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." 

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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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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. 

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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.


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.” 

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