Peony Park has been gone for nearly 30 years. Can you believe it?
A generation of Omahans — and newcomers — likely are unaware that the city’s major amusement spot from the 1930s through the park’s closure in 1994 was at 78th and Cass Streets. A shopping area anchored by a Hy-Vee Supermarket has replaced it.
It’s a fitting time to look back at Peony Park, for there is a centennial of sorts. It was in 1921 that the Malec brothers opened a dance pavilion on their 10 acres.
Peony Park was out in the country. The nearest subdivision was Fairacres, a mile to the east. West Dodge Road, aka the Lincoln Highway, didn’t yet have its sweeping curve around the Methodist-Childrens Hospital’s hill. The road cut to the northwest on what is now 78th Street, then turned west when it met Underwood Avenue (now Cass Street) coming out of Dundee in front of the Malecs’ land.
Across “West Dodge” to the south, was the peony farm started in 1909 by John F. Rosenfield (1855-1934). The Swedish immigrant, who changed his last name from Larson, was a world-renowned cultivator of the flower — many called him the “Peony King.” He grew acres of peonies for 26 years at West Point, Nebraska, then he moved to Omaha to be closer to his markets and thus save on shipping costs for the flower’s short season. His 24 acres were a regional tourist lure when the flowers were in bloom.
Rosenfield transplanted himself one more time, to Indianapolis, selling Peony Farm to Richard Caplis (1872-1928) of Detroit in 1917. Rosenfield bought the land for $300 an acre and sold it for $1,400 an acre. Peonies were grown there through the 1930s.
The Malecs also had Detroit ties. The family immigrated to Omaha from Moravia in 1905. Joseph, one of the younger siblings, worked for a florist and was active in the Czech Sokol that took him to Midwest cities including Detroit. There, he and brothers Jerry and Godfrey opened two meat and grocery stores. Joseph came back to Omaha and, in 1916, bought land from George McArdle. The brothers returned to Omaha, too, and they opened a gas station and lunch place. They expanded their offerings to a full-scale restaurant that opened Oct. 1, 1919, with fried chicken as its specialty.
Its name? The Peony Inn. For the name, the Malecs piggybacked off the peony farm across the street. It was an easy reference point for their customers.
On May 28, 1921, Peony Park opened for the first time. The Malecs built a large frame dance pavilion, pillar-free to avoid obstructions for the Roaring ‘20s crowd. To the east was a pond with canoe rentals. It was a summertime haven only for two years before the building was heated for year-round use.
A fire totaled the pavilion in February 1925. A new brick ballroom was built — larger with living quarters for a caretaker to be on the premises.
A sand-bottom swimming pool, originally three acres with a 5-million gallon capacity, replaced the pond in 1926. It was built over a large underground lake that was tapped by seven artesian wells. A fireproof bathhouse was said large enough to accommodate 5,000 swimmers a day. Lights were installed in 1929.
With the Crystal Ballroom, the natural-bottom pool, 10 acres of athletic fields, a playground and picnic grounds, by 1933, Peony was declaring that it was “Omaha’s Family Country Club.” The Royal Grove for outdoor dancing opened in 1934 and the Tower Tourist Village (later the New Tower Inn, next week’s column subject), a year later.
During the Big Band era, Duke Ellington, Cab Calloway and, later, Guy Lombardo, played the Peony. So did one-time Omaha chicken farmer (80th and Miami Streets) Lawrence Welk. Contrary to lore, Welk’s home base in town was the Chermot Ballroom at 27th and Farnam Streets and not Peony. Malec’s claim in the 1960s that — in the 1930s — he inspired the term “champagne music” for Welk’s use also seems implausible.
Peony was a favorite stop for Omaha servicemen going back and forth in World War II. Malec, in 1968, said it was after the war when they were back for good and wanting to “romance the girls.”
Its first amusement rides were part of a $100,000 expansion in 1958. Charles Malec, one of Joe Malec’s two sons involved in the park’s operation by then, visited the new Disneyland and other amusement parks for the inspiration for a helicopter ride, train, merry-go-round, Ferris wheel, miniature roller coaster (it was still running when the park closed), turnpike auto ride and pump carts. Storybook characters such as “Willie the Whale” and the “Old Woman in the Shoe” were depicted. An attraction for young and old was the “Around the World in 18 Holes” miniature golf course.
That was Peony’s Wonderland. Funderland joined it in 1964. The new adult rides included the quarter-mile Skyrail. Remember the Scrambler, Paratrooper, Trabant? The Galaxy roller coaster? And the SkyDiver that led to one of the park’s lowest moments? That ride was removed soon after 13-year-old Neal Tetzlaff of Council Bluffs fell from it to his death in 1979.
Another less-than-rosy chapter in Peony’s history involved racial discrimination. According to Omaha Star archives, the color barriers at Peony were ongoing in November 1950 when a group of Black students was denied entrance to a dance sponsored by Central High. The park’s policy for many of its attractions apparently had changed by the time of Central’s Military Ball two months later. The DePorres Club attended an August 1951 concert to hear the Boys Town Choir, and “the group reported there was no show of resentment to their presence.” A formal dance sponsored by two Black social clubs in May 1954 drew 2,000 to the Terrace Garden.
But the swimming pool and beach remained segregated. Peony refused to allow two Black members of the Kellom Pool team — Leonard Hawkins and Bob Biddle — to compete in a swim meet in August 1955. Their two White teammates supported them by refusing to participate. The racial discrimination ended in the summer of 1963. It took members of the youth council of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People seeking entrance to the pool, followed by several days of peaceful protests. After two weeks, park management caved and opened the pool to all.
Another death at the park happened in 1988. Bryon Conant of Missouri Valley, Iowa, fell to his death from the Hurricane ride after standing up in the car after it was operating.
Peony remained a popular place until the late 1980s. Among the factors working against it were newer, larger amusement and water parks such as Adventureland in Des Moines and Worlds and Oceans of Fun in Kansas City. Peony’s owners filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in 1991. Its 26 acres were sold for development in 1994.
The rides were sold to buyers across the nation. The Wave Swinger to Lebanon, Tennessee. The roller coaster to Bangor, Maine. The Tilt-A-Whirl to Phoenix. The three crystal chandeliers from the ballroom went into Omaha hotel banquet rooms. The only surviving building from the park, which had been the Plaza Theater, has housed Big Red Keno since 1991.
The peonies are gone from the corner of 78th and Cass Streets. So are the original entrance gates. But for those who danced to Welk, Lombardo or the records spun at Sprite Night in the 1980s, Peony Park remains a song in their heart.