Henry Lowenstein: 'Father of Denver theatre' passes away

Henry_Lowenstein_800_1Henry Lowenstein. Denver Post file photo.

To see our full gallery of Henry Lowenstein’s life in pictures, click here

Update: A celebration of Henry Lowenstein’s life will be held in the Wolf Theatre at the Mizel Arts and Culture Center beginning at 6:30 p.m. on Monday, Nov. 10.

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To many, Henry Lowenstein was the father of theatre in Colorado.

To anyone who saw the old man with the big belly, wide smile and billows of grizzled-white hair covering his face, he was Santa Claus.

He got that a lot, and it made him grin.

“I’m not Santa,” Lowenstein loved to respond. “I’m his cousin.”

His Jewish cousin.

But given all the opportunities he created during his four decades as a producer of  Colorado theater, his fans thought no one better fit the role. A Henry faceLowenstein, the namesake of the theatre that is now the Colfax Tattered Cover Book Store, died today at age 89.

Lowenstein escaped Germany with the Kindertransport at age 13. That was a British rescue mission that saved 10,000 mostly Jewish children across Eastern Europe at the outbreak of the Second World War. In 1999, Lowenstein was chosen to be the American representative at Parliament for the 60th reunion of Kindertransport survivors.

Lowenstein has faced a variety of medical issues over recent years. But he was not afraid of dying. “I’m afraid of dying before I clean out my basement of all my memorabilia,” he said.

Few people have had as much impact on theater in Denver — or the lives of theater people in Denver — as Lowenstein, who ran Denver Post publisher Helen Bonfils’ crown jewel on East Colfax and Josephine Street until the theater closed in 1986. He discovered new talent. He launched careers. He encouraged women and people of color. For hundreds of thousands of Coloradans, the Bonfils served as their first experience in live theater.

“Were it not for Henry and the Bonfils Theatre, I would have remained a housewife,” said Bev Newcomb-Madden, who has instead directed more plays than any other woman in Colorado theatre history.
That’s just one reason he’s the namesake of the Colorado Theatre Guild’s annual Henry Awards. That name came at the insistence of ex-board member Jane Potts.

“Just having known how much he did to build theater in this city, long before the Denver Center ever came to town,” Potts said, “I just always assumed he was the father of live theater in Denver.”

By the time the Bonfils Theatre closed, it had been renamed the Lowenstein Theatre and had hosted more than 400 plays.

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“If anybody looks back on the last 50 years in Denver, Henry would have to be considered one of the 10 most important people in shaping this city,” said DCPA founder Donald Seawell.

Lowenstein shared credit with “all the good people that came along” for his success. But he owned one thing:

“I really was instrumental in bringing the various races together and opening the doors to everybody,” he said, “at a time when a lot of otherwise perfectly nice people did not see that as a priority.”

Days before the first show was to open after Lowenstein’s arrival at the Bonfils Theatre in October 1956, the building’s custodian was found dead after having had a heart attack. With a new show opening, a replacement was needed immediately.

“A man walked in with his son, and he was just outstanding,” said Lowenstein. “He obviously had talents that went way beyond being a maintenance man. I was going to hire him, but then I found out that people there were aghast. They said, ‘We can’t hire a black person. What are you thinking?’ ” 

When Lowenstein heard the complaint, he said, “I am going to call Helen Bonfils, because this kind of thing is crap.”

“So I called her up. She said, ‘Of course you will hire him.’

“Before we knew it, he was doing everything. He was helping backstage. He was performing. He was everywhere.”

The man’s name was Jonathan Parker. His daughter grew up to be the founder, executive artistic director and choreographer of the now 40-year-old Denver institution known as Cleo Parker Robinson Dance. Lowenstein would become a champion in the African-American, gay and Hispanic communities. 

“I said to everyone, ‘The doors are going to be open to everybody here, and everybody is going to be welcome,’ ” Lowenstein said.

Childhood with artists

Lowenstein began a lot of sentences with, “I’m going to make a long story short . . .” when in reality, Newcomb said with a laugh, “it’s always the opposite.”

But his is not a short story.

“Oh, to be 80 again,” he said with a chuckle during a 2009 interview.

Lowenstein was born July 4, 1925, and grew up in Berlin on the same street where the Kit Kat Club would inspire the musical Cabaret. “He often told us stories of peering through the windows to see what was going on,” said his son, David Lowenstein. “Apparently the windows were painted with black paint, but there were scratches in the paint that allowed him to see what was going on inside.” 

