Warren St Thomas: Night Club King of Denver

“Warren is not a saloonkeeper or a strip joint owner. He is a creative artist who might have been an outstanding designer, painter, or architect, but who happens to run the world’s most exciting night club. He’s the exotic dancer’s dream. He’s a master showman.” – Evelyn West (1956)

“With the almost overnight success of his Tropics, St Thomas became night club king of Denver.” -Cabaret Magazine (1956)

In 1937, Rocky Mountain News columnist Lee Casey wrote, “What Denver chiefly needs is a burlesque house and some strip-tease acts.” In 1948, Warren St Thomas inadvertently answered Casey’s call when he opened Warren St. Thomas’ Tropics on Morrison Road in Westwood, a neighborhood southwest of Denver. “Denver was ready for a top-quality club when I came on the scene,” Warren said in 1956. Of course, the Tropics was much more than just a burlesque house with striptease acts, or just any other club. It was a unique experience. One that had never existed in Denver before the Tropics, or after it. And it made Warren St Thomas the “night club king of Denver.” This is his story.

Warren John “Jack” Thomas

Warren’s father, Warren John “Jack” Thomas, born December 20, 1882, was the son of David Palmer and Margeret Davies Thomas who emigrated to the United States from Wales in 1878. After sailing out of Liverpool, England on May 25th, then taking a train from New York to Utah, David and Margeret, along with their first son Alfred, arrived in Salt Lake City on June 13th. The family stayed with David’s brother Thomas, who had converted to the Latter Day Saints (LDS) church and previously emigrated to the United States, particularly to Salt Lake City, in 1871. David and Margeret stayed only briefly with David’s brother before finding their own place, where they also had their second child.

Masonry was the Thomas’ family trade and soon after settling in Salt Lake David began working as a stonemason cutting stone alongside his brother Thomas for the Salt Lake Temple, which was under construction at the time. Years later, in 1977, David’s daughter wrote about her father and uncle saying that  “some of the finest stone cutting on the Temple was done by them, including that of the moon and stars that trim around the top.” David and Margeret moved again, this time to a new house at 659 North 1st West where Margeret gave birth to two more sons, Elmer Gwyn and Warren John, who was called “Jack.” The new house provided all the comforts and conveniences that were lacking in previous residences. Sadly their stay was cut short when the property was foreclosed on after David couldn’t come up with the $500 mortgage. The loss left Margeret heartbroken. A couple more moves followed and the family finally ended up in a small adobe house at 328 Center Street (now 576 Center Street) where they had four more children. 

As a child, Jack was known for his love of horses. Jack’s sister Natalie recollected, “it was his great joy to make a horse buck under him, for he loved to ride a bucking horse.” Jack, along with his brothers Rhone and Gwyn, used to herd cows around Ensign Peak. Jack also ran his paper route on horseback. Pay for such work was used to supplement the family income. In 1900, Jack began a career working for the railroad. He was initially employed with the Denver and Rio Grande Railroad as a baggage handler. On November 8, 1905, Jack married Susan Alice Hathenbruck in Provo, Utah. Their marriage was later solemnized in the LDS temple. Susan was the fifth child of Frederick William Claude Hathenbruck and Rozella Rebecca Sansouci of Provo, Utah.

Jack and Susan’s first son was born on November 10, 1906, and was named Armand John. A second son, Kenneth Jerome, arrived on September 14, 1908. After the birth of Kenneth, the family moved to 222 N. Grant St in Pocatello, Idaho where Jack became a ticket agent for the Oregon Short Line Railroad. Tragedy struck the Thomas family on November 1, 1912, when Kenneth drowned in the Portneuf River while playing with a friend above the Fremont steel bridge. He apparently lost his balance and fell into the river. The cries of his friend brought help, but it was too late to save him. After a five day search for Kenneth, his body was found by rescuers who had been out patrolling and dragging the river. A funeral service was held for Kenneth at his grandfather’s home in Salt Lake City and a burial service took place at the Salt Lake City Cemetery on November 8th. 

