Judi Wolf: DCPA Trustee, Benefactress and The Red Wolf

Judi Wolf doesn’t merely walk into a room. She floats. Like when she floated into The Buell Theatre for the opening of the Broadway-bound The Little Mermaid in 2007 dressed to the gills as Ariel’s mother wearing a stunning, ocean-themed blue and turquoise dress. “The Red Wolf,” as she is affectionately known, held fish-shaped balloons while her household manager blew bubbles in her wake.

When Wolf arrives in all her sartorial splendor for a night at the theatre (or a charity function, or a boring old meeting, for that matter), she’s easy to spot in the crowd. Like when she wore a toga to the opening of the DCPA Theatre Company’s 10-hour epic Greek cycle Tantalus in 2000. Or when she came to the 2019 Colorado New Play Summit concert performance of Rattlesnake Kate in a cowboy hat, boots and a snakeskin jacket.

There are method actors, and then there are method dressers. Wolf arrived at the Theatre Company’s The Man Who Came to Dinner in 1990 wearing a cocktail dress while being pushed in a wheelchair. After all, the famous story’s irascible protagonist Sheridan Whiteside spends the play in a wheelchair. Now that is commitment to craft. (Only in this case, Wolf actually needed it. “I had tripped walking out of the beauty shop, so I rode to the theatre in an ambulance with ice on my knee and ankle,” she said. “It was opening night, and I wasn’t going to miss it.”)

“That’s Judi,” says DCPA Chairman Martin Semple.

Her friends say that a lot: “That’s Judi.”

With her playful smile, trademark shock of flaming red hair and impeccably tailored outfits that are always on theme, you might say that when Wolf arrives at the theatre, the real show begins.

And in many ways, it does.

“I always have the sense that Judi could leap out of her seat at any time, jump onto a stage and give her own performance,” said longtime Denver Center Costume Crafts Director Kevin Copenhaver.

On Saturday night (September 25), Judi Wolf – lifelong arts patron, educator and passionate advocate for the performing arts – was the show.

That night, the Denver Center hosted a celebration of Wolf and her late husband, Marvin. It was their undisclosed lead gift, Semple said, that truly kickstarted the DCPA’s $54 million campaign to completely reimagine the Helen Bonfils Theatre Complex and all three theatres in it. The Stage, Space and Ricketson theatres, soon to be known as the Wolf, Singleton and Kilstrom theatres, have been fully rebuilt. A new shared lobby unifies all three spaces. There are new backstage and support areas, state-of-the-art technology upgrades and greatly improved accessibility services.

The newly christened Wolf Theatre, which launched the DCPA as the Stage Theatre on New Year’s Eve 1979, will relaunch the post-pandemic DCPA on November 19 with the opening of A Christmas Carol, restored to its original status as the crown jewel of the Denver Performing Arts Complex. John Ekeberg, Executive Director of the DCPA’s Broadway and Cabaret divisions, sees Saturday’s celebration as a rebirth, not only of the famed Stage Theatre, but of the Denver Center and live theatre itself.

“This will be an ideal place for artists of all disabilities and abilities to come here and present all types of art, both plays and musicals, world premieres, classics and comedies right here in Denver,” added President and CEO Janice Sinden.

DCPA Theatre Company Artistic Director Chris Coleman said returning audiences will be more comfortable and notice a more intimate atmosphere in The Wolf Theatre, as well as vastly improved acoustics – especially for plays. “We have managed to make it look like we were keeping up with the industry all this time,” Coleman said. “But what you didn’t see behind the scenes was the 200-foot extension cord plugging into the slide projector that allowed us to do all that beautiful stuff in Tommy. Everything about this new theatre has been designed with both the artist and the guest in mind. It’s both efficient and thoughtful, and I think that creates a sense of pride in our work.

And none of this would have been possible, Sinden said, without Marvin and Judi Wolf.

As the Denver Center eagerly prepares for its re-opening after a devastating 18-month pandemic shutdown, it is also nearing the end of the first public capital campaign in its 40-year history. Following an original $18 million investment in The Space (now Kilstrom) Theatre renovation, the DCPA announced “A Grander Opening” capital campaign back in 2018, which called for $17 million from DCPA fundraising and $19 million from voter-approved City of Denver bonds. “We still have $1.5 million left to raise, but our goal is to have it fully paid off by the end of this calendar year,” said Sinden.

