hudson, manager at Elitch’s Gardens amusement park, who sees her as a manipulative huckster. Caleb, a veteran suffering from PTSD, craves the tranquility of the park’s gardens. Lottie brings anything but peace as she seeks to convince the owners to add thrill rides so she can collect the sales commission and support her daughter. Neither anticipates their growing passion, common demons, or the dangers they will face as they confront their pasts and free their love.

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