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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BACK AT THE STRIP MALL, Jennings gazes beyond the buildings at the lost land where there once were acres of picnic tables and ball fields. He sees another symbolic link to the past. It is called Peony Village Apartments, and perhaps some of its residents also remember the dreamland that Jennings and millions of other visitors romped about for nearly three quarters of the 20th century.

Jennings wouldn’t let the dreams of Peony Park die. He brought it back to life by heading 20 miles west. He acquired the rights to Peony Park in 1995 from his close friend, Joe Malec III, the grandson of the Walt Disney of Omaha. Then, in 2001, a book of historic photography was authored by Jennings about the park and he also broke ground on the new Peony on the 23 acres of land he purchased in Wahoo. He holds outdoor concerts and corporate picnics and hopes to add rides soon, including buying back from a Maine amusement park the Galaxy roller coaster he helped stack together in 1972 like a giant erector set.

Those days of fun and fantasy helped Jennings carry on through a nightmarish childhood. His mother was murdered and his father abandoned him for bottles of booze, but Jennings escaped his horrors by climbing the fence from his grandmother’s house to this other world of fun, adventure and opportunity. He took on just about every job there except putting on the costumes for park mascots like Clark the aardvark, and a skunk and bumblebee both named Peony.

The intense lifeguard training skills learned at Peony qualified Jennings for Navy intelligence special operations, and just months after graduating from Westside High School he was tossed inside the final chaotic days of the Vietnam War at the fall of Saigon in 1975. Somehow he made it home, back to Omaha, back to Peony, back to where he could breathe again.

Jennings takes a deep inhale and looks back across the other side of West Dodge, where travelers on the old Lincoln Highway once breathed in that fragrant scent of beautiful peony flowers that had been growing on that land since 1884. The peonies vanished years before Jennings’ childhood adventures, but this is where the Peony Park dreams began. There were fields upon fields of dreamy flowers farther than eye could see, in every color a brush could paint. It was an endless peony rainbow.

The seeds for this park were planted in 1919 when Joe Malec and his two brothers opened up their businesses on Cass Street to fuel both the engines and rumbling bellies of hundreds of motorists. They were heading to the spectacular floral show on the other side of America’s first national highway.

Carl Rosenthal owned the celebrated Peony Gardens and its 25 acres of prized peony fields, but his new neighbors across the road soon outgrew his fame and fortune. These hardworking sons of Czech and Lithuanian immigrants opened up the Manhattan Gas Station and a small restaurant called the Peony Inn. Their businesses quickly bloomed.

Joe Malec expanded the attractions into Peony Park and by 1926 a ballroom was built along with the massive outdoor pool. A decade of change loomed, which began in 1930 after the Lincoln Highway was rerouted away from Peony when the Blair Bridge was built. But the bands played on and so did that sweet music of his cash registers’ chimes.

Malec catered to the Peony customers and the ballroom even tap-danced around the Prohibition era with hidden cubbyholes under dinner tables for guests to stash whiskey bottles to mix with their glasses of 7 Up. On June 5, 1932, 18 months before Prohibition was overturned, Malec unveiled a beer garden, but before the next sunrise it burned to the ground in a suspicious early-morning blaze linked to a rumored turf war between Omaha beer distributors.

A rainstorm that night spared the nearby ballroom from the flames, and soon grew into an indoor acre for dining and dancing. Three spectacular chandeliers were hung from the one-acre dance hall promoted as the “world famous” Royal Terrace Ballroom.

“There’s not enough wood in Omaha to build another ballroom like that,” Jennings said. Legends of the jazz and big-band era all played on this stage. There was Louis Armstrong, the Dorsey Brothers, Guy Lombardo, Glenn Miller, and an accordion player with a “wunnerful, wunnerful” thick German accent named Lawrence Welk. He would go on to become perhaps the most famous bandleader in TV history, but in 1936, Welk was tiring of touring the Midwest and was ready to give up on his act after buying a home in West Omaha on Miami Street.

He lived just a mile and a half from Peony, where his friend Joe Malec resided in a home at the park. Peony legend has it that the two started raising chickens together on Welk’s 5-acre farm, and Malec convinced his friend not to hang up the accordion, promising plenty of shows at the ballroom. The Peony performances kept him out of debt and two years later, Welk’s career hit the high notes. Although there are varying accounts, Peony folklore says it was Malec who coined the signature phrase that described the bubbly Welk sound as Champagne Music.

In the mid-1970s, Jennings met the bandleader out in California, where he lived at the Lawrence Welk Village. Welk was astounded when Jennings passed along greetings from his boss.

“It stopped him dead in his tracks,” Jennings recalled. “He said, ‘You know Joseph Malec. Oh my, my, my.’ He grabbed my hand and shook it for the longest time.”

Peony hit even higher notes in the 1930s with the unveiling of grand outdoor concerts at its Royal Grove. It featured an open-air stage, an orchestra and a floor with enough room for 3,000 dancers to sway under the moon and stars. Before his death in January at the age of 91, Arthur Koterba delighted in sharing his memories as a musician there, and during the interview, that magic time rolled back to a golden era when he was a 14-year-old drummer. He often wore a tuxedo as he kept the beat going for those summer nights on the Royal Grove stage.

“It was just beautiful in the summertime with all the trees,” Korterba said. “When I played up there on the stage I used to watch the moon come up. It was magic.”

While his son, Jeffrey Koterba, has gained fame as the editorial cartoonist at The Omaha World-Herald, Arthur has had his own moment in the sun, and moon, with a stellar drumming career. He even played for Johnny Carson’s magic show, yet some of his proudest moments were on the Grove stage when a 10-minute solo by Koterba brought cheers from GIs just days before they headed off to World War II.

“I almost cried,” he said. “Here they are ready to go off to war and they’re applauding for me.”


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Nebraska Life March 2018 - March 2018
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