Denver's Elitch Gardens: 90 years worth of fun

A fountain splashing into a pool carpeted with carnations; a quaint old theater that has been providing top dramatic entertainment since before the turn of the century; the squeals of teen-agers as they zoom down the hill of a roller coaster; and the rousing Dixieland tunes of a strolling band -- these are the sights and sounds of Elitch Gardens in Denver.

The amusement park is celebrating its 90th anniversary this year. Its management bills it as America's oldest theme amusement park -- predating Disneyland by 65 years. Its theme is in its name -- Gardens. Elitch's boasts some of the most beautiful formal gardens in the world. They have been compared to the famed Tivoli Gardens in Copenhagen.

Flower-bordered walkways lead into the heart of the park. A huge floral clock, 30 feet in diameter with more than 8,000 flowers and plants forming its face and its numerals, ticks away the hours. Nearby, a miniature Ferris wheel, carrying baskets of flowers instead of people, turns slowly in the middle of a round pool. Yellow coleus and geraniums are planted in its baskets.

The centerpiece of the park is the Theater Plaza. Eleven waterfalls splash down the face of a mountain on the north side of the square. The streams race past beds of marigolds and plantings of mountain wildflowers before flowing into a lagoon. Brick walkways criss-cross the plaza, framing beds of begonias, geraniums, and petunias. You can pause and relax on a wooden bench, watch the fountains erupting from the pool, or listen to one of the bands or singing groups that perform in the Victorian gazebo at the edge of the lagoon.

Adjacent to the plaza is Elitch's historic theater, the oldest summer playhouse in the nation. It has been offering summer stock, light opera and musical theater since 1891. Cecil B. De Mille in 1931 hailed it as "a cradle of American theater." He and his brother, William, had played in Elitch productions 20 years earlier.

Harold Lloyd, the 1920s comedian, made his first professional performance here. Other Elitch actors and actresses down through the years have included Sarah Bernhardt, Douglas Fairbanks, Edward G. Robinson, Fredric March, Gloria Swanson -- in short, a veritable Who's Who in American theater.

Grace Kelly played ingenue roles here in the summer of 1951. Her stint with Elitch's was cut short when a Hollywood studio summoned her to play the role of Gary Cooper's Quaker bride in "High Noon," her first major movie assignment, and her first step in a journey that led to the Academy Award.

Because of the many notable stars who have performed here, and because of its unique architectural design, Elitch's Theater has been listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The theater is a wooden building with eight sides, painted green with white trim. The eight-sided roof is topped with a castle turret.Pictures of many of the famed stars who have played here are displayed on the walls of the lobby. The proscenium curtain is a tapestry with a woven picture of Anne Hathaway's cottage.

For many years Elitch Gardens has been a magnet for Denver residents and tourists alike. Early on, the management adopted the slogan "Not to see Elitch's is not to see Denver." It is as true today as it was in the 1890s. In the early days, they came to stroll the flower-bordered walkways winding through groves of apple trees, watch the bears dance in the bear pit, or attend vaudeville performances.

Elitch's pioneered unusual events. It was the scene for balloon ascensions. Denverites got their first look at motion pictures when the Edison Vitascope, an early movie projector; was demonstrated here in 1896. Elitch's hosted a demonstration of the then-new Oriental game of Ping-Pong in the early 1900s.

Amusement rides were added after the turn of the century. In the 1920s and 1940s, hundreds of Denver couples flocked to the Trocadero Ballroom, then known as the "Summer Home of America's Biggest Bands," to swing and sway with Sammy Kaye or to jump to the boogie-woogie of the Dorseys. The "Troc" is gone now -- gone the way of the fox trot and the jitterbug. However, you can still savor the flavor of the Trocadero Ballroom is Elitch's new Palace Restaurant. Tables are made out of sections of the old dance floor. Pictures of the big bands that once played there line the walls, and you can hear piped-in music of Glenn Miller, Artie Shaw, or Benny Goodman.

Elitch's offers more than a score of rides, plus a Kiddie Land with 15 miniature rides and games for small children. There are two roller coasters, the Wildcat and Mister Twister. The latter is one of the world's highest, and it has been voted among the top three in the nation by roller-coaster buffs. The carousel is an ornate, historic gem with mirrors, gold trim, landscape paintings, and 72 hand-carved horses bedecked in garlands of wooden flowers.

The newest rides include the Splinter, a water flume ride, and Gold Fever, recently completed for the 90th anniversary. Another recent addition is Scooters in the Round, a bumper car ride with cars resembling flying saucers. The Splinter carries you in a boat resembling a hollow log through a quarter-mile flume past animated scenes depicting life in an oldtime lumber camp in the Pacific Northwest. The climax of the ride is when your log plummets down a water slide into a pool of water from a height of 45 feet.

Gold Fever offers a hilarious ride through scenes of an Old West mining camp in a car resembling the "surrey with the fringe on top." You pass animated scenes including a barroom brawl, a bank robbery, a jailbreak, a hanging, and a frontier envangelist preaching salvation. Both Gold Fever and the Splinter were designed by Maurice Ayers, who was the scenic designer for the Movie "Paint Your Wagon."

Elitch Gardens is open weekends in May, then daily from the first weekend in June through Labor Day. Truly it provides trun-of-the century elegance set to the beat of today.

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