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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Some of the biggest crowds would come for proms and holiday dances for high school and college students in Omaha. Just months after the gates closed for good on Peony Park in 1994, Subby Anzaldo served as the interim mayor of Omaha for several months, but in the 1950s, he stood on stage before those enormous dance floors, serenading a sea of clinging couples with his clarinet and saxophone as a member of Omaha’s classy Eddy Haddad Orchestra.
“We played the most romantic ballads you could ever imagine,” Anzaldo crooned. “They danced close. Very close.”
But crowds were even bigger at the pool. More than 4,000 swimmers would fill this mammoth man-made lake on a sweltering summer day. There are oceans of memories for lifeguards, and the top one for Jerry Fennell was on July 28, 1963, when he was sitting atop his chair on a Sunday night, and a falsetto voice and surfing music rolled in like a California wave.
“I’m out there on a lifeguard chair at 8 o’clock at night and the Beach Boys are playing,” Fennell said. “I can hear it perfectly and I’m 50 yards away from the stage. The kids are dancing. Of course, I wanted to be over there.”
Fennell now lives in Milwaukee and it has been nearly five decades since he was the head lifeguard, but the images are all still so clear for him. He stills sees that pearly white beach sand that was powerwashed with nozzles of warm water by dedicated workers like Jennings, and he remembers the Muscle Beach section where gymnasts would swing on the rings and pommel horses. Clearest of all was the water itself, purified by state-of-the-art sanitation systems. He used to drop a half dollar from the high tower and look down and see the coin 14 feet deep into the water at the bottom of the pool. Things got much murkier and creepier when darkness closed in.
“At 10 at night if there were still clothes left that hadn’t been claimed in the bathhouse we had to go out and search the pool to make sure there wasn’t a body in there,” Fennell said. “That was a creepy, creepy job.”
Attorney Frank Kreifels has 3,000 clients at the longtime law firm he runs in Omaha, but he dealt with thousands more each day when he was the head lifeguard at Peony. Kreifels was running the pool in 1972 during the dramatic “blue baby” CPR rescue, but he says a much more heroic effort happened that same year, when lifeguard Peter Cimino risked electrocution to save a stranded boy frozen with fear.
The metal frame on a diving tower had been hit by an apparent electrical shortage and sparks were shooting off it like a science fiction movie. The whistles blew and panicked swimmers raced out of the water, except for that one kid trapped by his fear. Cimino knew that the water may have been sizzling with electricity, but he still dove into the pool and rescued the boy. The juice from the pool tower proved not to be so shocking. Cimino survived and is now an orthopedic surgeon in Omaha.
Kreifels demanded that his lifeguards always be on the lookout for trouble in the pool, but sometimes these young men had trouble focusing on the water. The distraction was hundreds of young girls in bikinis. Sometimes, the pool pranks splashed all over the Peony family atmosphere. A shriek would be heard off in
the distance after a young rascal sneaked up on a female swimmer waiting to climb the diving board.
“A kid would go up behind a good-looking gal who was wearing a two-piece and take the top of her suit and pull it down,” Kreifels said. “Then he would just dive off into the water so that you couldn’t tell who did it.”
The castle bathhouse itself was filled with folklore. Film star Nick Nolte was said to have passed out towels in the late 1950s as a student at Westside High. And then there was the penthouse on the top floor. It was notorious for its nighttime indoor sports.
THE FINAL DECADES of Peony had many sunny memories, but dark shadows seem to edge closer. The amusement park began in the 1950s with a huge miniature golf course and places like Funderland and Wonderland, and giant rides were added in 1972. There were thousands of thrilling rides, and two deadly ones.
On Aug. 4, 1978, a 13-year-old boy fell to his death when the cage opened on the Skydiver. Two other children managed to survive as they clung to the capsule. Almost exactly a decade later, tragedy struck again with a fatal fall off the Hurricane ride.
There was even death in the political arena at the park. On March 8, 1987, the Royal Terrace was the stage for the fatal final appearance of Nebraska’s greatest Jewish politician.
U.S. Sen. Ed Zorinsky appeared at the annual Omaha Press Club Gridiron Show and did a spoof on rumors of him switching back to the Republican Party, singing a takeoff on “The Great Pretender.” He ended his ballroom performance with a quick soft-shoe dance, but within a half-hour the 58-year-old senator collapsed at the Royal Terrace and died from a heart attack.
The ballroom had a history of hosting men who made history. Presidential candidate Jimmy Carter appeared there in 1975, and the Omaha native he defeated, former President Gerald Ford, spoke at Peony in 1978. Just years before the final curtain, President George H.W. Bush visited the ballroom in 1990.
The demise of Peony Park lingered for years. There were still shining moments, especially the annual Labor Day festival for Italian-Americans, La Festa Italiana, and the park kept drawing big-time bands, like the Royal Grove concert by Metallica in 1987. Then on Oct. 20, 1991, a concert at the ballroom was headlined by the Red Hot Chili Peppers. The show also included alternative rockers Smashing Pumpkins, and the opening act was an up-and-coming grunge band from Seattle by the name of Pearl Jam.
After Joe Malec Sr. died in late 1970s, his flamboyant son, Joe Malec Jr., added $3 million in park improvements, but the woes continued to mount. Neighbors complained about nighttime noise, and Peony was losing ground to regional entertainment complexes in Iowa and Missouri. The debts continue to crash in on Joe Jr., who had been a Top Gun pilot in the Navy.
Soon, tragic deaths began to haunt the family. In the late 1980s, Jennings had lunch with Chuck Malec, Joe Jr.’s older brother, Chuck, himself a decorated World War II pilot and a popular co-owner of the park. When they left the restaurant, Malec told Jennings he was going to check the beer inventory at the park, but Jennings urged his friend to take a break from the heavy lifting. Hours later, he was found dead in the beer cooler, apparently stricken while performing the job Jennings warned him about.
Then in November of 1990, Joe Malec Jr. died at home, at the house where former Omaha Mayor Mike Fahey now resides. Soon, Joe Malec III decided to distance himself from all these bad family memories and cashed out, selling the business to a land-development group.