Denver’s original Elitch Gardens was one of those classic Victorian amusement parks, built on an old farm in the outskirts of the city. The parks were often built at the end of a trolley line and served as a wonderful Sunday getaway for city dwellers. During my high school years, I worked there in the summers.
Elitch started out as a botanical garden and zoo with picnic pavilions, but before long the zoo disappeared and the park added a miniature train, a carousel, restaurants, a wooden roller coaster and a baseball field where semi-pro teams played. There were two special attractions. The theater was claimed by Elitch to be the oldest and longest continuously operating summer stock theater in America. The Trocadero Ballroom was a huge art deco venue with open arcades to catch the breezes, a large bandstand, and tables all around for refreshments.
The theater was a relic of the Victorian Age, made with clapboard painted pea green, edged with white boards and topped with a cupola. There was a passageway to the entrance that was lined with photos of all of the luminaries who had played there, including Sarah Bernhardt, John Barrymore, Gloria Swanson, Myrna Loy, and many others, famous and not so. All of the pictures were inscribed to the owner of Elitch along with the kind of sappy notes that are always attached to that kind of image lined up on the walls of restaurants and commercial establishments..
The Trocadero seemed elegant with recessed lights and hanging baskets of flowers in the arcades. I am sure that it was a potential fire trap like so many of the other ballrooms across the country. In the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s it was the place to go for young people looking for a relaxed evening. All of the famous bands came through for a one- or two-week stand. There was Benny Goodman, Les Brown and the Band of Renown, and the Dorsey Brothers, Tommy and Jimmy. But by far, the most popular band was Lawrence Welk. He could really pack in the crowds.
For a time I worked at the Hamburger Stand, exactly what it sounds like, in the middle of the park and next to the carousel. The management was very proud of the fact that the soda fountain was the original from 1890, and so was the cooktop. The workers were not as happy with the ancient cooking gear as the owners. I was a busboy who then got promoted to working the order window and finally put behind the grill as the short-order cook. It was an interesting job and gave me an interesting perspective on customers and serving the public.
At the Trocadero, I worked as a busboy except when I ran the Lemonade Stand at the theater. The Lemonade Stand was a little Victorian pagoda where we sold orange juice and lemonade made from very large cans of frozen concentrate that we thawed and diluted. Limeade was freshly made, and it was very popular. Each day in preparation for the theater crowd, I would line up squadrons of paper cups in hotel pans, cut limes in half and squeeze one lime into each paper cup. I wore out at least one metal squeezer, but my wrists got very strong. Each cup got a maraschino cherry and two squirts of simple syrup from the antique soda fountain. Then the prepared cups were put in the walk-in cooler until I hauled them to the lemonade stand to await the theater crowds and for final assembly.
When theater intermission came, the audience would rush out, and I would make them limeades as quickly as I could by adding ice and seltzer to the prepared paper cups. My efforts were never fast enough for the impatient crowds who worried that they might miss the curtain. There was a Wednesday matinée, and the crowd changed. The audience was almost all women who had enjoyed a fancy luncheon before the show. They were anxious to get their limeades at intermission. The ladies all wore gloves and hats. I often wondered how you can see the play when you are sitting behind a lady with a hat? One of the great unsolved mysteries of my lifetime.
When I was reading about the history of Elitch, and especially the theater, I learned that Robert Redford was listed as a cast member in 1955. That was the heyday of my lemonade stand days. I imagine that Robert Redford was busy inside learning and practicing how to be rich and famous. I was outside, making fresh limeade for ladies with gloves. Redford and I never met.
- 1 cup sugar
- 1 cup water
- Combine the sugar and water in a small saucepan. Do not worry if there is undissolved sugar.
- Over high heat, bring the mixture to a boil and boil for 5 minutes, stirring occasionally. .
- Remove from the heat. Cool. Transfer to a clean glass jar with a tight lid. Refrigerate any unused syrup.
Elitch Gardens Limeade
- 1 large Persian lime (Key limes won’t work)
- 1 maraschino cherry
- 1 ounce (equivalent to 2 squirts from the soda fountain dispenser) simple syrup
- club soda
- Soften the lime by rolling it with the palm of your hand on a hard surface. Cut it in half. With a lime squeezer, squeeze the juice into a 12-ounce glass, and add the rinds to the juice.
- Add the maraschino cherry and the simple syrup.
- Pack the glass with crushed ice or ice cubes
- Fill the glass with club soda. Stir to mix, and serve. Makes one drink.