His parents hosted nightly parties for artists of all kinds. One of his father’s best friends was composer Kurt Weill, who worked out his masterpiece The Threepenny Opera on the Lowenstein family piano.

Henry_Lowenstein_300Lowenstein’s war stories are harrowing. At 13, he was part of an illegal scout troop that met in secret to swap tips on staying alive. “We were naïve as hell,” he said.

“But we were doomed if we stayed.”

Lowenstein’s father was Jewish, but not at all religious. “And my mother was basically Lutheran,” he said.

His sister grew up to work for the German government as a double-agent. She was imprisoned by the Russians for passing crucial information to the Americans.

Henry escaped to London as part of the Kindertransport. He spent his teen years working in Europe’s largest zoo, where the animals often ate better than he did.

He came to America in 1947, a 22-year-old whose childhood would inform the artist he would become.

“There were some very bitter lessons,” said Lowenstein, “When we went into hiding, all our friends refused to open their doors to us, because it meant they would probably get killed. You learn very quickly that people will do whatever they must to save their own lives.”

He forged a deep empathy for artists, outcasts and anyone who’s been discriminated against.

​”Henry arrived in the United States as a typical immigrant with no money and no education,” said Lowenstein’s friend and biographer, Christiane Hyde Citron. “Over the next nine years, he worked as a grave-digger and a foundry laborer.”

Lowenstein served three years as an illustrator in the U.S. Air Force during the Korean War. Afterward, friend Rance Howard (father of film’s Ron Howard) encouraged Lowenstein to apply to Yale’s graduate school to study theatrical design. 

“I told Rance, ‘You’re out of your mind,’ ” said Lowenstein. He didn’t have an undergraduate degree. He was a veteran, but he wasn’t even a citizen yet.

“I had nothing,” he said.

He called Yale anyway and was asked to overnight a portfolio. Hah: What portfolio?

​(story continues after the jump)

In this 2008 audio recording, Colorado theatre legend Henry Lowenstein talks about Helen Bonfils and Colorado Theatre history at a public panel held at the Denver Civic Theatre (now the Su Teatro Performing Arts Center). Recording by John Moore.

 

That night, he imagined the setting for Weill’s “Street Scene,” drew it — and got in. During his three years in Connecticut, he moonlighted as a stagehand at Broadway’s Shubert Theatre. That led to the surprise call from Helen Bonfils that changed his life.

“And I didn’t know who the hell she was,” he said.

Lowenstein was approached by “Miss Helen” and offered the job of running her theatre in Denver. That very same day, she also offered Seawell a job as her personal atttorney.

Lowenstein now credits Bonfils with changing the face of theater in Colorado. His charge was to elevate the professionalism of a community theater where celebrities like Kevin Kline and Patti LuPone mingled with locals like Cleo Parker Robinson, Jeffrey Nickelson, Robert Wells, Deb Persoff and John Ashton, who over time would become stalwarts of the arts community.

Lowenstein modeled the Bonfils after Joe Papp’s Public Theatre in New York. But he rarely staged Shakespeare because, he said, “it would merely demonstrate the inability most Americans have of performing it.”

Bonfils took her plays out of the theater and into schools and parks, where they were seen by tens of thousands.

“And she felt her theater should be at the forefront of breaking down some of the rules,” Lowenstein said, citing her staging of gay-themed plays such as The Boys in the Band.

His best stories about the old Bonfils Theatre, he said, came before he managed the place. “Because when I managed the place, I did my level-best to keep anything from happening that would become a story,” he said. “I wanted to have things run smoothly.”

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Henry Lowenstein with wife Deborah Goodman Lowenstein at the Colorado Theatre Guild Henry Awards, named in the longtime producer’s honor. Photo by John Moore.

Fueling actors’ dreams

Newcomb said Lowenstein’s legacy will surely be creating opportunities for women and people of color. People like Kent Gash, who graduated from George Washington High School and is now teaching at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts. When Gash was just 14, Lowenstein encouraged him in several productions at the Bonfils Theatre. He calls Lowenstein “a kind, gentle and always inspiring giant” of Denver theatre.

“Henry made it possible for crazy kids like me growing up and working in Denver to believe that we could make good on all our dreams of having a life in the theater,” said Gash. “And by example, he also taught us how to be a mensch, while being an artist.”

People don’t come any kinder, Gash said — but that doesn’t mean he was always an easy man to work with.

