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Beyond the Lighted Stage

Now that it's been saved from falling down, the historic Elitch Theatre awaits its next act. But will the curtain ever rise again?

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Lights come up on a long-dark proscenium, and voices once again declaim from the creaky stage. Applause echoes anew off rafters that have seen performances from the likes of Douglas Fairbanks (Junior and Senior), Tyrone Power, Grace Kelly, and Shelley Winters. The ghosts of thespians past retreat, and for a few moments it’s as if the 120-year-old, much-storied, and long-abandoned Elitch Theatre has been reborn.

That was the scene one spring morning in 2006. The players, however, were not actors and actresses, but politicians, community leaders, and arty types. The occasion: a combined kickoff event, press conference, and love fest, with everyone from former Senator Wayne Allard to Mayor John Hickenlooper proclaiming a new beginning for the musty 1,200-seat Victorian structure in the northwest Denver neighborhood that was then undergoing its own revival.

They offered a compelling vision to revitalize what once was one of the most venerable summer stock theaters in the country. The revamped performance space would become famous again, this time around as home to the Center for American Theatre at Historic Elitch Gardens. There would be teaching, learning, and producing the greats—from O’Neill to Odets. A Streetcar Named Desire, with Kevin Spacey, perhaps, simulcast on PBS? Why not? It would become a national institution. It would serve the community, too, with concerts and conferences. And Denver schoolchildren by the thousands would first encounter the magic of live theater at the Elitch, just as I had years earlier.

I was one of only two people at that press conference who had worked at the Elitch Theatre when it was still a going concern. (I later joined the committee to create the Center for the American Theatre.) In the summer of 1973 I was a scenery assistant, painting sets by night and hoping to bump into Broadway stars in the cast by day. These days hit shows generate a fleet of identical touring companies, but then, when a show like A Song for Cyrano came to Denver it actually had Jose Ferrer in it. And for a few weeks he would be a colleague, sharing the restroom and paying the tab at downtown bars that stayed open past closing just for us.

Once a dilapidated and crumbling firetrap, today the Elitch has been brought back to its original appearance. The massive cupola, where the restoration crew collected more than 250 garbage bags of pigeon guano, has been completely replaced. There’s now an actual foundation; the original frame rested on loose fieldstones and was never intended to last. Now it will stand for many years, and it looks great—at least from the outside.

It also looks lonely. Along with the nearby empty carousel canopy and a restored gazebo, it’s all that’s left of the original Elitch Gardens Amusement Park that moved to the Central Platte Valley in 1994. At 65 feet tall, the theater presides over Highlands’ Garden Village, a thriving, prize-winning commercial and residential development on the park’s former site in North Denver, centered on a public space that hosts outdoor events like farmers’ markets and films.

The easiest explanation for why the Elitch revival withered is money. These days, it always is. Even Mayor Hickenlooper, who spoke so fervently on that spring day, now sees the project’s completion as “a heavy lift, especially during a worldwide recession.”

But money isn’t the only problem. The real reasons for the Elitch’s limbo lie in a broth of neighborhood politics, city arts policy and funding processes, real estate development, the challenges of restoring historic buildings, and, most of all, the differences between a modern, year-round, multiuse building and the summer-only structure christened by actor James O’Neill before the turn of the 20th century.

Real estate developer Chuck Perry remembers taking heat for building Highlands’ Garden Village in the first place. “Some people thought I was responsible for taking away Elitch’s,” a decision that actually was made by the family that once owned it. As managing partner of Perry Rose LLC—and a former Elitch Theatre worker, just like me—Perry actually won the bid for the 38-acre tract partly by promising that he would, somehow, keep the shuttered theater intact.

He faced a formidable task. Dark since 1991, the theater was one good snowstorm away from complete collapse by the time Perry Rose began work in fall 2006. The roof had failed and dozens of water leaks weakened the structural framing; the pine lap siding was dried out, rotted, and cracked. The cupola structure listed dangerously. Animals had the run of the place, leaving thousands of bags of feces and even a number of skeletons. Looming creepily over the construction site, the Elitch Theatre was a grim and forbidding presence.

All of which posed a dilemma for Perry Rose. With its retail space, a seniors’ home, and housing at a wide range of prices, Highlands’ Garden Village was a sizeable and complex project. Investing so heavily in an unproven concept—this was before New Urbanism had taken hold—in what was then a sketchy part of town took courage. (It also took a Perry Rose investment of more than $100 million.) Love of the theater and its history aside, what would the development’s new tenants make of a ramshackle wreck, however historic, at the heart of their community? “It’s a center of focus, a critical place-making feature,” Perry says. “We knew we had to restore it.”

Completed a few years ago, the exterior renovation cost $4.2 million, exhausting the funds of the Historic Elitch Gardens Theatre Foundation, the body that oversaw the project. With no clear path toward completing the interior, it also aborted the ambitious plans for a national institution. Kevin Causey, the actor and producer who masterminded the Center for American Theatre but left soon after it was clear there’d be little financial support for his vision, sizes up the building’s fate this way: “Any future plan has to come to grips with one question,” he says. “Why does Denver need a new theater of this size?”

Jose Antonio Mercado has a different vision for the Elitch. A former drama teacher at nearby North High School and a board member for the theater, Mercado believes the reborn space should become a community arts and cultural center with production facilities, classrooms, and offices that serve North Denver and the city’s schoolchildren, especially local kids at risk of dropping out. (Last summer Mercado staged a two-night production of the famed Latino coming-of-consciousness play Zoot Suit on the plaza in the center of Highlands’ Garden Village.) “The Highlands has undergone a rebirth over the last dozen years,” he says. “Everybody knows and loves the Elitch Theatre. This building should be at its center.”

If only love were enough to bring the renovation to completion. Architects and theater planners who’ve studied the structure have an unsparing assessment of its problems. “The fact is that this was never intended to be a year-round building,” says Chris Wineman of local firm Semple Brown Design. “It has no lobby, no infrastructure for systems like heating and cooling, and its shell is like tissue paper. A simple thing like using the stage for modern sets would require new iron supports.” Enhancing the structure is mostly forbidden because the theater’s landmark designation, responsible for a good deal of its restoration funding, controls changes to the wooden structure.

In addition, modern building codes have become far more restrictive. Dan Miller, associate principal architect at OZ Architecture, which oversaw the exterior renovation, says the Americans with Disabilities Act requires a complete rethinking of the interior to accommodate broader aisles, accessible washrooms, and a new floor plan to partially replace the cozy Victorian layout. “What used to be fine in a building of this nature would simply not work now,” Miller says.

Initial estimates call for up to $10 million to redo the interior, and some say it could cost even more. With the foundation currently having less than $50,000 in its coffers, according to chairman Paul Franke, at least one keystone donor would have to step forward with at least $1 million, which might then attract more money. So far this elusive benefactor has not emerged. So, for now, the foundation has no more events scheduled and seems to be settling in to wait for better times.

On a recent summer afternoon, however, it was hard to take in the scene on the plaza below the Elitch Theatre and have many misgivings. Skateboarders cruised in its shadow, children played in the nearby park, couples took refuge from the heat at cafe tables in front of the Sunflower Market, and a steady procession of yuppies passed through the 24 Hour Fitness. Highlands’ Garden Village, such a risky bet at first, has won numerous awards and is almost 100 percent occupied. Everybody seems to enjoy the vibe, even though the theater in the center of it all, once sparkling with light and laughter on cool summer nights, is now just a brave monument to a past that seems far away.

Donald Frazier is a freelance writer who contributes to publications in the U.S. and overseas. E-mail him at [email protected].

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