Soon another son was born. Warren Earl Thomas (the “St” would come later) arrived on April 11, 1914, while the Thomas family was still living in Pocatello. Just two years after Warren’s birth his sister, Dorothy Alice was born. Shortly after giving birth to Dorothy, Susan passed away leaving Jack with two sons and a newborn daughter to look after. He would need help with the kids so Jack moved the family back to Salt Lake where the children began living with various members of the family, Dorothy Alice in particular was taken in by Jack’s brother Alfred and his wife Fannie. 

In 1918, Jack’s father David Palmer was having his leg amputated at W.H. Groves LDS hospital in Salt Lake City. David was visited by many family members including Jack who on one particular visit caught the eye of Laura Emmabelle Stevens, a graduate nurse who tended to Jack’s father. Apparently Jack took an equal interest in Laura Emmabelle as well. Two years later on January 17, 1920, they were married in the Salt Lake Temple. Soon after Jack and Laura moved into a home at 188 E Street and were joined by Jack’s children Armand, Warren, and Dorothy. Laura stopped working at the hospital to spend time running the Thomas household and taking care of the children. On May 18, 1922, Laura gave birth to a son Gwyn Stevens, named after Jack’s older brother, and then on September 4, 1925, another son was born, Robert David. Again, tragedy soon struck the Thomas family. Shortly after son Robert was born, Laura fell ill and struggled with health issues for several years, eventually succumbing to breast cancer on May 24, 1928. 

Jack, among other things, was also a singer. He sang with various groups in Salt Lake City including the Emma Lucy Gates Salt Lake Opera Company, the Salt Lake Oratorio Society, and the Orpheus Club. According to the Jack Thomas Papers, in 1916 Jack “became a member of the Tabernacle Choir and was appointed tour manager.” It was while singing with the Tabernacle Choir that Jack met Emma Elizabeth Lindsey. The two fell in love and on October 16, 1929, Jack and Emma were married. Emma cared for and raised Jack’s kids as her own. Gwyn would later note, “This new mother was a very wonderful person.” Jack and Emma stayed together for the rest of their lives working and supporting each other in various endeavors, particularly those relating to the Tabernacle Choir. 

After fifty-two years as an employee with the Union Pacific Railroad, Jack retired as General Passenger Agent in 1952 but continued his work with the Tabernacle Choir. In 1955 the Choir went to Europe for the first time. In 1957, Jack wrote a book about the trip titled, “Salt Lake Mormon Tabernacle Choir Goes to Europe, 1955.” The book chronicles the seven-week European tour noting concerts in “Glasgow, Manchester, London, and Cardiff, United Kingdom; Copenhagen, Denmark; Berlin and Wiesbaden, Germany; Amsterdam and Scheveningen, The Netherlands; Bern and Zurich, Switzerland; Paris, and France.” The tour required “travel by sea, air, train, and bus to cross the Atlantic and to get around the European continent.”

For many years, Jack also raised funds to bring guest conductors and soloists to the Salt Lake Tabernacle for the annual rendition of “The Messiah,” and world-famous artists to give concerts in the Tabernacle.” Jack passed away on August 29, 1973, and Emma soon followed on October 10 of that same year. 

The Avenues in Salt Lake City

The Thomas home at 188 E Street was just east of the Utah State Capitol. It was situated on the southeast corner of E Street and East 4th Avenue in an area called “The Avenues.” The Avenues, surveyed in the 1850s, is currently the city’s largest historic district of almost 100 square blocks of late 19th and early 20th century homes with unique architectural styles ranging from Queen Anne to the Prairie Style. The district sits on the sloping north-east bench of the Wasatch Mountains at the eastern boundary of the Salt Lake Valley. 

Today, The Avenues is considered an “artsy” cultural district, however it was originally established primarily for artisans, tradesmen, common laborers, and others who desired to live in close proximity to the urban city center. At the turn of the century, when Warren called The Avenues home, the residents were predominantly middle and upper-middle-class professionals. Various schools and churches were also built in The Avenues to accommodate children and adults as the district continued to grow. 

One of those Schools was the Lowell School, located at E Street and Second Avenue, which was attended by Warren and his sister Alice. Warren first made the papers in 1922 when various publications printed the story of a seven-year-old Lowell School pupil who discovered six sticks of dynamite partially hidden in the snow by the west fence of the school. Warren took the sticks home thinking they were candlesticks. His father realized the sticks were dynamite and quickly contacted the police. 

