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Live theatre returns to historic Elitch stage after 24 years

by NewsCenter Staff | Aug 06, 2015
Hop-A-Long Cassidy performe on the Elitch Theatre roof, but live theatre returns to the historic Elitch Theatre stage on Aug. 20.
Hop-A-Long Cassidy may have preferred performing on the Elitch Theatre roof, but the upcoming New Works Festival brings theatre back to the indoor stage stage on Aug. 20.

Editor's Note: The DCPA NewsCenter offers a weekly guest column from a variety of local and national voices covering a wide range of theatre topics. To submit a proposed guest column, email your name and topic to jmoore@dcpa.org.


By David Nehls 
For the DCPA NewsCenter

"Thus it came to pass in the 1890s that the theatre and the company at Elitch's Gardens began a career that has ever since placed this organization above any other as an outstanding example of what a resident dramatic stock company should be. I know of no other similar organization that has held so tenaciously to the highest standards of personal production. With all the changing conditions considered, credit for the maintenance of those standards is directly traceable to the source of their creation. The high purpose, the finely sensitive, spiritually guided, wholesomely honest ambition of Mary Elitch is the inspiration and foundation of that record." - Burns Mantle, March 1932

These words were written by the famous theatre critic for the foreword to Mary Elitch's book, The Lady Of The Gardens. As a young boy growing up in Denver David Nehls during the time of Mary's ownership and management of "Elitch's Gardens and Theatre," he speaks with such reverence to the woman who began a legacy that stretches into the 21st century. The fact that this building, this temple to the genesis of what has become the entertainment industry we now know, still exists, is nothing short of a miracle.

In a society where history is disposable and those who came before are easily forgotten, the historic Elitch Theatre, located in northwest Denver off 38th Avenue and Tennyson street, stands as a testament to weathering time and adversity to become relevant yet again.

Sure, it is not in the best of shape, despite several construction projects that have brought the structure up to code. But with community support and love of theatergoers who stretch to both coasts of the U.S., things are looking up. Bathrooms, a new fly roof and an upgraded power supply are the only remaining issues that are keeping the theatre from becoming a full-time, operational venue again. With the proper fundraising and grant options, the doors may be open full-time within the next few years.

In the meantime, the theatre has been operational this summer for the first time since 1991. Our programming has been limited, but we are utilizing the theatre in the best and safest way possible to give the public access to this historic gem and entertain at the same time. With the ongoing Outdoor Film Series, our upcoming New Works Festival opening Aug. 20, and a Classic Film Series launching Aug. 28, this has been the busiest summer for the Elitch Theatre in 24 years. 

And why is this place so special? It starts with 100 years of history that might have ended with its closure in 1991. But when the Elitch Gardens amusement park moved to its present downtown location in 1995, the original property in northwest Denver was sold to Perry Affordable Housing with the condition that the theater never be demolished. Here are more fun facts:

  • Did you know the Elitch Theatre opened on May 1, 1890, as a "Theaterorium"? Weird name, for sure, but it was an open-air structure that was enclosed in 1891 to present light opera and Shakespeare, incorporating the Elitch Theatre Stock Company.
  • Did you know the first films shown west of Chicago were displayed in the Elitch Theatre in 1896? Thomas Edison contacted Mary Elitch himself to see if she was interested in exhibiting his Vitaphone.Grace Kelly
  • Did you know Sarah Bernhardt was re-routed during her 1906 tour to Elitch's because of the San Francisco earthquake? She would only play theaters that were not affiliated with the theatrical syndicate in New York and their devious ways. Mary shared the same ideals and hence Madame Bernhardt played the Elitch Theatre in two plays, supported by a stock company that included a young Douglas Fairbanks.
  • Did you know Florenz Ziegfeld's first great success played the Elitch Theatre? In 1896, the Great Sandow performed on Mary's stage with his manager, Ziegfeld, in tow. This was 20 years before his famous Follies debuted in 1916.
  • Did you know former Denver Post publisher Helen Bonfils, who founded the Bonfils Theatre and whose estate built the Denver Center for the Performing Arts, appeared on the Elitch stage as an actor from 1934-59, and for a decade helped run the theatre with her husband, George Somnes?
  • Did you know entertainment luminaries such as Harold Lloyd, Antoinette Perry, Edward G. Robinson, Frederic March, Robert Redford, Sylvia Sydney, Grace Kelly, Bernadette Peters, Douglas Fairbanks (Senior and Junior) and Cecil B. DeMille all got their starts at the Elitch Theatre?

