Celebrity Sports Center, 1960–1994

Celebrity Sports Center

Celebrity Sports Center, looking north on Colorado Boulevard

B50 Note: Everything you ever wanted to know about Celebrity Sports Center. No, really. This article was originally published in Colorado Heritage magazine in Autumn 2007. Reprinted with permission of the Author. Images courtesy of celebrity.bt76.com

Spares and Splashes: Walt Disney’s Celebrity Sports Center

— by David Forsyth

Once, when speaking about the entertainment empire he had built, Walt Disney said, “I only hope that we never lose sight of one thing—that it was all started by a mouse.” Over the forty years that Disney oversaw his creations, they expanded from simple cartoons to enormously popular movies and theme parks. Although his enterprises were huge successes, Disney never let that success slow him down because, as he said once, “I can never stand still. I must explore and experiment.” That desire for exploration, with the financial backing of the mouse, brought Disney to Colorado on several occasions, and it led him to launch one of his company’s major experiments in Denver.

The Celebrity Sign at Night

The Celebrity Sign at Night

By the late 1950s the Denver area was one of the fastest growing in the United States, and something both new and old residents needed was entertainment. There were plenty of options. For those seeking fast rides and other thrills there were Lakeside Amusement Park and the old Elitch Gardens. Those more interested in sports had swimming, golf, the Denver Bears baseball team, and college sports teams, among many other choices. But the one problem plaguing these forms of entertainment was that, to varying extents, foul weather could hamper one’s enjoyment of them.

When Lakeside opened in 1908, the Denver Republican praised the summer resort as a welcome addition to Denver’s recreation needs. Nature, the Republican wrote on May 24, 1908, had done a good job of supplying Denver with winter amusements, but the city had never had “an open air playground in keeping with the demands of its cosmopolitan and thoroughly discriminating population.” By 1959 the exact opposite attitude seemed true—Denver was sorely in need of amusement options for the winter, or at least options that were impervious to bad weather. In late 1959 a group of investors joined forces on a project that could offer hours of amusement regardless of the weather while also improving the lives of the area’s young people—a priority for one of the investors.

On November 15, 1959, The Denver Post announced that a “huge play center” was in the works for southeast Denver. According to the Post, the center was to include an eighty-lane bowling alley, a massive indoor swimming pool, restaurants, a lounge, and a health salon. The center would be owned and operated by Celebrity Bowling, Inc., a recently formed corporation based in Los Angeles.

While none of these activities were especially original, what was unique about the future Celebrity Sports Center was its ownership. The facility took its name from the fact that it was owned by a number of Hollywood celebrities, among them Jack Benny, George Burns and Gracie Allen, Burl Ives, Bing Crosby, Spike Jones, Art Linkletter, and John Payne. And there was one other major investor, whom visitors sometimes encountered at the site once construction got under way—Walt Disney.

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According to Walt Disney’s daughter Diane Disney Miller, it was her father’s lawyer, Lloyd Wright, Sr., who first approached him with the idea for the bowling alley project. Disney did not seek out investments like Celebrity on his own because, according to his daughter, he was “wholly concerned with his own projects.” But for Wright’s sake, he decided to invest in the new venture. In addition to attracting other famous investors to it, Disney brought nearly his entire family in on the deal. He convinced his daughter Diane and her husband, Ron, his brother Roy O., and his nephew Roy E. and his wife all to put money into Celebrity.

A Celebrity Matchbook

A Celebrity Matchbook

After the investors organized Celebrity Bowling in Los Angeles, they started hunting for a suitable location for the new business. After several months of research they decided to build their new sports center in the Denver area, eventually settling on seven acres of land in Glendale at Kentucky and Colorado Boulevard. They leased the land from owners Leonard and Dorothy Peavy. The Peavys had operated a veterinary clinic on the site, which they relocated to another part of town after signing the deal. Under the terms of the ninety-nine-year lease, signed in May 1959, the new company was required to begin construction on a structure worth at least $275,000 within two years. Construction actually began less than six months later.

The Denver Post reported on December 13, 1959, that a group of the celebrity investors was set to arrive in Denver the next day for official groundbreaking ceremonies for the 122,600-square-foot facility. The newspaper also revealed more detailed plans for what the center, designed by the architectural firm of Powers, Daly, DeRoss of Long Beach, California, was to include. The bowling equipment, which cost $1,250,000 alone, was also “the largest single order for such equipment in U.S. history.” The bowling alley, as planned, would be capable of seating at least 2,000 people at the major bowling tournaments the owners expected to attract. The 165-foot-long swimming pool was to be housed in a building with a removable skylight and a retractable glass wall that allowed access to a patio for sunbathing and other activities. The parking garage, together with outdoor parking, was to provide space for 700 cars. Plans also called for the construction of the $1.25 million Aqua Bowl Motel across Colorado Boulevard from Celebrity, but for reasons known only to the investors, the motel was never built.

Lloyd Wright told the Post that Celebrity Lanes would be the first of many such projects that he and the other investors would open around the country, but like the motel, those other projects never materialized. Walt Disney, also speaking to Post reporters, “hailed the project as a ‘new dimension to family participation in sports and recreation.’” He went on to say that it was “only fitting” that the project should be built in Denver, as it was one of the fastest growing cities in the country.

At 11:10 A.M. on Monday, December 14, 1959, Continental Golden Jet 707 carrying Disney, Spike Jones, Jack Benny, John Payne, Lloyd Wright, and Richard Fletcher, the newly named general manager of the yet-to-be-built facility, landed at Stapleton Airport. The group was met by several local officials and the “Pink Poodle Posse” girls of Denver, making for a high-profile reception. They proceeded by motorcade to the construction site on Colorado Boulevard, where work had already begun, for the official groundbreaking. They were joined there by Governor Steve McNichols. After a brief ceremony, in which each of the seven men took shovels and officially broke ground, the group went to the Brown Palace Hotel for a luncheon and press conference.

