A look back at Denver's Great, Rowdy White Way


Photos courtesy Denver Public Library’s Western History Department.

Thomas Edison once called it “the brightest street in America.” The Great White Way was lined with 13 grand theatres, their bright signs and lights illuminating the street so intensely there was no need for streetlights. On busy nights, the street became so congested with cars, a police officer was stationed in the center to direct traffic.

Denver Theatre history quoteThis particular street was not made in Manhattan, but right in downtown Denver. During the 1900s, Curtis Street was known as the Great White Way, and not far from the present-day Denver Performing Arts Complex.

Attending theatre was a popular pastime during that era. In 1914, the population in Denver was 230,000. And while there is no way to verify this now, it was reported at the time that an average of 100,000 of them attended a theatre show of some variety – every single day.

But live performance had been popular long before the 1900s. The Rocky Mountain News published stories about the beginnings of theatre in Denver dating as far back as 1859. Many of those early shows had one thing in common – they were rowdy.

“Not infrequently, some of the most pathetic passages and scenes on the stage were provokingly interrupted by the clinking of glasses, the rattling of billiard pins and the attempts at vocal melodies from the uproarious regions below,” The Rocky Mountain News reported in a retrospective of Denver in 1859 that was published in 1934.

Most theatres then were primarily bars, with theatres on the second floor. It wasn’t uncommon for an audience member to invite cast members downstairs for a drink after the first act, which often resulted in poor performances in the second act. But the audience rarely complained.

Curtis_Street_at_dusk__early_1900s_known_as
Curtis Street.

One of the first local theatres to “clean up the stage” and go legit was the Tabor Grand Opera House, which opened in 1881 on Curtis Street. At the time, it was one of the few grand theatres in the country, with cherry wood from Japan and mahogany from Honduras. Up until the 1920s, it attracted the world’s greatest actors and productions.

One of the more unique theatres at the time was at Elitch Gardens, which opened in 1890. The Elitch Theatre was partly run by Mary Elitch, who became internationally famous as the only female owner of a zoo after her husband died. Vaudeville and opera were staples on her stage, and later a symphony orchestra was introduced during Friday afternoons. It drew anyone “who could get a foothold on the little street car that ran out to the Gardens, find a ‘rig,’ or walk out over sandy roads,” reported The Rocky Mountain News.

The Elitch Theatre remained open through the mid 1980s, known as the world’s oldest summer-theatre company and hosting some of the biggest stars of the day, from Grace Kelly to Douglas Fairbanks Jr. There have been ongoing efforts to restore and reopen the theatre ever since.

And then came the boom of movie theatres in Denver. Harry Huffman was the man behind many of the great theatres in the city. He opened his first “Bide-A-Wee,” for the sole purpose of bringing business to his drug store across the street, which ended up being a huge success. More theatres followed. The majority concentrated on Curtis Street, which soon became known as “Theatre Row.” Today, it is still referred to as the Denver’s Theatre District.

When one cinema became electrically lighted, the rest followed, and soon the “street was a blaze of illumination for three solid blocks and came to be known as the best lighted street in the world,” wrote The Rocky Mountain News.

Imagine walking down Curtis Street in the early 1900s, being surrounded by beautiful buildings, towering electric signs and some of the most popular performers of the time.

Princess_Theater

On one side of the street would be The Iris, one of the oldest theatres, built in the 1880s. It cycled through a number of names in its lifetime, including The Curtis, The Denver, and Gem – but its final name was The New Paris. Back then, a movie would cost between 5 and 75 cents, which is hard to believe when a ticket today costs around $11. It was the final Curtis Street theatre left standing before it was demolished in 1974.

Another block down would be The Princess, built in 1910. It showed silent movies and often offered stage shows before the movie started, such as dancers, jugglers or vaudeville routines. In 1919, it was renamed The Victory Theatre to honor those who fought in World War I. In 1951, the theatre met the fate of so many other historical buildings and was torn down.

The Isis, built in 1912, was considered one of the first “swanky” theatres in Denver because of its expensive and luxurious interior. The stage was large enough to host children’s events and political meetings in addition to the movies. It also boasted the first theatre organ.

“An obscure church decided to sell its organ and The Isis management bought it. The console was installed in the balcony, and if the patrons wished to see the organist, they had to turn from the picture and crane their necks up and to the back,” reported The Rocky Mountain News.

Torn down 43 years later, the site of The Isis is now used for public parking.

America_Theatre

Strolling down Theatre Row, it would be impossible to miss The America Theatre, which opened in 1917. It was recognized as one of the most lighted theatres on the street. With two entrances came two immense signs, one weighing 15 tons. It was considered the largest sign in the West and could have sufficiently lit the street on its own.

One of the last great theatres to be built in Denver was The Aladdin on East Colfax. Everyone who attended was in awe of the luxurious green carpets and sky-blue ceiling, featuring hundreds of tiny, twinkling lights. Built in 1926, it was the first in Denver made for sound pictures. There were even Arabian murals and a fountain, decorations vastly different than movie theatres have now.

By 1925, Curtis Street had at least 13 vaudeville and movie houses. Today, not one of those historical theatres is left standing. All the memories and history of each were lost to build high-rises or parking lots.

But Curtis Street is still known for its live theatre. The west end of the street was reborn in 1972 as the home of the Denver Performing Arts Complex, the nation’s performing-arts facility under one roof. Today the DCPA attracts about 800,000 a year for performances, classes and other activities.

But while Curtis Street now has new buildings with new lights, it hardly compares to the beauty and magic of the Great White Way in its glory days.

About the Author: Olivia Jansen

Olivia JansenDCPA NewsCenter intern Olivia Jansen, right, is a junior at Wartburg College in Waverly, Iowa, where she is studying multimedia journalism. She is from Johnsburg, Ill. Read her previous profiles of DCPA Education Director Allison Watrous; Denver actors Karen Slack and Paige Price; and Stage Manager Rachel Ducat.

Denver_movie_street_Curtis_from_Sixteenth_toward_18thDenver’s ‘Movie Street’ was Curtis Street from 16th through 18th street.

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