THE ELITCH GARDENS THEATRE, 1891 -2008:
AMERICAS HIGH PLAINS SUMMER PLAYHOUSE
Rosemary Elaine Lewis
B.S., Syracuse University, 1985
M.S., University of California Los Angeles, 1990
A thesis submitted to the
University of Colorado Denver
in partial fulfillment
of the requirements for the degree of
Master of Arts in History
This thesis for the Master of Arts
Rosemary Elaine Lewis
has been approved
Rebecca A. Hunt
/\/ Zru--a-yvJLey' S AQ
Lewis, Rosemary Elaine (M.A., History)
The Elitch Gardens Theatre, 1891 2008: Americas High Plains Summer
Thesis directed by Professor Thomas J. Noel
The Elitch Gardens Theatre exemplified the capricious nature of live theatre
in America for a century. The theatre opened in 1891 with vaudeville acts,
replacing a temporary tent in a former orchard northwest of downtown Denver,
Colorado. As part of a day resort, the theatre was one of many attractions at the
park. It evolved into a cherished and historical cultural fortress of summer stock
theatre, a Broadway outpost on the high plains. It served in the vanguard of
American summer stock theatre development for nearly seven decades, then as a
showcase for star package tours for an additional two decades. From the earliest
years it nourished the aspirations of local actors while a parade of the best of
American theatrical talent crossed its stage. One of Denvers most generous
patrons, Helen Bonfils, financially supported the theatre during its darkest days and
became an actress under its lights.
Its longevity and reputation were the products of competition, cooperation,
and community. Local resort theatres at Manhattan Beach and Lakeside provided a
quarter-century of direct competition, requiring the Elitch management to commit
to producing the best available shows each summer. Cooperation with the Denver
University Civic Theatre provided a much-needed bolster to bridge the long winter
months between the fleeting summer weeks. Through its century of operation as a
local family-owned enterprise the community resolutely supported the theatre.
When the original owner, Mary Elitch Long, fell upon hard times the community
responded with an outpouring of support to care for her in her last years. During
the summer stock era of the mid-twentieth century, the actors lived and interacted
daily with the local citizenry. Films, television, melodramas and dinner theatre
eventually overwhelmed the old theatre and it staggered to a close in 1991. The
amusement park closed a few years later and moved away, leaving the derelict
theatre to slowly decay until resurrected as the center of a New Urban
redevelopment of residences and shops. During 2006 and 2007 the non-profit
Historic Elitch Gardens Theatre Foundation undertook the restoration of the
This abstract accurately represents the content of the candidates thesis. I
recommend its publication.
Thomas J. Noel
TABLE OF CONTENTS
A Personal Connection............................12
2. FOUNDING OF THE NORTHWEST RESORTS: ELITCHS
GARDENS AND MANHATTAN BEACH (1890-1899)................14
John and Mary Elitch Create a Midsummers Dream..14
The Manhattan Beach Resort on the Shores of Sloans
The Good OT Summertime: Programs and Competition....29
The Panic of 1893 and the Beginnings of Summer Stock
3. EXPLOSIVE GROWTH AND COLLAPSE (1900-1915)..............38
Opening of Lakeside The White City.............48
Reshuffling the Players..........................52
4. REVERSALS OF FORTUNE (1916-1929).......................60
Reorganization at Elitch Gardens and Lakeside....60
Elitch Gardens Theatre Reopens......................72
The Klan Comes to Play (1924-1925)..................77
The End of the Roaring Twenties.....................83
5 CARDBOARD BELTS AND STRAW HATS (1930-1940)................86
New Economy, New Theatres, New Management...........86
The Straw Hat Season................................91
Miss Helens Arrival at the Stage Door..............98
The Floral Business Thrives........................103
The End of the Depression..........................105
6 WAR AND AFTERMATH (1941-1950).............................106
War Time Plays and the Stars Before They Were Stars....109
A Day in the Life of a Stock Company...............118
Casting Resources: Trained New York Professionals
to Local Enthusiasts...............................121
Other Doings at the Amusement Park.................126
7 TELEVISION AND THE DECLINE OF LIVE THEATRE
Reversals of Fortune...............................127
Bonfils and Somnes Return to the Gardens
Productions and Extended Season.....................139
Theatrical Employment and Unionization -
Whitfield Connor and Haila Stoddard.................147
Falling in Love.....................................151
The Glenn Miller Story at Elitchs..................153
8 THE ELITCH THEATRE COMPANY (1964-1987)....................154
A Change of Plan....................................154
Formation of the Elitch Theatre Company.............156
The Star Package in Action..........................158
Affiliations and Honorariums........................162
Backstage Union Labor...............................167
The Final Act?......................................170
9 REINVENTION (1988-2008)...................................178
Redevelopment of the Old Elitch Gardens.............181
10 CONCLUDING REMARKS: LOOKING TO THE FUTURE.... 194
PRODUCTIONS, 1941 1991
LIST OF FIGURES
1 John and Mary Elitch, undated photograph.............................17
2 Proposed Berkeley Lake Resort, 1889..................................20
3 Manhattan Beach, circa 1895, with theatre building in background.....29
4 Early Photograph of Elitchs Theatre, circa 1891.....................32
5 Maude Fealy..........................................................46
6 Lakeside, The White City circa 1908-1910, Casino Tower.............51
7 Elitch Gardens Theatre, 1923.........................................76
8 The Elitch Gardens Amusement Park, 1930..............................87
9 Somnes and Bonfils, 1936, possibly on their wedding day.............102
10 The Elitch Gardens Theatre, 1951....................................132
11 Cast Photo, 1951....................................................136
12 Elitch Gardens Theatre, November 2005, before restoration...........183
13 Detail, theatre clapboard siding before restoration, November 2005..184
14 Rock and timber foundation, August 2006.............................187
15 Exposed painted canvas and portion of knee bracing on ground level,
16 Exposed wall structure, south side, September 2006..................189
17 Dressing room graffiti, August 2006.................................191
In April 2006, nearly fifteen years since actors last took their final bows and
applause resounded in the dim recesses of the Elitch Gardens Theatre, the doors
opened to the public for a single day. This marked the beginning of a new era in
the life of the 115-year-old historic structure. Boarded up and abandoned after the
Elitch Gardens Amusement Park moved to Denvers Central Platte Valley in 1994,
the once-vaunted Oldest Summer Theatre in America had become an attractive
nuisance in the midst of a New Urban development. Condominiums, houses, and
retail shops surrounded the theatre, replacing the gardens, amusement rides,
restaurants, and ballroom that once occupied this ground. Time had not been kind
to the building. Its sagging clapboard siding, peeling paint and sway-backed roofs
testified to the ravages of age. Trespassers broke through doors and windows and
vandalized the dust-filled and crumbling interior. Foxes played across the stage
where legends once enchanted audiences. Overhead generations of pigeons roosted
in the cupola. Despite the outward appearance of neglect, the fate of the theatre
was never far from the heart of the community. Once the amusement park closed
in 1994, local activists began to work with the property owners to save the historic
structure. For years they kept a watchful eye on the premises and prevented the
fragile, flammable building from perishing in flames before it could be rescued and
The Elitch Gardens Theatre began modestly as an open-air stage for
vaudeville and music performances in an orchard at the fringes of the city of
Denver, alongside balloonists, carnival rides, bands and sporting events. While
other summer resorts in the United States routinely included amateur theatrics and
vaudeville, Elitchs was arguably the nations first summer resort to integrate
legitimate professional theatre into its operation. Together with the Lakewood
Theatre, which opened in 1898 in a resort five miles north of Skowhegan, Maine,
these two venues formed the vanguard of Americas summer stock theatre
movement of the twentieth century.1
The Elitch story began at the end of the nineteenth century, a scant
generation after the 1859 gold rush brought tens of thousands to the eastern slopes
of the Rocky Mountains. A seemingly endless stream of gold and silver continued
to pour out of the mines, into the smelters infernos, and fueled Denvers economic
heart. The smoky byproduct fouled the citys once pristine air. The untamed South
Platte River separated the western highlands from the urban core, a pastoral idyll
within sight of Colorados commercial hub. The northwestern district, between
present-day Zuni Street and Sheridan Boulevard and north of Colfax Avenue to
1 Martha Schmoyer LoMonaco, Summer Stock! An American Theatrical Phenomenon (New York:
Palgrave Macmillan, 2004), 27.
Fifty-second Avenue, consisted of orchards, farms and newly platted suburbs tied
to the city with dirt roads and nascent streetcar lines. A new state, new railroads,
and new money created an instant society hungry for diversions and investment
opportunities. As miners extracted the subterranean bounty of Colorados natural
gifts, John Brisbane Walker, John Elitch, Jr., and Adam Graff separately schemed
to harvest a portion of that wealth via the northwest districts clean air and
breathtaking views of the Rockies.
Two elements were critical to these plans; a reason for the public to spend
hard-earned money on more than views, which they could get for free, and a way to
get them there. Walker proved the value of an amusement park with the success of
River Front Park along the South Platte River in the 1880s. Elitch and Graff took
Walkers example and expanded the idea of a few hours amusement into day-long
summer destination resorts, offering music, theatre, and assorted diversions such as
aquatic and aerial spectacles, at two rural sites on the far western edge of then
Arapahoe County. In the summer of 1890 the first manifestations of these plans
opened as the Elitch Zoological Gardens and Grand Pavilion Theatre, and the
Sloans Lake Resort (later renamed the Manhattan Beach Resort), both
conveniently located along one of the newest streetcar loops. Within the first years
of opening, both resorts overcame near calamity to eventually stabilize and prosper.
In 1908 a third amusement park, Lakeside, sprouted up along the shore of a nearby
small lake, forming a highly-concentrated and vibrant amusement district, battling
among themselves for local patronage and survival.
Initially Elitchs and Manhattan Beach were mirrors of one another,
competing for the same economic and social sectors, offering similar attractions at
competitive prices. Both advertised as family-oriented, non-alcoholic, safe and
clean venues. Both locations offered hot-air balloon stunts, animal acts and petting
enclosures, music, dancing and theatre. While Elitchs boasted cool gardens,
Manhattan Beach offered lakeside attractions to refresh patrons on hot summer
days. Manhattan Beach burned one cold December night in 1908 and although
rebuilt, it never regained its former luster.
Lakeside Amusement Park, with its companion town of Lakeside, opened in
the spring of 1908, and took Manhattan Beachs place in competing with Elitchs
for the public dollar. As the name indicated, this park had its own lake, comparable
in size to Sloans Lake. Its advantage lay in being located just across the county
line in Jefferson County with its more liberal attitudes towards alcohol. It, too,
offered music, theatre, and dance, but its primary draw as the Coney Island of the
West targeted a far different market than the tamer offerings at Elitchs.
A true connection with the local community was vital to keep these local
resorts alive. The resident Elitch, Mulvihill, and Gurtler families were closely
associated with Elitch Gardens for all but three years of its existence, engendering a
significant degree of local allegiance through the tough times that transcended mere
enjoyment of the park and its facilities. Lifelong commitments to local
organizations such as womens clubs, service organizations, and secular and
parochial causes tightened the bonds between Elitchs and the community. By
contrast, several out-of-town syndicates owned Manhattan Beach which proved too
remote and the ties too fragile to sustain local support in the rebuilt park after it
burned in 1908. Lakeside had both syndicate and family ownership periods, thus
occupying a middle ground in local regard. The competition among the Elitchs,
Manhattan Beach, and Lakeside theatres continued until World War I. Although
Lakeside eventually abandoned maintaining a summer theatre, it continued to stand
toe-to-toe with Elitchs as an amusement park and as a Big Band venue for decades
to come. Elitchs alone continued to offer summer theatre after a period of
reorganization from 1916 through 1919.
During the 1920s the rise of national summer stock theatre grew out of the
boom of travel and leisure time available to the middle- and working-class
families.2 Some two decades earlier the Denver triumvirate of summer theatres
already experimented with the possibilities of summer stock, with Elitchs
providing an almost prophetic insight with its first resident company in 1893.
Elitchs, however, tempered its experiment, not abandoning vaudeville entirely
until 1899 and bringing in guest stars through 1915. Once reorganized and
reopened in 1920, the Elitch Theatre owners remained dedicated to resident
2 LoMonaco, 5.
summer stock theatre until 1964, when economic necessity required a change to the
star package format of touring shows.
The eventual decline of summer theatre was outside the control of even a
revered and tested venue like Elitchs. Nationally the rise of alternative
entertainment formats (television, film, little theatres) and the insufficient demand
for traditional stock theatre closed the bam theatres across the country in the 1970s
and 1980s. In the particular case of Elitchs, then operated as a separate entity from
the amusement park, the lease agreement prohibited staging newer and edgier
works. The limitations imposed by having fewer than 1,500 seats resulted in a
restricted revenue stream to recover costs for the bigger, costlier musical
productions that the public wanted. Finally, the impending sale of the amusement
park property, announced in 1986, landed as the last hammer blow in the demise of
Americas Oldest Summer Theatre. The doors closed in 1991 after one last
production celebrated a century of summer theatre.
On the Elitch Gardens Theatre stage, Broadway stars enchanted Denver,
and occasionally Denver unknowns went to Broadway. Maude Fealy, Antoinette
Perry, and Douglas Fairbanks each rose to international prominence from its
boards. This is also the story of two Denver women, Mary Elitch Long and Helen
Bonfils, whose passion for the theatre left a legacy still evident today.
The intent of this thesis is to look past the footlights and transient, although
often illustrious, players on the stage to the local people who owned, toiled,
patronized, and ultimately determined the fate of Denvers summer theatre. Three
factors influenced the Elitch Gardens Theatre survival: competition among the local
summer theatres for patronage, cooperation with non-summer Denver theatres and
northeastern summer theatre circuit, and unstinting community support for over a
century as the theatre graduated from a tent to a national treasure.
The place of theatres in interpreting a century of western growth has been
the subject of a number of unpublished dissertations and published works,
primarily focusing on the productions and casts. Mary Cole Hollingsworths 1932
thesis, A History of the Theater of Denver, Colorado, prepared for the
Department of Speech at the University of Southern California, presented a
contemporaneous perspective of the significant place the Elitch Theatre occupied
within the Denver performing arts community and as a national institution.3 In
1941 William Campton Bell, who criticized Hollingsworths presentation as
inaccurate, began what would become a collective study of Denvers theatrical
history. Bell pegged the mid-century interest in regional theatres as the product of
the reopening of the Central City Opera House in 1932. He counted seven works
on the theatres in northern Colorado and southern Wyoming produced in the
3 Mary Cole Hollingsworth, A History of the Theater of Denver, Colorado (Masters Thesis,
University of Southern California, 1932), 71.