Some years would pass before Warren appeared in the newspapers again but he certainly kept life interesting. While reflecting on his childhood many years later with friend Tom Quinn in Sausalito, California, Warren noted that he and another childhood friend once built a moonshine still with the intention to distribute. Such an endeavor during the era of Prohibition was not all that unusual, for adults. Deborah Toschi, the wife of Warren’s friend Joe Toschi, remembered Warren saying he “made and sold bootleg whiskey from age of 14 through 17.” 

Utah newspapers during this time were filled with stories of moonshining. Sheriffs in various cities were consistently shutting down stills, seizing shipments, and arresting moonshiners. Utah churches were asking congregations to “denounce Americans who encourage lawbreaking by purchasing liquor.” News publications at the time made it clear Salt Lake City was not immune to the vices that were affecting most cities across the country including gambling, narcotics peddling, and prostitution. So it’s quite possible Warren was in the business of making and running moonshine. He certainly possessed an entrepreneurial spirit. 

In 1929, Warren made the papers again. According to the Provo Daily Herald on May 2, the 15-year-old Warren along with his 11-year-old friend Burt Bridewell was apprehended by Provo city police for having “borrowed an automobile in the rear of the Peter Junior apartment house in Salt Lake.” The boys struck out for southern Utah switching out license plates along the way. They made it as far as St. George before hunger forced them to double back to Provo where an aunt of one the boys lived. Provo police officer Bert Halliday found the boys there “heartily enjoying a square meal.” According to the article, the two boys said they planned to “see the world.” Patrolman Charles W. Larson took custody of the boys and returned with them to Salt Lake. Not long after being apprehended for car theft Warren committed a burglary and was sent to the Utah State Industrial School in Ogden, Utah. 

The Utah State Industrial School

The Utah State Industrial School, formerly The Utah Territorial Reform School, was built in 1889 to address Utah’s “rowdy teenagers” who, according to a 1995 article in the History Blazer by Yvette D. Ison, were “a menace to Salt Lake residents during the early years of the city’s development.” The design and layout of the school were based on the findings of an 1888 committee that was formed to investigate various schools around the nation at that time to determine the best model for Utah. The group concluded that they “preferred the schools that had no walls, no heavy frowning buildings with barred windows but nice pleasant homes, surrounded with lawns, gardens, trees,…where a boy is held more by a sense of honor than by bolts and bars.” 

In the book, A History of Weber County, authors Richard Roberts and Richard Sadler note that The Utah Territorial Reform School was established in Ogden in 1888, in part, because “Ogden was so accessible” to all parts of the territory by railroad. “The site for the school was selected at 20th Street and Monroe; it opened in 1889 and initially housed twenty-three inmates. The building included three floors and a basement.” 

In 1896, the Utah State Industrial School was moved to the old military academy site on north Washington Boulevard. Boys at the school were taught vocational trades, attended regular school for part of the day, and devoted the remainder to learning domestic and social skills. Courses for boys included carpentry, shoemaking, printing, animal husbandry, horticulture, dairying, and poultry raising.

The 1930 census, which was taken on April 1, lists the 16-year-old “pupil” Warren Thomas among many other teenage inmates. While at the Utah State Industrial School, Warren again made the papers. A March 14th headline in the Salt Lake Tribune stated “Shot Kills Youth Trying to Escape at Ogden School.” Of course, it was not Warren who was killed, but rather a 17-year-old fellow reform school inmate named Charles King who Warren escaped with. Charles King was sent to the Utah State Reform School on October 10, 1929, for holding up attendant Max Curran at the Independent service station at Riverdale Rd and Kiesel Avenue on October 4. King made his getaway in a stolen car, cash, 11 gallons of gas, and two quarts of oil. According to the March 13 edition of the Ogden Standard Examiner, King was arrested the next day in Morgan, Utah by Deputy Sheriff Charles Richens who recognized the sedan automobile King was driving as one that belonged to his brother which had been stolen on March 3. Beyond the crimes he committed, little was known about King. According to school authorities, King refused to tell them anything about himself, his home, or his parents. They also said that King had repeatedly boasted that he planned to escape.  