The Celebrities

The Celebrities

In his opening remarks after lunch, Jack Benny told reporters that, given the fortune he knew Walt Disney had made from a mouse, he himself was “not going to miss an opportunity like this to turn a buck.” He went on to say that he knew “as much about bowling as Zsa Zsa Gabor does about housekeeping,” but he knew the venture would make money. Walt Disney, adopting a more serious tone, told reporters that the new facility would fill a great recreational need for adults, teenagers, and youth. He acknowledged, though, that the business needed to “make a little money” in order to succeed.

Disney went on to stress, as he had before, that he and the other investors chose Denver because it was one of the fastest growing metropolitan areas in the country. Although the owners considered a number of other cities as sites for Celebrity Lanes, months of research led them to select Denver for that reason. While Celebrity would primarily serve the recreational needs of the growing population, the owners had other goals for it as well. Disney and his fellow investors hoped to attract national bowling and swimming events to the center, and, in order to accommodate these, the plans for the building included all the equipment necessary for coast-to-coast television broadcasts. The Post reported that, with construction then under way on Celebrity, the sport of bowling had stolen “a march on other major sports . . . in the Mile High area.”

After the famous investors clowned some more for the reporters—at one point posing for a photo in which Spike Jones used a fireplace poker to play a bowling pin like a violin while Jack Benny played the piano and Disney sang—they left Denver at 6 P.M. Construction at Celebrity moved forward quickly under the direction of Denverites Keith Talley (who owned his own construction company), Donald Rudolph of Donald’s Self Service Drive Inns, and L. D. Stackhouse of Stackhouse Construction. Opening day was set for sometime in June or July 1960, “depending on the weather.”

The first of thirty-five semi-trailers carrying the bowling equipment for Celebrity arrived at the construction site in mid-June 1960. According to The Denver Post, the “bowling showplace” would be the focal point of Celebrity Lanes, so workers were taking great care in building it. The semi-trailers that arrived throughout June carried fifty-eight miles of lumber for the lanes, two-and-a-half tons of nails, 15,000 wood screws, and 350 gallons of a special lacquer produced by American Machine and Foundry for the bowling lanes. Work was also progressing on other parts of the center, including the lounge and restaurant. These were designed with a “motif of Colorado field rock with indoor waterfalls and fireplace.” While these other projects did require some attention from the workers, their primary goal was to finish the bowling alley, which they were rushing to complete. According to the Post, “with construction proceeding on schedule,” the bowling alley was set to open in August, suggesting that the weather may indeed have delayed construction a bit.

The time was right for such a project for reasons other than Denver’s impressive population growth. Considered a rich man’s sport in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, bowling had declined in popularity over the years to the point that it was considered “a marginal sport limited to sleazy venues,” as LeRoy Ashby writes. But that perception started to change in the 1940s and ‘50s. A careful marketing program that stressed new automatic pinsetters and air-conditioned buildings that were becoming standard succeeded in making bowling an attractive family activity. Bowling gained so much popularity that Life magazine described it as the country’s most popular sport—for some, even a way of life. By the mid-1950s there were more than 20 million regular bowlers in the United States.

Bowling at Celebrity

Bowling at Celebrity

Bowling at Celebrity Lanes proved to be a very popular attraction in Denver, even before the bowling alley opened. Richard Fletcher announced in June 1960, as the first trailers full of bowling equipment arrived, that night leagues at the bowling alley were about 80-percent full. League schedules for earlier in the day from Monday through Friday were completely filled, two months before the bowling alley even opened. Business was certainly off to a good start.

Completed at the same time as the bowling alley were the arcade and the massive slot-car tracks, located in the basement underneath the arcade. Game rooms such as the one at Celebrity grew out of the penny arcades and nickelodeons of the 1890s and early 1900s, both of which could be found at Disneyland when it opened. Arcades were popular hangouts for teenage boys especially, and Celebrity offered a shooting gallery and several pinball games for them to play. When video games became more common in the 1970s they started appearing in the arcade as well. Celebrity promoted the slot-car tracks in its basement as the longest such tracks known to exist, the racing area covering a total of 13,500 square feet. The shortest track was 200 feet long while the longest, known as “Tubby,” was 250 feet long. The room housing the tracks was carpeted in red and gold. The slot-car tracks at Celebrity remained a popular draw for many years.

The bowling alley was in business for nearly a year before the swimming pool, at first called “Olympic Swim,” finally opened in July 1961. The timing was also right for it, as the 1960s saw a boom in pool construction throughout the country. At 164 feet one inch long by seventy-five feet one inch wide, the pool was Colorado’s biggest. The extra inch in both length and width was meant to accommodate any possible pool contraction, guaranteeing that any swimming records set at Celebrity would merit international recognition. The pool, quickly nicknamed “the swamp” by Celebrity employees, held 500,000 gallons of “constantly filtered and heated water,” had five diving boards, and boasted nine swimming lanes instead of the usual eight. The pool was housed in a 32,000-square-foot building with indoor locker rooms, a floating snack patio, and spectator stands. The originally planned removable skylight and retractable glass wall were dropped from the final plans for the building. Tom Murphy, director of the pool and swimming coach at the University of Denver, signed on as pool director at Celebrity the same month the pool opened. Admission in 1961 was one dollar for children under sixteen and $1.50 for adults. Swimming suits and towels were available for rental.

