When the feats of aquatic athleticism are over and Chiquita the gorilla is captured, the entertainers of Casa Bonita retreat to the bowels of Black Bart’s cave.
That’s where the dressing room is hidden, stuffed with costumes, swimsuits and a lot of mysteries.
Oh, and it smells like rubbing alcohol. Employees sanitize the gorilla suit with a mix of cheap vodka and water after every performance.
Casa Bonita turns 45 this year. The pink stucco tower in the Lakewood strip mall is the last of what was once multiple locations. On a Wednesday afternoon in June, employees of five months and four decades were at work entertaining droves of children on summer break.
Entertainers Anthony Provost and Dawn Mestas dipped in and out of the dressing room, transforming into divers and sheriffs and gorillas and other roles every 15 minutes.
Provost had just started a few months earlier, when a friend told him he’d be a shoe-in during diver auditions. For him, the stunts are fun, and the kids’ reactions even more so.
“It’s so entertaining. I love acting with the stunts and the entertainment staff. The kids just go crazy for it. It’s just so much fun. Seeing them and getting like high fives all the time from these little kids,” Provost said.
There are, unsurprisingly, less glamorous parts of the job, too. Both Provost and Mestas have pulled out coins, clothing, banana peels and lots of chips from the Casa Bonita pool.
What's Casa Bonita like for a first-timer? Stick to the fajitas. And the gorilla is scarier than you think.
“A lot of times it’s weird, because you’ll come up from the dive pit, and (the chip will) be stuck to your face or something like that. That’s the worst,” Mestas said.
On dry land that afternoon was Jim McLaughlin, who Mestas said has “been here since the beginning.” Back then, McLaughlin helped run an old-time photo studio out of Casa Bonita. Today, he serves up snow cones. He even came out of retirement to work here again.
“I’ve made my living here for 42 years. I retired two years ago, moved to Florida. But it’s too hot in Florida in the summer, so I come back here and work in the summertime,” McLaughlin said.
What do the insiders order from the infamous cafeteria line? Mestas recommends the fajitas, but with the usual Casa Bonita food asterisk.
“We always say you go to Casa Bonita not for the food, you go for the experience, because the food is...” Mestas said, pausing. “It’s not … it’s not really too much like Mexican food.”
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