Warren later noted that he had no plans to run away from the reform school stating he had no malice against the institution or staff. Warren did say that King felt “the officials were unfair.” Warren was aware that King planned to escape and King asked Warren if he wanted to escape with him. Warren was initially hesitant. However, when Warren had some merit marks taken away from him for going to nearby Five Points to buy some tobacco he began to consider King’s offer to tag along. As Warren stated after the escape, “I had never thought of escaping until the merit marks were taken from me,” he said. “The day before we escaped King asked me if I wished to escape with him. I didn’t give him the final answer until just before we left.” Warren also noted that King used to sing a song about staying in jail in the wintertime and wandering in the summertime. “I think he had planned all winter to leave,” Warren said. 

The newspaper wrote that Warren, “a tall black-eyed boy, testified that he and King, after having escaped from the school, were proceeding northward along a roadway paralleling the Oregon Short Line tracks when two men from the reform school, Superintendent Child and LaGrande Walker, stepped out from behind a pole and flashed a light on them.” Warren stated, “One of them yelled halt and King and I both turned and started running northward. A gun fired immediately afterward.” Superintendent Child stated he didn’t intend to fire the gun and it was after he began running after the two boys that his foot got caught on the rail and he fell forward. Child said, “That’s when the gun went off.” King ran two or three steps and then fell to the ground. Warren testified, “I hesitated for a moment, began running again and then stopped.” Superintendent Child approached King who said to Child, “You’ve got me.” 

Warren testified that superintendent Child bent over King and said “I didn’t mean it King.” The superintendent then went to get his car. Warren and Walker placed King in the back seat of Child’s car. Warren later stated, “We drove northward to Twelfth Street. Superintendent Child was driving and Mr. Walker was in the front seat. I was holding King in the back seat. He never said a word.” A doctor arrived at the reform school’s hospital at 8:45 p.m. and found the boy dead. The doctor noted that the bullet had entered King’s left shoulder and lodged in his lungs, causing death by internal hemorrhage. 

The shooting was covered in various newspapers, as was the inquest that followed. Witnesses were brought forward, including Warren and representatives from the school who provided testimony on King’s character. During cross-examination by county attorney Blackham, Warren stated, “I didn’t think Superintendent Child stumbled. He didn’t say anything that night about stumbling.” On March 19, a coroner’s jury returned a verdict exonerating Superintendent Child saying “King came to his death from a gunshot wound inflicted by Child without felonious intent.” Following the inquest, Warren quietly completed his “stay” at the reform school. 

 To Hollywood and Back 

Perhaps during his time at the reform school, Warren developed an interest in art, particularly in art related to theatre. After leaving reform school, Warren headed out to Los Angeles, California, where he studied theatrical art and props, possibly at the Chouinard Art Institute then located in Los Angeles at 743 S Grand View Street. Warren also did some work for RKO Orpheum and the Fanchon and Marco Studios in Hollywood. Years later, Warren proudly spoke of doing film set work for the legendary Mae West, who he eventually booked to appear on stage at the Tropics.  

Warren returned to Salt Lake City in 1932 and was again living in the Thomas family home at 188 E. St. He soon began working in the theatres around Salt Lake City. A 1932 article in the Salt Lake Telegram declared, “Warren Thomas provided special scenery and effects for “One of the Family,” a comedy-drama production under the direction and supervision of Huron L. Blyden that took place at the Playhouse Theatre, located at 132. S. State Street. 

Another 1932 article titled, “New Theatre Enterprise Offers Vaudeville Bill” in the Salt Lake Tribune also noted Warren as the advertising and business manager of Salt Lake’s new theatrical company, The Salt Lake Musical Comedy Guild. The article notes the guild “has opened for a season of entertainment at the Hippodrome Theatre,” located at 121 E. 2nd South. Warren is quoted saying “The Company’s presentations will be of great interest to the Salt Lake public as it represents the living stage that the city has been without for some time.” 

In June of 1932, Warren Thomas’ Exposition Revue was performing at the Playhouse Theatre in Salt Lake, and the Crest Theatre in Provo, Utah. The June 9th edition of the Deseret News described the Exposition Revue as a “musical comedy trip around the world in dance and song, with comedian singers, dancers, and a glorified beauty chorus on the stage.” 