The Celebrity Pool

The Celebrity Pool

Like the bowling alley, the pool was a big draw from the moment it opened. One of its more popular attractions was the occasional visit by Goofy, who enjoyed water skiing behind a power boat in the pool. On the more practical side of things, management offered Red Cross training in the pool and swimming lessons for children of all ages. Upon graduation from each level of a swimming class the kids got a colorful ribbon with a Disney character on it. The Disney connection was clearly evident at Celebrity, as the occasional visits by Mickey Mouse or Goofy and the pictures of Disney characters filling the walls proved.

The opening of the swimming pool marked the completion of the $6 million Celebrity Lanes as called for in the original plans. The addition of Tom Murphy as pool director completed the management team at Celebrity. At the beginning of May 1961 the owners had hired retired general Eugene Mussett, the commander of Lowry Air Force Base from 1956 to 1960, as vice president of operations. This freed Richard Fletcher to focus solely on recreational activities at Celebrity, which was what he had wanted to do all along. He was assisted in this job by Spike Cleysens and Jasper Perry. Frank Shumway oversaw food operations, which, in addition to the lounge and restaurant, included a Hofbrau room where diners enjoyed beer and sandwiches along with a soda bar for the children.

In the years following the opening of the swimming pool the recreational activities at Celebrity continued to expand as new and different phases of the project were added and completed. One of the major, and most popular, additions was an expanded video-game arcade. Eventually three arcades housed a total of 300 games for children and adults. The billiard rooms—a late addition to the original plans—were another popular attraction at Celebrity. Subsequent owners added three water slides to the pool around 1980. The lowest of the slides, the Dolphin, was meant for small children. The next up was the Barracuda. In the opinion of most people, though, the best slide was the highest—the Shark—even though it required going up six concrete ramps in bare feet in order to go down it. Drivers passing by on Colorado Boulevard were often greeted by the familiar sight of children and adults careening down the slides.

The pool was so big and so popular that it hosted a number of special events over the years. In the 1970s the center began holding an annual Hobie Sailing Regatta in the pool, where forty-eight teams of three members each raced six ten-foot sailboats around the pool with wind provided by “large, strategically placed fans.” Hobie Alter, creator of Hobie Sailboats, Catamarans, and Surfboards, was on hand for the 1977 race in order to award the prizes to the winning teams, the top two being a sixteen-foot Hobie sailboat for first place and a ten-foot version for second. Altogether the teams, made up of employees from Denver-area restaurants, competed for $4,000 in prizes.

All of these activities made Celebrity such a crowd-pleaser that it drew its share of well-known visitors from Colorado and around the country. Boxer Sonny Liston trained for at least one of his matches in the swimming pool. Minnesota Fats and Willie Mosconi each shot pool in Celebrity’s billiard rooms, and baseball star Billy Martin “entertained cronies” in the Captain’s Tavern, another of the center’s restaurants. Over the years famous Coloradans, including Denver Bronco quarterback John Elway, Bronco coach Dan Reeves, Denver Nugget Dikembe Mutombo, Governor Dick Lamm, U.S. Representative Pat Schroeder, and Denver Mayor Federico Peña, were all spotted bowling at Celebrity. But Celebrity Lanes, with all of its celebrity connections, was not merely a “place for the well-to-do.” The pool, wrote the Rocky Mountain News, was “a serious place to swim for people who couldn’t afford the country clubs,” and they came in droves. Even as Celebrity began its decline in the 1980s and early ‘90s, it still drew nearly a million visitors a year.

Among Celebrity’s high-profile owners and visitors, there was one personality whose visits outshone all others. At the time that he started planning Celebrity’s construction, Walt Disney already had a long-standing interest in Colorado. After vacationing in the state in 1956 he flew back to California “laden with books on Colorado’s history,” which he intended to mine for story ideas. He even bought a petrified tree stump from the Florissant Fossil Beds (it was legal to buy them before the area became a national monument in 1969); he installed the stump in Frontierland at Disneyland. Throughout his life he and his family vacationed in the state to go horseback riding or skiing. Disney was so fond of his visits to Colorado that he once told reporters he wanted to find a place to rent or buy, but it never happened.

After Celebrity opened, Disney was a frequent visitor there as well, whether for anniversary celebrations, dedications, or simple inspection tours. A reporter for the Rocky Mountain News wrote that “although Celebrity Center is a small part of the Disney enterprises it received a large share of attention.” When he arrived at Celebrity on one of his visits, Disney usually stopped first to take a look at the books to make sure things were going well financially. Then, he would walk through the “complex of bowling alleys, recreation rooms, restaurants asking questions about everything.”

As in his other business ventures, Disney was mindful of the details at Celebrity, even the smallest ones. He was so concerned that things be just right that he even assigned an art director who had worked on Disneyland to oversee new developments at the center in order to guarantee that everything was to his liking. As Disney executive Robert Allen said in 1966, “practically everything at the center . . . bears the mark of Disney’s personal touch.” On these visits Disney did find time for some fun, such as the occasional bowling game.

One of Walt Disney’s most elaborate visits to Celebrity was in September 1962 when he came to help celebrate the second anniversary of the center and to dedicate the new Stouffer’s Restaurant, which was about to open. When he arrived in Denver he was accompanied by Vernon Stouffer, Hayley Mills, Annette Funicello, Mickey Mouse, and Pluto, among others. As part of the activities surrounding the opening of the restaurant, the group held a press conference for Denver-area high school newspaper reporters and attended a reception at the governor’s mansion. When they finally got around to dedicating the restaurant, Denver financier Aksel Nielsen introduced Disney at the ceremony.

