Wednesday, August 2, 2017

Cue the bad puns: Beary interesting. Mr. B, a bear, & Elitch's Gardens, Denver

So, among the many wild things I've acquired and read and heard in my foray into LB-land is a "blooper" radio moment wherein Mr. B tells a story about winning a bear in a crap game in Denver, seemingly quite a long time ago (I would guess when he was still doing stage tours circa 1897-1905 or so) and eventually delivering it to the well-known Elitch's Gardens, which back then "had a regular bear pit". He had taken the bear home to the hotel he was staying at from the bar because, as he says, "I was more afraid of the bartender than I was of the f***in' bear."

It's a funny (and often profane) story of how he got the bear up to his room in the Brown Palace Hotel late at night, fell asleep on the bed--"and I guess the bear did, too"-- then wakes to find himself in need of feeding a hungry bear and himself.  He ordered two steaks: the bear, "et my breakfast. Jesus, he ate everything!" The room service waiter, "who happened to be a nice guy", says he'll get more food, then advises the young actor to take the bear to Elitch's Gardens, which Mr B does.

Well, as he ends the story, "the bear gets out of the taxicab and goes RIGHT up that pole they have, you know, and sits on the top, and I say, 'well, goodbye, boy.'" Then he adds, which brings great guffaws from his audience, "I got a bill, for two years, for that f***in' bear."

So I figured this was an old LB (this recording was made when he was hosting Hallmark Hall of Fame on radio, which was 1953-1955) talking trash--then I let my sister hear it. She'd lived in Denver in the 1980s about 6 years, and started nodding.. "yeah, I know the Brown Palace Hotel...Elitch's Gardens, yep...". Suddenly I realized he might well be telling a true story! This from a guy who once lied (in HIS AUTOBIOGRAPHY) about his birthday!

Number 1: The Brown Palace Hotel still stands in Denver, and is 125 years old. It is also apparently haunted! "According to author Corrine Hunt’s book, The Brown Palace: Denver’s Grande Dame, many entertainers and heads of state, including Russian President Boris Yeltsin, stayed at the hotel. They included Buffalo Bill Cody, Lionel Barrymore, John Philip Sousa, Lillian Russell, Jack Benny, Peter Lorre, Robert Taylor, George Jessel, Helen Hayes..." (   Denver's Brown Palace Hotel

Number 2: Elitch's Gardens (the site of the first zoo west of the Mississippi) still exists, and the old theater at the original site still exists (it's not clear if LB was at that theater, but I don't find evidence he was). Map of Elitch's Gardens, 1904 .  Fascinating stuff! More info on Elitch's Gardens (old one)  
Here's a book that has a LOT on the place and its theater: Denver's Elitch Gardens: Spinning a Century of Dreams  by Betty Lynne Hull (2003)
Number 3: Lionel Barrymore did indeed play games of chance now and then, and Denver was on the old theater and vaudeville routes.

Number 4: the female proprietor the Elitch's was very fond of bears, especially two named Sam and Dewey:

 Number 5: There was a bear pit/pole in the gardens!
This is Dewey at Elitch's, probably around 1900, 1910. One of the bears would waltz to music. :)
Wide World Magazine, Vol 2 Oct 1898-Mar 1899 (google ebook, free)

Now, there are lots of things written on Elitch's and the Brown Palace, and I can probably contact someone at those places, but given the sum total... it's quite likely the insane story he told was true! Now if I can just find out when he was in Denver performing....

*The recording is pretty profane, though VERY funny. I'll not link it here, but it's findable on Google or Amazon. I have no idea who would have recorded it! :)

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