NewsWomen's History Month


Meet Mary Elitch, the trailblazing, bear-handling matriarch of Denver's first entertainment venue

“She was an entrepreneur before women could be entrepreneurs.”
Posted: 4:42 PM, Mar 27, 2024
Updated: 2024-03-28 12:18:03-04

DENVER — You may be aware that Elitch Gardens was once an actual botanic garden and zoo, long before it became the urban amusement park it is today.

What you may not know is the story of Mary Elitch – the trailblazing, bear-handling woman who paved the way for more than 100 years of business at the park’s original location in northwest Denver.

“Mary Elitch is kind of this forgotten figure,” Greg Rowley, the president of the Historic Elitch Theater Foundation, told Denver7. “She was an entrepreneur before women could be entrepreneurs.”

Mary’s husband was John Elitch, a California restaurateur with whom she moved to Denver in the early 1880s to open a restaurant there called Elitch’s. As the Colorado Women’s Hall of Fame recounts, the couple purchased an apple orchard northwest of Denver with plans of growing fresh fruit and vegetables for Elitch’s.

John and Mary Elitch

But the couple’s dreams were bigger than that. Mary had a love of animals and the theater, the Hall says, and the pair aspired to own a resort that incorporated all of those passions.

So, the plot of land that is now at 38th and Tennyson, became Elitch Zoological Gardens, with plants and exotic animals on display. It opened in 1890, and, by Rowley’s account, was the first entertainment venue in Denver.

After a successful opening, the John Elitch invested in a theater troupe, according to the Colorado Women’s Hall of Fame, and the couple decided to build a theater on the park grounds.

John Elitch, though, died shortly thereafter in 1891. Mary was left as the only woman in the world running a park like Elitch Gardens, according to the Hall.

“Mary Elitch was this 35-year-old-widow, and she was left running a botanic garden, a zoo and a theater – and she ran it for about 25 years,” Rowley said.

Elitch would wear many hats – literally and figuratively – as the park’s operator. Several incredible photos from the Historic Elitch Theater Foundation archives and History Colorado show her handling exotic animals, including bears and ostriches. (She also had a fine collection of headwear.)


By the early 1900s, amusement park rides were added and other live performers would entertain guests. The theater would play host to iconic actors from Broadway and the silver screen, from Sarah Bernhardt, Antoinette Perry – the namesake of the Tony Awards – and Grace Kelly in its early days, and Robert Redford and William Shatner later on.

Mary Elitch’s unlikely, quarter-century run at the helm of the resort garnered the public’s admiration.

“When she retired, they had a big party for her down at the Denver auditorium, which is now the Ellie Caulkins. And it was sold out. It was packed,” Rowley said. “There were like 100 people outside who couldn't even get in, but they just wanted to be there to be part of it because she was so well-loved.”

Mary loved the park enough to live in a cottage on its grounds until her death in 1936.

The park, of course, closed in that original northwest-Denver location in the mid-1990s and moved to its current downtown location between Ball Arena and the South Platte River.

The Elitch Theater remained, but was abandoned for decades.

Denver7 told the story in 2023 of the theater’s reopening for history tours and move nights, and the effort to restore the building to its original form and host live theater performances on its stage – all work being done with Mary Elitch in mind.

“She's kind of our muse now, because we want to continue the amazing spirit that she created here,” Rowley said.

Rowley told Denver7 before the publishing of this story that the board expected to host multiple live theater performances there in the summer of 2024, though the board was still finalizing details.

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