The June 14th edition of the Daily Herald in Provo noted that the Exposition Revue at the Crest “proved to be a winner, making the entertainment one of the finest ever staged before the public of Provo.” They continued to praise the production noting that “the costumes and stage settings are unusually attractive and add greatly to the entertainment.” 

Warren’s success was briefly interrupted on July 7 when he began a 30-day stint in the city jail after pleading guilty to liquor possession about a week prior, as noted in the Salt Lake Tribune. The Tribune reported, “Judge M.J. Bronson fined Thomas $150, but the defendant went to jail when he was unable to pay the amount.” On July 25th Warren was pardoned by the city commission on request of Hugh Blyden who noted to the commission that the defendant had a number of dependents who needed his support. Blyden also said that he would give Warren a steady job and be responsible for his conduct. The petition was endorsed by Judge M.J. Bronson, among others. After his release, Warren went back to work and his artistic talents continued to be noted and praised in theatre reviews in the Salt Lake area. 

On July 3, 1934, Warren married Gertrude Piett in Salt Lake City. Gertrude Piett was born on September 15, 1915, in Salt Lake City Utah to Gerardus Bruno, a cabinet maker by trade, and Gertruida Paulina Scholze. Gerardus migrated to the United States from Holland in 1908, then traveled to Salt Lake City. It has been written that Gerardus arrived in the United States with only $30. After a brief period of working and making money, Gerardus sent for Gertruida in 1909 who then joined him in Salt Lake City where they married on July 10, 1910. That same year they had a son, John Gerrit, and, in 1915, a daughter, Gertrude.  

In 1935, Warren and Gertrude were living at 120 3rd East in Apartment #107. Warren was working at the Roxy Theatre and also doing freelance work in the city. On January 11, 1936, the Utah Manufacturers Association held its 31st Annual Convention at the Hotel Utah. The convention highlighted Utah manufactured products and was attended by prominent politicians and business leaders. Hundreds of prizes containing products made within the state were given away to attendees. Guests were entertained by various programs, but according to the Salt Lake Tribune, “topping the list of gay offerings will be the ‘Romance of Utah Manufacturing’ representing in pageant, tableaux and playlet form, practically every Utah era from pioneer days to the present time.” The Tribune also noted that “Special scenery by Warren Thomas, Salt Lake City scenic artist, will authenticate the presentation of pioneer and present-day Utah manufacturing and industrial scenes with song and dance accompaniments. Views of the Salt Lake Valley, Salt Lake City business buildings in the fifties, and the driving of the Golden Spike, with replicas of the old engines used in that event, are among the scenic effects to be on view.” 

From Salt Lake City to Denver 

In 1937, Warren and Gertrude left Salt Lake City for Denver, Colorado where Warren took a job at the Center Theatre located at 1621 Curtis Street on Denver’s Theatre Row. The 1937 Denver city directory notes Warren’s occupation as “Artist.” The couple lived in a rowhouse once located on the southeast corner of 22nd Street where it meets California, just north of the city. 

The 1400-seat Center Theatre was opened on December 23, 1907, and was originally called the Majestic. Around 1913 the theatre’s name was changed to the Empress and according to local newspapers, the shows at the theatre ran the gamut of entertainment ranging from vaudeville acts to musical comedies to acrobatics to dancing marathons to eating contests. In 1936, the Empress was sold for $75,000 and reopened as the Center Theatre.

Warren spent about a year working at the Center Theatre before taking another job at the Denham Theatre, once located on the northeast corner of 18th and California (now a parking garage). Warren and Gertrude also changed residence in 1938 moving to 1620 Grant #215. 

In 1939, the couple moved again to 4601 W. Byron located on the north side of Sloan’s Lake, west of the city of Denver. 

Sloan’s Lake

The creation of Sloan’s Lake is the unintended result of a farmer, Thomas S. Sloan, who dug a water well in 1861 then “watched in amazement and concern as the water in the well overflowed and flooded the long dry prairie valley where it was located.” When the water stopped flowing Sloan had a 200-acre lake. Sloan continued to work the land but in 1872, sold his property and moved south to Pueblo.