1930s.4 A subsequent series of unpublished dissertations, formulated and presented
as a collective study of Denver theatre, defined Denver theatrical history into
several periods; the 1859 to 1880 pioneer period (Dean G. Nichols 1938
dissertation at the University of Michigan), the 1881 to 1901 post-pioneer period
(Bells dissertation at Northwestern University), the early twentieth century to 1915
(Earle William Winters 1957 dissertation at the University of Denver under Bell),
and the Depression Era 1929-1941 (Hebron Charles Klines 1963 dissertation at the
University of Denver, also under Bell). Kline referenced a dissertation in progress
by William R. Robinson at Mesa College to cover the period from 1911 to 1929.5
However, a search for Robinsons document failed to uncover any reference in the
library catalogs, indicating that Robinson may not have completed this project.
These works focus on the players, directors, and productions of the theatres and
provide some contextual descriptions of contemporary economic and social
patterns that influenced theatre attendance and growth.
Concurrent with Bells research, Melvin Schoberlins 1941 published work,
From Candles to Footlights, presented the intimate story of the pioneer theatre in
4 William Campton Bell, A History of the Denver Theatre During the Post-pioneer Period (1881-
1901) (Ph.D. diss., Northwestern University, 1941), foreward.
5 Hebron Charles Kline, A History of the Denver Theatre During the Depression Era, 1929-1941
(Ph.D. diss., University of Denver, 1963), xxvii.
Colorado from 1859 to 1876.6 Nichols and Schoberlins works covered the
period prior to the opening of the Elitch and Manhattan Beach theatres. Most
recently general studies of the theatre in Colorado included Daniel and Beth R.
Barretts 2005 book High Drama: Colorados Historic Theatres and Thomas J.
Noel and Amy B. Zimmers Showtime: Denvers Performing Arts Convention
Centers & Theatre District, published in 2008. An overview of summer stock in
the United States was the subject of Martha Schmoyer LoMonacos work Summer
Stock! An American Theatrical Phenomenon published in 2004. LoMonacos book
provided an invaluable reference for contextualizing Denvers summer theatre
experience with nationwide trends.
The common approach in the local histories placed Elitchs in the leading
role and Manhattan Beach in a supporting role, although the two theatres competed
head-to-head for nearly two decades. At times, Manhattan Beach surpassed
Elitchs in innovation and market share. Its theatre was larger, and its acting troupe
at times interchangeable with the Elitch troupe. In addition, both amusement parks
showcased animals, balloonists, and the latest innovations from electric lighting to
moving pictures. The reviewed literature ignored Lakesides Casino Theater
6 Melvin Schoberlin, From Candles to Footlights (Denver: The Old West Publishing Company,
The Elitchs story has attained an almost mythical status through flattering
contemporary newspaper coverage and decades of repetition and embellishment.
Caroline Lawrence Diers 1932 hagiograph The Lady of the Gardens, Mary Elitch
Long, depicted a life lived literally in a garden, surrounded by flowers, tame
animals, theatre, and admirers. Mary Elitch Long narrated the majority of the text
and painted a bucolic, pastoral version of her public life, unburdened by the
business of operating a well-respected enterprise. Dier excluded more than passing
references to Elitchs private life, including her second marriage, travels during the
off season, and family relations. The narration purposely avoided discussion of the
rough times in the 1890s when a syndicate controlled the Gardens and the
circumstances preceding John Mulvihills acquisition of the property in 1916.
While Elitch ended her narration in 1915, just prior to the forced sale of the
Gardens, Dier provided a very brief postscript of the Mulvihill management
period.7 Two additional published histories of the Gardens, by Corinne Hunt and
Betty Lynne Hull extended the presentation into the era of the Mulvihill and
Gurtler ownership.8 Hunt and Hull each presented a nostalgic and romantic vision
of the Gardens, like Dier, and glossed over any unpleasant incidents. Numerous
7 Caroline Lawrence Dier, The Lady of the Gardens Mary Elitch Long (Hollywood: Hollycrofters,
Inc., Ltd., 1932), 132.
8 Corinne Hunt and Jack Gurtler, The Elitch Gardens Story: Memories of Jack Gurtler (Boulder:
Rocky Mountain Writers Guild Publication, 1982); Betty Lynne Hull, Denvers Elitch Gardens:
Spinning a Century of Dreams (Boulder: Johnson Books, 2003).
errors found in Hulls book resulted in the author excluding this as a reliable
reference for this study.
Edwin Levys 1960 doctoral dissertation at Columbia University presented
a fairly balanced study of the first fifty years of the Elitch Theatre.9 Levy appeared
in University Civic Theatre productions from 1946 through 1948 and later became
a professor of drama at the University of Denver. Levy placed the theatre structure
and stagecraft, management, actors and actresses, directors, play lists, and the
intended audience within the historical context. His interviews with the people
involved with the propertys 1916 sale for payment of debts provides perhaps the
most authoritative information available on this crucial period. Levy also
examined the influence other local summer theatres such as Manhattan Beach,
Lakeside, the Auditorium, and the Denham, had on Elitchs. Although Levy
contextualized the general audience with respect to rapport with the cast, fashions,
and selection of plays, the dissertation lacked specific audience demographic
information, such as income or ethnic background. Later works often cited Levy as
the definitive study of Elitchs despite some minor errors. Levy ended his analysis
with the 1941 Golden Anniversary of the Gardens, at the cusp of the Gardens
recognition as an historical treasure and its becoming a part of the living memory
of two more generations of Colorado citizens.
9 Edwin Lewis Levy, Elitchs Garden, Denver, Colorado: A History of the Oldest Summer Theatre
in the United States (1890-1941) (Ph.D. diss., Columbia University, 1960).
Perhaps the most interesting of the academic works surveyed was Charles
Hebron Klines dissertation on Denvers Depression-era theatre. Kline profiled a
period when live theatre experienced drastic changes brought about by economic
decline and increased competition ffom cinema, radio, and the impending
introduction of television. Denvers theatre community survived on the thinnest of
margins. The privately-owned Broadway and Denham theatres slowly died over
the decade, replaced with the multiple-use facilities of the city-owned Auditorium
and renovated movie houses. The Works Progress Administrations Federal
Theatre project established the Baker Federal Theatre, which filled some of the
vacuum. The community theatre movement, with little theatres scattered across the
city, and the Central City Opera also helped fill the void. But it was the Elitch
Gardens Theatre that consistently provided Denver citizens with quality
professional productions throughout the entire period. Although Kline referred
much of his analysis of Elitchs to Levys presentation, he contextualized the
environment under which the theatrical community operated during this period in a
much clearer fashion than Levy. Klines presentation heavily influenced the
directions of the research presented in this study.
A Personal Connection
Ask many Denverites about the old Elitch Gardens and you will see a
softening around the eyes and a slight smile as they recall long summer days of
riding the roller coaster and carousel, picnicking on Fryer Hill, dancing at the
Trocadero Ballroom, or loosing themselves in a good play. This deep regard did
not happen overnight, but resulted from generation after generation of families who
returned year after year to enjoy a day in the Gardens. Elitchs provided the safest
of environments for a date and summer employment for thousands of area
teenagers. I was one of those teenagers, employed in the theatre as an usher and
occasional costume assistant for three summers from 1978 through 1980.
After nine decades the old theatre carried a mystique. Dark backstage
comers whispered of the past and the intoxicating elixir of paint and sawdust and
greasepaint filled the air. Walking through the backstage before performances I
crossed paths with John Raitt, William Shatner, and Van Johnson. Meeting
Vincent Price proved to be one of the most memorable experiences of my young
life. Gracious and elegant, he took the time out one afternoon before his one-man
performance as Oscar Wilde to spend a few minutes with me and a friend. As
momentary as this encounter was, this connection exemplified the affinity between
the actors and the local community that characterized the Elitch Gardens and gave
me my own memories to share with the next generation.
The theatre is one of the last remnants of Denvers premier amusement
park. It bears witness to a century of American theatre and the idyllic days of
summer stock. This place matters.
FOUNDING OF THE NORTHWEST RESORTS:
ELITCHS GARDENS AND MANHATTAN BEACH (1890-1899)
John and Mary Elitch Create a Midsummers Dream
Mary and John Elitchs story has attained an almost mythical status in
Denvers historical canon, as one of romance and tragedy in post-pioneer Denver.
Possessing idealistic spirits and gregarious natures, the couple counted many of the
periods illustrious entertainers and public figures as friends including Phineas T.
Bamum, James ONeill, General and Mrs. Tom Thumb, and Denver poet Eugene
Field.10 Without children of their own, they embraced Denvers citizens as part of
their extended family. After John Elitchs untimely death at the age of forty-one,
his widow became the honorary favored aunt of generations of children who visited
the Gardens until her own death in 1936.
John Elitch, Junior, the eldest of eight children, was bom in Mobile,
Alabama in 1850. One of the many myths asserted that he descended from Stephen
Hopkins, signer of the Declaration of Independence.11 Census records, however,
refuted this claim. John Elitchs parents, John and Mary, were natives of Austria
10 Dier, 21-22.
11 Dier, 18.
and Ireland, respectively. His grandparents were also foreign bom. By 1853 the
family moved to Ohio, where they resided during the Civil War. Father John
Senior possibly fought for the Union under the command of General William
Rosecrans. After the war, the family moved on west, arriving in California by
Mary Elizabeth Houck, the eldest of five children, was bom in Philadelphia,
Pennsylvania in 1856 to Prussian immigrants Frederick and Augustina Houck.
Within a year the family moved to New York, then to California by 1863.
Although the family professed the Protestant faith, Mary attended and boarded at
the convent school of the Sisters of Notre Dame in San Francisco. The teachings of
the nuns so influenced the child, that at the age of thirteen she decided to become a
member of the Catholic Church.13
As of 1870 both families resided in the Alviso area near San Jose,
California, where the Elitch family operated a coffee saloon and the Houck
family engaged in fruit production.14 Alviso, located on the southern edge of San
Francisco Bay, served as a transportation hub between agricultural Santa Clara
12 Dier, 18; United States National Archives and Records Administration, Ninth Census of the
United States, 1870, Washington D.C., http://www.ancestry.com (accessed December 3,2008).
13 Dier, 18; U.S. Ninth Census.
14 U.S. Ninth Census.
Valley and urban San Francisco.15 Mary Houck and John Elitch met in church in
1872 and shortly thereafter eloped to San Francisco. Mary was sixteen and John
twenty-two.16 This impulsive act, along with converting to the Catholic Church at
a young age, evidenced an independent streak in Marys character that would
reappear later in life to sustain her through difficult times. John Elitch took the
skills he learned at his fathers Alviso establishment and opened his own restaurant
in the city by the bay to support himself and his bride. After selling his San
Francisco restaurant in 1878 he invested in a traveling theatrical stock company,
which promptly failed, establishing a pattern of fortunes made and lost over the
next thirteen years.17 18 Elitch returned to San Francisco and the restaurant business
as of May 1880, while Mary tended a household consisting of themselves, a
nephew and a niece, Charles and Minnie Mansfield, a servant Anna Houck (Marys
sister), and three lodgers.
15 Planning Department of the City of San Jose, Historical Overview and Context for the City of San
Jose, prepared by Archives and Architecture (March 30, 1992), 15, http://www.sanjoseca.gov
(accessed April 1, 2009).
16 Dier, 18; Debra B. Faulkner, Mary Elitch Long: First Lady of Fun (Palmer Lake, CO: Filter Press
LLC, 2008), 4.
17 Levy, 33-34.
18 United States, Bureau of the Census, Tenth Census of the United States, 1880. Washington
D.C., http://www.ancestry.com (accessed December 3, 2008).
MR. AND MRS JOHN I LITCH
Figure 1 John and Mary Elitch, undated photograph, (photo from Caroline
Lawrence Dier, The Lady of the Gardens: Mary Elitch Long)
Elitchs optimism led him to Denver in late 1880, while Mary remained in
San Francisco. He found employment as a cook at the Arcade Restaurant at
Sixteenth and Larimer Streets. The following year he moved on to Durango, made
another small fortune as a restaurateur, again invested in a traveling stock theatre
company, lost his stake, and returned to Denver in 1882. He re-entered the
restaurant business, this time at an oyster house at Sixteenth and Curtis Streets, an
enterprise that proved to be very successful and reportedly cleared $1,000 per
month.19 Elitch made friends easily, including local grocer and future Denver
mayor, Wolfe Londoner, and newspaperman and poet Eugene Field.20 21
With the latest success and perhaps the promise of greater security, Mary
Elitch joined her husband in Denver in 1882. The couple immediately began the
search for a place where John could have the zoo he had dreamed of as a boy in
Ohio and Mary could dwell beneath the shade of great trees. In 1887, at the
sixteen-acre Chilcott Farm located in the far northwest area of Highland, they
found mature apples trees and room for vegetables to supply Elitchs Palace Dining
Rooms restaurant in Denver. The morally-upright Highland neighborhood
contrasted with the alcohol-ridden City of Denver in the valley below. Expensive
liquor licenses kept out saloons and city ordinances restricted fighting and improper
language. The Elitches gladly incorporated the Highland code of behavior in future
operation of the Gardens.
The proximity of entrepreneur John Brisbane Walkers 1,600-acre property
located just to the north across West Thirty-eighth Avenue (named Berkeley Farm
and including Berkeley Lake), may have added to the Elitches attraction to the
19 Levy, 33.
20 Levy, 22.
21 Ruth Eloise Wiberg, Rediscovering Northwest Denver: Its History, Its People, Its Landmarks
(Denver: Bradford Printing Company, 1976), 52-54 and 136.
property. Walker founded River Front Park in 1880, Denvers early amusement
park on the banks of the South Platte River near its confluence with Cherry Creek.
Walker sold a portion of the Berkeley property on November 12, 1887 to
representatives of the Denver Land and Security Company, who promptly began
platting the property as a residential development. Meanwhile Walker used the sale
proceeds to move onto his most grandiose project, the development of the Jefferson
County foothills resort town of Morrison, complete with cog railway up Mount
Morrison, Red Rocks Park, and a summer white house on Mount Falcon.22
John Elitch purchased Berkeley Lake and the land contiguous to it for the
development of an open air pleasure resort, funded by the sale of his restaurant
business in March 1889. He began to improve the grounds with extensive
landscaping, boat houses, wharf, dance pavilion, and restaurant absent spirituous
beverages for the convenience and comfort of the thousands who daily flock to
this most charming suburban resort.23 Elitch also announced the opening of the
Elitchs Gardens for the following year. He modeled it after the Woodward
Gardens of San Francisco, and anticipated that it would include a 2,000-seat
22 Colorado Exchange Journal 2, no. 39 (October 1889): 97; Don Robertson, Morris Cafky, and E.J.
Haley, Denver's Street Railways, vol. 1, 1871-1900 Not An Automobile In Sight (Denver: Sundance
Publications Ltd., 1999), 134; Jefferson County Mount Falcon Open Space Park Historical
Background, http://www.co.jefferson.co.us/jeffco/openspace uploads/mountfalcon_park_
history.pdf (accessed July 2009).
23 Colorado Exchange Journal.
amusement hall, cafe, dance pavilion, and a zoological collection of every animal
and bird accessible.24 25
fit.Khr.i.RY r.AKK, UCKKKLKY.