At a press conference for Denver reporters on September 14, 1962, the day before the restaurant’s dedication, Disney said that he hoped Celebrity would continue to be a place where children could develop an interest in sporting activities. Demonstrating his long-standing concern with social issues of the day, Disney said he thought this particularly important as child labor laws, “too stringent in many instances,” were preventing children from having enough to do, making it very important for them to develop an interest in sports or other activities. Disney also spoke on more lighthearted subjects, including why he had a moustache (to cover a childhood baseball injury that split his upper lip and knocked out two teeth) and his desire to make a movie based on the “Little Britches” stories by Colorado author Ralph Moody.

The Hofbrau

The Hofbrau

The changes to the restaurant itself required extensive structural alterations to that part of the Celebrity complex, among them a complete renovation of the kitchen. The work was in progress for several months before the dedication. Vernon Stouffer, in his remarks at the dedication ceremony, said that the emphasis would be on food “prepared in the American manner.” Stouffer went on to point out that the kitchen at the new restaurant, as at all Stouffer’s restaurants, would be under the control of a woman who was a graduate home economist and trained dietician. Stouffer also said he hoped the restaurant would be the first of many Stouffer’s establishments throughout Colorado.

Plenty of visitors, from the famous to the not-so-famous, had fun at Celebrity during its first years, but management was not having quite as good a time. Both Diane Disney Miller and Roy E. Disney remember management problems as being one of the major difficulties plaguing Celebrity Lanes from the beginning. As one indication of the problems the business faced, General Mussett resigned as vice president of operations in October 1961, just six months after taking the position. Mussett said he was “not at liberty” to comment any further on the subject and quickly devoted himself to his new position as president of a fallout shelter manufacturer. Still, Mussett’s son Gerry remembered his father’s short tenure at Celebrity as “good times.”

The management situation at Celebrity grew so unstable by 1962 that, according to Diane Disney Miller, the other celebrated investors simply “wanted out.” According to Walt Disney Company archivist Dave Smith, in addition to the management problems, the investment had proved disappointing financially to them. In order to solve the problem Walt Disney arranged to have his company buy out the other investors. Disney began the process in October 1961, at the same time that General Mussett resigned as vice president of operations. By 1962 Walt Disney Productions was the sole owner of Celebrity Lanes. One of the company’s first moves was to rename it “Celebrity Sports Center,” a reflection of the “expanded facilities” the restaurants and pool provided.

While Walt Disney and his company were committed to ensuring Celebrity’s “continuing acceptance by the residents of the Denver area,” they were also coming up with other plans for the facility. At about this same time Disney was in the early stages of planning for his most ambitious project—what would become Walt Disney World in Florida. Celebrity Sports Center would play an important role in the plans for Walt Disney’s new project.

Long before Disney made his comments at the 1962 press conference in Denver about children’s need for an interest in sports, he demonstrated a concern about many other problems he felt were plaguing the world. Disneyland Park was, in part, his first attempt at addressing some of these issues. At Disneyland, visitors could come to a clean, crime-free environment that allowed them to experience the past in Main Street, U.S.A., and the future in Tomorrowland. Above all, Disneyland, the happiest place on earth, was where a person could “leave Today, with its care and worries, behind and enter a world of Yesterday, Tomorrow and Fantasy.” While not as elaborate as Disneyland, Celebrity was largely designed to accomplish the same thing. The public swimming pool construction boom of the 1960s was meant to deal with the social problems Disney picked up on, such as crime and juvenile delinquency, by giving “idle youths” something positive to do in the summer. The one advantage Celebrity had over many of these swimming pools was that it was open year round.

The people who worked at Celebrity were key to the experience Walt Disney was trying to provide. At Disneyland he constantly went on inspection tours of the park, noticing even the smallest details, just as he did at Celebrity. On one visit to Disneyland he noticed a man working on the train who was rude in the way he handled customers. Disney urged another employee to give the man “a better understanding of the business we’re in… We’re selling happiness.”

Pages from the Celebrity Employee Manual

Pages from the Celebrity Employee Manual

Disney also had strict regulations about his employees’ appearance. The 1955 and 1962 employee handbooks made it clear that visitors were to be treated like guests, and the staff were to think of themselves as actors and actresses who were there to serve them. Men were to have short hair and shined shoes, and women were not allowed to wear jewelry or heavy perfume. In the summer of 1965 more than 500 teenagers looking for jobs at Disneyland were turned away because they were wearing shorts, and had beards or long hair. Disney even started Disney University, a training school for park employees, in order to ensure that they understood what he expected.

Employees at Celebrity were expected to follow the same rules. Celebrity staff watched a training film starring Walt Disney, in which he explained his expectations. Management continued to use the film even after his death, for as long as the Disney Company owned Celebrity. While the rules were strict, there were exceptions for certain workers. Pool employees were the only staff at Celebrity during the Disney years who were allowed to shout at customers. This one exception was due, largely, to the fact that the pool’s one-dollar admission charge made it an inexpensive place for parents to leave their sometimes unruly children all day during summer vacations. In all other areas of Celebrity, employees were expected to treat visitors as guests, just as they did at the Disney theme parks.

Being a Disney employee at Celebrity had its benefits. As long as the swimming pool or bowling lanes were not full, employees and members of their family were allowed to use the facilities free of charge. Celebrity workers were also eligible to join the Magic Kingdom Club for free. The club had originated as a way to attract industrial and government employees to Disneyland by offering reduced price tickets, but it was soon expanded to include a number of other groups, including Disney employees. As members of the club, employees could buy tickets to Disneyland and, later, Walt Disney World at reduced prices from special ticket booths at both parks. They also enjoyed discounts on car rentals and hotel rooms in California and Florida. Permanent Disney employees at Celebrity were eligible for free tickets to Disneyland and Walt Disney World after one year of employment.