In 1874, I.M. Johnson purchased 80 acres on the north side of the lake and planned to open a grand formal park but could not get the financial support to turn his vision into a reality. The lake was dormant for quite some time, used mostly by ice cutters and skaters in the winter.

In 1891, the Manhattan Beach Company purchased the Sloan’s Lake area “and brought it into its greatest glory.” Before the grand opening in June 1891, extensive work was done on the property including the planting of thousands of trees, shrubs, and flower gardens. Three thousand loads of California sand were also hauled in to create a 500- foot sloping bathing beach. The third-largest auditorium theatre in the United States at that time was also built on the property. Ten-thousand people visited Manhattan Beach on opening day and the park thrived for years until December 26, 1908, when a late-night fire left much of the park a pile of smoldering ashes by morning. 

Another park was soon created but the site couldn’t return to its glory days. By the 1920s, Sloan’s Lake had reverted to swamp and cattails, a habitat for blackbirds, ducks, and geese.

In the Spring of 1940, the Works Progress Administration (WPA) approved a grant of about $750k to be used toward park improvements in Denver. The city would be adding an additional $50k. “About 1,000 men will be employed for 12 months on the construction of a swimming pool, new park areas, and boathouses at Sloan’s Lake,” among other improvements. For most, it was the birth of something new. For those who remembered the magnificent amusement park that once stood between Sheridan, West Byron Place, and Wolff Street, it was a rebirth. 

Warren and Gertrude moved again about a block away from Sloan’s Lake to a single-story row house located at 2666 Utica street. Warren was still with the Denham Theatre working as a “commercial artist.” The city directory notes Warren making $2,700 and the couple paying $30 a month for rent. Beyond his work at the Denham Theatre Warren and Gertrude were also associated with the concessions at the recently remodeled Sloan’s Lake Park, such as boat rentals and water skiing offered at the White Acre Boat Dock. 

In 1941, there was a Regatta at Sloan’s Lake. The printed program listed the events of the “the biggest combined water regatta in the west”  and also provided some history about the lake and listed various recreation opportunities available to visitors. On the cover of the program was artwork done by Warren, which included drawings of small sailboats, motorboats, and a man and woman on water skis. Warren also wrote one of the articles that appeared in the program titled, “Water Ski and How” in which he provides a brief overview of water skiing, particularly as it relates to Sloan’s Lake. 

Coast Guard 

On January 15, 1943, Warren enlisted with the U.S. Coast Guard. He noted in a 1998 interview that his duties included minefield charting as a navy lieutenant commander. In the August 17, 1945 edition of the Salt Lake Tribune Warren’s step-mom is noted as having three boys in the service; Warren and his half brothers Gwyn and Robert Thomas. Warren’s rating is noted as “BM1/c,” or Boatswain’s Mate First Class. 

According to the Navy Enlisted Occupational Standards a Boatswain’s Mate:

“trains, directs, and supervises personnel in ship’s maintenance duties in all activities relating to marlinespike, deck, boat seamanship, painting, upkeep of ship’s external structure, rigging, deck equipment, and boats; take charge of working parties; perform seamanship tasks; act as petty officer-in-charge of picketboats, self-propelled barges, tugs, and other yard and district craft; maintain discipline as  master-at-arms and police petty officers; serve in, or take charge of, guncrews or damage control parties; and operate and maintain equipment used in loading and unloading cargo, ammunition, fuel, and general stores.” 

Warren was stationed at Naval Air Station Alameda located in Alameda, California, on the eastern shore of San Francisco Bay, adjacent to Oakland. The U.S. Coast Guard Training Station was located here among many other operational and training facilities.

Because of his experience working in theatre, it has to be assumed that Warren spent time touring the Theatre District in San Francisco. An area known as the International Settlement was well known at that time as the place for sailors to go for all sorts of entertainment. 

According to the U.S. Department of Veteran’s Affairs, Warren’s release date was October 2, 1945. Warren returned to Denver where he and Gertrude continued to provide concessions at Sloan’s Lake and, according to the Denver city directory, Warren was again working as an artist, perhaps back at the Denham. But a new adventure was about to begin southwest of Denver in an area called Westwood. 

