Celebrity Lanes, later known as Celebrity Sports Center and then Celebrity Fun Center, was a relatively successful entertainment complex in Denver from the 1960s through the 1980s. The center represented the rise of a national trend in centralized shopping and entertainment complexes during the 1960s and 1970s. Although the complex no longer stands today, Celebrity Sports Center reflects Denver’s development, growth, and success during the tumultuous decades of its operation.
Entertainment in Denver
By the late 1950s, Denver was one of the fastest-growing areas in the United States, and entertainment was something both new and old residents needed. 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 with these forms of entertainment was that foul weather could spoil the fun. By 1959 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 weather-impervious amusement 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 of the 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 Grace 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.
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 Boulevards. They leased the land from owners Leonard and Dorothy Peavy, who had operated a veterinary clinic on the site that 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 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 was to include. The bowling equipment, which cost $1,250,000 alone, was “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, though for reasons known only to the investors, the motel was never built.
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 long by 75 feet wide and holding .5 million gallons of “constantly filtered and heated water,” it was Colorado’s biggest pool. Nicknamed “the swamp” by Celebrity employees, the pool had five diving boards and nine swimming lanes instead of the usual eight. Admission in 1961 was one dollar for children under sixteen and one dollar and fifty cents for adults. 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, the Disney character who enjoyed water skiing behind a motor boat in the pool. The opening of the swimming pool marked the completion of the $6 million Celebrity Lanes as called for in the original plans.
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 additions was an expanded video game arcade. Eventually, three arcades housed a total of 300 games. The billiard rooms, a late addition to the original plans, were another popular attraction. Subsequent owners added three water slides to the pool around 1980. After Celebrity opened, Walt Disney was a frequent visitor to the facility, checking the financial books and making routine appearances 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 [Disney’s] attention.”
End of the Disney Era
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 always been financially successful. The company decided to sell the property. On March 29, 1979, The Walt Disney Company sold Celebrity Sports Center to Griffin, Leavitt, and the Writer brothers for an undisclosed price.
Throughout the early 1980s, Celebrity remained enormously popular. This was especially true of the arcade, which the owners spent a considerable sum expanding and improving. The bowling alleys also thrived through the 1970s and 1980s as schools and bowling leagues from around the state held tournaments there. Unfortunately, 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.
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 young criminals.
On May 20, 1994, Neil Griffin and Bob Leavitt announced the sale of 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 were saddened by the news and planned 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. 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 city’s Lumber Baron Inn.
Adapted from David Forsyth, “Spares and Splashes: Walt Disney’s Celebrity Sports Center,” Colorado Heritage Magazine (2007).