The management workforce at Celebrity was especially held to those same standards, if not higher ones, because many of them were being trained for management positions at what would become Disney World. Walt Disney started exploring the idea of building a Disneyland somewhere on the East Coast in 1959, going so far as to hire a research firm to investigate whether or not the idea was feasible. Disney’s four exhibits (“it’s a small world,” the Carousel of Progress, an audio-animatronics Abraham Lincoln, and a dinosaur diorama) at the 1964 World’s Fair in New York were partly designed to test whether or not an eastern audience would accept Disney-style entertainment. The fact that all four were successful helped convince Disney to go forward with the project, and he and his brother Roy quietly started buying up as much land in Florida as they could. While plans for what would become Walt Disney World Resort included a theme park like the one in California, Walt’s passion was for “EPCOT,” the Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow.

As he outlined it in his last filmed appearance in 1966, EPCOT would be laid out like a wheel, with a thirty-acre, glass-domed, air-conditioned hub offering a thirty-story hotel and convention center, stores, offices, and restaurants. Mass transit would be the main form of transportation, with roads for cars and trucks buried underground. Outside the dome would be residential and greenbelt areas. EPCOT would be a self-contained city that could control its climate, recycle waste, and feed its own citizens. It would be a “showcase for American industry and research, schools, cultural and education opportunities.” There would be no crime, no slum areas, and if at all possible, no disease, hunger, or want. With EPCOT, Walt Disney was providing the ultimate answer to the social problems he had confronted with projects such as Disneyland and Celebrity.

With planning for Walt Disney World under way, Celebrity Sports Center took on a new role as a training ground for future management of the Florida park. The center trained people at managing a family resort in order to guarantee a pool of experienced staff when Walt Disney World opened. The only experience they did not gain at Celebrity was in hotel management, which would be a crucial part of Walt Disney World. Company executives solved that problem by leasing a Hilton hotel in Florida and then turning over management of it to Disney staff until Disney’s Contemporary Hotel at the resort was nearing completion. A number of notable Disney executives had their first managerial experience at Celebrity, including Bob Allen, who was credited with making Celebrity a financial success; David Jaskiewicz, who retired as vice president of human resources at Walt Disney World Resort in 2001; and Ralph Kent, a Walt Disney “Imagineer.”

Walt Disney’s death on December 15, 1966, put an end to his direct influence at Celebrity, but the company continued to operate Celebrity as a training ground for future Walt Disney World employees for the next thirteen years.

The Disney era at Celebrity came to an end in 1979. Ron Cayo, vice president of business affairs for The Walt Disney Company at the time, told the Rocky Mountain Journal that Celebrity was something that had never “fit into our overall operation,” though it had been financially successful. The company decided to sell the property.

The first attempt at a sale came in the summer of 1978, when the Disney company was negotiating with a group of buyers who had arranged financing for the deal through Mountain Banks, Ltd., a company controlled by Texan Neil Griffin. Mountain Banks owned eight banks, one of which was Cherry Creek National. That deal fell through because the amount of publicity it generated scared off the buyers. But Griffin and Bob Leavitt, the chief operating officer and president of Mountain Banks, decided that they themselves were interested in buying Celebrity. According to Griffin, Celebrity in 1979 was still a profitable enterprise and they felt that better management and some structural and attraction improvements would only make it more so.

Griffin and Leavitt learned that Colorado real estate developers Russell and Dirck Writer were also interested in buying Celebrity. Griffin knew the Writers, and so the four men joined forces to buy the business. The deal was completed on March 29, 1979, as The Walt Disney Company sold Celebrity Sports Center to Griffin, Leavitt, and the Writer brothers for an undisclosed price. After nineteen years, Mickey Mouse and his friends were gone from Denver.

mickey money

mickey money

The new owners named Al Hoff, who had spent the past fifteen years in executive positions with the Brunswick Corporation, as the facility’s new general manager. Almost immediately, Hoff announced that the new owners planned a number of improvements at Celebrity, the first of which was construction of a 210-seat Village Inn Pancake House connected to the bowling alley. Despite the planned changes, Russell Writer told The Denver Post that “the two-decade tradition of fun, good food and service for the entire family” would “continue to be the hallmark of Celebrity Sports Center.” Three years later Russell Writer told a reporter for Denver Business Weekly that he and his brother had spent as much on improvements, such as three new water slides, as they had paid to buy Celebrity. (They still declined to put a dollar amount on it.) One further change came when the new owners renamed the complex “Celebrity Fun Center.”

Throughout the early 1980s Celebrity remained enormously popular. This was especially true of the arcade, which the Writers, Griffin, and Leavitt expanded and improved. The arcade earned such a reputation, in fact, that it was chosen in 1984 to host the debut of the then cutting-edge video game “Space Age,” produced by Magicom as a sequel to its very popular “Dragon’s Lair” game. The game, which included twenty-five minutes of animation, was designed by Don Bluth, who was himself a former Disney animator. In it players had to help the superhero, Dexter, fight the Infanto Ray of the evil Borf, alien plants, and “free floating guardians” of a speed tunnel. Bluth told a Rocky Mountain News reporter that he chose to launch the game at Celebrity in large part because of the number of families who played there. The game’s debut was such a big event that the News even sponsored a tournament at Celebrity at the beginning of March 1984.

The bowling alleys also thrived through the 1970s and 1980s as schools and bowling leagues from the around the state held games and championship tournaments there. One of the biggest was the 1976 Women’s International Bowling Congress annual tournament, with more than 9,200 teams competing. In 1978 the Japanese American National Bowling Association held its tournament at Celebrity, only the fourth since the association had broken away from the Japanese American Citizens League in 1974. The tournament drew an “outstanding turnout.” The pool, as always, was also a popular attraction, especially after the addition of the three water slides.