Figure 2 Proposed Berkeley Lake Resort, 1889. (photo from the Colorado
Exchange Journal, October 1889)
After three years of hard work, the Elitches opened their Zoological
Gardens and Grand Pavilion Theater to the public on May 1, 1890 with animal
exhibits, refreshment stands, and free vaudeville acts. According to theatre
historian Edwin L. Levy, during the first summer the venue consisted of an open
twelve-sided canopy called the Pavilion Theater seating 600 people with
additional improvised seating extending out from the pavilion into the park. The
24 Colorado Exchange Journal.
25 Wiberg, 131; Levy, 175.
Denver Republican described it as a cozy little theater.26 27 Newspaper
advertisements from that first summer featured the Gardens theatrical attractions
and mentioned the electrically-illuminated Berkeley Lake with the zoo band
serenading patrons every evening.
Transportation was critical to the success of the Gardens. Being located
some three miles from central Denver, across the South Platte River, Mary Elitch
The Highlands were something of a wilderness.... A visit to the
City was a days event to us. Shortly before the opening of the
Garden, in 1890, a track for a small steam engine had been laid, and
as this line passed our property we felt it was a great step towards
the success of our venture, and we placed our rustic gates
advantageously for the convenience of visitors arriving by train from
Expansion of the public transportation system was crucial to the continued growth
of the northwest district. Located along the West End Street Railroad running east-
west along West Thirty-eighth Avenue, and at the junction with the Denver and
Berkeley Park Rapid Transit (D&BPRT) line running north-south along Tennyson
Street, Elitchs found itself fortuitously located. The West End, with elegant
standard-gauge rolling stock put the older narrow-gauge steam operation of the
D&BPRT to shame. It began operation on September 29, 1890 and quickly
26 The Zoological Gardens, Denver Republican, June 15, 1890.
27 Dier, 20.
extended service not only to Elitchs, but Berkeley Lake and Manhattan Beach as
well, tying together the northwest resort district in a loop within a year.
Advertisements for the resorts included simple streetcar directions, purposely
minimizing any perception of difficulty or discomfort associated with taking the
transit system. The operators intended that the streetcar trip be an extension of the
amusement park amenities, something to be enjoyed for the scenery and views
rather than simply endured.28
The public enjoyed the inaugural season, with the crowd during the Fourth
of July estimated at 6,000 and the theatre as the center of attraction. After a
successful opening season and an estimated profit of $35,000 ($775,000 in 2009
dollars), Elitch once again organized a traveling show, this time joining with
Charles Goodyear and Charles Schilling, who separately performed at the opening
of the Pavilion Theater, to form the Goodyear, Elitch & Schilling minstrel troupe.
The troupe, organized with modem principles, did not rely on the traditional
burnt-cork parody of plantation life, but instead consisted of white-faced
performers with expensive talent, elaborate costumes and gorgeous mountings.29
They played engagements in November 1890 at the Fifteenth Street Theater in
Denver, Wheeler Opera House in Aspen, the Tabor Opera House in Leadville,
28 Robertson, 212; Finest in America, Rocky Mountain News, July 5, 1891.
29 The Minstrels Art, The Aspen Daily Chronicle, November 10, 1890,
http://www.coloradohistoricnewspapers.org (accessed March 27, 2009).
Dicks Hall in Silverton, and in Alamosa before moving west.30 While in
California, Elitch, a robust and athletic man, contracted pneumonia and died on
March 10, 1891.31 After racing to her husbands side and witnessing his death,
Mary Elitch returned to Denver and decided to continue ownership and
management of the Gardens. However, an obstacle stood in her way.
Despite the financial success of the Gardens first season Elitchs sudden
death and the loss of his stake in the traveling show left his widow destitute. A
corporation of nine businessmen purchased the property for $250,000 and placed
100,000 shares of stock on the market at one dollar each. The corporation, the
Elitch Gardens Amusement Company, consisted of John T. Bell (Colorado
Mortgage Company), Joseph M. Marshall (Union Ore Sampling Company), Frank
E. Edbrooke (architect), William P. Macon (attomey-at-law), Samuel W. Blakely
(mine owner), S.A. Josephi (South Denver Electric Light and Power Company),
Charles C. Parsons (attomey-at-law), Albert B. McGaffey (Porter, Raymond, and
Company), and Albert S. Hoyt (Brooklyn Investment Company). The new owners
30 Advertisements, Denver Republican, November 3, 1890; Leadville Daily and Evening Chronicle
November 8, 1890; Aspen Daily Chronicle, November 10,1890; Silverton Standard, November
15,1890; and San Juan Prospector, November 22, 1890, each accessed through
http://www.coloradohistoricnewspapers.org (accessed March 27, 2009).
31 Dier, 28.
promised to open the Gardens on May 16, 1891 with all attractions including the
Elitchs death also resulted in the loss of his investment in Berkeley Lake.
Berkeley Lake advertising no long joined Elitchs, although each offered similar
amusements for the 1891 Decoration (Memorial) Day crowds, including aerial
stunts with balloonists ascending to the skies, then jumping from their lofty
perches. John Elitchs former idyllic resort declined to become a den of inequity
by the summer of 1902. Blatant violations of the town liquor laws and the
gathering of the dregs of the city roused the good citizens of Berkeley to convene
public meetings, issue proclamations from church pulpits, and declare war on
drink.34 The Womens Temperance Endeavor Union joined the outraged citizens
and forced an end to the sale of beer in the park by early August. John Brisbane
Walker sensed an opportunity, sold half of his remaining interest at River Front
Park, and reinvested in Berkeley with his associates Lawrence Phipps (Carnegie
Steel), W.E. Hughes (Continental Trust Company), and Fred G. Moffat (First
National Bank of Denver). The partners purchased 100 acres of lake and
surrounding property in July 1903 with the intent of improving the amenities.
32 Levy, 47-48; Advertisement, Denver Republican, May 6, 1891.
33 Advertisement, Denver Republican, May 30, 1891; Advertisement, Rocky Mountain News, June
34 Berkeley is Not Conquered, Denver Times, July 22, 1902.
Despite their efforts, Berkeley Lake did not regain its place within the cadre of
resorts. Instead, Denver began to acquire the property in 1906 to create Berkeley
Lake Park, part of Mayor Robert Speers City Beautiful plan.35
As for the Goodyear, Elitch & Schilling Minstrels, they went on the road
once more in the late summer of 1891 without John Elitch, playing in Pueblo,
Greeley, Boulder, and Leadville. They appeared to have disbanded shortly
thereafter, but the partners continued their association with Elitchs widow, Mary,
for many years. Goodyear became manager, then treasurer of Elitchs Gardens
until his sudden death in 1897. Schilling married Marys sister Anna in 1898 and
served as Elitchs manager during 1894 and 1895, and treasurer from 1897 through
Just as the future of the Elitch enterprise faced changes brought in with the
new management, a new resort was rising like a phoenix from the ashes of a
devastating fire just a mile to the south along the north shore of Sloans Lake.
35 Berkeleyites Will Arrest Lawbreakers, Denver Times, July 29, 1902; Drouth in Berkeley
Makes Citizens Rejoice, Denver Times, August 5, 1902; Wiberg, 174; John Brisben Walker Buys
Berkeley Lake and Grounds, Denver Republican, July 22, 1903; Buys Interest in River Front
Park, Rocky Mountain News, July 23, 1903.
36 Advertisements, Boulder Daily Camera, September 1, 1891, Aspen Daily Chronicle, September 4,
1891, and Greeley Tribune, September 9, 1891, each accessed through
http://www.coloradohistoricnewspapers.org (accessed March 27, 2009); Charles Goodyear Dead,
Rocky Mountain News, May 14, 1897; Levy, 51.
The Manhattan Beach Resort on the Shores of Sloans Lake
Unlike Elitch Gardens, a family-owned business carrying respected local
family names for most of its existence, the Manhattan Beach Resort had no less
than four groups of largely absentee owners in a quarter-century. The Manhattan
Beach Company and the Southern Investment Company, the two longest-term
owners of the property, were based in the eastern and southern United States.
Consequently, the onsite management often consisted of short-term lessees who
were more interested in immediate profits than in developing a long-term rapport
with the Denver citizenry.
Sloans Lake, the largest body of water in the city of Denver, provided the
setting and impetus behind the formation of Manhattan Beach. A stage driver who
ran the route west of Denver recalled late in life that pioneer farmer Thomas A.
Sloan dug a well in 1861 along the South Golden Road, hit an artesian aquifer, and
watched as the shallow valley filled creating the 200-acre lake. Since the land
was no longer available for farming, Sloan used the lake for harvesting ice. On the
northern shore, I.M. Johnson purchased 80 acres in 1874 with the hope of
developing a formal park. Lack of money dashed Johnsons plans. Meanwhile, on
the south side of the lake speculators concocted a scheme to hydraulically connect
the lake to Denver via a canal. The route extended from the Grandview Hotel on 37
37Recalls Stirring Times of Pioneer Days Here, Colorado Transcript, April 29, 1909,
http://www.colorado historicnewspapers.org (accessed March 27, 2009).
the Boulevard (present-day Federal Boulevard, near the intersection with
Seventeenth Avenue) west to Coopers Lake and Sloans Lake.38 Workers
completed the canal in two months and a steamboat plied the route from the
Grandview to Sloans Lake for a round-trip fare of twenty-five cents. The
steamship ran for two summers before folding.39
Subsequently, the lake reverted to a primitive state with a swampy shore
line and casual local boating use until the winter of 1889, when Adam Graff
conceived of the idea to create a family resort styled on the German resorts of his
youth. Graff approached business partners M. Darrow and J.E. Sackett (president
of Wonderland, a short-lived amusement venue near Curtis and Seventeenth
Streets) and within weeks buildings were springing up along the north shore.
Sloans Lake Resort opened in the spring of 1890 with an open air pavilion,
rowboats, sailboats, and a converted Mississippi River coal barge renamed the
City of Denver. The resort burned in April 1891, prompting Graff and his
partners to sell the property to a syndicate of investors including Eugene Booth,
George G. Darrow, John Howard, and Sackett (one of GrafPs original partners) for
$250,000 on April 21, 1891. The new syndicate, calling themselves the Manhattan
Beach Company, intended to develop the property as a place of innocent
38 The Boulevard Canal, Denver Daily Times, March 21,1874,
http:www.coloradohistoricnewspapers.org (accessed September 5, 2009).
j9 Wiberg, 141; Our Steamboat, Denver Daily Times, May 16, 1874,
http://www.coloradohistoricnewspapers.org (accessed September 5, 2009).
amusement targeting respectable families of Denver as well as out-of-town
tourists.40 Colonel J.M. Wood, architect of the Broadway Theater which opened in
1890, came on as architect for the new buildings, planned to include an auditorium
capable of seating 6,600 and a summer hotel.41 A scaled down, but still spacious
theatre with a capacity of 3,000 and other buildings that were models of beauty
and will meet with the praise that is due them appeared on the site within seven
weeks.42 By comparison, the contemporaneous Tabor Grand Opera House could
seat 1,500 people and the Broadway Theater could seat 1,624. The resort opened
on June 27, 1891 to an estimated crowd of 4,000, taking advantage of the newly
completed West End Street Railroad.43
40 Denvers New Resort, Denver Republican, April 22, 1891.
41 Denvers New Resort, Denver Republican, April 22, 1891.
42 The Elephant Smiled, Denver Republican, June 27, 1891.
43 Daniel Barrett and Beth R. Barrett, High Drama: Colorados Historic Theatres (Montrose, CO:
Western Reflections Publishing Co., 2005), 54 and 67; Bell, 194; Manhattan Beach Opened,
Denver Republican, June 28, 1891.
Figure 3 Manhattan Beach, circa 1895, with theatre building in the
background, (photo courtesy of Colorado Historical Society, image
The Good OF Summertime: Programs and Competition
For the summer of 1891, Manhattan Beach and Elitchs found themselves a
mile apart and struggling to attract the same middle-class families. The Denver
Republican described the crowd at Elitchs as consisting of [wjorkingmen, with
their families, hard-working business men and all degrees of suffering humanity.44
Balloon ascensions and the wild animals, rather than the theatrical offerings,
proved to be the biggest draws. Elitchs capitalized on its natural merits,
advertising itself as the coolest place in Denver to distinguish it from the treeless
44 A Day for Pleasure, Denver Republican, June 29, 1891.
Manhattan Beach.45 Manhattan Beach called itself The Peoples Popular Resort,
equipped with the only bathing beach, ostrich farm, electric fountain, elegant
theatre, pleasure steamer, and lady balloonist in town. Where Elitchs boasted two
lions, four bears, two camels, two wolves, and eight monkeys by the opening day in
1890, Manhattan Beachs collection included monkeys, a camel, an elephant, a yak,
a hyena, zebras, llamas, and eight ostriches in 1891 46 The arrival of the first wild
residents caused a small sensation during the night when they were offloaded from
the train then walked across west Denver to Manhattan Beach. The camel and the
elephant elicited special notice.47
The Fourth of July weekend was especially busy at Manhattan Beach, but
the celebrations came to an abrupt halt when Old Roger, the elephant brought to in
with such anticipation just a week before, fatally trampled six-year-old George
Eaton. A balloon about to ascend frightened Roger, causing the platform on its
back with a load of children to sway and slip, spilling young Eaton to the ground.48
As for summertime theatrical diversions, the Tabor Grand Opera House
produced light opera and showcased national theatrical stars. The remaining
downtown theatres generally closed for the summer. The theatrical programs at
45 A Day for Pleasure, Denver Republican, June 29, 1891.
46 Levy, 37-38; A Day for Pleasure, Denver Republican, June 29, 1891.
47 The Elephant Smiled, Denver Republican, June 27, 1891.
48 Terrorized! Rocky Mountain News, July 6, 1891.
Elitchs and Manhattan Beach consisted of vaudeville, the most popular form of
live entertainment for the last decades of the nineteenth century which appealed to
the expanding middle class sector of American society.49 One newspaper reporter
described the new Manhattan Beach Theatre as:
.. .very roomy and quite pretty. The parquette is wide and very
deep, and provided with the easiest of opera chairs. The gallery is
well appointed. Upon either side of the proscenium arch are boxes.
The stage is spacious and roomy and the scenery is decidedly artistic and
much above the ordinary. The tints are soft and harmoniously blended.50
Meanwhile a permanent structure replaced the canopied pavilion at Elitchs
Gardens. Built in late 1890 or early 1891, possibly before Mary Elitch lost the
Gardens to the syndicate, the theatre consisted of an octagonal-shaped, two-story,
wood frame structure with a roof and enclosed sides. Each side measured
approximately forty-three feet in length. Built in the stick style or shingle style that
emerged in the late nineteenth century, it featured an open two-story veranda
surrounding the auditorium. Simple posts with knee braces supported the verandas.
The backstage building enclosed the western side of the theatre and the signature
castle-like cupola crowned the roof.51 Denver architects Rudolf Liden and Charles
49Bell, 76; Kenneth T. Jackson, ed., The Encyclopedia of New York City (New Haven: Yale
University Press, 1995), 1226.