The Wolfs were the first to step up. Their lead gift “was absolutely critical in what has been an extremely strong campaign,” Semple said. “They were the opening act.”

Sinden will never forget taking the emotional Sunday morning phone call from Judi Wolf telling her that Marvin was claiming the naming rights to the Denver Center’s flagship theatre as a spontaneous birthday present for his wife. “I think that spontaneity was so much part of what kept Marvin and Judi so deeply in love with each other throughout their marriage,” said Sinden. Wolf, an oil and gas pioneer, died of kidney disease in March 2020.

 

These roots run red

Wolf is a Denver native with a master’s degree in international relations from the University of Denver. She taught Spanish at Graland Country Day School, the result of having lived in Mexico City while attending the Universidad de las Americas. She speaks five languages, including Russian, Greek and Italian.

“She’s one smart cookie,” said 30-year Denver Post Society Editor Joanne Davidson. “I’ll never forget when members of the Missoni fashion family came to Denver to show their clothes, and they didn’t speak English at all. But because Judi speaks fluent Italian, they were chatting away like old friends throughout the whole luncheon. It was amazing to see.”

Wolf’s affinity for playing dress-up goes back to the age of 6. “I started in my mother’s ballgowns,” Wolf said. “I would put them on and get completely lost in them.” She began sponsoring the Costume Corner column in the DCPA’s Applause magazine in 2010 because she believes the costume arts must always be championed. “After all, what is theatre without costumes?” she asked. “It’s radio!”

There is no one on the planet, Sinden said, who has as much fashion sense as Judi Wolf. “She is not only a theatre icon, but she is a fashion icon in Denver and beyond,” she said.

Her friends describe Wolf’s style as playful, timeless, curated and fearless…with just a hint of smolder and tease. When Copenhaver thinks of Wolf, he said, “I think of passion. Cleo Parker Robinson, founder of Denver’s famed Cleo Parker Robinson Dance, agrees.

“Oh, Judi is a sexy lady – absolutely,” Robinson said. “That’s just the way she is.” Imitating her sultry voice, Davidson added, “Judi doesn’t speak…she purrs.”

If Wolf were a dance, Robinson knows just which one. “She’d be The Volcano,” Robinson said, “because Judi is the goddess of fire.”

Over three decades, Davidson can’t think of one time she’s seen Wolf in anything but high-heeled shoes. “One time I asked her if she wore high heels while she was teaching,” Davidson said. “She responded, ‘Honey, I came out of the womb in 6-inch Louboutins!’ ”

Suffice it to say, no one has ever witnessed Wolf wearing jeans and a T-Shirt. “I think if you asked Judi, she would say, ‘What are jeans and a T-Shirt?’ ” Semple said with a laugh. Davidson is pretty certain in suggesting that Wolf has never bought anything off the rack.

When the Wolfs made their gift for the Wolf Theatre, they made it clear they wanted to ensure that DCPA founder Donald Seawell’s dream for world-class productions in a world-class theatre facility would live on. And they wanted to send a definitive message that the arts are essential in all our lives. Judi Wolf made it additionally clear that she would have a vested interest in specific design details, such as the color of the new theatre’s 660 seats (reduced from about 800 to make more room for each patron.)

“So we took her down to the offices of Semple Brown, the firm that designed the theatre,” Sinden said. “She looked at all the fabric samples, and she picked the color.”

One guess which color she chose.

“Yes, she had to make sure the seats would be red,” Sinden said with a laugh.

Red has been Wolf’s signature color since long before she legally became “The Red Wolf” by marrying Marvin Wolf in 1983. They had met when Judi, a mother of three and already a DCPA board member at the time, was teaching at Graland. “The love that she had for Marvin,” Davidson said, “was really something out of a storybook.”

Red is simply Wolf’s brand, Sinden said. “It’s her beautiful red hair, her red lipstick, her red attire. She just identifies as The Red Wolf.” Robinson said Wolf loves red because she is a fiery woman. “There is no other color that would work for her,” she said.