“I think Henry brought a lot of German attitudes with him when he came here,” said Newcomb. “It was hard for him at first to understand American women. There were times when I would look over his shoulder instead of in his face because, frankly, he intimidated me.

“It was sometimes difficult to get him to understand that I wanted and expected to do more than children’s theater. But over time, he gave me the opportunity to move up, make more money and do shows that had more meaning.”

Brian Freeland, Founder of the LIDA Project Theatre, created the sound design for what is believed to be Lowenstein’s final show — a college project for the University of Denver. The director was Curious Theatre Founder Chip Walton, with Lowenstein contributing the scenic design.

Freeland found a great symbiosis between Lowenstein’s work at Bonfils and Walton’s work at Curious.

“Henry was a radical, but he was pushing theatre in directions that it needed to be pushed,” Freeland said, “especially in the area of racial content. He gave opportunities to people we would not think of as traditional theatre people in the 1950s, ’60s and even into the ’70s – meaning they were not all white males.” 

While many in Denver got to know Lowenstein as the genial “Jewish Santa Claus” in his retirement years, Freeland said he could be tough. “And that’s because he had standards,” Freeland said. “Demanding people tend to ruffle feathers. That’s how he got 400 shows produced.”

Citron said there are hundreds of artists who owe their theatre experience to Henry Lowenstein.

“Henry has been a treasured leader in the Denver’s cultural scene,” said Citron, who also cited his leadership in establishing and continuing the Scientific and Cultural Facilities District. That’s a penny-per-$10 sales tax that provides metro artists and organizations with about $35 million a year. It goes before the voters for re-authorization in 2016.

The end of the Bonfils Theatre

By the time the Lowenstein Theater was closed, it had been dwarfed by the Denver Center, which had been built by Seawell with funds from Bonfils’ estate.

So Lowenstein took his energy and his mission to the new Denver Civic Theatre, continuing much of Bonfils’ mission there until his retirement in ’95.

The Denver Public Library displayed dozens of Lowenstein’s set designs in 2009, and the Kirkland Museum has since purchased five of them.

Lowenstein had three kids with wife Dorrie, who died in 1990: Daniel, David and Joshua. “But everybody in this city who’s been involved in theater thinks of Henry as a father figure,” said wife Deborah Goodman Lowenstein, who married Henry in ’93.

The father of live theater in Denver.

Lowenstein was once asked the secret to drawing audiences in these modern, competitive and challenging times.

“The audience is going to go where they find good theatre at a good price,” he said. “The answer is to do better theatre.”  

John Moore is the former theatre critic at The Denver Post. Much of the reporting for this story was done for a feature he wrote on Henry Lowenstein in 2009. Moore was named one of the 12 most influential theater critics in the U.S by American Theatre Magazine in 2011. He has since taken a groundbreaking position as the Denver Center’s Senior Arts Journalist. Contact him at 303-893-6003 or jmoore@dcpa.org

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Henry Lowenstein’s imagined setting for Kurt Weill’s “Street Scene.”

More on Lowenstein’s war stories

On the first attempt to get Lowenstein out of Germany: His parents arranged for him to take a train to France and presumed safety, along with the daughter of a family friend. But Henry’s mother couldn’t put him on the train because of a high fever. That saved his life, because in France, the Nazis killed the girl he was to travel with.

On his sister’s role as a double-agent:  During World War II, Lowenstein’s sister, Karen Wharton, worked as the secretary to the man who would become prime minister of Germany. During that time, she passed crucial information to the Americans. She and a fellow secretary were taken prisoner by the Russians. The other was murdered, but Wharton got out alive.

On the kindertransport rescue movement: Lowenstein wound up in a little village that was home to the largest zoo in Europe. Part of his job there was to fill sandbags to protect the superintendent’s house from bombs, which later came anyway.

