Saturday, January 28, 2023 -
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Lakeside marks 100th anniversary

Lake RhodaAt Lakeside Amusement Park, an alternate universe on Denver’s northwest border, evening beckons like a clown’s painted grin.

Delighted screams rip a hole in the overcast sky as rides rock and roll. “I’m a peacock! I’m a peacock!” a little girl exclaims, her arms flying full tilt.

Cotton candy melts on fingers. Ice cream cones drip. Mothers watch their children. Pervasive organ music rivals the roar.

Over at the Cyclone roller coaster, rhythmic shouts of terror and joy accompany each steep climb and sharp plunge.

Nearby, the 1908 Merry Go Round, with four rows of horses, rabbits, gazelles and assorted mythical animals, circles slow and easy.

“Look at the faces,” says Lakeside owner Rhoda Krasner, her light black jacket ruffling in the breeze as she surveys the animated scene.

“There’s still the excitement, the fun. But there’s also a certain serenity. I find — or maybe I’m reading something into this — that the smiles get bigger later in the day.”

When people first arrive at Lakeside, Krasner says they are driven and goal-oriented, intent on working in every ride and experience.

“And then they realize all of a sudden that they’ve gotten the rides in — and they relax,” she says. “They walk around and look at different things; take time to eat an ice cream cone and sit on a bench.”

She points to a family enjoying the stillness of the moment. “Like them.”

Lakeside, now celebrating its 100th year, was purchased by Rhoda’s father Ben Krasner and his partners in the mid-1930s.

The rippling Lake Rhoda, which the miniature diesel train traces languidly, was named after the petite gray-haired who strolls the grounds with a crackling phone.

“My father was not a young man when I was born,” Krasner says softly. “He was so happy to have a little girl. So he named what was Lakeside Lake — and before that, Sylvan Lake — Lake Rhoda. And I was so embarrassed by it! But it’s really sweet.”

Memories of Lakeside are often connected to specific stages in life: playing at Kiddie Land, venturing on the Cyclone, falling in love, picnics with the family, growing old.

For Krasner, Lakeside transcends time. “I’ve always been here,” she says. “My aunt and uncle [Martin and Jennie Ruttner] had an apartment over what is now the College Inn and I spent a lot of time with them, especially during the summer.

“I can’t remember a time when I haven’t been here.”

Most people don’t recognize Krasner, a ubiquitous presence at Lakeside who maintains a very low profile.

But when they do, they usually thank her.

“A few years ago at the close of the season, we were closing down,” she recalls. “I noticed a few people standing in line for the train, even though the staff had already given the signal to close. And I said, run it one more time.”

Shortly after the train completed its last turn around the lake, a lady caught up with Krasner.

“She said, ‘I want to thank you so much, because we always come to Lakeside as a family on Labor Day. My father is dying of cancer. He’s here with us tonight, but we all know this will be his last time on the train. And we almost missed it.’”

As twilight settles, Krasner is bathed in twinkling park lights.

“Even today, with computers and text messaging, I think we are making good, if not better, memories,” she says.

When Lakeside opened on Memorial Day, 1908, it was billed as the “White City” and the “Coney Island of the West.”

The Tower of Jewels, modeled after the Beaux Art style popularized at the 1893 Chicago exposition, served as the amusement park’s original main entrance.

“Most people came in under the tower, which was pedestrian entrance,” says Krasner. “Cars were not that prevalent back then. Streetcar No. 5 parked right in front.”

A stately Yellow Brick Road glittering toward the clouds, the Tower of Jewels still stops hearts and breaths.

In 1908, women carried umbrellas instead of cell phones. Long skirts, not shorts, were de rigueur. Although men and woman had clearly delineated roles, Krasner says that social decorum did not preclude having a good time.

“We have archival photographs of ladies wearing long dresses and hats trying out the rides,” she notes. “And they were enjoying themselves.
“Lakeside was truly a great treat in 1908 — the grandest adventure one could have.”

Today, Lakeside is a confluence of architectural moods spanning the 20th century. This conscious stylistic eclecticism — from Beaux Art to art deco to contemporary — has made Lakeside unique among amusement parks.

Tourists flock here from all over the planet. Prestigious magazines such as the Smithsonian regularly send reporters and photographers. Amusement park enthusiasts post digital images on the Internet.

Ben Krasner hired Denver architect Richard Crowder to transform Lakeside into an art deco paradise shortly after he took over running the park.

The cylindrical-shaped ride entrances and concession stands, with their impeccable design and use of colorful neon, are attributable to Crowther’s genius.
Since then, Lakeside has stuck by its motto of using the latest technology to update its rides without sacrificing architectural integrity.

“When we put in a new ride,” says Rhoda Krasner, “we use the most contemporary building materials. We want everything absolutely state-of-the art. But we make every attempt to maintain rides that have come to us in different periods. Although the mechanisms are new, the exterior is same. The neon, the art deco, these are very much a part of us.

“We’re not vintage,” she says. “We’re different vintages.”

Krasner introduces one of Lakewood’s newest rides, the 140-foot drop tower situated in visual proximity of the Tower of Jewels.

A lover of thrills who regularly rides the Cyclone (which never makes her scream, only giggle), Krasner has not yet tried the drop tower.