Westwood, Charlie Bell West, and the Doodle Bug Tavern

In 1946, Westwood was an area about six miles southwest of the city of Denver located between South Federal Blvd, west Alameda Avenue, south Sheridan Blvd, and west Mississippi. County Road No. 8 cut a diagonal path across the square area from the northeast corner to the southwest corner. County Road No. 8 was later renamed Morrison Road which originated at Colfax (now Old West Colfax) just west of the South Platte River and ran south-southwest to the town of Morrison, located just inside the foothills of the Front Range. It was one of the main routes across the rolling prairie lands that lead to the mountain parks, although not the most pleasant one to travel on. Before major improvements were made to the road around 1915, especially the 17-mile stretch from Sheridan Road to the town of Morrison, a traveler might find themselves rattled by bumps, stuck in a rut, or axle-deep in the mud. Improvements to the road created more traffic and eventually more growth along Morrison Road. The Colorado Department of Transportation noted that “the once pastoral communities flourishing with farms, dairies, and orchards on Denver’s periphery were being reborn as residential subdivisions.” A 1946 newspaper article described the ensuing growth of the Westwood area: 

Before the depression of 1929, the area was little more than rolling prairie land. Westwood developed during the depression when times became hard, cheap land was the only land people could afford. It became a shack town, trailer town and tent town. Building lots were sold for $1.00 down and 50 cents a week. Then came World War II, and shack town became a boom town. The Denver Ordinance Plant (present day Federal Center) was built west of Denver. Westwood was near the plant and land still was comparatively cheap, with building restrictions almost non-existent. Arms plant workers flocked to the town of Westwood. Houses, some below Denver’s standards, were rapidly built. In 1946, lots were selling on West Alameda for $10,000 a pair. Businesses increased from corner groceries to swank road houses, several with gross sales of $100,000 a year.” (Westwood neighborhood plan, 1986). 

Westwood became a “boomtown” and one of the many industrious individuals who benefited from it was 56-year-old Charlie Bell West. West owned the Doodle Bug Tavern at 4842 Morrison Road. Business at the Doodle Bug Tavern was good, until the evening of March 27, 1946. The March 28th edition of the Rocky Mountain News reported, “West entered the tavern late last night with a gun and ordered the patrons out.” West then called Westwood police chief Albert Bower stating, “I am drunk as hell! You come over here and I’ll shoot you full of lead!” Highway Patrolmen Bill Orsman and John Knight went to the tavern just after 8:30 p.m. to investigate. They were greeted with a blast from a shotgun that peppered their patrol car. The patrolmen called for reinforcements and a four-hour shootout followed. Shot blasts first came from the Tavern’s second-floor windows. The patrolmen returned fire with multiple tear gas bombs throughout the standoff, which filled the second-story apartments. West responded with shotgun blasts and a tirade of insults. 

Arapahoe County Sheriff Charles Foster told the Denver Post, “We had several opportunities to shoot West but we all knew the man and wanted to take him alive if we could.” A thick cloud of tear gas slowly began to blanket the area around the tavern where crowds were gathering. Among the spectators was West’s wife Frances and daughter Betty. West moved to the basement to avoid the tear gas but eventually returned to the second floor.

Determined to end the standoff, Patrolman Ralph Shimel of the Denver Police, along with Sheriff Foster and undersheriff Melville Comer, scaled the roof of the tavern. Shimel moved down the roof to a gable window when he suddenly came face to face with West who was at the window trying to get some fresh air. West reached for his gun but Shimel fired first, trying to shoot West in the leg, but instead hitting West in the right chest. Shortly before West died he told Sheriff Foster, “I’ve been sore as hell at the Westwood cops. I wanted to kill the whole damn outfit.” West died twenty minutes later. He was laid to rest in Denver’s Fairmount Cemetery. 

After the gas and dust had settled, and repairs were made, the tavern was back in business. Ads for the Doodle Bug appeared in the local paper The Westwood News during the remainder of 1946, and into early 1947 inviting folks to come out and “Swing to the tune” of various performers such as Russ Dymond and his Colorado Buckaroos, Red’s Rhythm Kings and Frank Wales and his Doodlebuggers while indulging in “fancy mixed drinks.” Business at the Doodle Bug appeared to be doing well, however, at some point in mid to late 1947 the tavern was sold. The buyer was a man who, in 1947, was going by the name of Warren St Thomas.

