Electrical engineer Art Rodgers of Longmont first visited Casa Bonita when he was a boy. No, not THAT Casa Bonita in Lakewood. This one was in Tulsa, Oklahoma.
Casa Bonita was part of a chain originally and the Tulsa restaurant opened in 1971, two years before the one near and dear to Coloradans’ hearts on West Colfax Avenue in Lakewood.
So Rodgers, 54, was pleased and surprised when his family moved to Colorado and discovered the iconic Lakewood restaurant, which he enjoyed taking his children to in the late 1990s.
“It’s definitely something of a landmark,” he said. “It was a lot of fun for the kids.”
Rodgers love for Casa Bonita and his other passion, building large Lego models, melded last year when History Colorado reached out and asked if he could build a Casa Bonita replica made of Legos.
“It had been on my bucket list of things to build anyway,” he said.
He belongs to a group called CoWLUG, which stands for Colorado Wyoming Lego Users Group. It built large Lego displays for History Colorado before, like the 56-story Republic Plaza building, Union Station and the Eisenhower Tunnel.
Last summer, History Colorado had a Lego scavenger hunt with about 40 different Lego creations tucked into the exhibits and displays.
History Colorado’s Jeremy Morton, exhibit developer and historian, immediately knew he wanted a Casa Bonita display.
“When I was growing up, a birthday wasn’t a birthday unless it was at Casa Bonita,” Morton said.
So in the “Denver A to Z” exhibit, “C” stood for Casa Bonita — even though the restaurant is in Lakewood.
Rodgers didn’t have much time as his model needed to be built in a week. And he was traveling for work that week — he works at data storage manufacturer Seagate Technologies in Longmont.
“I was very quick, but I knew I could get it done,” he said.
The hardest part was finding enough pink bricks for the front of the restaurant. Thousands of them.
“I literally was running up and down the Front Range looking for specific Lego sets to purchase the correct colors,” Rodgers said.
Then, jackpot. He found a store with Minecraft Lego sets based on the popular video game — and there were plenty of pink pigs.
“I bought like three or four sets,” he said.
Rodgers’ 3,000-piece model perfectly recreates the front of the 52,000 square-foot restaurant at 6715 W. Colfax Ave., complete with "Casa Bonita" logo and water fountain. He had some fun with the interior. The kitchen only has walls of microwave ovens.
“You know that’s all the food was — they’d microwave it and send it out through that little hole in the wall from the kitchen to the dining area,” he said of the notorious food.
There’s the obligatory cliff divers and pool, bridge behind the waterfall, Black Bart’s Cave, a roaming Mariachi band — with a couple of bagpipers thrown in — and “Easter eggs” everywhere.
“You have to have a sense of humor,” Rodgers said. “I grew up watching Buggs Bunny and you know so many things in those cartoons were for adults. The kids might not get it.”
He even put a “South Park” character in there as a nod to new owners Matt Stone and Trey Parker, the popular show’s creators.
“They’re obviously going to keep it an icon,” he said.
The display drew rave reviews, Morton said. It was near a screen with a running loop of the South Park episode that featured Eric Cartman sprinting through the restaurant trying to enjoy every feature before his parents caught him.
Asked how the restaurant has become such a pop culture phenomenon since Stone and Parker bought it, both men said “hope.” There’s a hope out there it can be restored to its former glory where childhood, and family, memories were created.
“It’s nostalgia more than anything,” Morton said. “For people who were born here, or grew up here, or even moved here and lived here a little while, Casa Bonita becomes a part of their Denver story. Whether it’s your favorite from childhood, or you just came here and fell in love with it — it’s just an incredibly unique experience. So it’s much more than a restaurant.”
The display now rests, in four large sections, stored in Rodger’s house. But the group is building a Main Street Disneyland display and Rodgers hopes to sneak a certain Mexican restaurant in there.
The real Casa Bonita is scheduled to open this month, but officials have not provided an official opening date.
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