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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The pool closed after the 1993 season, and on March 17, 1994, it was the last dance for the ballroom. The park declared bankruptcy and officially shut down on March 31. By April 16, auctioneers were picking Peony clean.
Nearly two decades after it all ended, Jennings still can take a quick drive to where the memories have yet to be uprooted. He leaves the strip mall and quickly turns into Webster Street, and pulls up near a home that Joe Malec Sr. lived in before it was moved from the park. A few houses away is his grandmother’s old house that Jennings lived in. She planted flowers from the original Peony Gardens, and the current homeowners keep them blooming each spring.
“Those peonies have kept growing and growing and growing,” Jennings said. “They last forever.”
Just like the beautiful memories many still have of Peony Park.
PEONY PARK RISES AGAIN BY WAHOO LAKE
Even though it was nearly two decades ago that Omaha’s beloved Peony Park was destroyed by wrecking balls and the auction block, the owner of the 21st century version of that legendary playland claims Peony never died. It’s just been moving since 1995.
Carl Jennings’ backyard was next door to the West Omaha landmark when it was still standing and he became perhaps the most versatile employee in its history. A year after Peony was sold, Jennings obtained the rights to the former park’s business from its final owner, Joe Malec III, a grandson of the founder. They were lifelong buddies and best men at each other’s weddings. Jennings vowed to his close friend that he would carry on the proud tradition.
In the ultimate example of the power of positive thinking, Jennings often promotes Peony Park as now being in its 94th year of operation. The new park became reality when he broke ground in 2001 on 23 acres of a heavily wooded wheat patch that reminded the disabled Navy veteran of Vietnam.
“I hack it out and chop it out and we build a park over a couple years of time,” he said.
In a striking coincidence, Jennings discovered the land he was digging into off County Road had been the popular Wanahoo Amusement Park more than 60 years ago. Jennings has included hundreds of pieces of memorabilia from the old Peony site, and now holds concerts in his own Royal Grove, which he says is a remarkable echo to the past of the beloved outdoor concert stage. He even has the original ornamental iron gates from the Royal Grove entrance in West Omaha.
Jennings runs corporate picnics, weddings, community functions and concerts, including one with the legendary Midwest rockers, The Rumbles. His park opens in May and closes right after Halloween.
Even though he’s still trying to navigate red tape, Jennings is hoping to add amusement park rides this year, and is trying to buy back from Maine owners the Galaxy roller coaster he helped build at Peony in 1972. In December, he sold thousands of items from his Peony Park collection at an Omaha auction. Jennings says he has invested more than $1 million in this venture, and something even more costly: countless hours away from his family, including his wife, Vicki, and their two children and two grandchildren.
There have been some obstacles on this new Peony trail, including vandalism issues, but Jennings isn’t a guy who quits easy. He survived several decades in Navy intelligence that began with U.S. helicopters buzzing over his head in the final days of the Saigon evacuation, and ended with his service in the first Gulf War.
Now, his mission is bringing new dreams to Peony Park.
“It’s just overwhelming at times,” he said. “There’s been 100-degree temperatures, and 15-hour days. But I’ve been trained over the decades. Whether it’s Peony Park or the Navy, I live by one thing: Never say die.”
(This story originally appeared in the March/April 2013 issue of Nebraska Life Magazine)