Tuesday, December 29, 2009


The time was the 1920’s, gangsters in pin striped suits and wide brimmed hats roamed the streets, and bootlegging was common. Prohibition obviously didn’t stop many from the use, sale and consumption of alcohol, especially the mafia. As a Denver native, I was curious to learn more about the three notorious brothers who controlled the local crime ring in Northwest Denver. Not to mention, I caught the bouqet at Smaldone wedding Yes, Denver's own "mafia."
There was Eugene “Checkers,” Clyde “Flip Flop,” and Clarence “Chauncey,” and they opened Gaetano’s Restaurant, which is still in operation, under different ownership. The bulletproof front door the brothers put in to protect themselves remains, so it seems that the only thing missing is the mafias offices in the basement, where some say they organized crime and conducted illegal business.
The brothers all had criminal records, and all plead guilty to loan sharking. History suggests that they loaned $30,000 dollars a day at 5 percent interest a week. Between them also came tax evasion, bookmaking, gambling, burglary, and possession of illegal firearms. On a much more serious scale they were believed to have been involved with a number of murders but were never convicted.
While they had their negative connotations, there were also positive ones. History also suggests that they put at least five North Denver kids through school, fed struggling Italian families and donated money to churches and charitable organizations.
As a kid I remember catching the bouquet at a Smaldone wedding. Not until learning about Northern Colorado’s leading crime figures did I start to wonder if there was any relation. Turns out there is, Pat Smaldone, who was the groom and a friend of the family, is a relative to the brothers. I met up with him and his wife at Galeton’s, where they told me about going to Clyde’s funeral and some other Smaldone stories. I noticed the incredible artwork on the wall and Pat informed me that Clyde painted those while he is in prison.
One day when Pat was golfing, a retired health inspector inquired about his last name. When Pat told him he was in the Smaldone lineage, the inspector told him about a time he went to check a walk in refrigerator and found a group of men inside playing cards in suits. The inspector said he nodded and exited the restaurant.
The Smaldone tales still live on; to this day Pat still receives calls asking if they have the right Smaldone family.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Genghis Khan Exhibit

If there is one person I would avoid a run in with, I would choose Genghis Khan. A walk through the exhibit at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science would most likely have you thinking along the same lines. I quickly learned that Genghis Khans' distinctive leadership style led him to conquer more than half the known world, starting in his teenage years. The Mongolian leader crafted nomads into warriors and rewarded them for their loyalty.
The exhibit will take you on a journey through the 11-16th century. This follows Genghis Khans life, his sons and grandsons, who continued his legacy. Many objects that were crafted and used by the tribes are on display, such as robes, ornaments, their version of passports, trebuchets and catapults. Several of these have only been seen in Russia and Mongolia, which makes Denver one lucky city!
I would have gladly followed Genghis Khan, seeing as they were the most powerful tribe. However, I thought seriously about joining another team when I learned followers had to wear their shirts till they disintegrated. Even if I had to wear every last stitch of my shirt, it would be a 'stitch in time' that would be worth it.
Make sure you see Genghis Khan conquer Denver at the Museum of Nature and Science before February 2010 or it will too late, they were nomads after all.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Jump Street

When is the last time you said the words, “one, two, three, four, I declare a seat war!” Lucky for me, that was today. That’s right, I am past the prime of my childhood years, but I brought it back!
Driving past Jump Street quite often, has made me more than a little curios about the laughter I could hear bellowing from the walls as I drove by. Finally, I had my chance to run up the walls of this indoor trampoline playground.
My friend Gina and I stepped onto the trampoline that was 30 times the size of the one I played on growing up. We were running up walls, sliding down the walls, practicing cart wheels, having seat wars, knee wars and even made a new friend. She was about 2 feet 7 inches and she came to see if we wanted to play tag.
The game Gina and I were playing earlier definitely needed some pizzazz so we agreed. As we chased our new 5 year old friend around I turned to Gina and asked her if this was considered bullying. But we soon learned that the little girl was darting left to right in speeds that I could not keep up with.
After our heart rates came down from an intense game of running and leaping from trampoline to trampoline a little kid ran right up to and said, “Look there’s a big kid!” I nodded my head with a smile, knowing I still had the “kid” status.

Monday, November 30, 2009

Seven Passenger Bike

The inventions people come up with truly are astounding. While passing a board of advertisements one in particular drew my attention. I decided my family was about to encounter an experience they surely had never seen coming. Soon I organized for my entire family, grandparents included, to come up to Fort Collins.
Upon arrival, they all walked around this one of kind “seven passenger bicycle” with perplexed looks. “Does it actually work?” said one. “How fast does it go?” asked another. “Lets take it for a spin and see,” I said. With seven people pedaling and others following along waiting their turn, we took on the charming Old Town Fort Collins.
It definitely gained a lot of attention, laughs and of course some confused looks. Even the chief of police had something to say. “Excuse me, I am going to need you guys to come over here.” Startled, seven heads turned to see that there were even more police officers behind him. Knowing we could never escape, even with the power of seven pedaling, we steered over towards them.
The chief of police wasn’t out to arrest us, he just wanted a picture with us. A sense of relief flowed as we snapped a quick picture and continued to head down the road.
I have never seen my grandparents laugh so hard, or so many curious people. It’s always entertaining to try something new and different, especially when it stops traffic.

