Fun at Belvidere Theatre and Clark School
By Brian Gibbins
As a tourist town in the summer, Central City made and exciting background for adventure for any nine-year old boy. Imagine living in the middle of a western set for a movie. Where almost every building is dedicated to bringing the essence of mining, the old west and the Victorian era into the hearts and photographs of visitors.
From staged gun fights on the street to jail house wax museums, any kid would have had a hard time not imagining himself in the middle of an adventure every day while living in Central City.
There are even bed races down the street. What is a bed race you ask? I asked my father the same thing at age nine. Well guess what, they are actual races down the street in an old fashioned bed. I learned that a guy called John pushed a lady of the night down the street in a brass bed while she was dressed in a fancy lace night gown.
Many is the time on the short walk up the street from school to the Sauer House that we would stop at the literal candy store. If you’ve been to a tourist town, surely you know the type of store. Filled from top to bottom with delectable sweets of all types. Taffy, root beer barrels, those little dots of sugar on a computer-like tape and loads of different flavored sticks of candy.
Now imagine passing such a store (or two) every single day on the way home from 4th grade. The candy store is where I fell in love with Swedish Fish and dried pineapple rings.
Sword Fights in the Snow
In the winter time, the city would mostly shut down to all but local business. The tourists would leave and the city would transform. Some stores would close until spring. This left much of the city open to exploration to the local kids while not under watchful adult eyes.
Between the Opera House and the Teller House there was a garden with a steep path and intermittent stairs leading up to the top of the hill and the street behind the buildings. The actual purpose of the garden is probably historical and as I recall there were those little metal plaques describing one thing or another on the way up the hill.
Boys of a certain age didn’t see the garden at all. Instead, we saw it as a place to chase one another with sticks as swords…fighting imaginary battles up the hill.
During the summer time Central City had a train that tourists would ride for a fee. In the winter time the train was not used and sat in the same location. Put up and mostly ignored until summer, the train itself became a destination for the local kids. It didn’t really matter that it was sitting still. In fact, it was probably best that it was since we often climbed up on the engine imagining ourselves engineers. We took turns being the robbers boarding the train and jumping between the cars and even on the roof of some. Likely mom and dad would not have been as thrilled as we were.
One year the window to the last car was left open. The open window allowed skinny children to climb to the top of the car, slide down the side, into the window and then into the closed up car. Turns out, the window led to a “bathroom” on the caboose and that the toilet was just a bench seat with a hole leading down onto the track below. This was an amazing scientific find and one shared far and wide with wide-eyed friends.
Shortcuts between Buildings
The city itself is nestled in a little valley between hills. So anything not literally on the main road through the city was on a hill above. When I first moved to Central, I was tickled by the fact that the streets up the hill were named 1st High, 2nd High, 3rd High, and 4th High Streets.
Much of the city itself has stairways leading up from the main street to the street behind it. The stairways were often made of wood and are really a combination of boardwalk and stairway depending on the location. When you are a kid the only way to get from point A to point B was often by foot. So we knew where ALL of the stairways were and which were the quickest.
Sometimes though, the stairs were ill placed and we would take or create short-cuts between locations. Back then there was a space between the Fire Station and the building next to it. It was no more than two feet wide (probably less), but that is plenty of room for skinny boys to slip through. So we would start on East 1st High, climb down the hill that was directly behind the Fire Station, then squeeze between the wall and pop out right onto the street in a section of town not serviced by stairs.
Sliding Down Tailings
Mine tailings are essentially everything that was dug out of the ground in search of gold. In certain types of mining operations this creates a tailing pile, or to uninformed what looks like a giant anthill on the side of the mountain. To young children it is a great place to slide down on your butt and for mothers a source of never ending dirt in the laundry.
In those days there was a huge tailing pile between Spring Street and what is now known as Central City Parkway. That huge pile was cut into two sections of what we locals at the time called the free parking lot. There was an upper and lower section and tourists could park there free naturally. It was a bit of a walk from either lot to the main portion of the city, but there was a shorter way and that was to slide down the pile of dirt.
Belvidere Theatre Experience
It was Friday night and the Gibbins family was going to the movies. Not to one of the fancy new two-plex theaters like they had in Denver though. We were going to the Belvidere Theatre, and like many places in Central City, this building had historical significance.
We had to descend one of two wood staircases that were on either side of the theater down to the main floor where we would watch the movie. We picked one of the round tables and spread our family of five around it. This was the first time I had ever been to a movie theater like this – one with actual servers instead of concessions where adults could order adult beverages. We got to order real food too, not just popcorn.
In front of us was a stage and on the stage was a screen. That too was different from other theaters. I guessed that maybe they put on plays sometimes. I enjoyed looking around the big open area as our food was served.
So, the movie begins. “Duchess and the Dirtwater Fox” was apparently a western. It wasn’t long into the movie when I realized that I was sitting in the middle of the scene that was being shown on the big screen in front of me. That I was sitting at a table that was in the scene facing the stage where Goldie Hawn was…er…she was…well dancing and singing about her fruit.
I was new to Central City at the time, so I didn’t even notice the opening sequences were taken in the town I lived in too. A few years later when video rentals became a thing, I got a copy of the tape for myself and watched it many times.
