Basha Cohen | BashaC@NorthDenverTribune.com
The Historic Elitch Theatre celebrates its 125th anniversary
BERKELEY — In everyone’s life there is a place that transports your soul back to childhood. It is a thing of rare beauty when that same place transcends your life and blankets an entire memory field for multiple generations. That is exactly what the Historic Elitch Theatre does. The Theatre and Zoological Gardens that John and Mary Elitch built in 1890 and 1891 have reached into the heart of multiple generations, and with a serious focus on its restoration, it promises to provide sweet memories for generations to come.
The theatre was originally opened in the summer of 1891. Designed by local architects Rudolf Liden and Charles Lee it featured a two-story open veranda surrounding the two-story octagonal enclosed auditorium. A backstage building anchored the west side, and the signature castle-like cupola crowned the roof.
In its 125th year, the building is the oldest standing wooden edifice in Denver, and provides one of the richest, most notable histories of any theatre around the United States. The theatre was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1978 and designated an Historic Landmark by the city in 1995. In honor of her birthday, and in recognition of her contributions to the State and the nation, Mayor Michael B. Hancock, presented an official Proclamation that Summer 2016 was to be known as the “125th Anniversary of the Historic Elitch Theatre.”
Events have been going strong all year to celebrate the milestone and the countless stars like Grace Kelly, Douglas Fairbanks, Debbie Reynolds, Edward G. Robinson and Christina Crawford who graced the stage of the theatre, often on their way to Hollywood superstardom. August brought the theatre and the carousel back in full glory. From Tennyson Street’s Hollywood Walk of Fame to theatre to music, Elitch’s was directly in the spotlight. If Mary Elitch were alive today she might have stood on the stage with lights upon her saying, “I’m ready for my close up Mr. DeMille.”
A Night at the Trocadero
On August 27 Governor John Hickenlooper welcomed the crowd of over 500 supporters at the theatre’s grand gala and restoration fundraiser, A Night at the Trocadero. As a long time Northsider he reminisced, “I remember back in 1981 when Elitch Gardens gave 2-4 tickets to all of the nearby residents so that the commotion of the Twister that came down every 25 seconds like a wave breaking wouldn’t bother us as much.” Hearkening back to my childhood memories, The Twister was a classic, wooden roller coaster that clacked and rattled its way to the top of its peak before its equally noisy descent. It was as scary to look at, as it was to ride.
Said Hickenlooper, “Everything I have learned about historic preservation, I learned from Dennis Gallagher. North Denver has always taken it seriously. I miss Elitch’s. Its closure was a great loss, but the theatre must be saved and restored. Our culture and history is what makes a city great. The Historic Elitch Theatre is one of the cultural icons that make Denver great.”
The event brought back the past with the brilliant big band orchestra, Sentimental Sounds, that had young and old-timers gliding on the dance floor to steps long forgotten, but beautifully revived, on the warm August night. Hazel Miller rocked the house and bridged the generations in the great melting pot that the entertainment carousel was built for. Aside from the night of pure memory-mirth, the theatre raised approximately $ 14,000 toward its interior restoration goal.
Behind every great moment in entertainment are the producers and directors that make it happen. Early board members like Chuck Perry, Lotte Lieb Dula and Jose Mercado helped lay the foundation for the theatre’s capital plan and restoration, and with Mercado’s production of Zoot Suit Riots in 2010, it was a real turning point for stoking the public’s interest in the theatre.
Today, a dedicated Board of Directors including Kirk Scheitler, Greg Rowley, Tracy Frickey, Christie Schwalbe and Edward Miller, as well as their board members Michael Bliss, Jennifer Kain-Rios, Florence Larsen, Rose Lewis, Amber McGimsey, Jennifer Murphy, Rachel Peoples, Chuck Perry and Nicholas Sanchez are the backbone of the theatre restoration. Frickey, who joined the board in 2010, said with heartfelt fondness, “I would lay down in traffic for every single person on this board. They are truly passionate professionals with no hidden agendas.”
The restoration was estimated at $ 13 Million when the project began in 2000. In phases one and two they tackled a major exterior renovation including restoring the dilapidated cupola, pouring the foundation, complying with ADA standards, and installing a fire sprinkler system. With a looming $ 10 million required for the interior restoration, the board began to address the restoration in more manageable pieces.
When the theatre was abandoned in 1991 the water and plumbing was removed leaving the theatre without any restroom facilities. For phase three, lobby renovations and installing restrooms are priorities. Once this is completed, the theatre can get a permanent occupancy permit, and regular programming can begin. From there fundraising will continue for the countless details needed to restore the theatre to its previous beauty.
