The history of the DCPA intertwines with that of the Denver Performing Arts Complex. Both were ideas that blossomed from an original dream shared by philanthropist, Denver Post owner and occasional-actress Helen G. Bonfils and Wall Street lawyer and Broadway producer Donald R. Seawell.
Miss Helen, as she was fondly known, built the Bonfils Theatre on Colfax Avenue, a community theatre in which she and her friends performed. At the time, she was co-owner of The Denver Post and one of the City's leading philanthropists.
Later that decade, she and Mr. Seawell formed a successful partnership to produce plays on Broadway and in London. Soon, Miss Helen felt that Denver deserved more than community theatre and asked him to create a professional acting company to perform at the Bonfils.
Seawell got Tyrone Guthrie who had created Minneapolis' Guthrie Theatre to move to Denver, create the company and be its director. Plans for building another theatre alongside the old Bonfils were well underway when Guthrie suddenly died.
By this time, Miss Helen's health had deteriorated and she was a permanent hospital resident. Moreover, an attempt was underway by a hostile stockholder to acquire control of The Denver Post, and Miss Helen asked Seawell to lead the legal battle for Post ownership. The plan for a professional theatre was postponed. Miss Helen never dreamed it would develop into a full-scale performing arts center.
By the time the battle for ownership of The Post was won, Miss Helen had died and Seawell was Chairman and Publisher of the paper. He had also created the Bonfils Foundation primarily as a depository for all of The Denver Post stock.
Seawell found himself at 14th & Curtis streets looking at the 1908 Denver Municipal Auditorium and the all-but abandoned surrounding blocks. He was struck with an idea, sat down on the curb, took an envelope from his pocket, and sketched what would become the largest performing arts facility in the world under one roof. Before the day was over, he had changed the charter of the old Bonfils Theatre into the Denver Center for the Performing Arts, reached an agreement with the City and hired Pritzker Prize-winning architect Kevin Roche FAIA as the overall architect to put the plan into reality. He also made the Bonfils Foundation a subsidiary of the DCPA and it continues to provide funding to the organization today.
The first pieces of the puzzle were put in place in 1978 with the opening of the 2,700-seat Boettcher Concert Hall and an eight-story, 1,700-space parking garage.
By 1979, the Denver Municipal Auditorium had been renovated, two cabaret spaces had been added and the Helen G. Bonfils Theatre Complex opened with its four theatres:
The Stage Theatre — 778 seats
The Space Theatre — 550 seats
The Jones— 200 seats
The Ricketson Theatre — 250 seats (originally opened as a cinema)
The Denver Center for the Performing Arts’ Theatre Company found a home in the Bonfils Complex and opened under the artistic leadership of Edward Payson Call on New Year’s Eve with three simultaneous productions —The Caucasian Chalk Circle, Moby Dick Rehearsed and The Learned Ladies.
Also in this year, the DCPA paired with local Broadway presenter Robert Garner. The combination of locally-produced theatrical productions with Broadway’s best touring shows made the Denver Center for the Performing Arts the epicenter for theatre in the West.
In its first several years, both the physical structure and the theatrical entity bore the name of the Denver Center for the Performing Arts. In the 1980s, the site was renamed the Denver Performing Arts Complex under an agreement wherein the City would manage the largest venues. This left the Denver Center for the Performing Arts as the theatrical tenant, managing its administrative offices and the spaces in which its Theatre Company performed.
The Theatre Company presented the world premiere of Quilters, which was nominated for a Tony Award and became the most widely-produced play among resident theatres in the next several seasons.
Realizing that skilled actors are essential to the theatre, the DCPA and the American National Theatre and Academy established the National Theatre Conservatory, a three-year Master of Fine Arts acting school and the only one of its kind chartered by Congress.
When Donovan Marley became Artistic Director of the Theatre Company, new play development became an important aspect of the Center's work. New plays growing out of the program were produced not only in Denver but also on- and off-Broadway, throughout America and in London.
The City transformed the old Auditorium sports arena into the 2,830-seat Temple Hoyne Buell Theatre creating a major, state-of-the-art Broadway roadhouse. Predicted by critics to host The Phantom of the Opera once and then sit empty, the DCPA’s Broadway division has consistently filled The Buell, contributing to its ranking as the nation’s highest-grossing theatre under 3,000 seats.
To expand on its theatrical repertoire, the DCPA began using the intimate 213-seat Garner Galleria Theatre for long-running cabaret hits such as the four-year engagement of I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change. This addition captured quick popularity — typically offering eight shows per week and setting a new national standard for cabaret-style shows.
Expanding upon its graduate acting curriculum, the DCPA began to offer acting instruction to the community.
The Center established the Colorado Performing Arts Hall of Fame (a) to honor Coloradans who have made major contributions to the advancement of one or more of the performing arts disciplines, and non-Coloradans who have made substantial contributions toward the advancement of the performing arts in Colorado, (b) to enhance interest and participation in the performing arts by honoring these inductees. Members of the Hall of Fame include:
- Helen Bonfils (1999)
- Mary Chase (1999)
- Douglas Fairbanks (1999)
- Glenn Miller (1999)
- Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne (1999)
- John Denver (2002)
- Donald R. Seawell
In recognition of its body of work and growing reputation, the Theatre Company was honored to receive the Tony Award for Outstanding Regional Theatre.