(Photo above: The house in North Denver where Grace Kelly lived in 1951. Yes, the future Princess of Monaco lived at 4020 Raleigh St. Read more about it at This Used to Be Denver.)

I am just scratching the surface with the theatre's vast history, but it brings me to this summer's programming, and the importance of bringing new works and classic films to the Elitch Theatre. Mary Elitch was extremely nurturing of young and untried talent. When Cecil B. DeMille and his brother, William, were stock players at the theatre, Mary produced William's new plays as part of her season. This started him on a career as a successful Broadway playwright. Her students in the acting and dance school went on to become among the top performers in New York and Hollywood.  

The New Works Festival will be held from Aug. 20-22, and it will mark the long-awaited return of live theatre to the actual Elitch Theatre stage. The goal of the festival is to discover strong stories and foster them from the beginning stages to an eventual mainstage production. The top two productions as chosen by audiences and an invited selection committee will continue to be workshopped. In the third year of the festival, one work will be presented as a fully produced world premiere as part of the Elitch Theatre's 2017 season programming.  

We would like to think we are carrying on Mary's legacy of nurturing new ideas and creating a safe environment for these new ideas. Writers from across the United States and Europe submitted to our inaugural festival.

With the indoor Classic Film Series, we have a rare opportunity to bring Elitch Theatre alumni back to the building where they worked in their heyday.  Each classic film will feature a star who worked at the Elitch Theatre. This a new tradition that could continue for years without ever having to repeat a single film, considering so many Hollywood actors worked here. The four inaugural films will include Spaceballs, featuring Elitch Theatre alumnus Dick Van Patten, and The Miracle Worker (Patty Duke). See the complete schedule below.

The point of all this is the Elitch Theatre is coming back to life, and will bring audiences back through its doors to be moved by all forms of art once more. Yes, we need help with finances. (What theatre doesn't?) Anyone can easily go to the website to donate, or volunteer.  But the best way to support the Elitch Theatre is to go there, attend our upcoming events, and experience what Cecil B. DeMille called "The Cradle of American Theatre."

About our Guest columnist:

David Nehls is the award-winning resident Musical Director at the Arvada Center and the Vice President of the Historic Elitch Gardens Theatre Foundation. He is also a prolific writer of original music and lyrics  including The Great American Trailer Park Musical (2007 National Tour and regional productions), Broadway Bares 19 and 20, The Watercoolers (2002 Off-Broadway production), Breach (Evolution Theatre Company), Panto Sleeping Beauty (Stages Rep, Houston), It’s A Wonderful Life (1993 National Tour), Killer Wigs From Outer Space  (Animation Project, 2013 GenCon Selection) and many more.

Remaining outdoor summer films at Elitch Theatre:
  • Aug. 7: Into the Woods, with music by Janine Gastineau
  • Aug. 14: Grease

(All outdoor films show at dusk; gates open at 7 p.m.)


The 2015 indoor New Works Festival:

  • Aug. 20: The Consul, The Tramp and America’s Sweetheart by John Morogiello; directed by former National Theatre Conservatory co-Head of Acting Jennifer McCray Rincon
  • Aug. 20: The Mess of Us by Moss Kaplan and Greg Ungar; directed by DCPA Teaching Artist Kate Marie Folkins
  • Aug. 21: A Good Indian by Denver Cenbter Teaching Artist Steven Cole Hughes; directed by Colorado Theatre Guild President Pat Payne
  • Aug. 21: In the Closet by Siegmund Fuchs; directed by Robert Brown
  • Aug. 22: Fifteen Men in a Smoke Filled Room by Colin Speer Crowley; directed by Bev Newcomb-Madden
  • Aug. 22: Lady by Tim Nevits; directed by Robert Michael Sanders

To purchase tickets, click here


The 2015 indoor Classic Film Series:

  • Aug. 28: Spaceballs, starring Elitch Theatre alumnus Dick Van Patten. (Note: There will  be a live radio broadcast with Radio Voodoo before the film and a talkback with Jim J. Bullock (Prince Valium) afterward.
  • Sept. 4: The Miracle Worker, starring Elitch Theatre alumna Patty Duke.
  • Sept. 11: Some Like It Hot, starring Elitch Theatre alumnus Joe E. Brown.
  • Sept. 18: The Best Years Of Our Lives, starring Elitch Theatre alumni Frederic March, Myrna Loy, and Theresa Wright
For more information, click here



