2014 True West Award: David Nehls

True_West_Awards_DAVID NEHLS_800

David Nehls, left, got wiggy when he conducted “Curtains” at the Arvada Center in 2013. Now he’s a board member for the Historic Elitch Gardens Theatre Foundation. Photos by John Moore.



Enough people have boasted that they were going to rescue and re-open the historic Elitch Theatre over the past 23 years, it’s hard to take anyone seriously on the subject. But it appears that the least likely of all the boasters is the guy who might actually make good on the promise. He’s David Nehls, the four-time Henry Award-winning musical director of more than 40 Arvada Center productions, including, of late, Tarzan, Memphis and the current She Loves Me (through Dec. 21). He’s also written his own musicals, including The Great American Trailer Park Musical, which made it to off-Broadway, and Breach. Nehls isn’t a Colorado kid with sentimental stories of working at the original Elitch Gardens in northwest Denver as a teenager (like me). He’s just a guy who moved to Denver in 2005 and, in time, decided to help save the rickety, 123-year-old wooden theatre that once regularly hosted Hollywood stars such as Grace Kelly, Vincent Price, Douglas Fairbanks and Tony Awards namesake Antoinette Perry. Today the theatre, modeled after Shakespeare’s Globe, and the carousel bandshell next to it are all that remain of the original Elitch Gardens amusement park that moved downtown from 38th and Tennyson in 1994. The only thing that saved the tinderbox from the wrecking ball was its landmark designation in 1995. In 2011, Nehls joined the board of the Historic Elitch Gardens Theatre Foundation that is headed by Kirk Scheitler. Since then, Nehls has become the most recognizable public face and primary spokesman of the group’s ongoing rescue efforts, including heading a popular annual outdoor summer film series. “When I got to Denver and saw this theater, I said, ‘This is why I’m here,’” Nehls told the North Denver Tribune. “I have seen theaters all over the world, and there is nothing like this.” The current goal is to re-open the Elitch Theatre for full-fledged stage performances in 2016, its 125th anniversary. The broader hope is that the theatre will provide arts education and performance opportunities for children in dance, music, theater and film. While more than $5 million already has been spent restoring the exterior since 2006, there is much work yet to be done. The theatre was never built as a year-round facility, meaning it has never had heating or air conditioning systems. But 2014 has been the most promising year for the theatre since it closed in 1991. Musical performances were held inside for the first time in 23 years. Films were shown inside the theatre for the first time in more than 100 years. Keep in mind the significance of that: In 1896, the Elitch Theatre became the first theatre to screen films anywhere in the western United States. The goal for 2015 is to construct new bathrooms and sewer lines to secure an occupancy permit that would allow ongoing events to be held inside. But the to-do list also includes restoring the balcony, lobby and dressing rooms, and those jobs will require hundreds of thousands of dollars. “It’s close to becoming an open venue again,” Nehls told The Denver Post. “Once we get bathrooms, there is no stopping us.”

To schedule a donation to the Historic Elitch Gardens Theatre Foundation on Colorado Gives Day, click here.

1: Norrell Moore
2. Kate Gleason
3. Amanda Berg Wilson and Jeremy Make
4. Ben Cowhick
5. Robert Michael Sanders
6. David Nehls
7. Adrian Egolf
8. Emma Messenger
9. Buntport’s Naughty Bits
10. Tim Howard
11. Gleason Bauer
12. Daniel Traylor
13. Aisha Jackson and Jim Hogan
14. Cast of ‘The Whipping Man’
15. Rick Yaconis
16. Michael R. Duran
17. Laura Norman
18. Jacquie Jo Billings
19. Megan Van De Hey
20. Jeremy Palmer
21. Henry Lowenstein   
22. Sam Gregory
23. Wendy Ishii
24. J. Michael Finley
25. Kristen Samu and Denver Actors Fund volunteers
26. Matthew D. Peters
27. Shannan Steele
28. Ludlow, 1914
29. Spring Awakening and Annapurna
30 Theatre Person of the Year Steve Wilson

The True West Awards, which began as the Denver Post Ovation Awards in 2001, are the longest-running continuously administered awards program in Colorado theater. This year, the awards have been reconceived to simply recognize 30 award-worthy achievements in local theatre, without categories or nominations. A different honoree will be singled out each day for 30 days.

The True West Awards are administered by arts journalist John Moore, who was named one of the 12 most influential theater critics in the U.S by American Theatre Magazine in 2011. He has since founded The Denver Actors Fund and taken a groundbreaking position as the DCPA’s Senior Arts Journalist. His coverage of the Colorado theatre community can be found at MyDenverCenter.Org 

0 replies

Leave a Reply

Want to join the discussion?
Feel free to contribute!

Leave a Reply