Their investment in Celebrity proved profitable to the new owners, but by the mid-1980s the Writers found themselves running into a number of financial problems. One of the worst was having to return their Riverfront Shopping Center development in Littleton to the backers who had put up the money for it. Money issues left the Writers unable to meet their financial obligations to Celebrity, so Griffin and Leavitt bought out their share of it. Another problem Celebrity faced was the increasing commercial development going on around it. The Celebrity property became more and more attractive to commercial developers—not a good omen for the survival of the center.

While millions of people still had fun there, by the late 1980s Celebrity Sports Center was beginning to decline. In addition to the ever-increasing interest in the land from retail stores, many people were starting to perceive Celebrity, which had been in part designed to combat social problems, as a social problem in itself. The city of Glendale, especially its police department, was particularly troubled by the center’s apparent attractiveness to troublemakers.

skeeball coupon

skeeball coupon

When it started to lose money in the early 1990s, Celebrity’s fate was sealed. On May 20, 1994, Neil Griffin and Bob Leavitt announced that they were going to sell Celebrity to a real estate investment group. The new owners, in turn, announced that they were going to tear down Celebrity and replace it with a $20 million retail center anchored by Builder’s Square and Best Buy stores. Reaction to the news was mixed. Longtime visitors to Celebrity—some who had bowled there since the day it opened—were saddened by the news and quickly planned their final visits. Others, including Glendale’s then-mayor, Steve Ward, were pleased to know that it would soon be gone, eliminating what they perceived as the cause of growing crime and boosting the tax base for the city in the process.

Celebrity Sports Center closed its doors for the last time at midnight on June 15, 1994. When Griffin and Leavitt announced the center’s eventual demise they also stated that they hoped someone might buy the pieces of it, especially the bowling lanes and other equipment. At least part of this wish was realized as the wood from the bowling lanes found new life as the floor of the ballroom at the Oxford Hotel in Denver and one of the stars from the famous sign wound up at the Lumber Baron Inn in Denver.

The wrecking ball finally came in March 1995. The first thing to fall was the famous two-story “Celebrity Fun Center” sign, which went “crashing to the asphalt.” Next, the wrecking machine took a chunk from one of the swimming pool’s three water slides. A week after the sign fell, the demolition crew set up a diesel-powered crusher that was capable of processing 200 tons of asphalt and concrete an hour. Less than a month later, nothing remained of Celebrity Sports Center, Walt Disney’s only Colorado business venture.

Construction quickly changed the area that once housed Celebrity, making it nearly impossible to even recognize where the building once stood. In the fall of 1995 the Builder’s Square opened at the new shopping area, named the “Celebrity Center” in honor of its past.

In its thirty-five-year history Celebrity Sports Center served as a sign of its times, from the renewed popularity of bowling, the rise of public swimming, the creation of video-game arcades, and even the economic redevelopment that brought about its demise. And even though Celebrity is gone, it is still fondly remembered by the people who owned it, the Disney employees who worked there, and the many who played there as children and adults.

Celebrity from Colorado Boulevard

Celebrity from Colorado Boulevard

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39 Responses to “Celebrity Sports Center, 1960–1994”

  1. JAMES Says:

    THIS WAS THE SADEST MOMENT IN THE HISTORY OF DENVER, COLORADO. The loss of jobs, places for children and adults to go for entertainment was lost. No other place has come close to the opportunities that Celeberty Sports Center had to offer. Poor management and City of Glendale are to blame.

  2. David E Says:

    Man, I remember that place vividly. I remember driving by every time and ooh-ing and ahh-ing at the big green water slides that came out of the building and went right back in. I remember the endless bowling lanes and arcades downstairs. What a neat place…too bad.

  3. Dennis Phillips Says:

    I was the last Disney employee at Celebrity. Disney sent me out from Florida to transition Celebrity over to the new owners. What a great place and crew. I fell in love with Colorado and later came back to work at Vail Associates in building the Beaver Creek Resort.

    Many ex-Celebrity employees rose to very senior management positions within the Theme Park division of the Walt Disney company and there was a real sense of loss within that group when we sold the facility.

  4. Scott Says:

    Going to Celebrity Sports Center was a treat for us when we were kids. We didn’t get there too often, but when we did, it was the highlight of the summer.

  5. Harris Faberman Says:

    In 1965 I won a slot car race trophy at Celebrity – huge high point – my next trophy came in 2004. The slot car tracks were officially named Sebring, Le Mans and Daytona. Almost all races were on the Daytona track which had a very large high banked turn. Fast cars would often fly off the turn and bombard the customers or spectators – sometimes landing on the display cases. Swimming pool, bowling, dining, arcade and “hang out” memories also.

  6. Walt Disney owned a bowling alley? Celebrity Sports Center in Denver « FamilyTravelGurus Says:

    [...] But the memories live on.  Recently an excellent history of Celebrity was published on the web – read it here.  And another Celebrity tribute site is here.  For kids growing up in the Denver area in the [...]

  7. Keith Says:

    The Wikipedia entry about Celebrity is wrong. They hosted at least three PBA tournaments in it’s history, two in the mid-late 1980′s and the last one in 1991.

  8. Ed N Says:

    This was a great article to read and it brought back lots of good memories. The destruction of Celebrity Sports Center was a low point in Denver’s mega-growth period of the 1990′s. I learned to swim a Celebrity and have many fond memories of the place. It’s loss is an example of how Denver lost its sense of community in favor of construction and expansion. Looking at the pictures makes me nostalgic and angry all at the same time.

  9. Ronbo Says:

    I really miss this place. We used to go there for B-day parties back in the 70′s, what a great time!!! Then we turned 16 and during the early to mid 80′s we would drive down there in our old muscle cars (Camaro’s, Chevelles and Novas) to Celebrties to play pinball for hours and hours into the hot summer nights.

