It was the 1970s: a time when “dinner and a show” could mean just about anything. And Casa Bonita on West Colfax Avenue in Lakewood was one of those just-about-anything places.
It could seat up to 1,100 patrons, entertaining them while they waited on their food.
The restaurant, expected to soon reopen following a major renovation by new owners and “South Park” creators Matt Stone and Trey Parker, doubled as a kind of circus back then.
Michael Romero of Denver remembers it all. He was a cliff diver and performer at the restaurant from 1975 to 1981. He made $10 an hour — a pretty penny those days — and he was young, and got to do what he loved. Not only that, he found something greater: meeting Dawn, the love of his life, on the cliffs he jumped off of.
“She was the first girl they hired as a diver when they opened up,” Romero said. “She was so beautiful. I thought she was out of my league when I first met her, even though I was a bit of a stud myself. I saw her on the cliff, and apparently she was looking for me, too.”
It was the day after Halloween, 1975. Romero had been a collegiate diver and gymnast at Metropolitan State University of Denver, and was invited to be an entertainer at Casa Bonita based on his reputation. Dawn was a standout diver and gymnast at Arvada West High School, where she coached the men’s diving team after graduating.
Casa Bonita was run by an entertainment manager formerly from the Ringling Bros. Circus, Romero explained, who was a trapeze flier and gymnast, at the time. Funny enough, the manager and Romero had connections in common, leading to his quick hiring.
But when Romero got hired, he said he was expected to do a bit more than diving and gymnastics. During his tenure, he’d have to make some costume changes, too.
“The original entertainment manager, he and his wife were the typical circus family. They lived in this big truck-mounted camper and they traveled with the circus,” Romero said. “We all had to learn how to juggle fire clubs. There was a gun fight. I was a stuntman as well.”
That meant he had to wear cowboy hats and all kinds of outfits. One act was Romero’s favorite. In a King Kong-ish reenactment, he’d don a gorilla suit. In the act, he would throw a woman off one of the cliffs, into the water below, and then jump in after her.
“I’m the only man in the world that can say he got to dress up in a gorilla suit at Casa Bonita and throw his wife off a cliff, and still be married to her 46 years later,” he said, laughing. The two married in 1977 and had their son, Zachary, in 1978.
Romero is now looking at the past — Casa Bonita's reputation for good times, but bland, but "not horrible," food — with a heavy heart. He’s excited about the reopening to see if the great parts of the restaurant are preserved and other parts are better than before, but it will be a bittersweet return. Dawn passed away a few weeks ago.
“It was such a storybook story. My wife was really just the sweetest thing. Absolutely stunning. Captured the whole room,” he said.
After her diving days, she became a third-grade teacher at Stedman Elementary School in Denver’s Park Hill for 35 years, where she affected countless lives.
“She was so, so good at her job. That’s probably the thing she’ll be remembered for the most. She’s so loved in the Park Hill community. She taught in the same classroom for 35 years,” he said.
He and his family will return when it opens and he’s anxious to see what it turns out to be, even though “everyone is worried it will become a ‘South Park’ amusement park,” or something.
Romero hopes for the best. He’s curious about claims the menu will improve, and hopes the entertainment talent gets paid what they’re worth, like he did during his time there.
The exact reopening date is still to be determined, though the restaurant has promoted a “Grand Reopening” in May.
He was excited to return with Dawn to the place that gave them the best gift of all: a lifetime of memories, a love story, and a family to carry it on.
“She always said it was love at first sight. She went home and called her aunt or grandma and said she met the man she was going to marry, before we even went on a date,” Romero said. “We’ve always taken people there. We were definitely going to be back. We feel like we’re part of the history there.”
When Romero goes to see the improved Casa Bonita, he’ll be thinking of Dawn.
“It’s really bittersweet right now because she really wanted to go,” Romero said.