Denver at 150

November 2008

Close Encounters
By Andrew Corsello

I miss the Cooper Theatre. In the cosmology of my Denver childhood the place stood out like a lodestar. In part this was simply because it was Glendale's most defining feature, as otherworldly in its own way as the Sleeper House atop Genesee Mountain. Important things, wonderful and terrible things, happened to me at the Cooper. What was it Obi-Wan said to Vader on the first of June 1977—a day that changed my life forever (and also my 10th birthday)? If you strike me down, I shall become more powerful than you could possibly imagine. So it went with the Cooper: struck down in 1994—at the portentous age of 33, no less—to make way for a turd of a building housing a Barnes & Noble, but all the more mythic in recollection as a result, all the more a source I turn to now when searching for clues to my past selves.

Am I alone in this? Was I the only kid in Denver who, throughout the 1970s, regarded the Cooper as a knowing presence, quietly ahum with energy, waiting and watching, sending me messages? I cannot imagine I was. It was Richard Crowther's architecture—by itself, even apart from the experience of seeing movies at the Cooper—that hypnotized me. The way the exterior, a cylindrical burnt-orange beacon set upon a plinth of black brick, aligned with the interior: the screen, with its impossibly deep 146 degrees of arc, and the correspondingly curved rows of cushioned seats. Every element seemed lean and purposeful and attuned to every other element, all of them working to create an organic whole. A gigantic whole that, at least to a child, seemed as far beyond scale and grasp as the Sphinx or the Hoover Dam.

Yet something in Crowther's design—his original blueprints now reside in the Denver Public Library's Special Collection Department—made the Cooper's gigantism seem horizontal and unheavy, even mobile. Stepping into the ovoid enormity of that lobby, I never felt I was entering the Cooper so much as boarding it. It almost goes without saying that the technical superiority of the theater—the mind-blowing seven-track discrete directional surround-sound system; the perforated ceilings that extinguished the noise of the building's ventilation equipment—augmented this feeling of being aboard. Years before the mind-bending visual that opened Star Wars lit up the Cooper's 105-foot-wide screen—and introduced us to the notion that spaceships could be the size of ocean liners—I used to daydream that the theater was flight-worthy, capable of sustaining a large human population in Earth's orbit for decades should the planet be rendered uninhabitable by nuclear Armageddon. Maybe other kids my age dealt with the Soviet scare...differently?

Maybe. But this cannot be disputed: the sensual wrap-around of the Cooper was never more overwhelming, more deliriously disorienting, than it was the summer night that city-sized, rhinestone-studded football materialized over Devils Tower in Wyoming. The alien ship in Close Encounters of the Third Kind and the Cooper Theatre—similar enough in their structures and effects that they could plausibly have descended from a common ancestor—presented a relativity question: Which was moving and which was standing still?

You think I'm romanticizing, don't you? You think that today's stadium-style theaters with their digital technologies surely surpass whatever the Cooper brought? Then I tell you that you are discounting what Crowther brought. The vast planes of glass facing Colorado Boulevard and the warmth they brought to the lobby. The cool mahoganies and ochres of the inside fixtures. The ethereal neon illuminations. The dark gold latticework half-enshrouding the elevated smoking lounges (in the theater, like opera boxes!) on either side. The place was groovy—not self-consciously, but genuinely.

You never felt at the Cooper, as you do at today's Cineplexes, that access and egress had been engineered to slam you face-first into the concessions stand. Popcorn wasn't a "loss leader" at the Cooper; it was simply...there for you if you desired it. Subtly, surely, the generosity of Crowther's space removed you from the banality of commerce, from yourself, from gravity—and it informed the way you absorbed what was on the screen.

Being at the Coop—just being there, regardless of what was showing—was a form of transport. A flick could be pretty piss poor and still register, almost in a physical sense, as a moving experience. It was almost impossible to disengage from a movie at the Cooper, to be a mere spectator. You felt implicated in what you witnessed. Hell, if you sat in the first 15 rows, once those red felt drapes parted and the previews began, you were literally inside the curved embrace of that Cinerama screen: the sparks from James Caan's torch dazzling not just in front of you but in your peripherals and behind you as he breached that safe in Thief; the blizzard of stars encircling...no, devouring your head as the Millennium Falcon escaped the surly bonds of Tatooine to surpass the speed of light....

