Arts/Literature

Denver's Old Elitch Gardens: there's a treasure trove next door

As I mentioned a couple of weeks ago, I now live in a development on the site of Denver’s old Elitch Gardens amusement part, which operated from 1890-1993. In addition to the really cool new urban community, there’s also some historic preservation going on, as they renovate the old theater. I’m being told that at this stage they’re doing basic infrastructural work (although I’m not even clear on the details of that part) but haven’t yet decided what to do with it. The apartment manager thinks it would be a nice yoga studio. I’d personally love to see it turned into, you know, a theater. And maybe a more general entertainment complex of some sort. I have an open mind, though.

In any case, when I asked about the whole project a few minutes ago, the manager pointed out some photos I hadn’t noticed before, photos of the park during its heyday and photos of founder Mary Elitch (1856-1936). One of the facility’s staff walked me around the office building, showing me the pictures they have on display, and the manager said that there are lots more in storage – they just haven’t waded through it all to figure out what to do with them.

I’m neither a historian nor a photographer (as I think my occasional photos here have clearly demonstrated), but this bit of information has my attention. I find myself wanting to see just what they have in the basement, and if I can take along someone who knows enough about the history of Elitch and the park that bore her name, how incredible would that be?

Might make a nice feature or series for S&R, huh?

While I plot and ponder, here’s a gorgeous shot of the theater from the exceptional Denver history site, BuckFifty.org.

14 replies »

  1. I had no idea that was Elitch’s old turf. It’d been so long since I’d been there. In my mind’s eye, it was further west. That’s cool stuff.

  2. It’s all history to me. By the time I moved to Colorado in late ’93 they were wrapping things up out here. They opened the new park in 1994. And I didn’t begin to learn my way around Denver for two or three years after that. So I have zero memories of the place – just the pictures. Which are wonderful.

  3. My mother took me to that theater back in the early 80’s to see a show one year. The only thing that I remember was that the show had Dirk Benedict dressed up as a cowboy.

  4. The old Elitch’s will always be near and dear to my heart. I heard Skinny Puppy’s “Dig It” in the parking lot there for the first time. Little Johnny Suburbia was never the same after that.

  5. OMG!!! I never respond to online blogs out of the blue, but I practically grew up at the old Elitch’s, and have photos of me on some of the Kiddieland rides when it had only been open a couple of years. There were little speed-boats that went round and round in a concrete pool…they had a bell that you could clang as you went around. I loved those boats. Little 2 seater roadsters on a track going round and round. Little planes that swung a little on their chains as they….wait for it…..went round and round. A little fire engine that I remember climbing into the back of. I was very proud that I could do it by myself. I think I got to ring a bell on that too. There was a very small ferris wheel with maybe 4 or five seats, I’m talkin’ small, that I remember the sound of because the seat-buckets sounded like a drum if you thumped on them with your feet and you weren’t supposed to rock them, but of course you did. A very little ticket house that I remember stepping up to to get my tickets. Rides must have cost pennies in the early to mid fifties. I was 3? 4? I look at those pictures and can FEEL it in my cells. I want to be back there, like the current movie “Midnight in Paris” I think it’s called. I want to enter the magic portal and step back into Old Elitch’s.

    One of my earliest memories is of the old greenhouses and seemingly miles and miles of carnations and how they smelled…to this day I love carnations. The whole park was awash in flowers, huge trees, picnic areas, lawns, lighted pools with flowers floating in them and the way it smelled on a warm summer’s night was the very definition of intoxicating, as cliche as that sounds. The lights were twinkling crazily on all the rides, smell of cotton candy, the roller coaster which must have been the Wildcat, clanking and careening on it’s tracks, music from the Troc mingling madly with the Carousel music…..

    And the Trocadero Ballroom!! What a masterpiece!!!! Open-sided, wildly and ornately decorated and beautifully lighted. A dream. I remember passing by seeing the adults all dressed up for a night out. I was on my way to the Haunted House though.

    And the Theatre!! Talk about MAGIC. As I got a bit older, and had outgrown Kiddieland, my father started taking me to dinner at the Orchard Cafe, another breathtaking, atmospheric step back in time, and to the Theatre afterwards. I was all dressed up in my new summer dress and the air was electric, not just from the zillions of lights, but from the joyous energy that was created as we looked at the photos of all the famous actors and actresses that had performed there and in anticipation of that moment when you’re in your seat, the house lights go down and the curtain goes up….AHHHHHHHHHHH. I remember the ornate curtain, the wooden seats, the creaking floor, the way it smelled like wood and dust and glamour. Above all, glamour. At intermission you’d go outisde into the warm night air and maybe get something cold to drink and wander over to a lighted pool and watch the floating flowers drift around. In the background all the sounds mingling and dancing together in a joyous celebration of innocense. It was all Magic on top of Magic inside of Magic into the realm of mythological Super Magic.

