I’m a sucker for an old theater. When my friend Johnna and I were in Estes Park, Colorado last year I whined until she pulled over so I could get a closer look at this beauty. It’s not like any other theater I’ve seen before.
The historic Park Theater was built in 1913 but the landmark neon outlined 80 foot tower wasn’t added until 1926. In addition to being one of the coolest theaters you’ll ever see, it’s the oldest operating cinema that was built to be a movie theater in the western United States.
And yes, it is a wood building.
It was locked up tight the day I stood there gaping in the snow and wind so strong it would knock you down.
According to the theater’s website, the construction was begun by J.L. Jackson but completed by C.H. Bond in 1913. It was Ralph Gwinn who added the tower thirteen years later. He dubbed it “the Tower of Love” because he built it to represent the beautiful love of his life.
How many gals can say they have a tower built in their honor?
This theater changed owners a couple of times before landing in the capable hands of experienced theater operators Mickey and Ola Stranger in 1968. They leased the theater until purchasing it in 1982. Mickey and Ola passed away in the early 2000s but their descendants continue to operate the theater as a family business today.
Estes Park actually has an ordinance banning neon lights but an exception was made for the theater and their neon has been restored. I imagine it is magnificent after dark but I missed the nighttime view because we got out of dodge before the roads got bad in this mountain town.
The current flick they’re showing? Casablanca.
Can you imagine seeing a classic film in a 1913 movie theater? Be still my heart. I’ll add that to my bucket list.
No trip to Estes Park, Colorado is complete without a stop at the town’s most famous hotel. The Stanley Hotel has a fascinating history and is reputedly haunted but it’s most famous for inspiring the Stephen King bestseller The Shining.
They offer a guided tour for a few dollars but we opted to just nose around a bit on our own. The tour offers stories as well as a look at areas of the hotel that are not public. However, you are permitted to independently explore the lobby and a nice museum area downstairs so you can get the gist if you don’t have time for a tour.
The hotel was built by Freelan Oscar Stanley – they called him F.O. – in the early twentieth century.
F.O. had invented a steam powered horseless carriage called the Stanley Steam Engine.
He and his wife Flora traveled west to Colorado in 1903 when his doctor prescribed fresh air to treat his tuberculosis. The doctor arranged for the couple to stay in a friend’s cabin in Estes Park and advised F.O. not to make any plans past six months.
That fresh mountain air must have been good for him because his health began to improve, prompting the couple to build their own home. That house still stands about 1.5 miles from the Stanley and remains a private residence.
As much as the couple loved the beauty and benefits of the area, they were accustomed to the culture and refinements of the east coast and craved something more. So they set out to build a luxury destination that would rival any of the fancy hotels back East and entice the wealthy into the mountains.
Construction on the Stanley began in 1906 and was finished in 1909 with no expense spared. Built in the Georgian architectural style, it was equipped with all modern conveniences including running water, electricity, telephones and en suite bathrooms. It wasn’t heated at the time because it was designed to be a summer resort destination.
Guests had at their disposal a fleet of vehicles, uniformed staff and any number of activities to keep them entertained. It is said that the town grew and flourished because of this hotel.
It has hosted many famous people over the years including Teddy Roosevelt, the Unsinkable Molly Brown, Bob Dylan and John Phillip Sousa. Remember Radar O’Reilly from the tv show MASH? The actor who immortalized this role was Gary Burghoff. He stayed there and they have a picture of him playing the concert piano in the ballroom.
Sadly, the hotel was in decline by the seventies and it seemed destined for the wrecking ball when a young author came knocking. Stephen King spent a single night in Suite 217 in 1974.
He and wife Tabitha actually arrived as the hotel was closing down for the season so they mostly had the hotel to themselves. He was inspired by the grandness of it all, the remote location and by the eerie emptiness. They ate alone in the dining room, accompanied by canned orchestral music that drifted down long, empty corridors.
By the time they left, he had created the bones of The Shining which was published three years later and was set at the fictional Overlook Hotel. Twenty years later, the Stanley would serve as backdrop for the tv mini series version of The Shining.
It was also used in the movie Dumb and Dumber.
Today, it has been painstakingly restored to its former glory and has been expanded to offer different kinds of accommodations, spa services, events and dining experiences. At an average of $450 a night, it was beyond our accommodations budget but we did enjoy nosing around and taking it all in.
The view from here is spectacular and I imagine that a stay would be a splendid retreat. It would be a fun place to celebrate a special occasion too. Learn more about the Stanley at their website!
Lunch in Estes Park was at a cute place called Claire’s Restaurant and Bar. We randomly selected it because their online menu included a few vegetarian options but, random or not, it was a superb choice.
They offer soups, salads and wraps along with pasta, steaks and all matter of other dishes meaning there’s literally something for everyone. I had an Impossible Burger with fries and a great salad. Everything seemed fresh and thoughtfully presented. Plus, the menu changes seasonally so there’s always opportunity to discover something new.
This family business is cozy inside with outdoor seating for fair days. Stained glass over our table provided unexpected joy.
I would absolutely go back if ever given the choice. Want to know more? Click here!
Denver weather was windy but otherwise ideal during our visit. So it was quite a shock to leave the mid sixties of the city for the gusty, cold of Estes Park.
This town of less than 6,000 residents was once home to Arapaho Indians. Today it’s home to dozens of small businesses and is a destination for outdoorsy types looking for some R&R or for excitement in the Rocky Mountain National Park.
Winter sports are a big deal here as is the Stanley Hotel. This stately old hotel overlooking the town inspired Stephen King to write his bestselling book The Shining.
We visited the Stanley and then headed up the mountain to sightsee. We actually planned to hike some but the wind was so strong it would knock you over. When we arrived in Estes Park the temperature was 36 degrees but felt 19. It was significantly colder when we set foot on a trail and it started to snow.
You can’t tell from this picture but, trust me, it was frigid.
We were layered up but it was simply too windy to be enjoyable. We drove some but the roads started to turn slick so we did the only logical thing to do. We headed back to town, got lunch and shopped! Yes, we are weak of body but strong of shopping spirit.