Elitch Theatre Roll call of stars 1891-91

(as compiled by John Moore)
Steve Allen, 1974
Morey Amsterdam, 1968
John Astin, 1973-74
Sarah Bernhardt, 1906
Helen Bonfils, 1934-47
Raymond Burr, 1944
Sid Caesar, 1971, '74
Kitty Carlisle, 1965, '70
Cecil B. DeMille, 1905
Patty Duke, 1973-74
Douglas Fairbanks, 1905
Douglas Fairbanks Jr., 1971-73
Jose Ferrer, 1973
Arlene Francis, 1964-65, '69
Barbara Bel Geddes, 1964
George Gobel, 1971
Julie Harris, 1978
Kim Hunter, 1975
Gabe Kaplan, 1982-83
Grace Kelly, 1951
Cloris Leachman, 1982-83
Harold Lloyd, 1914
Myrna Loy, 1969
Fredric March, 1926-28
Jayne Meadows, 1974
Patricia Neal, 1947
Maureen O'Sullivan, 1972, '82-83
Walter Pidgeon, 1964
Antoinette Perry, 1904-05
Vincent Price, 1979
John Raitt, 1977, '79 (father of Bonnie Raitt)
Lynn Redgrave, 1975
Robert Redford, 1955
Edward G. Robinson, 1922
Ginger Rogers, 1975
Cesar Romero, 1964
Mickey Rooney, 1972-74
William Shatner, 1975
Gloria Swanson, 1967
Lana Turner, 1977
Joan Van Ark, 1960
Dick Van Patten, 1968
Nancy Walker, 1987
Shelley Winters, 1973, '83
Jane Wyatt, 1939

Selected coverage of the Elitch Theatre, and previous attempts to revive it:

2006: Famous, soon-to-be-famous crossed Elitch stage
2007: Theater returns to old Elitch grounds with The Pavilion
2007: Causey resigns as Elitch Theatre chief
2010: Elitch Theatre may yet rise again
2011: Friend of Mary Elitch helping with theater's restoration effort
2011: Haila Stoddard: A force from Broadway to the Elitch Theatre
2014: David Nehls wins True West Award for Elitch Theatre campaign

Previous Guest Columns:

Gillian McNally: Colorado's oldest theatre celebrates Artistic Director Tom McNally
Margie Lamb on the Henry Awards: Something doesn't add up
Bryan VanDriel on Lloyd Norton: A name that will live on in Greeley
Jessica Jackson on Creede Repertory Theatre's 50th anniversary season
Susan Lyles on 10 years of staging plays for women in Denver

Be Our Guest (Columnist)
The DCPA NewsCenter offers a weekly guest column from a variety of local and national voices covering a wide range of theatre topics. To submit a proposed guest column, email your name and proposed topic to jmoore@dcpa.org.


5 comments

Leave a comment
  1. Donna Debreceni | Aug 28, 2015
    As a 3rd generation Denver native, I'm thrilled that David and so very many volunteers have taken on this amazing and worthwhile project.  Here's to the original "Elitch's", and all the outstanding people - past and present - who have been a part of this roller coaster ride!
  2. Beth Murphy | Aug 28, 2015

    Very interesting! I also saw Debbie Reynolds at the old Elitch Theatre but don't remember when, and she could have been singing.

     As an Arvada Center usher, I enjoy your musical direction very much.

  3. Stephanie Baker | Aug 07, 2015

    This is so exciting! I hope to be able to get to some of the shows. I have been trying for years to get my manuscript about music in early Denver published. Mary Elitch was the first to bring symphonic music to Denver. She was important in so many ways!! Thank you for doing this!

  4. Shelley Chester | Aug 06, 2015
    The Elitch Theatre is an icon that shaped my life. I was blessed to work there as a teenager for five years.  This great theatre helped to instill a great work ethic and an appreciation for the arts that drives me to this day. I applaud David Nehls, the volunteers and the Historic Elitch Theatre team in their efforts to bring back this important Theatre. 
  5. Elitch Theatre Fan | Aug 06, 2015
    List of start appearing doesn't include Gig Young. He appeared in "Harvey" and "Under the Yum Yum Tree" circa 1972-73.

    Leave a comment

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    Award-winning arts journalist John Moore has created a groundbreaking new position as the DCPA’s Senior Arts Journalist. With The Denver Post, he was named one of the 12 most influential theater critics in the US by American Theatre Magazine. He is the founder of the Denver Actors Fund, a nonprofit that raises money for local artists in medical need. John is a native of Arvada and attended Regis Jesuit High School and the University of Colorado at Boulder. Email him at jmoore@dcpa.org. Follow him on Twitter @moorejohn.

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