May 22, 2015 by Pamela Nowak
Although Mary Elitch Long had frowned on public dancing, changes occurred when John Mulvihill bought Elitch Gardens in 1916. Once of his first additions was the Trocadero Ballroom. Mulvihill created a magnificent new building. The yellow stucco walls were accented by green and white awnings, complementing the carousel shell. Inside, the dance floor was 150 feet long, larger than a football field and the polished wooden planking was cushioned by horsehair underneath, giving dancers the feeling of floating. Ornate carvings, arches, and high ceilings created an open, airy atmosphere.
Opening in 1917, the Trocadero Ballroom offered dancing lessons and opportunities for practice at Afternoon Tea Dances. These popular formal affairs required white gloves and formal dance cards; admission was five cents. Ladies wore the dance cards on strings around their necks and men wrote their names opposite of the dance they wished to reserve. Usually, the types of dances included the waltz, turkey-trot, and two-step with an occasional polka. Following rules for public dancing, dancers were monitored to assure couples maintained proper spacing.
The Trocadero had a dress code: suits for men and dresses for ladies. At all dances, floorwalkers monitored dancers. Those who moved too close to one another or whose hands drifted from proper positions were tapped on the shoulder as a warning or even asked to leave the floor. One such couple included young Mamie Doud, ejected for dancing cheek to cheek (with her uncle!)—Mamie would go on to become First Lady Mamie Eisenhower.
Arnold Gurtler, who had designed the interior of the Trocadero, married Mulvihill’s daughter and became the owner of Eltich Gardens in 1930. Recognizing the growing popularity of dancing as the Great Depression settled on America, he decorated the huge interior in a different theme each year, creating a fantasy-like escape for Denverites. Bunting and colored lights accented the wide arches framing the dance floor and the grille room. The ballroom became a place to escape worries without spending a lot of money. Parents knew it was a safe place for teens and that supervision was provided. Close dancing and drunkenness were not condoned. Gurtler christened the ballroom “The Summer Home of the Big Band Sound ” and began soliciting touring bands.
Using his connections with a booking agency, Gurtler scheduled playing dates for the popular bands of the era and the Troc became a regular gig for Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey, Guy Lombardo, Lawrence Welk, Harry James, Les Brown and his sister Doris Day, Sten Kenton, Wayne King, Buddy Rich, Stan Kenton, Tex Beneke, Bob and Bing Crosby, Ozzie Nelson and Harrier Hilliard, Dick Jurgens, and Eddy Howard. Benny Goodman also appeared at the Troc, but only once. When Goodman tried out his new swing sound, dancers stopped to simply listen and Goodman was not invited back. Perhaps the only major bandleader who did not play the Troc was Glenn Miller, who was killed in World War II.
Gurtler also initiated “An Evening at the Troc”, a weekly radio broadcast live from the ballroom every Saturday on KOA radio for over 30 years. Due to the strong signal of the station, people throughout the West heard the show and the fame of the Troc spread. The Grille Room, which adjoined the ballroom via arches, was a popular gathering place to listen to the music and relax. The adjacent Trocadero Court took reservations for tables for the entire evening for one dollar.
By the 1960s, ballroom dancing began waning in popularity. In the next decade, few visited the Trocadero anymore. The Gurtler family proposed closing the Troc in 1975. A public outcry arose but the reality was that dancing lessons were no longer attended, bands no longer did road trips, and the youth preferred rock concerts to ballroom dancing. The last concert featured Wayne King and an overflowing crowd attended. The ballroom was torn down the same year. It’s only surviving pieces are several small tables which are now at the sports bar of the new Elitch’s location and the light that indicated the type of dance (used at the new location for special occasions).
Next week, my blog will take detour again. In honor of Memorial Day, I will focus on PTSD. While this has nothing to do with Elitch Gardens or early Denver, Caleb, the hero of Escaping Yesterday, is a veteran with PTSD and it seems fitting to acknowledge the lasting impacts suffered by those who have served on our behalf.
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.