50 Manhattan Beach Opened, Denver Republican, June 28, 1891.
51 Colorado Historical Society, Elitchs Theatre Inventory/Nomination Form for the National
Register of Historic Places, I.D. 5DV143, completed July 1995.
Lee designed the theatre.52 Over the next quarter-century modifications to the
stairways, entrances, and eventual enclosure of the verandas resulted in the
theatres most durable and well-known configuration. The roof line, octagonal
floor plan, and general auditorium arrangements varied little from the 1891 design
until the construction of a new backstage building in 1954.
Figure 4 Early photograph of Elitchs Theatre, circa 1891. Advertising
slogan dates to the twentieth century, (photo courtesy of The Historic Elitch
By September of 1891, however, Manhattan Beach had apparently already
fallen on hard times. The Manhattan Beach Company eventually failed and by
1894 the property transferred to the Southern Investment Company for $100,000.53
52 Thomas J. Noel, Buildings of Colorado, Buildings of the United States (New York: Oxford
University Press, 1997), 29.
53 Historic Manhattan Beach Theater Bums with Loss of $50,000, Denver Post, December 27,
Just before the crucial Labor Day weekend, Elitch stockholders attempted to
capitalize on the situation and acquire Manhattan Beachs animals through chattel
collection on debt owed. A series of legal maneuvers and the filing of a bond to
cover the debts foiled this effort. The Manhattan Beach Company further declared
it would sell off the animals before surrendering them to the Elitch party, one of the
few instances of negative publicity associated with the Elitch name:
Evidently the purpose of the Elitch people is to alarm the public and
create the impression that Manhattan Beach has lost its attractions.
They may be proud of the course which they have pursued. They
are welcome to such a glory and the advantages they may have been
able to secure from it. The beach is open with its usual attractions
and will so continue until the public is advised by Mr. Todd, the
Within a year, consolidation of the Manhattan Beach and Elitch resorts was
a topic of general speculation despite the infusion of some $250,000 in capital at
each venue. The respective owners averted disaster when they reached an
agreement which put them on an equal footing, agreeing to a standard admissions
charge of twenty-five cents for adults and ten cents for children to the grounds and
fifteen to twenty-five cents to the theatres.55 The terms and conditions of this
agreement underlined the similarities between the resorts, the entertainments
offered, and the targeted market. The theatres at both resorts commenced a policy
54 Manhattan Beach Trouble, Denver Republican, September 12, 1891.
55 Elitch and Manhattan, Denver Republican, July 24, 1892.
of reserved seating in response to the growing popularity of the shows and the
added expense of producing light opera, with changes in program each week. This
is perhaps the first indication of the ascendancy of the theatre as a main attraction,
surpassing the balloonists. Each resort enforced a policy of no liquor or beer on the
premises and the right to turn away objectionable characters. Finally, travel to the
resorts required taking two street cars, whereas other venues in town only required
one, resulting in a fall-off of attendance. The resort owners anticipated that the
street car problem to be remedied once the mutual benefit of easing fares became
evident to the car companies.56
The Panic of 1893 and the Beginnings of Summer Stock Theatre
The year 1893 appeared to start well enough. The resorts continued to
present the more costly light operas as they had in 1892, replacing the much less
expensive vaudeville. In 1893, the Elitch Gardens Amusement Company took this
a step further and engaged the Frank Norcross Stock Company, laying plans for the
first full-length season of resident summer stock theatre in Denver, and one of the
first in the nation.57 Acrobatics and bicycle acts replaced balloonists as the major
attraction at Elitchs. When nine Denver banks closed within two days in mid July,
56 Elitch and Manhattan, Denver Republican, July 24, 1892.
57 Levy, 408.
resort attendance dropped sharply, forcing the closure of Elitchs in mid-August.
The syndicate holding the park went into receivership, and on April 14, 1894, Mary
Elitch repurchased her gardens in a sheriffs sale with a deed of trust for $150,000
from undisclosed financial sources. Elitchs returned to less expensive vaudeville
for 1894 and 1895, while Manhattan Beach in turn produced resident stock theatre,
following Elitchs 1893 example.58
In The Lady of the Gardens, Mary Elitch recalled the years from 1894
through 1899 in highly nostalgic fashion. It was a life surrounded by actors and
actresses, flowers and bees, and children and animals, punctuated with the
occasional run-in between human and animal which never resulted in injury. These
were her touchstones in life; cultivation of the arts her contribution to Denver. In
the process she influenced countless lives and garnered praise from as far away as
At Manhattan Beach, the Southern Investment Company, consisting of Dr.
John M. Foster, President, William D. Bethell, Jr., Secretary, and John P.
Edrington, Vice President and general manager, took control of the park and
extended operations through the winters of 1894 and 1895, hoping for additional
revenue from ice skating on the lake. The resort showed a profit for the fiscal years
58 Bell, 194-197; The Summer Resorts, Denver Republican, July 5, 1893; Amusements, Denver
Republican, June 23, 1893; Levy, 50-51; Mrs. John Elitch, Denver Republican, March 11, 1894;
Bought in by Mrs. Elitch, Denver Republican, April 15, 1894.
59 Dier, 48.
ending in September 1895 and 1896 of $13,479 and $6,340, respectively, but a loss
of $5,717 for 1897, and an end to the winter amusement business.60
As the economy recovered, the resorts struggled to find the right
combination of popular live entertainment programs to bring in audiences. The
playbills shifted from vaudeville to touring light opera and finally to resident stock
companies during the last years of the century, indicating progressively greater
investment and confidence in the productions. Elitchs slowly regained its position
as the leader of Denvers summer theatre, producing ten to fifteen weeks of
summer stock theatre followed by two to four weeks of vaudeville and variety for
the summers of 1896 through 1898.61 62 Walter Edwards and Jennie Kennark, leads
at Manhattan Beach for the 1895 season, moved to Elitchs in 1896. The 1896
season also brought the Denver premier of the moving picture. The Vitascope
made its Colorado premiere at Elitchs, with a private showing the night of Friday
August 14, Manhattan Beach hosted the Phantoscope. Both formats were publicly
unveiled at the resorts the weekend of August 15, 1896.
The Elitchs Gardens family-oriented approach was much more than just a
business ploy. Much of the Elitch success stemmed from personal allegiances to
60 Manhattan Beach Ledger September 10, 1894 September 7, 1898, Pickney C. and William D.
Bethel! Collection, 1848-1901, Colorado Historical Society MSS 58, FF 38.
61 Levy, Appendix.
62 Don Bloch, Flickerana for Denver, Westerners Brand Book, Denver Posse, Dabney Otis
Collins, ed. (Denver: The Artcraft Press, 1948), 145.
Mary Elitch herself. After being widowed, she employed her late husbands
partners, Charles Goodyear and Charles Schilling, in various capacities at the
Gardens. Her extended family, and Elitch considered many of her friends as
family, populated American theatre beyond the Gardens. She took special delight in
casting local children in her productions, particularly when they were the offspring
of her theatrical associates. Walter Clarke Bellows, who made a significant impact
on the quality of theatrical productions, became the stock company director in 1899
and remained for eight seasons. His daughter and son both appeared on the Elitch
As the century came to a close, Elitchs appeared to take command of the
northwest Denver resort market. The best talent available appeared on stage, the
landscaping matured, and with each season the theatre garnered greater praise while
Mary Elitch held an unassailable hold on the hearts of Denvers citizens.
Levy, 51 and 54; Dier, 49 and 93.
EXPLOSIVE GROWTH AND COLLAPSE (1900-1915)
The summer of 1900 proved to be another successful year at Elitchs
Gardens. Its high standards in theatrical artistry and morality continued to pay
dividends. New York stars arrived to grace the Gardens stage. The arrival of
leading lady Blanche Bates merited special attention, from the arrival of a
misdirected telegram, to her ten trunks of costumes and gowns, to her performances
culminating with As You Like It. The Shakespearean comedy required the removal
of the rear of the theatre, staging an outdoor scene under the trees and stars, perhaps
the first such implementation of natural stagecraft in the United States.64
That November Mary Elitch married her business manager Thomas Long,
who had been hired in 1899, and became Mary Elitch Long. Denver, and later New
York, drama critic Bums Mantle stood as best man. While Mary Elitch Long
recalled many details of actress May Buckleys wedding at the Long house in 1908
M Getting Word to Mrs. Elitch, Denver Post, July 5, 1900; Dier, 60; Elitch Gardens Company,
Golden Anniversary Souvenir, 1891-1941, unpaged, Colorado Historical Society MSS 1364, FF
she said very little about her own nuptials, a result of her estrangement from her
husband within a few years of her marriage.
Newlywed Mary Elitch Longs reputation and success resulted in acquiring
the proprietorship of the Manhattan Beach theatre for the 1900 and 1901 summer
seasons. Walter Clarke Bellows, long time director at Elitchs and partner with the
Longs in other enterprises, along with several eastern capitalists were rumored in
the press to comprise a new company for this venture, although it was only Longs
name that appeared in the advertisements as lessee.65 In March 1902, Max Mayer
of Fort Worth and Joseph Heilbrun (or Heilbroun) of Kansas City assumed the
lease to Manhattan Beach, looking for, but not finding, success with musical
comedy and vaudeville.66 67 In August 1902 Denver Times critic Eugene W. Taylor
took the Manhattan Company to task, describing many cast members as
incompetent at best. As for expectations, Denver is somewhat peculiar as far as
stock companies are concerned. The city has been educated, through the rivalry of
different resorts, to expect an absolutely higher grade of summer amusement than is
given in any other city any where near the size of Denver in the United States.
65 Buster in Amusements, Denver Times, March 15, 1901; Advertisement, Denver Times, July 28,
66 Big Improvements Planned for Manhattan Beach This Year, Denver Times, March 4, 1902.
67 Eugene W. Taylor, In Denvers Summer Theaters, Denver Times, August 3, 1902.
Taylor recalled the early days of Elitchs as quite bad.68 Although Long had only
limited experience, she was wise enough to employ Bellows, with noticeable
improvement. Elitchs also held a home-town advantage with local ownership and
proprietorship. Denver Post critic Frank W. White commented in 1907 that
Elitchs saving grace [is] that it is not managed from Detroit or from any other
distant point.69 70
The offerings at Manhattan Beach reverted to vaudeville and motion
pictures for the next three seasons as the management regrouped after its poor
showing in 1902. For the 1907,1908 and 1909 seasons Manhattan Beach again
staged musical comedy to better reviews. At Elitchs, meanwhile, the first decade
of the twentieth century proceeded successfully with a new production about every
week between Decoration Day (Memorial Day) and Labor Day, or thirteen to
seventeen productions per summer. International star Sarah Bernhardts highly
anticipated one-day visit to Elitchs Gardens on May 24, 1906, and performance in
two separate productions, Camille for the matinee and La Sorcerie for the evening,
perhaps constituted the most significant event of the summer. During these years a
68 Eugene W. Taylor, In Denvers Summer Theaters. Denver Times, August 3, 1902.
69 Dier, 103.
70 Earle W. Winters, History of the Denver Theatre 1901-1911 with Appended Material 1901-
1915, (Ph.D. diss., University of Denver, August 24, 1957), 207-209.
local girl and future international star, Maude Fealy, proved to be a very popular
During the Elitchs Gardens Theatre formative years, from 1896 through
1915, the management pioneered the form American summer stock theatre would
take in the twentieth-century. Mary Elitch Long and her directors also had the
good fortune to promote and encourage local youngsters in the pursuit of a stage
career. The most memorable names from this period were Douglas Fairbanks and
Antoinette Perry, who both appeared, however briefly, on the Elitch stage. One
forgotten story was that of Maude Fealy, a slippery tale of a meteoric rise, alliances
with world-renowned actors and impresarios, professional acclaim, marriages,
divorces, and finally descent into obscurity. Throughout her ups-and-downs, she
often returned to Denver and renewed her connection with the theatre.
Maude Fealys career was, unexpectedly, already at its pinnacle when in
1903 the judges at an international beauty contest in Paris pronounced her as the
most beautiful woman in the world.72 Only in her early twenties, she was
associated with one of Englands most notable impresarios and about to work with
71 Dier, 97.
72 Actress Maude Hawk Fealy Dies at 90, Denver Post, November 10, 1971.
a second. The world was her stage. Her story began in Memphis, Tennessee,
where she was bom on March 3, 1881. Her parents, Margaret Fealy and James
Hawk, divorced shortly after Maudes birth. Margaret quickly discarded her
former husbands name, reassumed her maiden name for herself and her daughter,
and pursued a living as an actress and teacher of the dramatic arts. As early as the
age of three or four, Maude reputedly made her first appearance on stage with her
mother in a production of Faust and Marguerite.
The Fealys eventually made their way to Denver by the mid-1890s, where
Margaret taught acting and met and married Raffaelo Cavallo, soon to become
Elitchs musical conductor. As the step-daughter of the music master, Maude had
easy access to theatre, where in 1896 she made her Elitch debut in the production of
Lost Paradise Her next appearance on the Elitch stage was as leading lady in
1899 in The Private Secretary, after which she appeared regularly as the featured
star in two to six productions each summer between 1901 and 1909.73 74 75 Returning to
Elitchs for six productions in the summer of 1905, she met and worked with Cecil
73 Maude Fealy Papers, WH1117, Western History Collection, The Denver Public Library; Actress
Maude Hawk Fealy Dies at 90, Denver Post, November 10, 1971.
74 Levy, 413.
75 Levy, Appendix.
B. DeMille, then just another young hopeful. Their friendship and professional
association lasted through the remainder of their lives.76
Between her appearances at Elitchs, Fealy furthered her theatrical
credentials with appearances in New York in Quo Vadis (1900), The Cardinal
(1902), Hearts Courageous (1903), The Man and I (1904), and Divorce (1909).77 78
Her true introduction onto the world stage began when William Gillette, best
known for portraying Sherlock Holmes, selected Fealy as his leading lady for his
companys tour of England in 1901. While she was performing with Gillette in
1903, Sir Henry Irving saw Fealy in London and selected her to play the roles Ellen
Terry had created. Fealy appeared with Irving for two years before his death in
October 1905.79 80
Fealy continued her stage career under the management of John Cort from
1906 through 1911, during which period she married and divorced twice. Between
1911 and 1914, she expanded her career as a silent motion picture star with the
Thanhouser Company in New Rochelle, New York. In between film roles, she
returned to Denver to appear in various venues including Lakeside in 1912 and
76 Actress Maude Hawk Fealy Dies at 90, Denver Post, November 11, 1971.
77 Internet Broadway Database, http://www.ibdb.com (Maude Fealy).
78 Drama at Elitchs, Denver Times, June 23, 1901.
79 Larry Tajiri, Maude Fealy Evokes Magic of Theaters Halcyon Days, Denver Post, May 14,
80 Thanhouser Company, http://www.thanhouser.org/people/fealym.htm (accessed June 2009).
1913, the Denham in 1915, the Orpheum in 1916, and finally back for one summer
as a member of the stock company at Elitchs in 1917. This marked the end of her
most productive years, and Fealys star rapidly dimmed.
