An Art Deco masterpiece struggles to survive
Just outside Denver a small family-run amusement park is clanging and sparkling its way through its eightyfourth season. It shares the raffish, plaintive charm of its counterparts across the country, but there is a good deal more to Lakeside. The little park is a superb collection of Art Deco architecture, as striking in its way as the muchheralded Moderne district in Miami Beach.
Lakeside didn’t start out that way. It began by billing itself, like many amusement parks of the era, as the White City. Its owner and promoter was Adolph Zang, a prosperous Denver brewer; on opening day—May 30, 1908—a public still awed by lavish displays of electricity turned out fifty thousand strong to cheer as Denver’s mayor pressed a button in his downtown office and illuminated the park’s hundred thousand bulbs. As the lights blazed on, Zang’s daughter Gertrude smashed a bottle of champagne against Lakeside’s showpiece, the 150-foot Tower of Jewels.
Taller than any building in Denver at the time, the tower welcomed patrons to what its promoters called a “Rocky Mountain Fairyland, filled with wonders that had never been seen out West.” There were forty-one things to do: rides with names like Dip the Dips and Shoot the Chutes, and miniature trains circling the lake pulled by two steam engines built for the 1904 world’s fair, Puffing Billy and Whistling Tom.
The Denver press exulted: “Lakeside is the place! All promises were kept. The scenic railroad stretches like a serpent, walks are graveled, fountains are playing.” Lakeside was an immediate success and prospered on into the 1920s. But the 1930s found the park in trouble; not only had the Depression come but patrons were beginning to find the operation old-fashioned. The Lakeside Amusement Company looked for a new owner and came up with one in its own back yard
Ben Krasner, a Russian immigrant, grew up in Binghamton, New York, early in the century and then moved on to Denver. In 1917 he set up shop in Lakeside as a concessionaire, and by the late 1930s his family and friends back East had done well enough to put up the cash for the park.
The new owner’s first order of business was renovation. He added new rides—the Octopus, the Loop-0-Plane, the Hurricane- and replaced the serpentine Derby coaster with the Cyclone. But more important than any single attraction was his revamping the whole look of the park. To move Lakeside from the Edwardian to the streamlined age, Krasner hired a young West Coast architect named Richard Crowther who was fresh from helping design the pastel spires of San Francisco’s Golden Gate International Exposition. “I had come to Denver from California,” says Crowther, who is still practicing architecture in his eighties. “Out there I could do anything I wanted. Denver was much more traditional, but Mr. Krasner wanted the park to be modern. I always felt Mr. Krasner himself was very conservative, but he understood the amusement business and realized the park needed a new look. Some things, however, he didn’t want touched. I wanted to do something with the tower, but he wouldn’t let me. Said it was too much of a landmark.”
Nevertheless, Crowther had a free enough hand to turn out a remarkably uniform and pleasins sroup of Hieh Deco buildings. Using neon as his predecessors had used incandescent bulbs, he created sinuous signs and etched his buildings with the rainbow-hued tubes. In front of each ride he set a new ticket booth that might have jumped off the cover of Amazing Stories —delightful buildings, as sleek and stylized as the Bakelite radios of the era, and not so very much larger.
The new look helped business; so did the Second World War, which brought thousands of young men and women to Denver’s military facilities and turned them loose on weekends with money in their pockets. After the war a few new rides came in from Europe, but the basic transformation that Crowther had worked remained remarkably intact.
Ben Krasner died in 1965, and four years later his daughter, Rhoda, became general manager. Only a few years out of college, she found herself facing myriad problems and details. “You had a young daughter and her mother,” she recalls, “who were very conscientious about running the merry-go-round, but were pretty naive. But we learned.”
Still, running an amusement park is no easy job. Rhoda Krasner mentions the Tumble Bug. “That was a grand old ride. It had a moderate degree of thrill and was the kind of ride where the grandparents and their seven-year-old grandchild could both enjoy it. It was old, and the insurance company asked, ‘How’s the center shaft?’ It was built so sturdily that we had to dynamite the concrete to get the center shaft out, and when we pulled it, it was fine. But we had destroyed the ride.”
Out where the public doesn’t go, the sharpfinned Buck Rogers cars of the Rocket Ship lie in the grass. The ride suffered the same fate as the Tumble Bug. “Once again, the shaft was fine. But once you take a ride down, it never goes up again.”
Rhoda Krasner’s ties to the park run deep. “As a youngster I worked at whatever needed to be done. I sacked peanuts in a room behind the popcorn stand and helped with the games.” She remembers her father as a man “fascinated by watching people enjoying themselves- especially children. When I went looking for him in the park, I always found him on a bench near Kiddieland.”
Today times are nearly as tough as when Ben Krasner took over. In the early 1900s there were more than two thousand amusement parks In America. Now there are fewer than four hundred, only seventy of them family-owned traditional parks. And although Lakeside is a wonderfully complete vision of late 1930s luxe, it may appear archaic to an audience accustomed to the big theme parks.
Nevertheless, Rhoda Krasner is working to keep her park open. “My family has logged an awful lot of years here. We want to promote the past with the new. But we can’t let it get to a point where it’s just a dream. The park has to operate as a contemporary business, and we have to keep it entertainine.”
She continues. “We work with many organizations that hold their company picnics at the park. The people who make those decisions learned to swim here, met their wives in the ballroom. They have very personal attachments. But these people are nearing retirement age. We can only hope that our visitors today will have their first roller-coaster ride on the Cyclone or their first train ride on the miniature railroad. We have to continue those attachments.”
The ghosts of eighty-four summers ride the Cyclone, the Satellite, the Rock-O-Plane. Puffing Billy and Whistling Tom still head up the trains that circle Lake Rhoda—Ben Krasner renamed it when his daughter was born —and the lights of the Tower of Jewels shimmer, reflected in the placid water. And the verve and confidence of Richard Crowther’s Deco buildings have a power to charm that increases with every passing season.