Warren St Thomas’ Tropics Opens Tomorrow! 

In 1947, Warren and Gertrude were living in a modern home on the north side of Sloan’s Lake at 4635 Byron Place, about five miles north of the Doodle Bug Tavern. It can only be assumed that the recent residential growth taking place in Westwood at that time was the reason Warren chose this location over a location in downtown Denver. Perhaps Denver didn’t allow the type of business Warren was planning to open. Regardless Warren quickly set about converting the old Doodle Bug, what he later referred to as “a floundering neighborhood tavern site,” into a tropical plush oasis he called Warren St Thomas’ Tropics. 

Soon, the Tropics was ready to go. The doors opened on Saturday, March 20, 1948. The grand opening was announced in an ad in the Rocky Mountain News the day before. It was a subtle ad offering customers an “exotic tropical setting,” “unusual tropical drinks,” “genuine southern pit barbecued meats,” and “dancing to the band who is predicted to be the next big sensation in Denver.” 

The Tropics club was a first of its kind in Denver. What inspired Warren to open such a unique club is perhaps related to his time in the Coast Guard and spending time on southern Pacific coast beaches, where there was often found a night club reflecting the tropical environs. Warren spent much of his time in the San Francisco Bay area and perhaps spent some of his nights in tropical-themed bars sipping on unusual tropical drinks and being enthralled by the setting. 

In Sacramento in 1944, not far from San Francisco, there was a club at 1019 J Street called The Tropics. It also offered dancing and music in a “seductive atmosphere of true Hawaiian charm.” Perhaps Warren spent some time there, was taken in by the atmosphere, and decided to repeat it back home in Denver. Regardless of how it came about, for many Denver residents a night out at Warren’s club was like taking a vacation in, well, the tropics. The first ads for the Tropics announced “a tropical hurricane every hour with sensuous dancers,” and music provided “by Shelley Rhym and his 7-Piece Band.” 

By June of 1948, the Tropics expanded beyond “sensuous dancers” and was advertising “Torrid Dances” and “Girls, Girls, Girls!” One of the early torrid girls at the Tropics was Dottie “the Chicago Fireball” Carlton, and many more would follow.  Warren’s club was an immediate success. He later said in an interview, “Almost at once the Tropics became one of Colorado’s plushest night clubs in the Rocky Mountain area.” 

Beyond running the Tropics, Warren and Gertrude continued to provide park concessions at Sloan’s Lake. They made the papers in November of 1948 when they sued the city who was looking to cancel the concessions contract they had with the couple. That year the Tropics also sponsored the #8 Roadster at Englewood Speedway, a track once located on the northeast corner of Federal and Oxford until 1972 when it closed. The location is now the Oxford Federal Business Park. 

Warren and Gertrude’s steady success was interrupted on Saturday evening on March 20, 1953. Tropics waitress Lucy Puglaielli was at the club alone preparing to open. Puglaielli decided to turn on the television but found it to be unplugged. The interior of the club was dark and she struggled to locate the electrical outlet located behind a piece of furniture. For better light, she lit a match and attempted again to plug in the TV set. The flame caught the base of a curtain on fire. The fire started around 5:30 pm. By the time the fire department arrived the Tropics was engulfed in smoke and flames that filled the sky. It could be seen for miles. The fire took an hour to put out. Warren and Gertrude arrived at the scene around 5:45 pm to find the club completely destroyed. Warren’s initial thought was that it was arson until Puglaielli confessed later that evening to accidentally starting the fire. The Denver Post wrote that “Had the fire have started a few hours later the club would have been packed with customers and many lives might have been lost.” 

The Tropics was insured for $60,000 but Warren claimed the total damages at $200,000. The cost of rebuilding was not Warren’s only concern, he also had signed contracts worth thousands of dollars with scheduled entertainers and would have to pay thousands in penalties to cancel those contracts. He also noted that the fire put twenty-two Tropics employees out of work. Although the fire was devastating, Warren told the Denver Post that he planned to rebuild the club immediately, saying, “tomorrow, if I can arrange it.”  

The entire club had to be rebuilt. Warren hired a West Coast architect named Richard Crowther who, while living in San Diego, worked as a neon light designer, helping design the