During the next several decades she traveled the country, appearing on stage
and teaching acting classes with her mother. She married for a third time, in 1920,
to the son of her former manager John Cort, a marriage that also ended in divorce
in 1923. The groom claimed desertion when Fealy refused to give up her life on
the stage as a chorus girl. In the 1930s she worked with the Federal Theatre
Project in Los Angeles and appeared in small parts in occasional films. She wrote
play scripts that never reached the legitimate stage. Her old friend DeMille gave
her work dubbing and minor roles in his movies during the 1940s and 1950s. She
continued to chase her dream, moving from Denver to Chicago to Los Angeles,
finally retiring to Denver in 1957 after the death of her mother.
During the 1950s and 1960s Fealy developed a series of one-woman shows
in which she portrayed illustrious women of history, from Mary Mother of Jesus to
Mary Elitch Long. In May 1960, the history of the Elitch Gardens Theatre came
full circle when the Gurtler family, owners of Elitch Gardens at the time, requested
that she present The Story of Elitch Gardens to the Allied Arts Club of Denver as 81 82 83
81 Young Cort Gets Divorce, New York Times, June 23, 1923, ProQuest Historical Newspapers.
82 Maude Fealy Papers, Box 1.
83 Actress Maude Hawk Fealy Dies at 90, Denver Post, November 10, 1971.
one of the few knowledgeable, living representatives of the Gardens earliest
years.84 85 86 Her final stage appearance in Denver was in a one-woman performance as
educator Emily Griffith in 1961. She died in 1971 in Woodland Hills, California
and was interred in the Hollywood Memorial Park Cemetery Mausoleum. One last
time DeMille took care of his old Elitch colleague, having made a provision in his
will to pay the expenses for Fealys funeral. Interest in Maude Fealys career
reignited when the renovations for the Lowenstein Theatre (formerly the Bonfils
Memorial Theatre on East Colfax in Denver) in the late 1990s uncovered a trunk of
her belongings, including photographs, letters, newspaper clippings, and scripts.
84 Maude Fealy Papers, FF 15, FF 24.
85 Actress Maude Hawk Fealy Dies at 90, Denver Post, November 10, 1971.
86 Maude Fealys Treasure Chest
(accessed July 2009)
Figure 5 Maude Fealy. (photo courtesy of Western History/Genealogy
Department, Denver Public Library, call number Z-1951)
The career of Douglas Fairbanks was the stuff of Hollywood legend, and it
started at the Elitchs Gardens Theatre. He was bom in Denver on May 23, 1883
and attended East High School. Margaret Fealy, mother of Maude Fealy, took
credit as Fairbanks acting teacher during his youth in Denver. As Fairbanks told
the story, one day when he was twelve years old he learned that Elitchs was to
stage a Shakespeare play, which he desperately wanted to attend. Lacking the
funds to purchase a ticket, he went to the theatres janitor and asked if there was
work he could do in exchange for a seat. Fairbanks first theatrical job was 87
87 Maude Fealy Papers, FF34; Actress Maude Hawk Fealy Dies at 90, Denver Post, November 10,
scrubbing the stage. This is a charming, although apocryphal, story. Elitchs first
Shakespeare production, As You Like It, was not mounted until 1900, many years
after Fairbanks twelfth birthday. He debuted on Broadway in 1902 in the
production of Her Lord and Master and continued his New York stage career
through 1915 before moving on to Hollywood stardom.88 89 In 1906 Fairbanks
returned to the Elitch stage for the summer, this time as an actor, the same summer
that Sarah Bernhardt stopped in Denver for her two performances.90
Antoinette Perry, another Denver native, was bom June 27, 1888. At an
early age she was attracted to the theatre, directing her playmates in attic dramas.
She made her Elitch stage debut on June 12, 1904 in Olympe as the Fifth Actress.91
She appeared in Chicago and New York the next year. In 1906 David Warfield
discovered her, and she remained with his company as leading lady until 1909
when she married Frank Frueauff, Vice President and General Manager of the
Denver Gas and Electric Company and traded her acting career for the life of a
socially-prominent wife.92 Shortly before her marriage, she made one more
appearance at Elitchs in The Music Master, the same play that brought her and
88 Elitch Gardens Company Golden Anniversary Souvenir, 1891-1941, unpaged.
89 Internet Broadway Database, http://www.ibdb.com (Douglas Fairbanks).
90 Levy, 425.
91 Levy, 423.
92Antoinette Peny to Wed, New York Times, July 15, 1909, ProQuest Historical Newspapers.
David Warfield together in 1906.93 Two years after FrueaufPs death in 1924, Perry
returned to the theatre as an actress and director. During World War II she served
as chairman and secretary of the American Theatre Wing, an organization founded
in 1917 to aid in war relief by providing meals and staging shows for soldiers.94
Perhaps her greatest stage success was her last, as the director of the award-winning
Harvey. After her premature death at the age of fifty-eight on June 29, 1946, the
American Theatre Wing developed and named their annual theatrical awards the
Tony Awards in her honor.95
Opening of Lakeside The White City
The Democratic National Convention came to Denver in July of 1908 and
the city laid out the welcome mat. The newly completed Auditorium opened its
doors to the conventioneers and the papers opined on the probable candidacy of
William Jennings Bryan for president. The resorts, not to be left behind, also rolled
out their best offerings. Multitudes of improvements to the Manhattan Beach
grounds included an electric fountain and dancing pavilion extending sixty feet
9J Levy, 429.
94 American Theatre Wing, http://americantheatrewing.org/about/history_of_atw.php (accessed July
95 Antoinette Perry Directed Hit Plays, New York Times, June 29, 1946, ProQuest Historical
over Sloans Lake. Elitchs promised the finest season yet of plays and beautified
A third contender for the amusement dollar made its debut in time for the
Convention; Lakeside, also known as The White City and The Coney Island of
the West. The primary backers of this new park included brewery magnate
Adolph J. Zang (president), Godfrey Schirmer (secretary and treasurer), Peter J.
Estederich (vice president), John A. Keefe, and Albert Lewin (general manager).97 98
If Elitchs Gardens signature feature was its orchards and floral displays, and
Manhattan Beach its bathing beach and steamboat, Lakeside boasted its own lake
enhanced with the brilliance of 140,000 electric bulbs reflected in the waters, and
the sale of alcohol, presumably featuring owner Zangs brew. All three parks
offered a variety of attractions from miniature railroads to midways to ball parks.
Promoters hailed Lakesides many amusements as filling a vacancy for:
an open air playground in keeping with the demands of its cosmopolitan
and thoroughly discriminating population.... large enough for all classes,
but at the same time ... so carefully conducted that the most conservative
pleasure-seeker will find nothing offensive and no undesirable element will
be catered to.99
96 Amusements, Denver Republican, May 24, 1908.
97Lakeside Denvers New Amusement Place to Open Its Numerous Attractions on Saturday,
Denver Republican, May 24, 1908; Robert J. Olson, Lakeside Amusement Park, Historically
Jeffco 3, no. 2 (Winter 1990): 2.
98 Denver Municipal Facts. Vol. II, No. 31 (July 30, 1910).
99 Lakeside Denvers New Amusement Place to Open Its Numerous Attractions on Saturday,
Denver Republican, May 24, 1908.
While incorporated as a wet resort, Lakeside had no wish to offend Elitchs tee-
totaling patrons. Instead, it promoted itself as an alternative recreation and
welcomed responsible drinkers. This model perhaps more accurately represented
Adam Graffs beer garden ideal for the original Sloans Lake Resort as a casual
retreat for the common working man.
The impressive Casino tower, housing a cafe, a rathskeller, a private
ballroom and dining room, and the company offices, greeted the opening day
crowds. Lakeside boasted fifty attractions, a number matched by Manhattan Beach,
including a miniature railroad and depot, bandstand, skating rink, public ballroom,
boathouse, and natatorium or swimming pool, along with numerous midway-type
amusements. With darkness, the lights of the Casino Building and grounds brought
out Lakesides most impressive showing. The opening crowd, estimated at 50,000,
included Mayor Robert Speer of Denver, Mayor John Vivian of Golden, and Mayor
Marvin Adams of the new town of Lakeside. Each of the resorts set gate admission
at ten cents for everyone, a significant decrease from the twenty-five cents for
adults that had prevailed at the older venues since 1891.100
100 Amusement Resorts of City Throw Open Doors to Public, Denver Republican, May 30, 1908;
Opening of Lakeside Drew Thousands to the New White City of the Dazzling Lights, Denver
Republican, May 31, 1908; Advertisements, Denver Republican, June 6, 1908.
Figure 6 Lakeside, The White City circa 1908-1910, Casino Tower,
(photo courtesy of Western History/Genealogy Department, Denver Public
Library, call number MCC-891)
As the summer wore on, the parks escalated their battle for the publics
attention. Elitchs advertising campaign featured its theatre and the Bellows Stock
Company starring May Buckley, and a glad way of amusements. Lakeside
boasted of its free concerts and balloon ascensions. Manhattan Beach highlighted
the Stewart Opera Companys production of The Mikado as well as its amusement
101 Amusements, Denver Republican, May 24, 1908; Advertisements, Denver Republican, May
Reshuffling the Players
The headlines on Sunday morning, December 27, 1908 announced the loss
of the Manhattan Beach theatre and many other structures in an overnight fire that
lighted up the western sky in one great lurid blaze.102 The fragile, flammable,
frame-construction theatre was gone within minutes. The owners, the Southern
Investment Company of Denver and lessees, the Denver Recreation Company of
Detroit, vowed that they would rebuild the resort.103
While Manhattan Beach rebuilt during 1909, Elitchs had a comer on the
summer theatrical market. The larger downtown theatres continued their general
policy of closing for the summer, with the exception of vaudeville bills offered at
the Majestic and Tabor Grand. Lakeside, although not yet in the full theatrical
business, advertised a sensation in illustrated music of Custers Last Fight.104
The Denver Post touted the special days at the Gardens, especially those it
sponsored. The June 6, 1909 edition featured Elitchs in three prominent,
illustrated articles; one describing the opening of the theatrical season; one a
description of additions and improvements made to the grounds; and one a tribute
102 Manhattan Beach Theater in Ruins, Denver Republican, December 27, 1908.
103 Manhattan Beach Theater in Ruins, Denver Republican, December 27, 1908.
104 Elitchs Gardens, More Beautiful Than Ever Will Be Opened Today, Denver Post, June 20,
in verse on the front page of the society section accompanied by a large three-
quarter length photograph of Mary Elitch Long:
Its good to know its summer time,
Out there among the flowers,
That perfume all the comers
Of the Elitch Garden bowers.
Its good to see the picture house
With all its curtains blowing
In winds that fan the flowers
In the window boxes growing,
The shaded lights make soft again
The scene that winter hardens,
And all is lovely where she lives
This Lady of the Gardens.105
The value and recognition Long provided to her Gardens was incalculable.
Dubbed the Lady of the Gardens, by Denver Post drama critic and editorial
writer Frank W. White shortly after being widowed in 1891, she retained this
mystique for the remainder of her life. She was a darling of the press and a
surrogate aunt to countless children. She held honorary memberships in the Denver
Womans Press Club and the Jewish Womans Council, Denver Section. She was
an active member in the Denver Garden Club, the Womans Club of Denver, and
the North Side Womans Club.106 Beginning in 1902, she opened the Gardens
105 Mrs. Mary Elitch Long, Denver Post, June 6, 1909.
106 Dier, 16-22, 32; The Social Year Book, 1899 (Denver, Carson-Harper Co, 1899).
annually for summer outings sponsored by the Ladies Aid Society, then under the
presidency of Catherine Mullen, wife of Denver flour baron John K. Mullen.107 108
Lakeside and Manhattan Beach could not equal the publicity that the Post
provided to Elitchs. In an attempt to cut into the youth market, Lakeside began to
offer free Childrens Days every Monday, modeled on Elitchs successful Tuesday
program, and installed an enclosed kindergarten for the smaller children and
outdoor amusements and a ball ground for the older ones.
Elitchs unchallenged hold on summer theatre only lasted the one summer.
The resurrected Manhattan Beach became Luna Park under President and General
Manager Albert Lewin, formerly the general manager at Lakeside, Carl Lindquist,
and Peter Hansen. The Luna Park owners stoked local anticipation for the
upcoming summer season with the launch of a new steamboat, the Frolic, on
April 17, 1910 before a crowd of 14,000. All three northwest parks opened the
weekend of May 28, 1910, each equipped with a theatre. Lakesides Casino
Theater, seating 2,400 people, featured light opera and musical comedy. Luna
Parks new venue, much smaller than the incinerated Manhattan Beach structure,
seated about 800 people and featured vaudeville rather than light opera. Elitchs
107 William J. Convery III, Pride of the Rockies, The Life of Colorado's Premier Irish Patron, John
Kernan Mullen (Boulder: University Press of Colorado, 2000), 245.
108 Lakeside Presents Full Line of Attractions, Denver Post, June 6, 1909.
accommodated about 1,500 patrons and presented a program of plays and comedies
with its resident stock company.
Elitchs responded to the enhanced amusements at Lakeside and Luna Park
with its own water-bourn presentation of the battle between the Monitor and the
Merrimac on a separate stage 300 feet long, 100 feet deep and 76 feet high, using
innovative stage effects and real ships, real guns, and the rattle of actual battle.109 110
Redesigned and renamed The Sinking of the Titanic in 1914 for the recent
tragedy at sea, this attraction accidentally burned to the ground that August.111 The
capital investment in the Titanic may have accelerated Elitchs decline into
bankruptcy and subsequent reorganization in 1916.
Beginning in 1913, attendance at all the resorts was slipping through
neglect and competition. Cavallos symphony relocated to any one of several
venues around town, from Lakeside to the Broadway Theater. Luna Parks
attractions declined to second- and third-rate vaudeville until, by 1914 the park
faded away altogether.112
109 Winters, 210; Fine Little Theater for the New Amusement Resort at the Beach, Denver
Republican, May 1, 1910; Elitch Gardens Theatre Company 1888-1988, Theater seating chart,
Colorado Historical Society MSS 1364, FF 828.
110 Theatricals, Denver Republican, May 15, 1910.
111 Elitchs to Celebrate Silver Jubilee, City of Denver, May 23, 1914; Louisa Ward Arps, Denver
in Slices (Athens, OH: Swallow Press, 1959; reprint 1983), 221.
112 Denver Ranks Among the First as a Theater Center, City of Denver, May 23, 1914;
Advertisements, Denver Post, July 2, 1915; Winters, 210.