Monday, November 23, 2009

My Great Aunt Velma

It has been said that with age comes wisdom. Well, it also comes with persistence and never ending laughter. Well at least in my Great Aunt Velma’s case.
Still as sharp as the needle she sews with, she shows no signs of being 95 years old. I had met her once when I was only four, so now that I am at an age I can appreciate her; I knew it was time to make the trip. She lives in an incredibly spotless and well maintained home with no assistance.
I quickly learned how determined and motivated my Great Aunt is. Her daughter recently made a trip to her home to hide the ladder from her insistent mother. Velma says she will now have to figure out another way to get on the roof with the leaf blower. In the mean time, she focuses on picking up leaves and maintaining what is in reach of her height, a mere 4 feet ten inches.
I asked her how she stays so young. With a big smile she lowered her voice and told me it was the simple trick of vitamins! That must be one super vitamin because she is always on the go and keeping up with a craft of some kind. If she’s not sewing pillowcases, she is designing bookmarks, doorstops and pin cushions. But most of all she is always cracking jokes.
My Great Aunt Velma told me about noodling in the lake so her family of nine could have a good dinner. (Noodling…well that will be another story soon to come.) But what she remembers most is chasing her younger sister around the yard with a snake and says she would have her going for miles.
At dinner the waitress rattled off about fifteen sides Velma could choose from. Just as the waitress was finishing she took a deep breath and Velma calmly asked her to please repeat them. The waitress’s eyes widened to the size of our dinner plates. Velma started laughing, told the young lady she was only kidding and would have the first item on the list.
She never misses a beat. At the last doctors appointment the doc told her she should easily live to be one hundred. It was her turn to widen her eyes and she looked at her daughter and said, “Looks like we need a new doctor!” And out came her sweet rolling laughter again.
As the holidays approach may you find the untold stories that could bring joy and laughter to your special family members.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Redstone Meadery

When I mention “mead” I find that most people ask me to repeat myself. When I continue to say it’s a type of honey wine, ears seem to instantly sharpen and eyes focus in. Now that I may also have your attention, mead is the world’s oldest beverage, believed to be invented in 7000 BC in Northern China. A friend first introduced me to the drink and before I could take another sip, I had plans to visit the Boulder Meadery to see exactly what was fermenting.
Upon walking inside the small operation in Boulder Colorado, I found a lively atmosphere and a friendly guide that did not delay in letting the tasting begin. After rolling in the honey, we took about seven steps and were already in the middle of the mead magic. A space about the size of two conference rooms cranks out enough mead to be one of the leading producers across the country. The whole process happens in the small space, from brewing to bottling.
After learning the science of how two sole ingredients, honey and wine, come together to create a delicate and refreshing beverage, it was time to wet the palette again. Our small tour group took turns anxiously rushing sample glasses to the tour guide, to get a fill on many types of mead. Whether sparkling mead, still mead, mead mixed with fruit or mead mixed with spices, each sample has an incredibly distinct flavor. Mead may be a hidden secret many have yet to discover, but I quickly learned why the world’s most ancient beverage was back in fashion. I would like to raise my glass and cheers to those that were brewing up the recipe over 9,000 years ago.

Sunday, November 15, 2009


Performances are meant to leave an impact, but after seeing the acting group “Phamaly” perform I left with so much more. “Phamaly” stands for Physically Handicapped Actors and Musical Artists League. Despite having disabilities, these actors put on a show that rivals any other company in town.
After seeing “Phamaly” put on the show “Urinetown” I saw a story that needed to be told. I went to the audition for their next play “Man of La Mancha,” with my camera so more people could witness the incredible songs they sing, energy they convey and the compassion they show for each other. As I looked around the room I saw people that had lost the ability to see, hear and walk, just to name some of the challenges faced.
The acting group behaves as the name of the group implies, as a family. Cheering and encouraging each other, even when auditioning for the same role, I saw a deaf person escort a blind person onto the stage for his audition. Upon communicating with them, I learned that they are good friends and need nothing but the compassion to help each other connect, succeed and keep living.
After a day of interviews and remarkable performances the premiere couldn’t come soon enough. The play was flawless even with the added challenges all the actors face. Actors helped one another by guiding wheel chairs around stage, or a blind performer to his mark.
After the show I was able to talk again too many of the cast members. The lead in the show, Leonard Barrett, has multiple sclerosis. He told me thank you for sharing the story of ‘Phamaly.’ But really I owed him a thank you for allowing me to share the powerful story of people that even with loosing an ability, will never loose the spark for life.
Pictured is Leonard Barrett, he has multiple sceloris, and played Don Quixote in the play.
***The story can be seen on my website at http://www.carriwilbanks.com/. Click on news segments and select the "PHAMALY" thumbnail.***