    It saddens me as Colorado Native and what we have lost in the last 10-15 years. From Celebrity Sports Center, Cinderella City, Cinderella City Drive-Inn, Southglenn Mall…the list goes on and on.

    Anyways, thanks for the great site and memories!

    Ronbo (70′ SS Green Camaro)

  10. Merredith Says:

    OMG, the Shark! The Barracuda!

    I had truly forgotten about the slides, Hugh. Thanks so much for the reminder. Wow, what a trip. And I’m pretty sure I see my Dad’s old ’63 Mercury Monterey in the parking lot picture there. Boy we had fun.

  11. delilah Says:

    hey i was wondering why they had to take it down to build another business there. But I’m young so i really don’t know what it was like there.? My mom spent two weeks or more in the summer and winter. my grandma works across the street and her kids or my mom went there all the time when she was little.! She still misses it!

  12. Bob Allen Says:

    My dad was the first Disney General Manager of Celebrity. besides bringing us to Colorado, to which I returned for a great experience at CU, we were the luckiest kids in town! It was a really fun place to play. I got to reprise my Celebrity affection when, as a college student, me and my brother were the “character department” donnin the costumes we had been trained in at WDW. We LITERALLY worked for food!

  13. Scott Olsen Says:

    I believe my Uncle had some connection with the Sports Center, and with Bob Allen. Bob Allen (in above post), OI assume you’re Bob Allen’s son? My uncle knew your father well.

  14. Paul Says:

    Celebrity Sports Center is one of my few memories from growing up in Denver before moving away at age 11. I remember going a few times with the YMCA day camp as well as Water World. On nights like tonight where I just can’t sleep, I think about memories such as CSC and how I wish I never grew up. But here I am, 32 and trudging through life. The location seems off, I spent some time a few years ago trying to locate where it was and I was thinking about where the Alfalfa’s, course that’s gone to now. Anyhoo, I just remember it being near the top of the hill. Well, thanks for the memories!

  15. Jim W Says:

    Having spent so much of my time and money at Celebrity’s over the years, I miss that place regularly. They had a great arcade right next to the main entrance (mostly pinball machines) and another one in the basement in the slot car track area. The slot car tracks were exlcusive and the best ever. I bowled there on the back 40 for many years on Friday nights. It was difficult to watch the place get taken over by the little punks and gangs. Celebrity’s was always crowded especially on the weekends. Many of my teachers at Cherry Creek HS would drink in the tavern when we had bowling league for HS (this was in the early 70′s). My Mom would drop us off in the summer and you could bowl and swim all day for a few bucks. Celebrity’s was the best place ever.

  16. Ben M Says:

    I find myself explaining to young adults and kids today the joys of Celebrity. There has not been anything close to it since. It was a place where a family could spend an entire cold, snowy day inside and have so much fun that you’d forget about the weather outside. Inside you could see the snow fly as you walked up the ramp to the Shark or Barracuda in swim trunks. And remember they used to give out those heavy rubber mats to slide down on? We would go so fast that we would slide all the way to the end of the pool crashing into the wall! No wonder they got rid of them. It would’ve been nice to take my kids there because they can’t possibly fathom a place that was this cool. Between Celebrity and the old Elitch Gardens they were the best!

  17. Linda M Says:

    We went to Celebrity in the early 60′s and would spend all day at the pool. There were four of us kids in the family, and it gave our folks some needed “kid free” time. Radio stations would host contests; you would find objects on the bottom of the pool and retrieve them for prizes. There was no worry of being sunburned or overheated, just fun. Skeeball was one our favorite games. What a treat to eat there! Eating out was a very rare occasion. We moved away in ’64, but our memories of Denver and places like Celebrity have never faded.

  18. Paul Says:

    Wow, thanks so much for writing this. I was born in Englewood but we moved overseas right afterwards and would come home to Colorado pretty much every year. One of the highlights of all those visits back would be a trip to Celebrity. The waterslides were absolutely the best and I remember my dad who was scared of them even tricked us heading up the ramp and then trying to sneak back down when we weren’t looking. When we moved back to Littleton a decade later, it was an occasional treat for us kids. I loved going there in the winter and heading up the ramp and seeing the snow outside. The arcade was awesome, though I never seemed to have enough quarters. And I remember winning my first ever prize there as well, some CD in a drawing and the lady over the PA system badly mispronouncing my name :) Celebrity was still there when I went off to college, but I remember coming back years later looking for it and being terribly sad I couldn’t find it and then realizing it had been torn down. I get the problems with punk kids causing problems, I just wish a solution could have been found to save the place. Barring that, I hope somebody with some vision could have the sense to build something new like it now. Kids deserve a place like Celebrity. I never knew the Disney history behind it either, that just makes it that much more magical to me. Thanks so much for writing this up.

  19. John Hansen Says:

    This is just great. I worked my way through college at The celebrity Sports Center back in 1980. Working the night shift on the clean up crew from 11pm to 7am than right to class at the University of Denver. Ronald Reagan had just become president and I spent my breaks and lunch hours arguing evolution and politics with several of the other janitor who where Jehovah’s Witnesses. We would sit in the Hofbrau room booths. On Saturday nights I would show up a bit early and go through the coin returns on all of the arcade machines. I could usually make about 12 bucks from all of the quarters the drunk people would leave in the machines. I did all the vacuuming, most every one else worked on the bowling alley areas. For some reason I have a vivid memory watching the first space shuttle launch in one of the rooms off of the bowling alley. But it would have been in the middle of the night so I must be imagining that. Sorry this is a bit of a stream of consciousness. I haven’t thought of the place in 30 years but have very fond memories of working there and being a skinny dumb college kid.

