Memories of Peony Park
Once upon a time, Omaha’s iconic playland had thrilling rides, sandy beaches and music from legendary stars.
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(This story originally appeared in the March/April 2013 issue of Nebraska Life Magazine)
THE TRAFFIC WHIZZES BY on West Dodge as Carl Jennings stands in the parking lot of this Omaha strip mall and searches for his lost city of Atlantis.
For decades this was Omaha’s ultimate playland, where summer throngs frolicked about the Midwest’s Coney Island and nighttime brought out thousands more as they danced to music worthy of Manhattan’s fabled Copacabana nightclub. They should have built a museum here in its honor, but there isn’t a statue or even a tiny plaque left behind for Peony Park.
“It’s like a family member dying,” Jennings said. “It’s like losing your best friend.”
Jennings glances over at the Big Red Keno, which used to be a theater and is the only structure that survived when the wrecking balls leveled Peony Park’s 35 acres in 1994. He looks around this hodgepodge of buildings and his eyes rest upon the Peony Park Hy-Vee. Near the supermarket’s dining area is a wall of photographs that tell the story of this invisible landmark, but Jennings doesn’t need to see pictures. He has thousands of them filed away in the basement of his Omaha home and about a million more left over in his mind.
He used to hop over the fence from his backyard and land in this magic world. Now, a lifetime later, he gazes off into the distance and the years melt away for the 57-year-old disabled Navy veteran of two wars.
Jennings points past the Hy-Vee to where he was a lifeguard at a massive cement pool that once was touted as the largest in world. It seemed as vast and pure as a glacial lake, with its castle bathhouse, a diving tower more than 30 feet high, water slides as steep as a three-story building, and thousands of sunbathers sprawled across the sand as if it were Miami Beach. He daydreams a little further and the amusement park rises from the ashes, with the roller coaster he helped build, and then that towering Skyrail tram suddenly appears, gliding high above a village of families spreading out summer picnics on endless fields.
Jennings motions to where the grand ballroom once stood, where as a teenager he accidentally twisted into Twist King Chubby Checker while pushing a cart of ice. The ballroom was known as the “Acre Under One Roof,” and it was the place Lawrence Welk’s career was saved, U.S. presidents appeared, and a colorful Nebraska U.S. senator died after he performed a song and dance.
The head turns a little farther and Jennings is a young bartender again at the outdoor concert area with a stage designed like the 1933 Chicago World’s Fair and crowds that often overflowed beyond 5,000. Everyone from Duke Ellington to the Beach Boys and heavy metal icons Metallica played here through the decades, surrounded by trees under a blanket of prairie stars.
Anybody who spent time at Peony Park has a favorite memory, including longtime Omaha Congressman Lee Terry. He was a young lifeguard scanning for trouble in the massive pool when he spotted Robyn in the red bikini.
“I was loving what I was seeing,” Terry chuckled. “I paged the girl in the red bikini to the head lifeguard chair. Seven years later, we were married.”
Terry started out his six years of Peony summer jobs scraping dishes in the ballroom in 1978, working as a 15-year-old busboy for Jennings. Then he moved onto the arcade, where after getting stuck with dozens of darts tending to the balloon-popping game, Terry decided to pass his water-safety courses and hang with the cool kids at the pool.
But being a lifeguard at this beach often was no day at the beach. Each year the crew had to spread hundreds of truckloads of sand to replenish a 2-foot-deep beach over cement that encircled the 700-foot-long, pear-shaped pool, and they also had to maintain a large sand pit that filtered crystal clear water from five artesian wells 200 feet below ground. The journey ended with 5 million gallons a day spraying into the pool through three giant fountains.
“The advertising was a half mile of sandy beach, and it was,” recalled Terry of the pool that in some areas was as wide as 400 feet. “We trucked that in every year, and we lifeguards had to get it all spread and patch the holes in the bottom before we could fill it.”
This spectacular water world also was the ugly scene of decades of racism until park owners in 1963 finally backed down to legal pressure and civil rights protests and lifted a pool ban against black swimmers. There were tragic drownings at Peony, and many rescues, including when a heavyweight champ in ballroom dancing named Tiny collapsed in the pool and it took four Tarzan lifeguards to pull out this baby elephant.
In 1972, on one of his first days on the job as a lifeguard, Jennings saw the haunting image of a lifeless child frantically pulled from the pool near the water slides. He was a boy of about 4 years old, but he became known as the blue baby, because that was the color of his little body as he was carried past his terrified mother. Soon she would shout with joy after a lifeguard thumped on her son’s tiny chest and revived him in one of the first rescue efforts utilizing a new technique called CPR.
Terry came to the aid of 21 swimmers during his summers as a lifeguard, including a girl who dove into the pool and landed face-first on the bottom. She was thrashing about with blood pouring from her nose when Terry pulled her to safety.
“Then 20 years later I’m at a restaurant and she comes up and says, ‘You saved me as a lifeguard,’ ” Terry said.
Terry was recently re-elected to his eighth term to represent Nebraska’s 2nd District in Washington, D.C., but he still lives in a West Omaha home with Robyn and their three sons, and his closest friends remain from that Peony gang. He did lose a few Peony pals when he was on the City Council in 1994 and voted not to fund an effort to save the park.
“There’s one that still hasn’t talked to me,” Terry said. “As a landlocked small amusement park it couldn’t survive as it was. As much as we loved it, it just had to be put out of its misery."