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Billy Banjos Bus Tour

Boarding Banjo Billy’s bus is unlike boarding any other. Upon setting foot inside you realize no seat is alike, and there is not a bad seat on the bus. Well, only if you count the lonely saddle that is saved for the bravest soul. An array of fluorescent couches, recliners and padded chairs take over what was once traditional seating.

After choosing a cushy chair we drove away as the tin roof on the hillbilly looking bus rattled away. We stopped at landmarks, mansions and cemeteries to hear stories of the local haunts. I couldn’t tell you if the ghosts really exist, but I can tell you the stories are gripping.

When we pulled up to Colorado’s Capitol Building, I was thinking of the stain glass, gold dome and large white pillars. On hearing of the haunted happenings in the underground tunnels below the Capitol, my perspective of this location has broadened to include a much deeper level.

The scariest story was that of the Croke Patterson Mansion, which extends beyond creaky floorboards and daunting sounds. The owner was so disturbed that after his first night in the house he never returned. Since then, the mansion has served many types of businesses but all have been driven away by paranormal activities within. Currently, the yard displays a “for sale” sign that could possibly remain as long as the house stands.

After hearing some disturbing Denver tales, I came to find that I really hope some of this history doesn’t repeat itself.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Denver Gorilla Run http://denvergorillarun.com/

1,061. That is the number of gorillas that ran down the streets of Denver Halloween morning. With a sight like this you may think the “Gorilla Run is held to celebrate Halloween, however it celebrates the lives of the 720 mountain gorillas alive today because of the run. The fee and donations for the race raises money so the number of endangered mountain gorillas can continue to grow.

The Mountain Gorilla Conservation Fund has made it their mission to help save and protect the lives of the mountain gorillas in Africa. The success is in the growing numbers. Before the “Gorilla Run” made its debut six years ago, there were around 248 mountain gorillas in the wild, today there are about 720 due to these efforts.

Running in a full on gorilla costume for 5.6 kilometers was worth the heat to save the life of a gorilla. The 1,061 of us that came together to run also broke the Guinness World Record for the amount of people dressed as gorillas in the same location at the same time.

Even though I felt as if I was running in a sauna with skewed vision from my gorilla mask, I was going bananas over the creativity of the costumed gorillas. There were no plain gorillas in sight. One man went so far as to put his gorilla on stilts, others bladed, boarded or biked. But most gorillas ran in their gorilla costumes that were decked out from bridezillas to hippie gorillas to hula gorillas. The impact goes beyond the crazy costumes and the record books. The impact lies in effecting the survival of one of the world’s most endangered animals, the mountain gorillas of Rwanda.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Golden Bike Tour

The hooting and hollering of nearly two hundred people accompanied the blaring stereos and honking bike horns. For Golden, Colorado this scene simply marks a traditional bike tour held on the last Tuesday of the month. Those from nearby cities and towns come together to cruise through one of Colorado’s most picturesque cities. But as the riders will tell you, it’s more about the people than the scenery.

As I pedaled with the locals, I came to realize most people come out for an energy boost. It is on this ride that strangers become friends. Chatting away with the riders, I paced with the crowd, a crowd that displays all sorts of apparel. Some wear Halloween type costumes, others plain street clothes, and some go so far as a three piece business suit, complete with dress shoes.

The sun was already setting halfway through the ride, forcing bike lights and bike reflectors to make their debut. Not even the sunset can keep these riders from calling it a night. As you can tell from the picture I had to call it a night before even making it home.


Click here to view these pictures larger

Monday, October 19, 2009

The 80's Ladies Run Wild

The 80’s Ladies were dressed to the nines and ready to take on the “Run Wild Race” in authentic 80’s leotards. Flashy colors from head to toe was the only requirement of our theme.
Participating in running events and road races has always been at the top of my ‘to do’s.’ I believe this started because as young tots time outs and groundings didn’t exist. Instead, my brother, sister and I would have to run laps around the cul-de-sac for punishments. Somehow the cul-de-sac laps brought an enthusiasm to running for my brother, sister and I.
Road Races have never lost their excitement, but have become even more exciting when there is a special twist. Rockin’ the side ponytails the 80’s ladies were ready! I can assure you that competing in a race with water obstacles, splashing through a creek, jumping over hurdles, crawling over hay bells and doing high knee lifts through tires sprawled over the course does become complete when wearing lavender leg warmers.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Urban Assault Bike Ride