New Works Festival
The beauty of the theatre, even in its work-in-progress state is that it is being used. One of the special highlights in August was the second annual New Works Festival. It put the spotlight on playwrights and actors, and the stage that holds them, with workshops and readings of new plays.
The New Works Festival encourages new playwrights, composers and lyricists to submit their work for the opportunity to be produced as a main stage show in the theatre’s regular season. For writers, the challenge has undeniable lure. During its inaugural year in 2015 more than 70 musical and non-musical works were submitted.
A reading selection committee comprised of a venerable whose-who in the nation’s best literary and theatrical community include directors, actors, choreographers, casting agents and authors who review submissions and choose six plays that are read during the festival. Two plays are selected for staging the following summer, and ultimately one is chosen for a main stage production during the 2018 season.
Mary Elitch Award for Excellence in Female Playwriting
This year Christina Crawford, a Dramatists Guild member and Elitch Theatre alumna who appeared on the stage in 1964 created the Mary Elitch Award for Excellence in Female Play- writing. The award was established to encourage more work from female playwrights dealing with women’s issues. According to “The Count” an article in the Dramatists Guild maga- zine, during a 3-year study only 14% of the playwrights in 2,508 productions were women.
Crawford said, “I am so honored to be a part of the new Mary Elitch Award encouraging women playwrights to achieve their potential, particularly at an historic theatre where I performed as a young actress.” In regard to the desultory number of female playwrights she pronounced, “I have been an activist all my life. This has to change!”
Crawford presented the first $ 1,000 award to Sandra Marie Vago whose stirring portrayal of a rape victim in her play, “Listen”, had the entire audience spellbound. Set in a small Southern town the story explores the re-victimization of a rape victim by the family and friends who love her. As unintended as this may be, it was a heartbreaking portrayal of love and loss, uncertainty and anguish.
Abusive behavior comes in all forms and Crawford is no stranger to the subject. As author of the acclaimed autobiography, Mommie Dearest, that delved into the dark corners of her childhood with superstar mother, Joan Crawford, she has experienced the effects of a fickle heart. Whatever the effects of the past were, her heart is wide open to building the future for dramatists and their showcase, the theatre.
I had the good fortune to spend time with Crawford during the intermission in the cavernous back stage. Her eyes actually glitter when she speaks, and with outstretched arms sweeping the expanse of the old theatre backstage she reflected, “They don’t build back stages like this any longer.”
We sat nestled together in the dark on an original tapestry couch that Mary Elitch owned. Both she and Elitch share a common trait, although they were born in separate generations. Both are extremely strong women who forged paths unknown before them. “Mary was 15 when she fell in love with John Elitch who was 32 years old. They started with a farm that turned into a botanical garden. Lore says PT Barnum gave them a lion as a gift and the zoological garden was born, followed by the amusement park and theatre. When John died Mary continued all of the operations. When you consider that before 1920 women didn’t have the right to vote you can understand what a remarkable woman she was. She loved animals, plants and entertainment and must have had a whale of a sense of humor to not go stark raving mad!”
Crawford’s experience as a writer led to one of her many accomplishments when she regained the rights to her novel, Mommie Dearest. She forged a path in the self-publishing field distributing the 25th anniversary edition of her story through Amazon in 1998. She reflected on the rise of the self-publishing industry that has overtaken traditional book publishing, “I don’t have any stock in Amazon so I am not trying to sell anything, but self-publishing has democratized distribution. Before the internet an author was limited to how many books fit in your trunk.”
As an actor, author and dramatist, Crawford is hardwired to understand and deliver communication effectively. In our brief time before the lights went up we hopscotched through a whirlwind mediums that influence today. On social media, “The competition for everyone’s attention is phenomenal. It’s a communication avenue, but not a sales tool.” On the demise of a book or newspaper versus an iPad or Kindle, “There will always be room for both.” On the role that regional theatre and community newspapers play in the world today, “I don’t appear on stage any longer, but I am an avid supporter in my home town theatre in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho and in my relationship with Elitch’s. I actively help smaller community theatre and businesses. It is what I want to leave as part of my personal legacy.” She concluded, “It is all about getting things done in your community. As a local community newspaper, you reflect what is important to those around you. You are the community.”
More than any place in North Denver, Elitch’s represents our community. It is up to us to help return it to its heritage as a nationally renowned venue for the celebration of the performing arts.
To tour the theatre, join historians on October 7 First Friday at 6:00 and 7:30 pm to peek into the past. $ 10 online and $ 15 at the door. For tickets or to donate toward the restoration: https://Historicelitchtheatre.org
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