The motion picture industry posed a serious threat to the theatre market. As
of the July 4th weekend of 1915, Denver Post critic Frank W. White (known by his
initials, F.W.W. signed at the end of his column) cast doubt on the viability of the
summer stock season at the resorts. Gloomy weather and a surplus of attractions
downtown had kept attendance low. Elitchs especially felt the pinch, where the
director, John Harley, vowed to keep his cast together even at his own expense, in
the end losing $1,083.113 White championed Long as one who has provided high-
class entertainment for a quarter of a century and has been a blessing in a joyous
way to thousands of young men and women..., but had fallen under the selfish
desires of poor advisors and faced the twin menaces of the automobile and the
motion pictures. At the end of his column White spurred the public to action:
Being sorry is nothing. A pair of paid seats at the play is much more to the
Denver leaders anticipated a poor season. White reported that in May
several prominent businessmen, including Will McPhee, John Morey, James
Burger, Charles Willcox, and John K. Mullen, each put up $500 or more to keep
the Gardens operating for the 1915 season.115 This financial patchwork held
together until mid- or late-August. After director Harleys departure, the continued
113 Frank W. White, Denver Post, July 4, 1915 and August 8, 1915.
114 Frank W. White, Denver Post, July 11, 1915.
115 Frank W. White, Denver Post, July 25, 1915.
hopes of salvaging the season lay on the shoulders of twenty-four-year-old actress
Edith Taliaferro, noted for her 1913 success in New York in Rebecca of
Sunnybrook Farm.116 This was to no avail. As of the weekend of August 22
Elitchs the Amusements for the Week column in the Post no longer listed
Elitchs. Meanwhile, Lakeside and the new Denham Theatre in downtown Denver
continued with their seasons.
At the end of the 1915 season, both Lakeside and Elitchs had experienced a
difficult summer. Arnold Gurtler recalled the condition of Elitchs Gardens at the
time as a sad affair, rundown with a rickety wooden fence, a few carbon-type
lights, the money having been spent by Long in traveling rather than maintaining
the Gardens.117 Poor local weather and the automobile resulted in low attendance
at both resorts, although Elitchs came out worse than Lakeside, whose backers
continued to pump money into attractions. The Denver Post forecast a dire future
for Elitchs, and indeed, on September 30, 1915 the Elitch-Long Gardens Company
filed for bankruptcy. Levy attributed the decline of Elitchs to several factors: an
increase in the number of summer theatres in Denver by 1912; rising costs, rising
ticket prices and declining attendance; the increased use of the automobile; and
116 Miracle Man Works Wonders at Elitchs, Denver Times, August 9, 1915.
117 Maijorie Barrett, Fond Memories of Elitch Gardens, Rocky Mountain News, March 31, 1968.
finally the growing popularity of inexpensive motion pictures. In 1915,
cinematic offerings expanded beyond the nickelodeon and one-reel short silent
pictures. D.W. Griffiths Birth of a Nation, a multi-reeled epic not only produced
race riots in the major cities where it was screened, but also opened the possibilities
of extended story lines.118 119
These latter two factors impacted more than just the theatre and amusement
parks as a fundamental shift in spending patterns and leisure time activities moved
further away from the urban core. The purchase of an automobile, put into reach
with Fords assembly line process, permitted independent and easy access to the
Rocky Mountains for day trips. Eight-page Sunday newspaper sections devoted
exclusively to the automobile competed in size with sports coverage in the amount
of newsprint by 1913. A Denver Tramway Company survey conducted in
September 1915 found that fifty-one percent of commuters rode Tramway cars,
thirty-eight percent were pedestrians, thirteen percent used automobiles, and the
remainder used motorcycles, bicycles, or horse conveyance. This translated to an
increase in automobility by fifty percent and decrease in streetcar ridership of nine
118 Summer Season Ends, Cool Weather Makes Attendance the Lowest in History of Houses,
Denver Post, September 5, 1915; Elitch Gardens Hit Rocks of Bankruptcy, Colorado Transcript,
September 30, 1915; Levy, 67-68.
119 LeRoy Ashby, With Amusement for All, A History of American Popular Culture Since 1830
(Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2006), 189.
percent over the previous year. The City of Denver bought the first of its
mountain park properties at Genesee Park in 1913.120 121 No longer content to climb
aboard crowded and stifling tram cars, only to gaze upon the distant mountains,
Denverites could get there on their own.
If the public wished to remain in town, entertainment could be had at the
local motion picture house. From the introduction of the first moving picture
houses in 1906, the number of cinemas had increased to sixty as of 1914.122 Seats
at the movies could be had for ten cents. A matinee at Elitchs or the Tabor Grand
could cost as much as twenty-five cents. Elitchs could no longer rely for its
success on the general good will that the Lady of the Gardens engendered in her
guests. It required new thinking and organization to survive and thrive in the
increasingly competitive amusement market. With the declaration of bankruptcy,
new ownership provided the shot in the arm necessary to see the Gardens into the
next phase of existence while maintaining the depth of public regard for the park
garnered during its first quarter century.
120 Robertson, 224.
121 Stephen J. Leonard and Thomas J. Noel, Denver: Mining Camp to Metropolis (Niwot, CO:
University Press of Colorado, 1990), 262.
122 Denver Ranks Among the First as a Theater Center, City of Denver, February 28, 1914.
REVERSALS OF FORTUNE (1916-1929)
Reorganization at Elitch Gardens and Lakeside
In 1916, the United States faced armed conflicts on its southern border in
Mexico and across the sea in Europe. United States involvement with the Mexican
Expedition of 1916 to 1917, and World War I from 1917 to 1918 influenced the
choice of productions and theatre attendance. Colorado went dry January 1, 1916,
four years before the Volstead Act became national law, and remained so until
December 5, 1933 with the ratification of the Twenty-first Amendment.
Prohibition removed the sale of liquor as one of the significant differences between
Elitchs and Lakeside.
The sequence of events between September 1915 and May 1916, when
ownership transferred out of the Elitch hands is now obscured by the passage of
time and contradictory stories. Saving the Gardens became a popular cause, with
the rescue of the fair Mary Elitch Long as the centerpiece. By this time the Longs
had separated, a situation that Frances Wayne of the Post described:
That Mrs. Long has now reached the up-hill climb of her days, with
no staff on which to lean, is no fault of her own. Like many another,
wiser and shrewder, she became the companion of misfortune thru
too much faith in people and too little co-operation on the part of the
When not accusing Mayor Speer of graft and malfeasance in the run-up to the 1916
election, the Post indulged in its alternate persona, that of social benefactor, and
connected itself with the cause to save Long from penury. While working publicly
to support Mrs. Long, a consortium of unnamed businessmen were concerned that
Bonfils wanted to acquire the property and use it for the winter quarters of the Sell-
Floto Circus, his Post partner Harry Tammens hobby business.124 125 126 At the time, the
circus winter quarters were located a few blocks to the east at West Twenty-sixth
Avenue and Hazel Court. Long remembered that in the early days, Tammen
wanted some lions and, after a fruitless search on the east coast was directed to the
lady zookeeper of Denver for the finest lions in captivity. She did not sell her lions
Despite this small setback, the Bonfils and Tammen families would remain
closely associated with the Gardens for decades. Longs friend Winifred Black
married Fred Bonfils youngest brother Charles in 1901. Black, a journalist,
became well known under her nom de plume of Annie Laurie in William Randolph
l23Mary Elitch Long Testimonial to be Popular Gift of Denver, Denver Post, April 9, 1916.
124 Hunt, 10.
125 Dier, 44-45.
126 Gene Fowler, Timber Line: A Story of Bonfils and Tammen (Garden City, NY: Garden City
Books, 1951), 121.
Hearsts San Francisco Examiner}21 In 1936 Elitch Gardens owners Arnold and
Marie Gurtler hosted the wedding of Bonfils daughter, Helen, to Elitch director
George Somnes. In 1963 Helen Bonfils would come to the rescue of the theatre
at the request of the Gurtler family, keeping it from certain closure. Further
binding the Gardens and Post families together, the 1940s Post's society editor,
Harriet Louise Johnson, married Arnold Gurtlers son, John.127 128 129 This intertwined
business and family relationship manifested in the Post, more than any other
Denver newspaper, consistently covering and praising the Gardens for most of the
The benefit for the Lady of the Gardens, held at the Auditorium on May 8,
1916 featured the Cathedral Grand Opera Company, Cavallos orchestra, acts from
the Orpheum, the Empress, and the Denham, and Gladys Moore dancers.
Supporters ranged from Denver firemen to the high society names such as the
Crawford Hills, the Henry Blackmers, the Bonfils, and the Tammens. The benefit
reportedly netted $5,250, enough to furnish Long with $50 a month for twelve
127 Jan Whitt, Women in American Journalism, A New History (Urbana: University of Illinois Press,
128 Anne New, Whats New in Society, Rocky Mountain News, September 22, 1936.
129 Hunt, 15; Former Post Society Editor Gurtler Dies at 81, Denver Post, March 8, 2000.
years. Godfrey Schirmer, president of the German American Trust Company and
former director at Lakeside, acted as Director of Finances.130
By the time of the benefit, however, the Gardens already had a new owner.
Oscar L. Malo, the only bidder, purchased the property on April 16, 1916 for
$26,911, representing the mortgage, interest, taxes and court costs.131 132 In a 1952
interview with Edwin Levy, Malo revealed that his father-in-law, John K. Mullen,
had financed the purchase as a silent partner. Mullens reported interest was only
to assure that Long would remain in her house and be financially secure for the
remainder of her life. When Mullen in turn sold the property to John Mulvihill two
months later for $35,000, he stipulated that she be allowed to maintain her home,
that the resort would pay all utilities for the bungalow, and that Long would receive
$50 per month for the rest of her life, coincidentally the same stipend proposed
with the funds raised in the benefit. As for what happened to the benefit money,
and how it related to the Mullen stipend remained a mystery.
Mullens discrete action to salvage Elitch Gardens and provide Long with
security in her twilight years was but one of the many philanthropic projects that
characterized his life. John Keman Mullen rose from impoverished Irish
130 Frances Wayne, Mary Elitch Long Testimonial is Tribute to Woman of Ideals, Denver Post,
April 24, 1916; Frances Wayne, Arrangements are Complete for Mrs. Longs Benefit Monday,
Denver Post, May 5, 1916; Frank W. White, Benefit Performance Nets Mrs. Long $5,250, Denver
Post, June 11, 1916.
131 Elitchs Gardens Sold for $26,911, Denver Post, April 18, 1916.
132 Levy, 71-72.
immigrant to flour baron of the west, and practiced a robust form of benevolence as
the obligation of a successful businessman to return his good fortune to the
community.133 Mullen directed his philanthropy to those he considered the
deserving poor including widows, orphans, and those of high moral character. At
the time of his death in 1929 he had donated over $2.4 million in sums ranging
from $5 in Christmas gifts to $750,000 to the Catholic University building fund.134
Denvers Catholic community counted both Mary Elitch Long and Mullen as
members, and both expressed wide and unstinting generosity during their lifetimes.
They were also bound together by their friendship with Father William ORyan of
St. Leo the Greater at West Colfax Avenue and Tenth Street in the Auraria
neighborhood, Mullens home parish and one of his favorite causes.135 Father
ORyan, like Long and Mullen, believed in the inclusive spirit of giving and, with
representatives of the Protestant and Jewish faiths, was one of the founders of the
Denver Charity Organization Society in 1887.136 Although the Gardens were
geographically located within the parish of the Holy Family in the Berkeley
neighborhood, Father ORyans philosophy attracted Long personally. He
133 Convery, 3.
134 Convery, 87.
135 Convery, 90.
136 Thomas J. Noel, Colorado Catholicism and the Archdiocese of Denver 1857-1989 (Niwot:
University Press of Colorado, 1989), 104.
officiated at her wedding to Thomas Long in 1902, and gave her last rites in
As to the connection between Mullen and John Mulvihill, Arnold Gurtler,
recalled that a mutual friend, Jimmy McSwigan, brought Mullen together with
Mulvihill. McSwigan managed Mullens flour mill and knew Mulvihill from his
days in Pennsylvania.138 139 Mayor Speer may also have encouraged the selection of
his friend Mulvihill for the position. Unfortunately, Diers biography shed no
light on the subject, just as it remained silent on the earlier loss of the Gardens.
Long intentionally avoided the subject, stating that [njothing is gained by recalling
troubles that are past, even if they do help make history.140 Taken together, these
anecdotes testified to the protective sense that Mary Elitch Long engendered in the
hearts of her fellow citizens. Rather than be thrown into the street or onto a
relatives doorstep, Denvers leading citizens saw to it that she had a roof over her
head and a little money in her pocket for a genteel retirement on the land that she so
loved. As for Thomas Long, he became manager of the Crump greenhouses in
137 Dier, 64; Frances Wayne, Mary E. Long of Elitch Fame Dies in Denver, Denver Post, July 17,
138 Marjorie Barrett, Fond Memories of Elitch Gardens, Rocky Mountain News, March 31,1968.
139 Hull, 57.
140 Dier, unpaged authors note.
Colorado Springs. He died in an automobile accident in 1920. His passenger, Mrs.
Frank L. Crump, survived.141
Mulvihill continued to look after Long and replaced her old frame cottage
with a larger brick house where she lived until her health declined in 1932. During
the years of her retirement, she kept two boxes at the theatre where she would
entertain guests. These boxes, on the north side orchestra level, were seldom used
after the 1930s.142 Long moved directly across the street from the Gardens to the
home of Elitchs treasurer George L. Roberts, at 4567 West Thirty-eighth Avenue,
where she died July 16, 1936. Her survivors included Minnie Mansfield Atchinson
of Illinois, John Elitchs niece and the little girl who resided with the Elitches in
1880 San Francisco, and Marys sister Anna (Houck) Schilling of Los Angeles.143
After settlement of the property and providing Long with a roof and stipend,
Mulvihill turned his attention to the rapidly approaching summer season and the
fate of the theatre. Critic Frank White was optimistic in May 1916 when he
reported that both Lakeside and Elitch Garden would have summer theatrical
seasons. Elitchs management negotiated with the Denham Theaters manager,
141 Thomas D. Long Dies in Auto Accident on Highway Near Springs, Denver Post, September
142 Hunt, 15.
143 According to Edwin Levy, Roberts daughter was the wife of Edward Houck, Mary Elitch
Longs brother. After Houcks death she remarried Wil Arnold (Levy, 33); Frances Wayne, Mary
E. Long of Elitch Fame Dies in Denver, Denver Post, July 17, 1936.
O.D. Woodward, to assume control of the Elitch Theatre with Mrs. Long as
chaperon.144 However, a few days later White reported that the arrangements at
Elitchs were not firmed up. Under the foreclosure arrangements Long was
allowed, by law, nine months of occupancy of the premises and also control of the
property. Woodward reportedly made a deal with Mullen to purchase the Gardens
(this apparently was before Mulvihill was brought in), but he could not gain
possession until the nine-month period had expired, long after the end of the 1916
season. Woodward then proposed that if Long would allow immediate possession,
he would pay her $1,200 per year for five years. Long did not respond to the offer
by the deadline of May 20, at which time Woodward withdrew the offer. In
Whites estimation, Longs inability to make a decision that appeared to offer her
great advantage was at the very least regrettable for the theatre-going public and a
blemish on her public appeal: Sentiment goes a long way, but it can be stretched
until it breaks.145 Consequently, the theatre remained dark for the 1916 season,
although the park itself was open for general amusements and picnics.
