May 1, 2015 by Pamela Nowak
Today, May 1, 2016 is the 125th anniversary of the first opening day at Elitch Gardens. Happy Anniversary, Elitch’s!! I’ve explored opening day in a previous blog (12/11/14) and today continue with the history of the park from 1900 to 1960.
Change occurred at a rapid rate at Elitch Gardens after the turn of the century. In 1904, Tom and Mary Long added the Figure 8 Toboggan Roller Coaster. The following year brought Carousel Number 6 with its elegantly carved animals. Dr. Carver’s diving horses, Powder and Cupid delighted audiences with their leap into a deep pool from a 35-foot tower and Ivy Baldwin’s balloon continued to lift passengers above the park. The theater, remodeled in 1902, attracted world-renowned performers, including Sarah Bernhardt. In 1909, the original log entrance at 38th and Tennyson was replaced by a stucco gate in the Greek Revival style. The Longs also expanded the rides, adding the Monitor & Merrimac Naval Spectacle in 1910.
In 1914, just four short years after it opened, the Monitor and Merrimac theatre, with its full-sized models and elaborate mechanical and electrical special effects, burned down—a tremendous loss for the park. But a new ride was introduced the same summer. The Old Mill Tunnel allowed couples to slowly float down an enclosed canal, past scenes from well-loved fairy tales. John Mulvihill purchased the park from the widowed Mary Long in 1916. He closed the park for two seasons during World War I, taking the time to pay off debt that built over the past few years and to make plans for building the park in a new direction. His first addition was the grand Trocadero Ballroom. The dance floor was bigger than a football field and its polished wood flooring “floated” on a thick horsehair cushions. High ceilings and fancy arches added to the open feeling. The Spanish Moroccan architectural style of the building matched that of the carousel shell. Yellow stucco walls with green and white awnings welcomed the public. (I’ll spend a full week on the Trocadero in mid-May.)
Mulvihill continued changes during the 1920s. In 1922, the Wildcat Coaster was added. The 75-foot high ride featured a number of thrilling twists and customers loved it. Popular advertisements read, “Twist the Tail and Hear him Roar!” An automobile entrance was added to the park and the no-longer used zoo buildings torn down to accommodate a parking lot. New greenhouses were added as Mulvihill expanded the Elitch floral business. It was also during this era that Mulvihill created the slogan “Not to see Eltich’s is not to see Denver.” Covers for the walkways, supported by white columns, were constructed. The picnic grounds were expanded as well as the gourmet meals available at the Orchard Café. A haunted house feature was added and the Old Mill was remodeled. In 1928, Carousel Number 6 was retired, sold to Kit Carson County, and moved to Burlington, Colorado. It was replaced by Carousel Number 51, also hand-carved by the Philadelphia Toboggan Company, and remains a part of Elitch Gardens today. (I’ll spend a week on this carousel in September).
The thirties were a quiet decade. Ownership of the park passed to Arnold Gurtler in 1930, John Mulvihill’s son-in-law, upon Mulvihill’s death. In 1936, Mary Elitch Long also died. The park itself focused on providing carefree fun during the hard years of the depression. Gurtler advertised, “Come to Elitch Gardens where a quarter can buy a day of dreams!” He tore down the aging wooden fence that surrounded the park and replaced it with a wire one so that passers-by could glimpse the fun inside. The two remaining bears at the park were transferred to the Denver Zoo and the bear pit filled in during 1936. Garden areas were expanded and more greenhouses added. It was during this era that 50,000 plantings were set out each year and the popular Dahlia Farm was created along with the Floral Clock. The Ferris Wheel was added in 1936 and still operates today. Gurtler also enlarged John Elitch’s original baseball field in the southwest corner of the park, built grandstands, and organized daily games. The Trocadero Ballroom began to bloom with the increased popularity of ballroom dancing and the theatre continued to lure stars.
With World War II, Elitch Gardens became an even more popular way to escape. Expansion of the park slowed with the ballroom and the theater becoming focal spots. Star after star graced the stage of the Playhouse at Elitch Gardens and the Big Band Craze took over “the Troc.” Swing bands such as Benny Goodman, Lawrence Welk, and Tommy Dorsey were favorites. On July 16, 1944, the worst disaster in the history of Elitch’s occurred. A massive fire burned the Old Mill attraction, trapping six people inside. The tragedy hit Gurtler hard and ushered in a new emphasis on safety at the park. In 1945, Gurtler’s sons, Jack and Bud, returned from the war and began to transition into management roles at the Gardens. They took over full operation in 1950.
A new section was added to the park in 1950. Named Fryer’s Hill, after a silver-producing area in Leadville, the area featured pathways and game booths. The Troc caught Hollywood’s attention in 1954 and was used as a location for several scenes in The Glenn Miller Story, starring Jimmy Steward and June Allison. The Elitch Floral Company became the largest supplier of carnations in the country during this era, shipping 750,000 dyed carnations annually and employing 600 people in the greenhouses. Inspired by the plans of Walt Disney for his new park, the Gurtlers added an area for children. KiddieLand opened in 1954 with popular television star Hopalong Cassidy on hand for the ceremonies. Much to the dismay of Denverites, the stucco entrance gate was demolished in 1958 to make way for the widening of 38th Avenue. It was replaced with a modern aluminum arch in an Art Deco style. As Elitch Gardens readied for 1960, it was poised on the edge a shift that would come with modern life.
Next week, I’m planning to touch a bit more on Mary Elitch Long…her later years and her legacy.
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.