  20. leo rinderle Says:

    I helped direct a 13 week bowling show that gave away a car from Johnny Haas Lincoln Mercury named Hit That Split in 1964 or 1965. Do you have any information on it? Thanks for your help.

  21. Garfield Says:

    Memories, memories, memories, THX:)

  22. Dustin Says:

    I used to love the waterslides! I remember the lifeguards made me sit out for a few minutes fro running near the pool. Remember the haunted shooting gallery?

  23. V.E.G. Says:

    I remember the place when it was shown on the news in 1994 and I remember it vividly since I was a boy.

  24. V.E.G. Says:

    Art Linkletter is the very last investor in the Celebrity Sports Center (previously Celebrity Fun Center), to pass.

  25. michelle Says:

    I was so sad when it was this place was demolished, my grandma would tell me the stories of how my grandfather hauled in all the rock used to create such a great and unique building. When we would go swimming he would tell me about some of the large rocks and were they came from or stories behind getting them there. I miss having that history and not able to share that with my children.

  26. Buz Hynes Says:

    I recently rcv’d two 20 inch long, remote-controlled power boats: one, a white ‘yaught’; the other a red ‘power-boat’, complete with driver. Though I was there, at 13-years-old, in the pool’s bleachers when Annette Funicello dedicated it (and fell in love, of course!), I don’t remember a separate ‘pool’ or pond that I was told these boats came from. Does anyone have any info on these boats? Thanks!

  27. Killer of Tacos Says:

    Child hood memories. Celebrity. The arcade at Cinderella City. Casa Bonita, of course. Elitch’s, especially the log ride and the gum tree. But Celebrity was tops. The water slides. The Dolphin, The Barracuda, and I cannot remember the last one. Running up those concrete ramps until our feet were raw.

  28. Joe Felice Says:

    I was sitting in Whole Foods yesterday, and there was a pic of the old place. I started telling my friend about it, and the good memories just flowed. It was THE place to hang out on Friday nights and Saturday afternoons back in the day. There was so much to do there, it was almost sensory overload. Sometimes, the parking lot would be full, so we had to park in some of the vacant lots around there. I remember Stearns-Rogers was catty-corner to the northeast, and you couldn’t park there. They even had a guard to make sure you didn’t. One of the places we used to park was across Kentucky to the south. They later built a building called The Workshops on that spot, and I managed that building for 7 years. The Builder’s Square went out of business, and The Home Depot moved in. Don’t forget that the Riviera occupied a little section of the south parking lot. The McDonalds was actually at the corner of Mississippi & Colorado, and it was the first one in Denver, complete with double yellow arches. Now it’s a Boston Market, and McDonald’s moved down and across the street, but I’m not sure why. The House of Pies was down the way at 7th & Colo. I think there was also a Kentucky Fried Chicken at Alameda & Colo., right next to a Chevy dealership. There were lots of dealerships on Colorado Blvd. back in the day.

    Thanks for the site, and for triggering the memories. Ah, yes, the “good, ol’ days!”

  29. Fun Fact Friday: Disney’s connection to Colorado | DisFanInCO Says:

    [...] my research for this post, I came across a fabulous article about Celebrity and the Disney connection on BuckFifty.org, a site that’s chock full of interesting Denver history and trivia, [...]

  30. dick landess Says:

    bowled in a pba tournament, i believe 1962, my pro was roy lowen, from texas. funny, but today i am a pba member. the place was fantastic.

  31. Sean Says:

    What were the names of the water slides? I remember the Shark and the Barracuda but what was the last one?

  32. Brian Says:

    Sean,
    I think it was the Gator. It was the easy one.

  33. AitchCS Says:

    Remember this place very very well. Many birthday parties and Girl Scout outings. Did anyone notice in the top photo you can see the sign for Belcaro Shopping Center on the left.

  34. Troy Says:

    …I think the Slides were later named The Shark..Whale and Dolphin..Fun water slides that went from the outside of the building in..was one of the coolest places! glad my family, brothers and friends got to experience it in the 80′s and 90′s! great memorys as a kid!

  35. Marilynn Says:

    We spent so much time here during the summers before it was torn down. I was younger, but clearly remember the pool, the fake palm trees inside of it, and finally getting the courage to go down the slide that looped outside & back in. I just wish there was a place like this for my own kids.

  36. Al Sanchez Says:

    I GREW UP IN DENVER FROM 1972 TO 1980. I WAS SO SADDENED AT THE LOSS OF THIS GREAT SPORTS CENTER. WENT THERE MANY A TIME. WENT TO THE COOPER THEATER RIGHT DOWN FROM IT TOO. THEY ARE ALL GONE . . . . GOD, I REMEMBER CINDERELLA CITY! WHAT A MARVEL THAT WAS AND THEN THAT WAS GONE TOO! DENVER SURE HAS LOST A LOT OF WONDERFUL PLACES.

  37. Alisha Says:

    Loved it here as a kid. They had everything a family could want to do if you ask me. This place still inspires my biggest dream. To open a place where my kids can play like my family and friends did at Celebrity. I may never have the money to do it but why not dream big.

  38. fredrick smith Says:

    iI remember bowling in your alley back in the 60′s in the middle of the Night/Morning
    after my mother got off at the boulder hospital I enjoyed bowling till yhis day

  39. Elizabeth Sanchez Says:

    I miss Celebrity’s. I celebrated my 16th birthday there the April before they closed =(
    I was so very sad when I heard they were going to tear it down. I spent many Saturday afternoons there with my Dad after my folks divorced in the early 80′s……there and the old Elitch’s which I also miss dearly. I wish places like that would have been seen as having historical value and been saved and restored to what they were in their hay day……wouldn’t it be cool to walk through those doors now?
    Another staple was the Organ Grinder off of Alameda, remember that place? *sigh*

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