For the 1917 season Mulvihill leased the theatre to Joseph Glass of Texas,
with Woodward as director, to disappointing results. Despite the return of the
popular Maude Fealy to lead the cast, the season failed financially. While the rest
144 Denver Stock to Have Elitchs This Summer If Deal Goes Thru, Denver Post, May 18, 1916.
l45Mrs. Long Holding Up Proposal of Woodward for the Gardens, Denver Post, May 21, 1916.
of the amusement park opened each spring, the theatre remained closed for the
1918 and 1919 seasons as Mulvihill considered his options including converting the
building into a dance hall, ice arena, or an empty lot.146 In retrospect, this action
may have ultimately saved the theatre. By avoiding the significant capital
investment of a stock company, including travel, housing, cast salaries, and staging,
and instead concentrating on relatively low-capital attractions such as baseball
games and the pleasing mature landscaping, Mulvihill sidestepped potentially
losing the grounds for good during the post-war recession.
With Elitchs Theatre dark, Lakeside potentially had a comer on the 1916
resort theatrical market. Lakeside prepared to feature musical comedy under the
management of Leonel Rose OBryan, better known as the Denver Post reporter
Polly Pry, and the direction of Ira Hards, formerly of Elitchs.147 Polly Prys
Metropolitan Musical Comedy Company, an ambitious project with forty-six
members, opened on June 11 for an anticipated twelve-week season.148 The
companys tenure abruptly ended three weeks later, when it relocated to the
Broadway Theater and renamed as Ira Hards Great Musical Comedy Company.
The Post downplayed the reasons for the abrupt departure citing the publics
146 Frank E. White, The Comeback of Elitchs is Tommys Hope, Denver Post, August 22, 1920.
147 Denver Stock to Have Elitchs This Summer If Deal Goes Thru, Denver Post, May 18, 1916.
148 Polly Prys New Lakeside Musical Comedy Company Photographed Upon Their Arrival in
Denver Yesterday, Denver Post, June 5, 1916.
demand for downtown music.149 However, surviving correspondence indicated
that even before the rise of the first curtain, suppliers were very cautious when
dealing with Lakeside, requiring payment in cash up front for goods and citing a
record of unsuccessful seasons at this theatre. Overly ambitious theatrical neophyte
OBryan sabotaged the venture from the start. Transportation costs alone mounted
to over $3,400 one way from New York. Cast salaries, even at a modest $100 per
week per person on average, amounted to $4,600 per week, not including
stagehands, artists, director, advertising, housing, and other costs associated with
mounting a production. A handwritten statement from June 25 noted that Sunday
cash receipts totaled $195.30.150 If this was indicative of the attendance and
receipts, the theatre was badly hemorrhaging money, necessitating cancelling the
Metropolitan Musical Comedy Company.
Lakeside attempted to bring in another company, advertising the Sanford
Dodge Dramatic Players, a production that either did not open or closed quickly.
Lakeside again attempted to mount theatrical productions for the 1917 season with
the Lakeside Musical Comedy Company. Although several productions made it to
the stage, this effort ultimately proved unsuccessful, as the Lakeside management
149 Lakeside Company Moves Into Town to Finish Season, Denver Post, July 3, 1916;
Advertisement, Denver Post, July 9, 1916.
150 Quote from the CB&QRR, undated, and Sunday Cash Receipts June 25, 1916, Leonel Ross
Anthony OBryan (Polly Pry) Papers, WH280, Western History Collection, The Denver Public
Library, Box 1, FF 33.
renovated the Casino Theatre into a cabaret for the 1918 season, bringing the era of
stock theatre to an end at the Coney Island of the West.151 152
The Colorado Realty and Amusement Company, the corporate owner of
Lakeside park and railroad since 1913, also faced financial crises and Hibernia
Bank and Trust foreclosed on the property at the end of the 1917 summer season.
The new Denver Park and Amusement Company acquired the holdings for
$100,000 appointing Philip Friederich, son of vice-president Peter Friederich of the
Lakeside Realty and Amusement Company (owners of Lakeside from inception in
1907 until 1913) as manager. Philip Friederich was also a board member of the
Colorado Realty and Amusement Company, replacing his father who died in 1911.
Philip eventually became president of the company in 1932.
As Elitch Gardens opened for their twenty-seventh season, the new manager
evaluated his new business. John Mulvihill, the son of Irish immigrants, bom in
Pennsylvania, was thirty-three years old when he arrived in Denver in 1902 as one
of thousands in search of a cure for lung trouble. He had worked as a teacher, then
as a clerk in the steel industry and at a penitentiary in Pennsylvania. After his
arrival he found employment as a clerk with Denver Gas and Electric to support his
small family, consisting of wife Katherine and daughter Marie. For the first four
151 Advertisement, Denver Post, July 9, 1916; Robert Coutney, Season of Musical Comedies Now
is Assured at Lakeside, Denver Post May 6, 1917; Denver Theaters All Prepare For Summer
Season Opening, Denver Post, May 26, 1918.
152 Olson, 7.
years of his tenure at the Elitch Gardens he maintained his position at Denver Gas
and Electric while learning a new business line, amusements and theatre.
Since the days of River Front Park Denver audiences had never tired of
naval extravaganzas. Lakeside mounted the spectacle, The Battle of Santiago,
for the summer of 1916, influenced by the conflicts in Europe and Mexico. The
daily newspapers tracked progress on the fronts, and featured preparations on the
home front. A picnic at Lakeside for the Colorado National Guard received front
page coverage in the Denver Post,* 154 Conversely, the playhouses were unusually
quiet, attributed in part to the troubled Mexican situation.155 Frank W. White
also reported one commentator telling him that Denver does not seem to have a
mind for amusement and attractions, above Billy Sunday and the movies.156
Summer theatre attendance did not improve until after the end of the war.
The years from 1917 through 1919 were difficult for the theatre and
amusements industry, much less a bankrupt enterprise like Elitch Gardens.
Although the United States did not officially enter the Great War until April 1917,
the economic restrictions and psychological pressures imposed in preparing for war
m Levy, 214-215.
154 Troop As Picnic at Lakeside Ends With Order to March to Rifle Range and Possible War,
Denver Post, J une 11, 1916.
155 Playhouses, Denver Post, July 2, 1916.
156 Frank W. White, Denver Post, June 20, 1916.
permeated the American consciousness. Frank E. White, son of Frank W. White,
noted the continued loss of the theatres at the resorts during the summer of 1918,
with only one stock company (that of the Denham) offering safe standard fare. Just
a few years earlier the demand for quality entertainment kept three stock companies
employed.157 In the place of theatre, the Empress and the Orpheum offered
vaudeville. Moving pictures featured the likes of Charlie Chaplin and Douglas
Fairbanks at the Ogden, the American, and numerous other venues around town.
Elitch Gardens Theatre Reopens
From its modest beginnings in 1890, through bankruptcies, sales and re-
sales, threats of demolition, and against the odds, the little theatre in the orchard
survived into its third decade. It outlived its competitors at Manhattan Beach and
Lakeside through the generosity of anonymous benefactors and a great deal of luck.
Luck in that when it did close intermittently between 1916 and 1919, the countrys
preoccupation with war and recession possibly could have meant a more permanent
end to the theatre resulting from a deeper financial drain on the park. In retrospect,
Mary Elitch Longs loss of the Gardens and the reorganization of the company may
have resulted in their ultimate survival. With the 1920 summer season Mulvihill
gained sufficient confidence, and funds, to once again open the playhouse and
157 Frank E. White, Amusements, Denver Post, June 9, 1918.
resign his position at Denver Gas and Electric Company to devote himself fully to
the future of the Gardens.
According to Edwin Levy, Mary Elitch Long suggested that Mulvihill go to
New York for material and players. Mulvihill selected director Rollo Lloyd to take
the helm in resurrecting the Elitch Gardens Theatre. Lloyd had full control of
casting the actors and selecting the plays for the crucial 1920 season. Lloyd, with
Mulvihills concurrence, selected a variety of plays to assess the type of
productions that would appeal to Denver audiences. The roster generally leaned
toward more popular comedy and romance, rather than riskier dramatic
productions. Of the eight productions, one was a Shakespeare comedy, Twelfth
Night, and one, Coming Home, a world premiere authored by local playwright Lute
H. Johnson. The remainder generally consisted of recent New York productions
from the 1917 and 1918 seasons. Critic White reported that, despite the Denver
Tramway Strike in August 1920, the season was a financial success and ended the
dry spell of war-time summer theatre.158 159
Over the next four seasons under Lloyds direction, theatre in the Gardens
continued to improve and once again assume a pre-eminent place in Denver
summer attractions. Perhaps learning a lesson from the transit strike and the rise in
158 Levy, 219-220.
159 Levy, 439; Frank E. White, The Comeback of Elitchs is Tommys Hope, Denver Post, August
automobility in Denver, Mulvihill cleared land for a parking lot to the west of the
park, in the area formerly occupied by zoo enclosures. Admission to the park was
ten cents, and parking free of charge, while the post-strike tram fare was eight
cents.160 Theatre tickets ranged from fifty cents ($5.28 in 2009 dollars) to $1.00
($10.56 in 2009 dollars), including gate admission and the war tax.161 162 In 1921
Elitchs also launched a weekly in-house publication, The Elitch Gardener,
featuring the theatre and the players. The cafe, orchestra, dance school,
concessions, and gardens also received coverage in the magazine.
In the theatre and the park, Mulvihill sought to maintain the Elitch policy of
high moral conduct, both with the selection of the plays and in the park grounds.
The children continued to come first, a legacy of Mary Elitch Longs influence. To
this end, he retained a playground expert, Bertha L. Palmer, to study and apply
advances in playground science to the Gardens, a social construct that Long
informally pioneered some three decades earlier with her Childrens Day. The
Tuesday Childrens Day, a fixture of the summer calendar, expanded to include
free dance classes at the Trocadero for the junior set, later formalized as the Elitch
School for Ballet. The Elitch School of the Theatre operated for two seasons, in
160 Advertisement, Denver Post, June 6, 1920; Owen Gutfreund, 20th Century Sprawl: Highways
and the Reshaping of the American Landscape (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004), 73.
161 Advertisement, Denver Post, August 15, 1920.
162 Playground Expert Will Make Elitchs Kiddies Paradise, Denver Post, May 9, 1920.
1926 and 1927, but closed because the students appeared to be more interested in
watching than doing according to director Melville Burke.163 Lakeside,
meanwhile, also continued its policy of Childrens Day, now offered on Thursdays,
supplemented with dance classes.164
With the closure of the theatre, the types of live entertainment offered at
Lakeside changed every few years. The new Fountain Room at the Casino replaced
the cabaret for the 1920 season with the Emmet Vogans 1920 Musical Revue
performing two shows nightly, and boasting of the best, high-class metropolitan
entertainment.165 By the mid-1920s even the cabaret had disappeared and
Lakesides live entertainment bill consisted of its orchestra and dancing in the El
During the 1920s, the only local legitimate theatre that competed with
Elitchs was the Denham, at 1810 California Street in downtown Denver.
According to Levy, the Denham did not present serious competition. Elitchs had
first choice of stock plays, resulting from its reputation for dependability in
advertising and delivering quality productions, a nationally renowned cast, and the
added attraction of the gardens themselves for the price of general admission.
Elitch salaries were also generous as compared with standard Equity salaries of $50
163 Levy, 232.
164 Advertisement, Denver Post, June 13, 1920.
165 Advertisement, Denver Post, June 6, 1920.
to $400 per week ($617 to $4,939 in 2009 dollars). In 1928 salaries for the Elitch
stock company cast ranged from $75 for the junior cast members up to $500 ($926
to $6,174 in 2009 dollars) per week for the leading man and woman, Fredric March
and Isobel Elsom.166 In 1927 the New York Times recognized Elitchs reputation as
a national institution under the directorship of Rollo Lloyd although Lloyd had
departed after the 1924 season.167
Figure 7 Elitch Gardens Theatre, 1923. (photo courtesy of Western
History/Genealogy Department, Denver Public Library, call number X-
166 Levy, 225 and 230; Arnold Gurtler Cast Book, Colorado Historical Society MSS 2148, Box 6.
167 William Streett, Times Have Changed, New York Times, April 3, 1927, ProQuest Historic
The Klan Comes to Play (1924-1925)
The Ku Klux Klan made a relatively brief, but socially significant
appearance in 1920s Denver. The Klans stranglehold on the political control of
the city and state ran from 1923, when Klan-backed Ben Stapleton won the
mayoral race, to 1927 when William Adams replaced klansman Clarence Morley as
governor. At the height of their power, the elections of 1924 gave klansmen the
governors office, a senate seat, the mayors office, state legislative seats and
judicial positions in Colorado.168
Although the city of Denver, with a population of 256,000, was
overwhelmingly white and Protestant, a diverse range of ethnic groups made their
homes in the city. Catholics comprised nearly fifteen percent of the population,
including the owners of Elitch Gardens. Blacks constituted just over two percent
and Jews less than seven percent of the population. According to historian Robert
A. Goldberg, the neighborhood of North Denver-Berkeley contained one of the
highest concentrations of Klan residences in the city in the 1920s.169
Although Roman Catholics could not necessarily be identified by sight,
unlike blacks or Asians, they could be identified by other methods, such as
monitoring church attendance or simply through neighborhood knowledge. Jack
168 Leonard and Noel, 198-200.
169 Robert A. Goldberg, Beneath the Hood and Robe: A Socioeconomic Analysis of Ku Klux Klan
Membership in Denver, Colorado, 1921-1925, The Western Historical Quarterly 11, no. 2 (April
Gurtler recalled that in his youth, the Klan threatened the Mulvihill-Gurtler home at
3814 Newton in the Berkeley neighborhood. Mulvihill got word that a cross was
going to be burned on the front yard. The family bluffed the Klan, making it
appear that they were not at home by hiding in the basement, thereby avoiding a
cross burning. The family remained relatively unscathed during this period,
however Gurtler did blame the Klan for blocking Mulvihills election to the school
A profile of patronage at Lakeside and Elitchs during this period may be
partially developed through examination of the roster of the various clubs, schools,
and organizations that held picnics in the parks. Generally these were announced
through the newspapers. Fraternal organizations, such as the Brotherhood of
Railway Trainmen, the American Legion, the Improved Order of Red Men, and the
Ancient Order of Hibernians, tended to hold their functions at Lakeside.171
In general, Elitchs tended to host society, womens and childrens groups,
as well as a range of religious organizations. The Colorado P.T.A., high school
graduations, the Womens Christian Temperance Union, Colorado Pioneers, and
the Mothers Congress, were among the groups that picnicked annually at the
Gardens. Benefit or special performances were held at the theatre for, among
170 Hunt, 10.
171 Picnic Parties to Fill Lakeside Program Thru June and Remainder of Season, Rocky Mountain
News, June 15, 1924.
others, the Denver Community Players, the Knights of Columbus for Regis
College, Merchants Festival Association, the Beth Joseph Synagogue, the Home
Garden Club, the Notre Dame Alumni, the Spiritualist Church of the New Era, and
the May Company department store. The Mulvihills donated the grounds annually
beginning in 1923 to the Holy Family parish for its annual gala at the Gardens.
