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Arts & Life

Waterfalls, Cliff Divers and Gorillas, Oh My: Artists Pay Tribute To Casa Bonita

Since 1974, Casa Bonita has combined dining, décor and cliff diving for a one-of-a-kind experience both celebrated and parodied throughout pop culture. But for the past year, the iconic Lakewood venue has been shuttered due to the pandemic. One thing that has continued: an annual art exhibition put on by NEXT Gallery and Casa Bonita aficionado Andrew Novick.

KUNC arts reporter Stacy Nick spoke with Novick to find out more about the show and the beloved venue behind it.

Interview Highlights:
These interview highlights have been lightly edited for length and clarity.

cliff diver.jpg
Courtesy Andrew Novick
One of the venue’s highlights is the indoor waterfall and cliff divers.

Stacy Nick: You're known as Casa Bonita’s No. 1 fan; you've visited the “eater-tainment” venue more than 300 times. So what is it about this strip mall, Mexican restaurant that's often critiqued for its food and its cheesy décor that seems to capture so many people's hearts?

Andrew Novick: I think part of it is kind of retrospective because I've been going there my whole life. So it's like something that we went to as kids. And just because it's still there, which is kind of rare — things that you went to as a kid are usually gone 40 years later. But also, even after all this time, it's still entirely unique. I mean, it's a restaurant that everyone complains about the food, so it's clearly not about the food.

And every time I go there, I have a sense of wonder all over again because it's so big and there's so many things in there — like the waterfall — and you feel like you're outside, and the sounds and lights and everything in there. It's just... it's unmatched.

Is there a concern that it might not reopen?

Every couple of years there's a rumor that comes out like, oh, somebody's just closing, you know? And it's like it's never been like a well-founded rumor. I've never seen any indication — even when Star Buffet, the parent company, had a bankruptcy — it was a reorganization. And there was really no worry of Casa Bonita closing. But in this case, I did get worried because their website went down, their Facebook page went down, and the worst ever, the lights in the tower went off.

So when you're driving down Colfax Avenue, you can see it from really far away and it's this landmark. It's this kind of oasis in the distance. That's what prompted me to get a hold of (owner) Bob Wheaton. It's like I got scared that it was actually closing. But I think it's just going to be a matter of waiting it out.

I guess one way we're still able to experience it right now is the continuation of your Casa Bonita-themed art show, now in its fourth year. Tell me, how did that get started?

When NEXT Gallery moved from northwest Denver to West Colfax that first year, they always have a big group show, like an open call. And so for that open call, Betsy (Rudolph) — she goes by Dolla B. — had this idea to do a Casa Bonita show because they're really a half a block west of Casa Bonita.

And so she called me in as a Casa Bonita aficionado and so she and I have run it for all four years. Like, just out of curiosity, if you had an art show for people inspired by Casa Bonita, ‘what would they make?’ You know, we weren't really sure. You could make a painting of the façade or whatever, but people have done sculpture, they've done quilting.

This year, there's actually a tortilla that magically has the façade of Casa Bonita on it, like when someone sees the Virgin Mary in a dinner roll or whatever. Except here, someone has found the picture of Casa Bonita in a tortilla and it's framed. It's really nice. There's so much cool stuff. And we have about 50 pieces a year and it's still wowing us every time the kinds of things that people come up with.

Are there any favorites this year for you?

There's a really cool one by a friend, Nate Hayden, who designs board games. He doesn't sell art, he doesn't join art shows. So I kind of had to cajole him into it. But he made a really kind of cool, eerie one of a ‘50s family sitting at a table in the stalactite cave. And there's the flag, you know, the telltale flag that you raise when you want more sopapillas or whatever. But then also there's a gorilla with them just sitting at the table, like just as part of their family. And then the waitress also kind of looks like a mom. So it's almost like they just live there and that’s their mom serving them dinner, you know? So I thought that was kind of cool, a little bit outside the norm.

Casa Bonita exterior.jpg
Stacy Nick / KUNC
The pink tower and waterfall are part of Casa Bonita’s iconic imagery.

There are so many iconic images from this place, things that resonate with anyone who's ever visited even once — the flags on the tables, the cliff divers, someone wearing a gorilla suit, Black Bart’s Hideout...

Yeah, even the façade itself. It's like this pink tower with a gold dome and a statue on top, and then there's a fountain outside. There's at least one or two works that involved the fountain.

Did you consider not doing the show this year?

Yeah, we talked about it, and that's why it's called “Wish You Were Here” as kind of like that travel postcard kind of feel. In this case, it's like we wish Casa Bonita were here, but we thought, you know, this year may be more important than ever for something for people to think about Casa Bonita in its absence.

The Casa Bonita art exhibition “Wish You Were Here” is on display through March 7 at NEXT Gallery. All works can also be seen on the gallery’s website.