Racing against the clock my teammate and I sprinted through Elitch Gardens for a ride down ‘Splash Mountain.’ Equipped with a bike helmet and gripping tightly to four multicolored beads I closed my eyes as I double checked to make sure the seat belt was securely fastened. I told myself getting drenched from the biggest wave in Denver would be worth adding the fifth bead to the string.
My race partner and I, soaked, sprinted out of the park after grabbing bead number five, in order to prove the challenge was completed. We hopped on our bikes and mapped out the next check point in our heads. Navigating through the streets of Downtown Denver we pulled up to a swimming pool. Before we even had time to think about a strategy, we were swimming across the pool, fully clothed, to collect our final bead.
I quickly learned that no challenge is off limits at The Urban Assault Bike Race. There are six check points set up across the city and each features a different challenge. One challenge was riding under a limbo stick on a mini bike. Other challenges included bike jousting, a three legged race in extra large shoes and a moving newspaper toss. The goal of the race is to map out the most efficient course, ride the fastest and complete the challenges with no hesitation.
After all the beads were collected it was time to pedal in high gear to the finish line, hop on a big wheel bicycle navigating through an obstacle course to splash down to the finish on the water slide. http://www.urbanassaultride.com/

Friday, October 9, 2009

Missing Signs

Driving out of my neighborhood I cranked my wheel as far left as I could to avoid being swallowed by a life size disaster! The biggest pothole I have ever seen was lying right ahead staring hungrily at the bumper of my car. The rainy Colorado summer may have brought out the greenest landscapes I have witnessed but the moisture also brought out a hole in the road that almost damaged my car beyond repair.
As I pulled over to regain my composure I had an idea. I gathered my partner in crime and we made a sign to place next to the rain filled pot hole that read as follows, “No Swimming Allowed.” Living in a neighborhood where humor is always on the fly, we knew it would be sure to gain a few laughs.
The next day our sign was GONE!!! Rustling out more construction paper it was time for round two and this sign read “No fishing either.” I was pretty positive that no fish were living in the water but didn’t want my neighbors getting any wild hairs.
A few days later the no fishing sign was swept away as well! It was time for the final sign that read, “Missing Signs, Reward Offered.” You know we never did get those signs back but the pothole was soon repaired.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Freshly Made Cider

Cranking the wheel clockwise, I quenched my thirst by making fresh apple cider with an authentic apple press. Two pounds of apples picked right off the tree allowed me to make a whopping 12 ounces. Drinking the strongest cider I have tasted, I strolled through the restored cozy cottages and unadorned classrooms of the “old days” at the 35th annual “Lakewood Cider Days.”
I watched the craft and skill of knitters and lacers who are downright focused and incredibly patient. My curiosity came on strong as I had thoughts of driving an old John Deer tractor, or the 1932 navy blue classic car that caught my eye, or writing letters to friends and family on the type writer. Drawn in as I listened to cowboy tales and watched their roping skills accurately swoop around a group of twenty kids, I wanted to change into a prairie dress and stay awhile.
And by awhile I mean at least a week! This way I could drive that tractor, bake that apple pie and ride those horses! I’ll raise my glass of apple cider to cheer the storytelling of the cowboys and cowgirls, and cooks and craftsmen that allow legends to keep on keeping on.

Friday, October 2, 2009

Family Comes Together in Oklahoma!

My Grandpa turned 80, even though he says he’s only 40! All the aunts, uncles, grandchildren and cousins came together at Lake Murray to celebrate.
Even beyond waterskiing, wakeboarding and tubing on the lake, nothing could compare to the appreciation I gained for my Grandpa that weekend. For the first time, he opened up and told us stories of every stretch. From working midnight to 9 a.m. for years and years to driving the school bus in his retirement years, I recognized his tremendous work ethic. I saw his passion for his family upon learning that he took my dad out driving in the country when he was in 5th grade and they got pulled over. When the officer asked for my dad’s drivers license my grandpa simply said, “He don’t got one!” The paper foiled their attempt to hide the ticket from my grandma when it was published in the local paper. When I asked my grandpa if he ever had a tattoo, he surprised me when he said “yes.” He went on to tell us there was a rooster on his chest, but all that’s left now is the tale end. His quick wit and sense of humor made the trip, for all of us.
Despite all the good conversation, my heart did sink at one point on the trip. My grandpa took the boat out for a spin. Sitting in the bow of the boat I was focused on the breeze and waves. When we halted to a stop, I whipped around to see flashing red lights...on a boat. Oh the boat patrol got us for something! My cousin had decided to stand up, unaware that it was illegal to do so in a moving boat. A quick slap on the "Tahoe" boat and we were cruising again, hoping this wouldn’t also be published in the local paper.