How Casa Bonita springboarded Mike Dvorak’s career in high diving

This story is one in a series featuring trips down memory lane with longtime Casa Bonita fans and former employees who shared their fondest tales with The Denver Post. The restaurant and entertainment venue in Lakewood is expected to reopen in May.

As a kid growing up in Lakewood in the 1970s and ‘80s, Mike Dvorak was well acquainted with Casa Bonita. Like many locals, he and his family always took out-of-town visitors to the pink palace to enjoy its unique atmosphere. But Dvorak never expected that the restaurant would change the course of his life.

Dvorak, 54, was a professional high diver until he retired in 2003 after an illustrious career that started within the humble halls of Casa Bonita. And he’s the first to admit that wasn’t his original career plan.

“If I wouldn’t have been at Casa Bonita I probably would have never gone down that life path of being a world high diver,” said Dvorak, a self-proclaimed sopapilla junkie.

In 1985, Dvorak was fresh off earning his GED and attending school to become a paramedic. He was also an avid swimmer and loved hanging out at local community pools. One summer day, he happened to be swimming at a spot near Golden when several members of the Casa Bonita diving team arrived to practice.

Dvorak, then 16, showed off a couple of his self-taught tricks and the divers encouraged him to try out for a job at the restaurant, which was well known for its cohort of cliff divers who jumped and flipped gracefully from the top of a 30-foot indoor waterfall.

Inspired by the feedback, Dvorak soon found himself at Casa Bonita one morning climbing to the top of that waterfall, which was designed to resemble the cliffs in Acapulco, Mexico, to prove he could do the dives listed on his job application.

“The waterfall was a little scary because you had to climb up through the tunnel. From the diver’s pit, it was a straight-up climb to the waterfall,” Dvorak recalled. “You were kind of limited because of the tight space Casa Bonita was. You could do so many dives, but you had to be careful because you could easily jump out of that pool.”

But the platform at the top of the waterfall would become a place of reverence for Dvorak, the spot where he and fellow divers sat often waiting for their cue to enthrall dining audiences. Succinctly, he describes a day in the life of a Casa Bonita cliff diver as “fun, pure fun.”

Making a big splash

Dvorak isn’t the only professional diver who got his start on the cliffs in Lakewood. Stunt diver Darren Taylor, the Guinness Book of World Records-holding, belly-flopping phenomenon known as Professor Splash, is also a Casa Bonita alum.

Taylor, who just last year belly-flopped into 10 inches of water from 26.5 feet, likened Casa Bonita to dinner theaters where actors often start their careers before heading to Broadway or Hollywood. In this case, the local dinner theater had a diving area.

“It was a good hub for divers,” Taylor said. “I learned more from Casa Bonita and I still use those techniques on stage to this day. So it was really integral to my professional diving career to be molded by a real good entertainment manager.”

Dvorak also specialized in show diving, meaning he performed jaw-dropping tricks and stunts meant to entertain audiences. So Casa Bonita proved to be an apt training ground, allowing him to not only practice technique but also showmanship.

The first thing Dvorak remembers doing after being hired was learning all the various acts. He memorized scripts for skits like “Tarzan and Jane,” gunfights with Black Bart, the sea monster act and more. He was also cast as the famed gorilla from time to time, including one night when he got pushed into the pool in full costume.

“The suit I had on, you put the head on and then you had two straps that went underneath your arms to hold the head on around your head. Then you had to put the suit on, and somebody had to zip you up. You couldn’t do it by yourself,” Dvorak recalled. “That monkey suit, it adds like 80 pounds to you when that thing gets wet. You become a rock underwater really fast when you get soaked like that. I’ll be honest with you, that one scared me.”

In addition to acting, Dvorak learned to walk on stilts and juggle – and then to juggle with fire, a precedent to a stunt he’d learn later in life where he lit his suit on fire before descending dozens of feet into a body of water.

Dvorak said Casa Bonita, where he remembers earning $8-9 per hour, also paid for him to get scuba certified since divers were responsible for cleaning the pool, which reaches 16 feet deep. And becoming a local celebrity was certainly a perk of the job.

“You got to entertain people, you got to make people smile and laugh, and people would come up and want to take pictures with you. It was just a lot of fun,” he said.

New heights

It didn’t take long for Dvorak to springboard to bigger gigs and higher platforms. In 1987, he joined an entertainment company called Maxwell Associates, home of the Great American High Diving Team, and began performing at Elitch Gardens, then located at 38th Avenue and Tennyson Street in northwest Denver.

“I’ll never forget the first time I saw it — it was a 27-foot-diameter tank, 10 feet deep with an 80-foot high diving ladder in front of it,” Dvorak said about the pool there. “Some guy went off the top of that ladder and into the pool, and I’m like you gotta be kidding me.”

Eventually, Dvorak learned he could travel the world with Maxwell Associates to dive at the company’s dozens of shows across the globe. Traveling to Barcelona, Taiwan, China, Hong Kong, Mongolia and more allowed him to experience new cultures and reach new heights, literally.

The highest dive Dvorak ever completed was from 120 feet at a water ski show in Milan, Italy. The most advanced trick he could do in his heyday is called a quad-half, three-and-a-half somersaults in the pike position plus a half twist.

But Dvorak’s favorite stunt was the human torch fire dive, during which he would light himself on fire before diving into a pool to extinguish the flame. In 2019, at age 50, Dvorak came out of retirement and performed the trick at the Colorado State Fair from a 40-foot platform.

Despite his world travels, Dvorak ultimately settled back in Lakewood and decided to retire from diving about the time he became a father. His son Seth is 21 years old and his daughter Kalli is 20.

Over the years, Dvorak had taken his kids to Casa Bonita and told them tales of his high diving days, but the state fair was the first time they got to see him in action.

When folks in the diving community heard about Casa Bonita’s reopening, many asked Dvorak if he planned to go back to work there. He hasn’t applied, but he’s not shy to say considered it.

“If they let me, I probably would. By all means, I’d love to,” Dvorak said.

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