With an exploding social scene, the DCPA added a premier special event venue atop the Helen Bonfils Theatre Complex. Named in honor of the Center’s founder, the 10,000-square-foot Seawell Grand Ballroom quickly became a venue of choice for meetings, luncheons, weddings and galas.
The new millennium started with a ground-breaking world premiere — The Laramie Project. Headed by Moisés Kaufman and the Tectonic Theatre Project, a town’s reaction to and healing following the unthinkable murder of gay student Matthew Shepard took the theatre world by storm. Following its premiere, The Laramie Project was optioned by companies across the nation and was ultimately developed into an HBO Special Presentation.
Continuing this unforgettable artistic success, the Theatre Company embarked on an ambitious, international undertaking — the ten-hour epic cycle of the Trojan War, Tantalus. This co-production of the DCPA and London’s Royal Shakespeare Company had its world premiere in Denver to audiences from 38 states and seven foreign countries before touring the UK.
The culmination to the season came when both The Laramie Project and Tantalus were named among Time magazine’s ten best plays of 2000.
Hard on the heels of this tremendous achievement, Disney Theatricals chose Denver to host the touring premiere of The Lion King. Breaking box office records, more than 1,800 fans stood in line when tickets went on sale contributing to a sell-out crowd of 220,000 for the 10-week run and generating $58 million into Denver’s economy.
Kent Thompson succeeded Donovan Marley as the third Producing Artistic Director of the Theatre Company. He recommitted the Company to the discovery of new plays by establishing the annual Colorado New Play Summit.
Following extensive renovation, the City reopened the Denver Municipal Auditorium with its new Ellie Caulkins Opera House, home to the Colorado Ballet and Opera Colorado plus occasional Broadway tours.
With the advent of 2007, came the end of an era. Founder Donald Seawell handed the reigns to Daniel L. Ritchie who said: “Donald Seawell has created a cultural legacy in the Rocky Mountain West that is both undisputed and unrivaled. It is my great honor to succeed him and take The Denver Center to the next level that will emphasize new play development and collaboration both locally and nationally.”
Later in July, The Ellie was chosen to host the pre-Broadway engagement of Disney’s The Little Mermaid. This seven-week, sold-out run was the most successful out-of-town tryout Disney Theatrical Productions has had to date and one of the best-attended productions in DCPA history.
With an Innovation Lab for the Performing Arts grant, Theatre Company spent a season creating, testing and retooling new approaches to theatre. The project culminated in a new theatre experience, one that is immersive, convergent, connective, inventive and relevant. Rebranded in the 2011/12 season as Off-Center @ The Jones, this innovative theatrical experience is one part experimental and the other part social.
Denver was once again thrust into the national spotlight when it was announced that the DCPA was chosen to launch the national touring premiere of The Book of Mormon. This nine-time Tony Award-winning musical by Colorado’s own Trey Parker and Matt Stone of “South Park” fame, sold out in just four hours and opened in the Ellie Caulkins Opera House in August 2012. The Book of Mormon did not disappoint, welcoming more than 52,300 patrons before announcing a second and (later) third engagement.
As proof of the rising popularity of the Colorado New Play Summit and the high-caliber playwrights whom the Theatre Company is able to attract, this seventh annual new play festival showcased Samuel Hunter's The Whale, which was quickly picked up by Playwrights Horizons leading to its win for Outstanding Play by the Lucille Lortel Awards.
Working to cement its position as a major draw on the national touring circuit, the DCPA presented yet another national touring premiere — Peter and the Starcatcher.
Following the warm reception it received during the 2012 Colorado New Play Summit, Sense & Sensibility The Musical was brought to life by an impressive theatrical team. With book and lyrics by Jeffrey Haddow and music by Neal Hampton, Jane Austen's beloved novel was directed and choreographed by Marcia Milgrom Dodge. The lush English countryside was envisioned by scenic designer Allen Moyer while costumes were beautifully designed by Esosa. The production received its world premiere April 5-May 26 and subsequently received a New York reading in June 2014.
In March, the Theatre Company announced that the story of Colorado’s own heroine will grace The Stage Theatre in The Unsinkable Molly Brown. Directed and choreographed by Tony winner Kathleen Marshall with a new book by Dick Scanlan and backing by NBC Chairman Bob Greenblatt, this rags-to-riches story will launch the Company’s 37th season.
In what has become an annual feat, the DCPA’s Broadway division was tapped yet again to launch a national tour. Pippin, 2013 Tony Award winner for Best Musical, will play The Buell Theatre September 6-20, 2014.
With new works being commissioned and developed under Theatre Company Producing Artistic Director Kent Thompson, musical collaborations being orchestrated by Broadway Executive Director John Ekeberg, and new ideas being envisioned by Chairman Daniel L. Ritchie, Denver Center for the Performing Arts is ready to engage, excite and inspire future generations of theatre lovers.
DCPA Founder and Chairman Emeritus Donald R. Seawell passed away at 103. Read the press release.