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?

October 2010

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.