More than the founder of Denver’s famed Elitch Gardens, Mary Elitch Long had a well-earned reputation as a businesswoman. In the male-dominated late 19th and early 20th centuries, Long served as a powerful role model at a time when women had far fewer non-traditional role models to embrace. At that time, she was the only woman in the world running an amusement park.
Born in Philadelphia in 1856, Mary Hauck spent most of her childhood in California where her father moved his livestock and fruit business. At the age of 16, she eloped with John Elitch, Jr., whom she had met in church. The couple moved to Durango in 1880, where they opened a restaurant; two years later they moved to Denver and opened a new restaurant called Elitch’s.
The couple purchased an apple orchard five miles north of Denver intending to grow fresh fruits and vegetables for the restaurant. With Long’s love for children, flowers, animals, and the theater an ambitious dream was born. The apple orchard was transformed into Elitch’s Zoological Gardens (Denver’s first zoo), a wonderland of exotic animals, orchards, and gardens. There was plenty of entertainment: from marching bands to vaudeville to light opera. After the close of the first season, John invested $35,000 in a theater troupe, which toured up and down the Pacific Coast. It was in San Francisco that he contracted severe pneumonia, and died two weeks later, March 10, 1891.
It was a sad but determined woman who returned to Denver. A 34-year old widow, short on cash, she sold the majority of her garden’s stock to a group of Denver capitalists. She remained in an administrative capacity with the company, and by 1894 had regained total control of the gardens. Over the next 20 years Long provided high quality low cost entertainment for thousand of visitors from around the world. Elitch’s was the first place in the American West to show Edison’s Warograph (animated pictures that were the precursor to movies”).
In 1897, Long formed the country’s first summer stock company. A who’s who of stage legends such as Edward G. Robinson, Douglas Fairbanks, Sr. and Jr., Vincent Price, Gloria Swanson, Ginger Rogers, and Lana Turner played the Elitch stage. In 1906 Sarah Bernhardt was brought to Denver to play “Camille” and “LaSorcier,” both in the same day!
Music was always an important factor at the gardens. Not only were brass bands popular with visitors, but soon outdoor symphony concerts were drawing large crowds. By then, there were swings, a merry-go-round, and a train which added to the merry atmosphere of the gardens.
With the death of Long’s second husband, Thomas Long, in 1906, J. K. Mullen and Jim Berger began running the non-theater operations and helping with financial decisions. By 1916, however, the park had fallen on hard times, and the entire property was sold to John Mulvihill. Long had provided in the sale contract that she would live rent-free in her cottage on the grounds and receive $50 a month until she died. She spent the last four years of her life with relatives and died at age 80 on July 16, 1936.