“I think some people are terrified of the tower,” Krasner says. “But you’ve got to watch them. It’s a show in itself!”

And so it is.

Passengers rushing to grab 16 available slots are securely strapped into their seats. They ascend slowly, steadily, up the tower.

But the seats are covered by a solid roof. Riders can’t tell how close they are to the top. Without warning, passengers suddenly “drop” at a dizzying, heart-pounding rate.

Legs kicking happily on the way up freeze as they plummet down. There is no time for screaming, only a sickening slap of adrenaline. Then, as the passengers’ seats suddenly pause a few feet from the bottom, a collective shriek shakes the air.

Instead of fleeing when the gate opens, people generally stagger to the back of the line and wait for another turn.

Krasner agrees that Lakeside is a bit like the Broadway theater, where no two live performances are alike.

“There’s always a new wrinkle,” she laughs. “We stress to our staff that there needs to be a great amount of flexibility. You never know what the weather is going to bring, or the crowd is going to bring. It always requires — a little bit of imagination.”

The ZoomOn summer evenings in the ’20s, ’30s, ’40s and ’50s, live music wafted over Lakeside from El Patio, a ballroom patterned after a famous Chicago nightspot. Six nights a week, performers like Tommy Dorsey, Stan Kenton, Woody Herman and Kay Kyser entertained thousands.

El Patio, which evolved under various names, closed as the Riviera in the 1970s. The building, boarded up yet unmistakable, whispers virtually unnoticed near the Wild Chipmunk roller coaster.

At Lakeside, the past and future continually merge — inherently, and intentionally.

Remember Laughing Sally, the fleshy, life-sized mannequin who terrorized countless Denver children from 1941 until 1986?

Well, get ready. Laughing Sal is making a comeback.

“You bet,” Krasner grins. “She’s having a complete makeover. We’re waiting for a woman to make her a vintage costume, and then we’ll bring her out of the nursing home.”

Formerly located at the entrance to the Funhouse, which was torn down and replaced by the Dragon, Laughing Sally achieved spooky urban-legend status long before her demise.

Krasner is resurrecting the cackling lady due to constant public inquiries.

“So many people have been asking about her, especially now,” she says. “Our 100th anniversary has focused a lot of attention on the past. A few years back we would take Laughing Sally out now and then, and parents would come by and say, ‘Oh, I remember her, she used to scare me’ –– or, ‘I loved her.’ It was one of the two.

“Little kids listened to their folks talking about Sally and said, ‘What’s with them and this Laughing Sally?’ Of course now there’s Big Bird and all these others characters in the media.

“But Sally is just part of our history.”

The glass case that will house the refurbished Sally has already been erected above a platform close to the original Funhouse.

With typical coyness, Krasner won’t announce the exact date of her return. “You’ll just have to wait and see,” she smiles.

Krasner is well aware that competing forces in today’s amusement park industry threaten to engulf Lakeside. Theme parks dotted throughout the US are PR savvy, boast bigger and faster rides, sprawl for miles, and charge a hefty gate fee.

“We’re all here to entertain,” she says as night envelops Lakeside, “but our philosophies differ. Some of these parks are massive destination parks.”

Lakeside also merits the destination park designation “because people come here from all over,” she points out.

“But we also hope to be exceedingly user-friendly. By that I mean that people can enjoy a treat in the middle of the week; come home from work on a hot summer day and just spontaneously decide to come here –– without making plans or budgeting for a large financial expenditure.

“If you want to ride the train or the roller coaster or the Dragon, have an ice cream cone and get home in time for the 10 p.m. news, you can do that here.”

As brilliant lights transform the park into a rotating plate of experiential enticements, Krasner greets uniformed staffers and inhales the cool wind rising off Lake Rhoda.

It’s been 48 years — a veritable lifetime — since she assumed Lakeside’s leadership.

What about the future?

“That’s a good question,” she says, “a valid question that remains to be seen,” Krasner says, an air of mystery wrapping her words. “It’s all hypothetical at this point.”

The CycloneWill Lakeside stay in the Krasner family?

Possibly, her silent nod indicates. Quite possibly.

“If not, there are a lot of options,” Krasner elucidates. “It might thrive under another operator who is not part of our family. Or it may perpetuate in my family. But I think Lakeside will be here in another 100 years. This particular piece of geography was meant to entertain people. It’s unique to our metro area.

“Now, I’m not a clairvoyant,” she clarifies. “I can’t see the future. But I would hope that Lakeside is here. I definitely think it is this city’s greatest gift. The natural setting is exquisite.”

Around 9:30 p.m., Krasner must return to her office.

“It’s a captivating industry,” she says with neon-colored eyes. “At least it has captivated me.”

Then she smiles and disappears into the crowd.

Lakeside closes at 11 p.m. About a half hour earlier, people instinctively begin exiting the park. Tomorrow is a workday, at least for some.

A young man in charge of a ball toss booth claps his hands, trying to attract some last minute interest.

Teens still line up in front of the Cyclone. They won’t quit until the ride’s entrance is shut solid.

Over at Kiddie Land, empty horses pose motionless under blue, pink and red lights.

Families and couples stroll out of Lakeside with subdued voices.

On tired faces, memories shine.

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IJN Senior Writer |

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