On the fate of his parents during the war: Lowenstein’s parents were sent to forced labor camps. His mother, a Lutheran, sewed uniforms, and his father, a Jew, was put to work sorting the valuables and shoes that came back from death camps by trainload. “By 1942, there were only roughly 7,000 Jews still left in Berlin,” he said, “and in February of 1943, the Nazis decided they were going to kill all the remaining Jews so that Berlin would be completely cleaned out of them. Before they could begin to carry out their plan, the Germans suffered heavy losses in Stalingrad (600,000) and in North Africa. But the plan went ahead anyway, and one day my mother came home from her job and found that my father was gone. He had been taken to a factory in a big working-class area of the city and locked up. My mother went there and found out, to her surprise, that most of the men in there had non-Jew spouses. Well, these women all stood up together against the Nazis and said, ‘If you take them, you must take us, too. We’re with our husbands.’ This was not what the Nazis wanted. But this group of German women kept growing. Within a few days, there were 3,000 of them. Joseph Goebbels, who was the propaganda minister and governor of Berlin, gave the order to stop – to not go ahead and kill anybody, but instead to release the Jews. Because with all going that was going wrong in Stalingrad and North Africa, they did not want to be actually killing German women in center of Berlin, where they couldn’t hide it. Besides, there was nowhere for them to go, so they knew they could just go out and grab them up again later anyway. So any man in the prison who had someone outside asking for him, got out, my father being one of them. It’s the only time, to this point, that the Nazis ever backed down. But I’m sure, had the war gone on a few more months, my parents would have been dead.”

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Bonfils/Lowenstein Theatre: Some of the names

A few local Bonfils theater alumni:
John Ashton, Dwayne Carrington, Tony Church, Joe Craft, Tupper Cullum, Paul Dwyer, Michael R. Duran, Robert Garner, Michael Gold, Bev Newcomb-Madden, Melissa McCarl, Jeffrey Nickelson, Cleo Parker-Robinson, Deborah Persoff, Alex Ryer, Rick Seeber, Roger L. Simon, Robert Wells.

Celebrities who appeared in Bonfils Theatre productions:
Helen Bonfils, Mary Jo Catlett, Julia Child (she gave an onstage cooking demonstration), Kevin Kline, Patti LuPone, Gary Montgomery, Ted Shackelford, David Ogden Stiers, Marilyn Van Derbur (Miss America), Joan Van Ark, Paul Winfield, Emlyn Williams

A history of the Bonfils/Lowenstein Theatre
Long before the creation of the Denver Center Theatre Company, Denver’s premier theater was staged at the Bonfils Memorial Theater at East Colfax Avenue and Elizabeth Street.

Over 33 years, the Bonfils’ seductive stage called out to everyone from New York celebrities to a state Supreme Court justice to a future Miss America to legions of ordinary folk. It even saw the occasional streaker and bomb threat.

It was a community theater that was professionally run.

When former Denver Post publisher Helen Bonfils built her 550-seat theater palace as a memorial to her parents, it was the first new live theater built anywhere in Denver in 40 years. It soon became the epicenter of Denver society.

By the time it closed in 1986 as the Lowenstein Theater, it had hosted more than 400 mainstage and children’s productions. Its legacy includes a summer festival caravan that toured city parks, a free annual outdoor summer musical in Cheesman Park and a black-box cabaret. Its long list of legendary directors includes Alexander Ivo, Robert Wells, Harry Geldard, Bob Bannister, Buddy Butler, Bev Newcomb-Madden and Gary Montgomery, nephew of British military hero Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery.

The building has sat unoccupied for 19 years, but the Lowenstein has been turned inti  cultural retail center. The Tattered Cover Book Store and Udi’s Restaurant occupy  the existing theater, while the Sie Film Center, Denver Folkore Society and Twist & Shout records operate in a new facility that was built next door.

The Bonfils story includes actors collapsing onstage and being bailed out of jail just before curtain. There are tales of ghosts and hookers both being shooed away by diligent house manager Joe Farrow. Onstage, the canon included antiwar stories, cautionary tales of nuclear destruction and some of the first staged works with homosexual characters (“Boys in the Band”), all playing opposite professionally staged children’s stories like “Pippi Longstocking” and “Golliwhoppers.”

In honor of a closed chapter in the city’s history, we asked Lowenstein and many of those who performed there for their memories.

Lowenstein remembers the theater as “one of the best-designed and best-equipped theater buildings that existed at the time.” For many actors, Michael Gold said, “it was the start of our careers. And it was all good theater with the sole purpose of entertainment.


The Bonfils Theatre: A brief history

1929: University Civic Theatre opens with “Candida” at University of Denver’s Margaret Reed Hall.
1953: Helen Bonfils builds the new 550-seat Bonfils Memorial Theatre, the first new theater building in Denver in 40 years. She names it Denver Civic Theatre at the Bonfils Memorial Theatre.
1956: Henry Lowenstein is hired as set designer.
1966: Donald R. Seawell named CEO of The Denver Post and supervisor of the Bonfils.
1967: Lowenstein is named producer.
1972: Helen Bonfils dies.
1985: Renamed the Lowenstein Theater.
1986: Theater closed by unanimous vote of the Denver Center for the Performing Arts board of trustees.