This was my first time seeing the movie though and I was enthralled. I loved seeing the buildings that I walked past on my way to school. Dad said that they had to cover the paved road in dirt for the movie. I guess he already knew that it was partly filmed here, but was keeping it quiet until we noticed.
Years later I met and became friends with the son of the people who owned and operated the theater. He was one of the older kids so I didn’t really hang out with him much, but I did get to go into the projector room with him sometimes.
We Are the Children of Clark School
The schoolyard at Clark School was a 4th grader’s dream and every modern mother’s nightmare. The kind of excitement we had then cannot be found on a playground today.
As I recall, the swing was on the only flat part of the yard and constructed of three inch iron pipe. Tall, three-legged triangles on each end with a supporting pipe between them all painted a glossy black. The swing seats hung down on chains from the support bar far above. Deep troughs in the dirt beneath the seats were worn by the countless children before us.
This was the setting for one of our playground challenges – Who can jump out of the swing at the highest point and land the furthest from the swing set?
By the 5th grade, I was one of the kids who could climb to the very top of the swing, shimmy out the chain support and drag the seat up and around the pipe thereby lifting the seats higher and providing greater distance for our flying jumps.
Tetherball provided additional modes of combat. Yes, combat. If you’ve not played tetherball in the schoolyard and had your face pounded by a hard ball swinging around a pole as fast as another kid can propel it, you just don’t know. Like the rest of the playground, the tetherball was on a hill. Surrounded by a few trees and the furthest away from the eyes we imagined on the second floor of the building, was another pipe. This one mounted vertically into the ground with concrete peeking out on the downhill side where water had washed away the dirt.
We creamed one another with the ball. Learning that the uphill position was the superior one helped me to at least win sometimes.
Another memorable game in the schoolyard was a variation on tag that could only be played here in this unique place and time.
The school, like the rest of Central City, was built on a hill. Sitting between Gregory Street and First High Street as it was, there was a need to ensure that run off water from the street above did not flood or wash out the playground. Stone masons from years past had built a stone wall on the north side of the yard, perhaps ten or twelve feet high supporting the road above. In the wall was left an opening that resembled a big fireplace or a small jail cell without bars. In reality it provided open access to the water flowing down from the street above, through the chamber and then down to a small corrugated drainage pipe in the floor that whisked the water away under the playground and the street into the creek in front of the school.
It was into this jail that we boys locked the girls during tag. The small chamber became sort of the opposite of a base with room enough for at least four kids. We captured the girls by tagging them, this meant that they also had to go up to the jail with the rest of the captured girls until they were let out by another girl who was in the game and had yet to be captured. This was pretty much the sum of the rules. It was a voluntary game on the part of all participants, and a made up excuse to hang out on the playground with the opposite gender. In elementary school I was apparently partial to blondes, especially two particular ones. One with straight long hair, and the other with shorter curly locks.
It wasn’t all fun and games though, not with Mrs. Gray as our principal. Now I’m sure she was a perfectly nice woman to adults. But to us kids she was terrifying. I had never been in a school setting and had anyone bang stainless steel utensils on a cafeteria table before. No doubt she had to yell and bang to be heard over the lunch noise of who knows how many elementary students. Nevertheless, it was frightening. The only time I got in trouble was when my sister and I were throwing rocks at on another kid after school. She called my parents and they handled that back at home. I was never in a chair in her office.
The hallways of Clark School were lined with lockers, a reminder that it was a high school before it was repurposed into an elementary. The science room on the first floor also retained its high school lab equipment. Science class was taught by Mr. Allen who let the students light crayons on fire with the gas burners and draw colorful wax drawings by dripping them onto paper. One year, during field day at Columbine Campground, Mr. Allen was in charge of lighting the grills for the cookout. He used a can of ether to get them started. I think he might have been a closet pyromaniac, but us kids loved him for it.
Mrs. Quiller was probably a favorite teacher for most of the students. As the reading teacher, she certainly was one of mine. I especially loved reading alone in Mrs. Quiller’s reading loft — a literal loft built in the room to one side for the sole purpose of reading. When I started in 4th grade, she moved me to a 5th grade reading book. When I advanced to 5th grade she moved me to the 6th grade reader. When it came to 6th grade though, Mrs. Quiller ran into a problem – there was not a 7th grade reader available in the elementary school. I was presented with the 4th grade reader since “at least it has new stories.” I knew that Mrs. Quiller was doing the best she could by giving me new material. I also totally understood the logic in why there were not 7th grade reading books available, but I still talked to my Dad about it. He talked to Mrs. Quiller and the new principal, Mr. Myers. Everyone agreed that it was silly and something needed to be done. That asking a 7th grade level reader to read a 4th grade level book simply because another book was not available in an institution of education…?
I received a new 7th grade reading book compliments of the Clear Creek County School system. Like all readers at that time, the book was named something related to the content within. On the front of my new reader was printed “Serendipity.”
Our Elementary Alma Mater
We are the children of Clark School,
We try to live by the Golden Rule,
We are the pride of our mother’s eye’s,
You know it true we really try,
We try to be our very best,
Do what’s good,
Forget the rest…
Or something like that, seriously, it has been 40 years! The song was written by one of the school administration, but I don’t recall who specifically.