During the off-season, Holy Family thespians held performances in the theatre.172
The Kiwanis Club held one lunch per week for the theatre company, a tradition that
continued through at least the early 1960s. Levy characterized the general Elitch
audience as having an unusually high cultural level based on the types of plays
presented at the Gardens during the 1920s and the attendance by visitors from the
East Coast.173 Photographic evidence indicates that the Elitch stock company casts,
orchestra members, and patrons were white, which could include Protestant,
Catholic, and Jewish populations. In the theatre, even when a part called for a
colored servant girl, as in the production of The First Year, a white cast member
was made up for the part rather than integrating the cast even for this minor
instance.174 Integration appeared to still be impossible nearly twenty years later,
when Helen Bonfils, playing one of her favorite characters a darky maid
172 Noel, Colorado Catholicism, 323.
173 Levy, 278-284.
174 Evelyn Valentine, Heard in Theater Lobbies, Denver Post, August 3, 1924.
donned dark face in 1940 for the production of No Time for Comedy.115 This
author did not locate evidence of overt discrimination; however covert
discouragement for black, Asian, and probably Hispanic, attendance at these parks
was well within the realm of probability. White patrons could not rub elbows with
blacks on the rides, in the cafes, and certainly not in the theatres.
Racism was not dead at Lakeside, which held a contest in August 1924 and
awarding prizes to the three contestants with best black face makeup.175 176 Prior to
the 1924 season the Casino Balcony Room dining area was converted into the
Plantation, a replica of a southern plantation complete with cabin row and a painted
view of cotton fields. The room featured southern-style dinners where service and
cooking will be done by colored experts.... Neatly dressed pickaninnies will pass
among the guests with constantly fresh supplies... [and] colored entertainers will
sing southern songs.177
With this type of setting readily available, the Ku Klux Klan selected
Lakeside for its First Annual State Picnic on June 27, 1925. The Denver Post
estimated attendance at the Klan picnic at 15,000 to 30,000, with some estimates
running as high as 100,000, including Grand Dragon Dr. John Galen Locke,
175 A. deBemardi, Jr., First Nighters Cheer Elitchs Opening Play, Denver Post, June 24, 1940.
176 Eagles Will Enjoy Outing at Lakeside Today Under Auspices of Denver Aerie, Rocky
Mountain News, August 10, 1924.
177 Lakeside Opens More New Attractions, Rocky Mountain News, June 1, 1924.
recently released from jail for tax evasion. Locke resigned as Grand Dragon a few
weeks later and formed the Minute Men of America. At the time of the picnic,
Denvers Klan membership totaled about 16,727 knights.178 The crowds were so
thick at the picnic by evening that free movement was impossible and passageways
needed to be roped off. The day culminated with a fireworks display featuring a
burning K.K.K. and a fiery cross. By comparison, the Colorado Pioneers picnic
held that same day at Elitchs was a much more modest affair, with a mere
handful of eligible members, yet the Post allocated four times as many column
inches to the Pioneers as to the Klan, underlining the relative legitimacy of the
gatherings, at least in the papers eyes.179
During that summer the Rocky Mountain News and the Denver Post, caught
up in the periods newspaper war, made coverage of Lakeside and Elitchs a
partisan issue. According to journalist Bill Hosokawa, in the mid 1920s the Post's
circulation was 161,000 for the daily and 240,000 for the Sunday editions, while
the News staggered along a distant second at 30,000 copies for the daily morning
paper. Bonfils brought pressure to bear on merchants to advertise only in the Post,
in subtle yet unmistakable ways; dropping hints that advertising in rival papers
would jeopardize their Post advertising or result in the wifes name vanishing from
178 Leonard and Noel, 200; Goldberg, 185.
179 Big Crowd Attends First Picnic of Klan, and Colorado Pioneers Celebrate at Picnic at Elitchs
Gardens, Denver Post, June 28, 1925.
the society pages.180 181 This author was unable to ascertain whether the parks
instigated this split by pulling advertising or by the newspapers themselves during
this period of social division.
The Mulvihill and Bonfils families maintained a number of ties, as
previously discussed, including that of religion. Although Bonfils himself was not
a professed Catholic until his death, his wife and daughters were devout members
of the Church. The Post continued to favor Elitchs in coverage, and Elitchs in
turn kept its advertising with the Post. The Post covered not only the Sunday pre-
opening of each weekly change of play at Elitchs, but also provided a review in the
Monday edition. Columnists Evelyn Valentine and Betty Craig provided additional
free promotion of the Elitchs theatre, heavily peppering their columns with tidbits
on the day-to-day doings of the Elitch cast. Elitchs feted theatre owners and
managers from Wyoming, Colorado, and New Mexico at a gala for Warner
Brothers studio executives in early August, demonstrating the ever shorter
connection between the Elitch summer theatre and the moving pictures.
Lakeside was nowhere to be found on the Post's pages.
Meanwhile, the Rocky Mountain News started the season with a barely
lukewarm announcement of the upcoming opening of the Elitch Gardens Theatre:
180 Bill Hosokawa, Thunder in the Rockies, The Incredible Denver Post (New York: William
Morrow & Co., Inc., 1976), 127.
181 Evelyn Valentine, Heard in Theater Lobbies, Denver Post, August 3, 1924.
One hopes that they [the company] will be passably interesting and the play
refreshing.182 183 At this time, the News' weekly amusements page typically featured
photographs of cast members in various plays around town. Each week during the
summer, photographs of the Lakeside attractions graced the amusements page of
the News. Coverage of Elitchs disappeared altogether by mid-June for the
remainder of the summer. Things were patched up by 1925, however, and both
papers once again covered both parks.
The End of the Roaring Twenties
In the spring of 1929, Mulvihill had gained sufficient confidence in the
business of theatre to expand his interests. He was now president and general
manager of the McCourt Amusement and Improvement Company with an interest
in the Broadway Theater, taking over for Peter McCourt who died in early April.
According to the Denver Post, Mulvihill suffered a significant financial loss in the
Broadway venture and in a concert series in the summer of 1928.184
The 1929 summer season at Elitchs held the hopes for the continuation of
legitimate theatre and music in the city, as the Denham and the Broadway were on
182 Elitchs to Open Theater June 15, Rocky Mountain News, May 18, 1924.
183 A. deBemardi, Jr., Denvers Reputation is Staked on Concerts to be Given This Summer,
Denver Post, May 19, 1929.
184 Kline, 32; A. deBemardi, Jr. Denvers Reputation is Staked on Concerts to be Given This
Summer, Denver Post, May 19, 1929.
the verge of closure and renovation into movie houses. The newspapers no longer
categorized Elitchs and Lakeside as resorts in the same vein as the mountain
destinations such as Eldorado Springs, but instead were called amusement parks.
Despite this nomenclative decline in status, Elitch Gardens appeared to be on its
way to a record-setting season. Before the theatre opened in early June, the
Trocadero Ballroom featured George Hall and his orchestra. They had just left
New York, where they were broadcast over the NBC radio system, and were
continuing on to California where they were engaged to record for motion pictures.
Mulvihill made arrangements for the orchestra to broadcast locally on KOA
radio.185 People came from out-of-state just to hear Halls orchestra. Music and
theatre defined summer high culture offerings in Denver, and provided stepping
stones to aspiring musicians and thespians to vaunted careers in the new talkies
in California and the New York clubs and stage. Elitchs ascendance under
Mulvihills managerial skill seemed assured. Despite the advent of talkies and
radio eroding the audience base in the late 1920s, sufficient numbers of loyal and
enthusiastic Denverites continued to support legitimate theatre to stave off closure.
Then Mulvihill died after a short illness on January 14, 1930. The New
York Times lauded Mulvihills efforts to maintain a music consciousness in Denver,
and called the Elitch theatre the oldest outdoor playhouse in the country with one
185 Elitch Gardens Setting New Attendance Records, Denver Post, May 19, 1929.
of the best stock companies, a testament to the man who saved the ailing, broken
company from an almost certain death.186
186 John M. Mulvihill, Theatre Man, Dead, New York Times, January 15, 1930, ProQuest Historic
CARDBOARD BELTS AND STRAW HATS (1930-1940)
New Economy, New Theatres, New Management
Mulvihills untimely death left his son-in-law, Arnold B. Gurtler, as
president and manager of the Gardens. Gurtler inherited a very different enterprise
from the one Mulvihill purchased in 1916. In addition to replacing the old Elitch
cottage with a two-story brick house in 1921, Mulvihill improved the park
amenities with the construction of the Skyrocket roller coaster (1922, refurbished
as the Wildcat in 1936) and the Dodgem Rink (1925). He expanded the existing
Trocadero dancing pavilion (1925) and the Old Mill venue (1928, built on the site
of The Sinking of the Titanic), and replaced the old carousel (1928).
Improvements to the theatre as of 1930 included expansion of the backstage,
changes to the roof line and entrance configuration, and enclosure of the second
floor gallery. The first floor gallery had been enclosed by 1904.
Financially, the Elitch Gardens Company recorded assets of $548,562 as of
August 1930, including $146.66 in bears, indicating that a small remnant of Mary 187
187 Building permits, Denver Public Library Western History/Genealogy Department, 1921-1930;
Sanborn Company Insurance Maps of Denver, Colorado, 1929-1930, Vol. 4, plate 549, Denver
Public Library Western History Collection.
Elitch Longs menagerie still existed. During Gurtlers first summer as president
the Gardens showed an earned profit of $48,604.188 This strong financial base
would see the Gardens through the difficult years of the Depression.
Figure 8 The Elitch Gardens Amusement Park, 1930. (Sanborn Fire
Insurance Map, 1930, Denver, Colorado, Volume 7, plate 708).
Like Mulvihill and Long, Gurtler also came into the theatre business
without formal training or background in the theatrical arts, but he had nearly
188 Financial Statement, Elitch Gardens Company, as of August 31, 1930, Colorado Historical
Society MSS 2148, Box 8.
fifteen years experience with the Gardens in various capacities. Gurtler, bom in
Leadville, Colorado, on January 17, 1896, was the youngest of Mary and Robert
Gurtlers nine children. His father died when he was very young, and his mother
moved her family to Denver when Arnold was ten years old. Having completed his
formal schooling, he obtained a position at the Denver Dry Goods Company in the
display department at the age of sixteen. A few years later he married Marie
Mulvihill after a brief courtship that began in 1916 with a meeting at a church
social. The young couple moved in with the Mulvihill family, quickly adding
sons John Jack on September 19, 1917 and Arnold Budd on February 22, 1919.
Gurtler worked at the Gardens during weekends fixing fences while maintaining his
employment at the Denver Dry Goods Company. In 1923, Mulvihill convinced
Gurtler to leave the Denver Dry Goods to become manager of the Trocadero
Ballroom, then promoting him to secretary of the Gardens in 1927.
Gurtlers first task as President was to retain a director and company for the
rapidly approaching summer theatrical season. He selected veteran Broadway
director John Hayden when Melville Burke became unavailable. The cast was also
new to Denver, consisting of experienced performers with proven advertising 189 190
189 Mrs. Gurtler, Pioneer Denver Woman, is Dead, Denver Post, December 30, 1935; Elitchs
Chairman Dies at Age of 74, Rocky Mountain News, February 21,1970.
190 Levy, 319-320; Hunt, 15.
value.191 In the trying decade ahead, this emphasis on name recognition for the
cast was one of several crucial factors for the continued success of the Elitch
Gardens Theatre. In his study of Denver theatre, Hebron Charles Kline found that
by the beginning of the Depression legitimate theatre had declined to just a few
houses; the Broadway, the Denham (converted to a movie house in 1932), the
Auditorium, the Baker Federal Theater (at 1447 Lawrence Street as the Federal
Theater 1935-1936, then the Baker Theater 1937-1939), Elitch Gardens, and the
Central City Opera (opened 1932), with sporadic productions in other venues. The
old theatres including the Tabor Grand Opera House and the Orpheum had been
converted to motion picture houses or demolished by 1929.
The citys location, remote from both Californias film studios and the East
Coasts stages, combined with the paucity of other local venues made the trip less
economical for touring stock companies than remaining within the confined circuit
in the northeast. Klines summary of each season during the Depression painted a
progressively bleak picture of dark houses and small audiences, bottoming out in
1934. From 1930 through 1936, the productions around town throughout the
year ranged from a few days to two or three weeks, with most houses shuttered for
more than nine months a year. During the summers, the only legitimate theatrical
competition to Elitchs was the Central City Opera, which only had a short (one- to
two-week) production season during this period. In 1937, dramatic theatre made a
brief, cautious expansion with the opening of the Baker Federal Theater, a product
of the Works Progress Administration, for a thirteen-play, thirty-four-week season.
Seven touring companies appeared in Denver. Elitchs had a twelve-week season
and the Central City Opera had a three-week season, the longest yet since
reopening in 1932.193 Throughout the decade, only Elitch Gardens maintained a
regular theatrical season of ten to twelve weeks each summer.
But with work being difficult to find for actors in the early months of the
Depression, Hayden and Gurtler still managed to interview some two hundred
applicants to fill the eight to eleven openings for each season. John Hayden
remained as director for three summers, staging eleven to thirteen shows per season
of mostly recent comedies. Addison Pitt took over directorial duties for the 1933
through 1935 seasons. As the Depression wore on, salaries declined steadily until
the summers of 1933 and 1934, when lead actors received as little as $250 per
week compared with $500 per week in 1929. Director salaries declined from $250
per week during Haydens tenure to $100 per week during Pitts summers at
Elitchs. Compensation for other cast members and extras similarly declined.194
193 Kline, 232-233.
194 Arnold Gurtler Cast Book.
The Gurtlers reduced admission to the theatre in 1933 to twenty-five to seventy-
five cents for the evening performances, on par with the movie houses admission of
twenty-five cents. In 1930, tickets cost fifty cents to $1.25 for evening
performances. By comparison, the Baker Federal Theater charged twenty-five to
forty cents around 1937.195 In 1933, twenty-five cents ($4.08 in 2009 dollars)
could buy a pound of steak, butter, or cheese, or two-and-a-half quarts of fresh
milk.196 197 By 1939 prices were recovering, with prices returning to those of 1930.
The market share of leisure revenue taken by the movie houses cannot be
underestimated. In 1934 Denver contained no less than twenty-six film houses
showing first-run and return-engagement pictures. The old converted theatres of
the Denham and the Tabor offered combination programs of a stage show and
The Straw Hat Season
By 1937 the New York press recognized Elitchs national reputation as an
historic summer playhouse. Time magazine called it the great-grand-father of all
195 Levy, 326; Elitchs Will Present Gay Comedy as Opening Play, Denver Post, June 18, 1933;
Leonard and Noel, 215.
196 Tolbert R. Ingram, ed., Year Book of the State of Colorado 1933-1934 (Denver: The Bradford-
Robinson Ptg Co, n.d.), 417.
197Lets Go to a Show! Denver Post, June 3, 1934; Advertisement, Denver Post, June 16, 1939.