Rocky Mountain Rep: Having a Grand Old Time at 50

Grand Lake’s mainstay, Main Street mountain theatre draws nearly 20,000 theatregoers every summer

By Avery Anderson
For the DCPA NewsCenter

It might be easy to overlook Grand Lake on a map – if not for the largest natural body of water in Colorado that sits alongside it.

Grand Lake is a tiny mountain village located 105 miles northwest of Denver at the western gateway to Rocky Mountain National Park. Many might not know that movie star John Wayne once owned a vacation home here, or that for five decades the town has been home to a professional summer-stock theatre company that produces big Broadway musicals from June through September.

Rocky Mountain Repertory Theatre is, in fact, one of only six Colorado theatre companies that are now 50 years or older. Rocky Mountain Rep, is it more affectionately called, opened its Golden Anniversary season on June 9 with Mamma Mia, soon to be followed by Newsies, West Side Story and Almost Heaven; Songs of John Denver, which began as a Denver Center world premiere in 2002.

‘Little Mary Sunshine’ in 1970.

Theatre in the mountains is just different than it is in the city. In Denver, the curtain might be delayed for heavy traffic. In Grand Lake, the curtain might be delayed by a heavy Rocky Mountain Elk blocking the entrance to the theatre.

But make no mistake: Rocky Mountain Rep has grown from a mom-and-pop operation in 1967 into a premiere company that drew about 19,000 theatregoers last season despite a year-round population of just 466. About 43 percent of its audiences come from all over the state, while 33 percent come from around the country and beyond. The company’s estimated economic impact on Grand County and the surrounding area is $6.7 million per year.

Although named the Rocky Mountain Repertory Theatre, the original idea for it came to life in Yellowstone National Park. That’s where founders David and Audrey Thompson met and first dreamed of their future life running a mountain theatre … somewhere. In 1965, now living in Chicago, the Thompsons heard that the town of Grand Lake was forming an arts council. The couple loaded up their family and headed for Colorado. They created the Troupe of American College Players in 1967 as a place for young actors and students to practice and build their craft.

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The company performed its first season with a cast of college students, lights made out of large tin cans and an eagerness to show the town their first production, The Sound of Music, in the town’s Pine Cone Lodge. Forty-four years later, in 2011, the company  opened the doors to a $5.5 million, 300-seat state-of-the-art new facility on Main Street.

“It’s sorta like: Boy theatre, we’ve grown up,” current executive director Michael Querio said.

“We could only fit 170 people In our old theatre, we sold out most of our performances and had waiting lists.”

It was time to think bigger. Or, more appropriately for this company: Grander.

“We got a generous lead donation of the property, raised $5.5 million and opened the theatre with no debt,” Querio said.

For most of the company’s history, the actors have been primarily summering college students from Denver and around the country. Although Querio hires both students and professional performers today, he boasts that all of his performers “are young, strong, and going to be big names in the future.”

Some notable alums have included future Baywatch star David Hasselhoff, Tony Award nominee Peter Freedman (Ragtime) and multiple Henry Award-winning director and choreographer Nick Sugar.

This season’s up-and-coming actors include Josh Kellman, who is returning for his sixth season after starting his own traveling company called Empirical Theatre.

The young actors who arrived in Grand Lake that first summer in 1967 were greeted by a major culture shock. The Thompsons had cast out of Chicago, and when the students arrived by train they had to be taken to their summer homes in a cattle car. Grand Lake was very different from the world the Chicagoans were used to, but when the townspeople came out to the station and greeted the newcomers with signs that said, “Grand Lake Welcomes the Troupe,” they knew they were starting something special.

“I remember clearly how excited everyone was when the show was over that first night,” said David Thompson Jr., son of the founding couple (who goes by the first name Tom). “Not just the actors but the audience. And they didn’t leave the theatre until everyone came from backstage. It was clear something special had happened.”

In those early years, a naughty young Thompson and his five siblings could be spotted in the rafters throwing candy wrappers on the actors as they rehearsed. But those years set him on a path to a career as a playwright that led to a Drama Desk Award and Tony Award nominations for writing the books to John Kander and Fred Ebb’s Steel Pier and The Scottsboro Boys.

“My love of the theatre and my understanding of what’s important about a life in the arts is a gift from my parents,” Thompson said. “They taught all of us the importance of pursuing a passion.”

Video bonus: John Moore at the 2010 opening of the new theatre in Grand Lake:

The company has performed in many different Grand Lake venues over the years after the Pine Cone Lodge burned down. They performed in a tent while the theatre was rebuilt. The Pine Cone is now a local Mexican restaurant called El Pacifico.

In the 1980s, Denver’s esteemed Loretto Heights performing-arts college took over the theatre and shared the Pine Cone with the Little Bear Bar. Longtime actor, director and producer Paul Dwyer, a student at the time, says that at 9:30 p.m. every night the bar’s band would start playing and thundering through the building – whether the show was done or not.

“There were times that intermission went long and we would be like, ‘Speak faster, skip lines,’ ” Dwyer said with a laugh. “It was like playing Russian Roulette with theatre. It was crazy fun.”

The Pine Cone Theatre in 1974.

In 1989, the Town of Grand Lake asked the Thompson family to come home and run the theatre full-time. Performances moved around between the local school, the town hall and a cabin theatre at the center of Main Street. The Thompson family continued to run the theatre until 1993, when founder David Thompson died. Company members Judith and Skelly Warren then ran the company for a decade.

Even though the theatre has modernized and changed its mission over the years, it is still the quirky, beloved mountain theatre it always was. Why, just the other day, Querio said, a bear came up to the window during rehearsals.

“Grand Lake is a small town, with a small-town feel,” he said. “They take care of their own. It’s a wonderful relationship.”

Avery Anderson is interning with the DCPA NewsCenter for the summer. He is the General Manager and producer of Met TV at Metropolitan State University of Denver. He was won two Heartland Student Emmy Awards for his work on The Met Report. He has a passion for local arts and culture and enjoys covering theatres across the Denver area and the state. Follow him on Twitter and @a_anderson64.

800 Grand Ave, Grand Lake, 970-627-3421 or
Through Aug. 26: Mamma Mia
June 16-Aug. 24: Newsies
June 30-Aug. 25: West Side Story
Sept. 1: Almost Heaven: Songs of John Denver

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