    I was heartbroken to see pictures online of the theatre all run down and fenced off, the beautiful park gone and given over to a development. Then I saw that the Theatre had been partly restored and given a foundation and a paint job….an uplifting and hopeful sign, but needs a few million more $$$ to bring it up to performing standards and fit for all 4 seasons. Believe me, if I had it, I’d finance that in a heartbeat. I’ve been obsessed with these memories for the last several months and keep looking online for more pictures. Since you’ve mentioned all the photos in storage I am now rabid and frothing. It’s almost worth moving back to Colorado if I could just participate in sorting and organizing them. I would happily wade through them ALL and help decide what to do with them. They should be copied for starters. How many are there? Boxes or a roomfull? I see online that there have been various movements over the years to “do something” about the Theatre, but all seem to only get so far before having to stop. I’d love to see it really happen and since you LIVE there, you might be onto something. The earth under you is saturated with that Elitch’s energy and you’ve felt it. I’ve bookmarked your site and look forward to more news. In the meantime I’m spinning round and round in happy memories.

    • I honestly have no idea what they have or how much, but I really really WANT to find out. When I get some spare time I’m going to lean on the manager here to take me down there and show me. I imagine it’s going to blow me away.

      Thanks for the response. You do a great job of communicating the joy you felt and that I can sense every time I take a walk around the neighborhood.

  6. Wow. Ya never know what to expect from the Wild West that is the internet! What I do know is that, clearly, the Elitch Magic is very alive! All this time, the photos that I’ve been expecting to find are probably the ones in that basement waiting to be discovered and given new life. Be. Still. My. Heart. There is a reason that the Theatre is still standing. It’s waiting for something to happen. They say it is haunted, but it’s more like all the energy concentrated there for all those years by great actors spinning magic on enchanted summer nights is still pulsing and radiating and glowing. I’m sure you’ve seen the list of names that graced that small, rustic stage. You are feeling it. Can you imagine what might be in that basement? Yes, you can. I can tell that the Spirit of the Gardens is speaking to you.

    It’s not too hard to imagine what to do with it. Like you said, um, how about a theatre? How about a performing arts center….performance, classes, workshops, etc. Fantastic! Someone just did a performance on a stage outside, in front of the theatre? “Performance” is taking many different forms these days. I just saw a short choreographed Martial Arts demonstration to music that was absolutely transcendent. Yoga is useful for actor’s training….for those classes in stage fighting and movement, not to mention breath control. Speaking of breath control, I’m about to pass out from excitement and anticipation of your progress and report. I say YES to your thought of a series for S & R. Really really.

    I immediately found the photos (only 5 of them) I mentioned of a very small child on some rides, but the resonance and memories they elicit are palpable. I would apologize for being so dramatic, but, hey, we’re talking Theatre here and I like swimming around in the high joy of those long ago summers.

  7. I too have very fond memories of the grounds & the theater. FIRST & FOREMOST THIS NEEDS TO BE RESTORED FOR LIVE THEATER! !! My father James Edson was an actor there during it’s heyday. He performed in at least 5 productions, from 1957 to 1960. His picture was in the entry way, for some time. Seems like I remember it being up way high, but I was just a little squirt at the time. But I DO remember the electricty on opening night,even as a small child. He also worked at the chanel 7 TV station which always had their company picnics at Elitches. So While I was truly sadened by the demise of Elitch’s as a whole, I was plesantly suprised to see the theater & the carosel still standing. While he acted & directed in many playhouses in the denver / boulder area, his love for the old wooden theater, I remember fondly. Any one that could at least let me see the entryway & theater & photos please contact me through this site HOW COOL !!!!

    • They had a fundraiser recently in an attempt to hit their mark for the matching funds. I haven’t heard if they made it or not but they’re close. Can’t wait to see the restored facility, which should be a real positive cultural center for our neighborhood.

      Thanks for the comment….

  8. Welllllll, SAMUEL SMITH, did you talk your way into the room with the archival photos?

    JOEL EDSON, how cool that your father performed there. On google images you’ll be able to see a few old photos of the theater, but I’m thinkin’ that since you have a real connection to it, you might lean on Samuel to lean on the property manager to let you into the archives and then somebody can tell ME what’s in there because I really, really want to know. I’ll bet all of those old entryway photos are there.

    • I haven’t heard anything lately – my neighbor in the nonprofit moved down to Sloan’s Lake so I don’t have the daily updates like I used to.