Gotta say it now: Goddamn!

The membrane separating first and third person was particularly thin when it came to action and horror. Thanks to the Cooper, Alien didn't scare me; it scarred me. Alien, a "scary" movie? Please. Rapacious, more like. I attended with another boy, someone I will not name, someone who remains close to me (because of, not despite, our Alien abduction at the Coop). When that evil jellied squid pumped its fleshly funnel down John Hurt's throat in order to...plant its seed, this boy (and I, and every other soul present) began clutching our stomachs. Low moans filled the theater. Soon enough that seed came to term. As the aptly named Hurt bayed in pain, this boy began to whimper. Oh, no. Oh, no. Oh, no. And when the creature erupted from Hurt's chest, spraying gore and squealing triumphantly, this boy promptly and thoroughly pissed himself. Then fled to the lobby with dozens of other patrons of all ages whose need for "transport" had been met, and then some. He remained through the closing credits.

That's the thing: The lobby of the Cooper was always populated during the runs of scary movies. Not a surprise, given the undiluted, all-enveloping experience of seeing movies there. You needed to breathe, needed to see some light, needed to look out at the traffic on Colorado Boulevard for a few minutes in order to be reassured that this was reality, and that the horrors being unleashed back there, in the dark, were not. I myself spent a good portion of Jaws in the Cooper's lobby. (That unholy soprano scream from Quint as the teeth of the beast pierced his chest and lungs.) I had lots of company. The year was 1975. The day was December 24. I was eight. Lord knows I love the man, but I gotta ask: Dad, dad, taking an eight-year-old to see an early evening showing of Jaws at the Cooper Theatre? On Christmas Eve? What the F?

My full recognition of what the Cooper was, it's scale and meaning, came three years after it was razed to make way for an elegant piece of strip-mall architecture, and one year after Crowther died at the age of 96. I was in the balcony of the Ziegfeld in New York City—another truly great movie theater you don't so much enter as board—for the 20th anniversary rerelease of Star Wars. The lights dimmed, the John Williams tantara ushered in the signature text (A long time ago...) and then there it was. The woman in the next seat, who later became my wife, tells me that a great cheer went up in the Ziegfeld as the triangular underside of that Imperial cruiser endlessly filled the screen.

At that moment I was back at my 10th birthday party, immersed in the movie that forever changed the landscape of my imagination, and at the theater that had formed not a small part of that landscape to begin with. Do you remember what you felt the moment that Imperial cruiser came into view? Us kids, we just started shrieking. Shrieking with disbelief and joy. Eight-hundred and fourteen seats in the Cooper Theatre, eight-hundred and fourteen kids and their parents: shrieking. Not all out. At least not at first.

What looked to be a couple hundred yards of spaceship had passed above us before the optical paradigm, the default of what the human eye was used to, was shattered. But then, as if cued by a conductor's baton, the kids at the Cooper began cooing. Uuuuuuuuuuuhuhhhh.... Softly, then rising in volume, the vowel evolving into an aaaaaaaaaahhhhhhhhh! composed of one part panic, two parts exhilaration. The chorus kept rising in volume and pitch to an all-out eeeeeeeeeeeeEEEEEEEEEEEE!—an insane, glass-cracking peal of joy that crested just as the stern of the Imperial cruiser finally presented itself, blue flames thundering from its three engines, each as big around as Mile High Stadium.

Until that afternoon at the Ziegfeld in 1997, I hadn't shed a tear since the summer of 1981. (A tennis match I choked away.) But I tell you, it was Pavlovian. From the instant the tip of that cruiser entered the frame: an explosion. I don't pretend to know what it was. Not entirely. But I do know that it was largely about the Cooper and its place in my own symbology, and that a large part of what I was feeling was gratitude. As it is with lost love, so it was and is with the Cooper: the knowledge of what has been lost taking its true shape and commanding a full appreciation only after it is gone.

Strike me down now....