Ten unforgettable events in the theater’s history

1. When the Bonfils Memorial Theatre opened in October 1953, millionaire Broadway producer Blevins Davis (“Porgy & Bess”) called it the finest theater of its kind in the country. “There is nothing better in New York,” he said. A congratulatory telegram was sent to founder Helen Bonfils by president Dwight D. Eisenhower. “All of Denver society would show up for every opening night, presided over by Miss Helen, who would walk to her seat as the audience applauded her,” said former theater critic Thom Wise. “The society writers would cover, in detail, what all of the prominent women would wear, and who sat next to whom. In those days, the Bonfils Theater was the social center of the city.”

2. Tragedy struck in 1954. During the intermission of “Jack and the Beanstalk,” a crew member fell from 18 feet up the stalk and down through an open trap door to his death. A shaken Bonfils was determined “she better have someone in there who knew what they were doing,” said producer Henry Lowenstein. “And that’s how I got hired.”

3. People still buzz about the night Carol Channing attended “Sorrows of Stephen” in 1982 and hung out with the cast for hours afterward. But nothing topped a 1955 tribute to Denver playwright Mary Chase. She was being honored after a performance of her “Harvey” when Jimmy Stewart, the star of the film version, emerged from the back row; he had watched the entire performance unnoticed.

4. In 1957, Judge O. Otto Moore, chief justice of the Colorado Supreme Court, played the William Jennings Bryan-inspired role in the Scopes Monkey Trial drama “Inherit the Wind.” “We all thought that issue was finally behind us, and look what’s going on now,” Lowenstein said. “Here we are 50 years later and the issue is as alive as ever.”

5. In a 1965 production of “Dark of the Moon,” a backwoods Ozarks preacher rapes a woman as townspeople crowd around, shielding the audience from view. Lowenstein was prepared for the worst when he was summoned to the lobby to face a preacher who had an unexpected agenda. “He said, ‘I have a couple here who really wanted to see your show before they leave on their honeymoon. But they haven’t been married yet. Since you already have the lectern set up, can we marry them onstage here?’ They got married right then and there, with all my staff as witnesses. It was absolutely wonderful.”

6. The new “Perry Mason” series was filmed inside the Bonfils from 1987-89, among many other Denver locales. Raymond Burr was a consultant to Helen Bonfils on the original design of her theater. That’s why he chose to film his series there, Wise said.

7. A large portrait of “Miss Helen” graced the building’s foyer. The newspaper magnate’s first love was the theater. She would spend most theater seasons in New York as an actor and producer. She summered in Denver with her husband, George Somnes, who produced and directed plays at the Elitch Theatre. After her death in 1972, many Bonfils regulars became convinced that in her portrait, the sky behind Bonfils would grow gloomier if the current show were one she would not have liked.

8. In 1971, 23-year-old Kevin Kline was joined by David Ogden Stiers, Patti LuPone, Mary Lou Rosato and others from John Houseman’s The Acting Company to perform three shows in repertory for three weeks. Lowenstein fondly remembers driving the young stars in his beat-up Scout through a blizzard to the Career Education Center, where they conducted a workshop for children. Kline came back for at least two other runs at the Bonfils in the 1970s.

9. In 1971, 10 days before an opening night, Lowenstein canceled a production of “The Imaginary Invalid,” being staged in conjunction with the University of Denver. After four months of rehearsal, it was looking like a disaster. “I was the bad guy,” said Lowenstein, who then rushed “The Taming of the Shrew” and “Becket” into simultaneous production so that the entire cast of the canceled show would have parts. But that didn’t quell the animosity. Opening night was canceled by a bomb threat. Then the next night as well. “By the third night I said, ‘I can’t do this anymore. They can close us forever if we do this night after night,”‘ he said. That night a threatening note was found in a dressing room with letters cut from a magazine. “It was pretty clear that somebody in the cast was involved,” Lowenstein said. “But I said, ‘I don’t give a damn. This show is going on. I am willing to risk it.”‘ Neither show, it turns out, was a bomb.

10. Lowenstein considers Robert Wells’ 1983 production of “Sweeney Todd” the theater’s greatest artistic achievement. “That was the one show I would say absolutely got it right,” he said. “Everything about it was the way it should be.” It was the highlight of Wells’ 35-show run as well. “It was a knockout,” he said. Three years later, the theater closed.

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