But red is not Wolf’s only signature color, Copenhaver said. “I think it’s maybe leopard,” he said. “I want to say sparkle, too, because Judi always has that glimmer in her eyes.”

A legacy of service

No one has more fun with her larger-than-life persona than Wolf herself, Davidson said. But when Wolf commits herself to service, Semple asserted, she doesn’t mess around. She gets busy. Especially when the work involves children.

“If Judi gets involved in something, she gets involved 100 percent,” Semple said. “Maybe even 110.” Sinden cited Wolf’s community work as a longstanding member of the DCPA’s Education and Community Engagement Committee. “I have never seen Judi’s cup fuller than when she’s sitting with children or watching programs that impact our youth and our students,” Sinden added. “She truly believes that theatre inspires, enlivens and transforms the lives of people, and makes them lifelong lovers of the performing arts.”

Wolf has been a staunch supporter of the DCPA from the very beginning, joining the board of trustees with Semple in 1979. But she also has held board positions with the Colorado Symphony, Central City Opera, Helen Bonfils Foundation, University of Denver Humanities Institute, and the American National Theatre and Academy. She served as a gubernatorial appointee to Colorado Council of the Arts and twice co-chaired the Colorado Performing Arts Festival. And she was on the task force that led to the construction of the Ellie Caulkins Opera House.

Over the years, the Wolfs have provided financial support to performing-arts organizations throughout Colorado, including Opera Colorado, the Colorado Symphony, the Denver Art Museum, Temple Emanuel of Denver and the Anti-Defamation League. Judi has a particular soft spot for Magic Moments, a nonprofit that for 37 years has offered an original annual pop-music revue that gives up to 200 disabled and able-bodied performers the opportunity to perform together. For her generosity, Wolf was named as the Fine Arts Foundation Citizen of the Arts in 2012.

“Judi and Marvin are really angels to the entire Denver arts community – and we need more angels like them,” Robinson said. Judi, Ekeberg added, “will be forever known as among a very select group of folks who have had a huge impact on Denver and the surrounding area.”

But the Denver Center has been the Wolfs’ first and most enduring love. When the Buell Theatre was under construction in 1990, the couple collaborated with Seawell to create the Marvin & Judi Wolf Room. It’s a carefully appointed second-floor nook where they have hosted countless intermissions with cookies and milk.

“It is painted in a lovely Mediterranean style with some little surprises to find,” Ekeberg said. Examine the wall mural closely enough and lost in the landscape you’ll find a little red wolf sitting by a big tree. It’s an homage to Judi Wolf.

When a capital campaign as large as “A Grander Opening” was first imagined in 2016, it was inevitable that a donor would come forward to snag the naming rights to the anchor theatre. But to those at the Denver Center, there could be no better fit for that distinction than Marvin and Judi Wolf.

“Not every cultural organization has a supporter who is as devoted to its mission, and who has the resources to make a real difference, and who is as fun and playful as Judi Wolf,” Coleman said. “That’s really unique. There is just something magical about her persona, her generosity and her sense of humor. I think of her as the fairy godmother of our organization.”

Copenhaver describes Judi as an ageless woman who has never lost her childlike wonder for the power of storytelling.

“She really sees theatre as an event, as a time to celebrate, as a joyous occasion,” Ekeberg added, “and Judi always shows up with that sense of joy.”

Davidson said the Wolfs and the Wolf Theatre make for a perfect pairing. “Hopefully when people come who may not have experienced live theatre before, they will enjoy a wonderful performance and want to come back again,” she said. “And then maybe they will come back and bring their friends. And then maybe they will buy season tickets and become theatregoers for life. I think this theatre will be a real lasting legacy to the Wolf family and their commitment to the arts.”

Semple said the new space “will always serve as a beautiful and ongoing reflection of Marvin and Judi Wolf, and their lifetime of service to the Denver Center.” Coleman promised that “every time we make a play here, we are going to think about what the Wolfs have meant to this organization from the very beginning.”

For The Red Wolf herself, the new theatre will always be a reminder of the lone Wolf she shared her life with for 37 years. “This is a gift that my husband gave me from the heart,” she said, “and the idea that people will enjoy it long after we are gone gives me goosebumps.”

That’s Judi.