Video from BDT Stage’s 40th anniversary celebration in August 2017. Video by Senior Arts Journalist John Moore for the DCPA NewsCenter.
Colorful Colorado theatre figure defied all odds in bringing venerable Boulder’s Dinner Theatre to life in 1977
Ross Haley, founder and mastermind of Boulder’s Dinner Theatre, now named BDT Stage and one of the Denver metro area’s only two remaining dinner theatres, died this morning (November 23) after a long struggle with cancer. He was 74.
“Ross was a fiercely loyal producer who created not only jobs but careers for so many performers over the years,” said actor Joanie Brosseau-Rubald, who started at Boulder’s Dinner Theatre in 1988. “I am very, very grateful for what I consider to be more than my share of wonderful theatrical roles.”
Haley was the theatre director at Boulder High School in 1976 when he directed one of the first sanctioned high-school productions of Jesus Christ Superstar. “Ross was a demanding director, but everyone involved with the show respected his creative talent and I can tell you – that show was phenomenal,” said Bruce Sarbaugh, who played an apostle in that school production and whose parents, Duane and Jody Sarbaugh, would be among the original investors in Boulder’s Dinner Theatre.
But the inevitable controversy from staging the daring musical at Boulder High School helped hasten Haley’s departure later that year. Supportive parents and others in the community then encouraged Haley to open Boulder’s first professional dinner theatre, which he did the following year with another Andrew Lloyd Webber biblical musical, Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.
Those who were there say the first few years at Boulder’s Dinner Theatre were as footloose and fancy-free as the 1970s themselves.
“Ross always encouraged us to take it very seriously,” original cast member Barb Reeves told the NewsCenter last year on the occasion of the theatre’s 40th anniversary. Michael J. Duran, who played Joseph in that inaugural BDT production and assumed the role of Producing Artistic Director in 2004, said Haley’s “vision and tenacity really helped keep this thing moving through the years.” Actor Jon Scott Clough, likewise, said Haley “took great pride in this building. This was his baby.
“And we … didn’t as much.”
Clough mentioned a gigantic backstage fake-blood fight that left the men’s dressing room covered in corn syrup and red food coloring. “Ross was not happy,” Clough said with a smile.
But since that opening production of Joseph in 1977, BDT Stage has presented more than 13,000 performances of 154 plays and musicals at 55th and Arapahoe streets in Boulder. Now 41, it is among the oldest theatre companies in the Denver area.
“Ross was responsible for getting many careers off the ground – mine included,” Duran said. “He gave me my very first theatre job ever and that got the ball rolling. I got the job as Producing Artistic Director through his recommendation and vote of confidence. I owe him so much.”
So too does Scott Beyette, one of about a dozen local actors who have essentially performed at BDT for their entire careers. “I truly have been blessed to be able to do what I love to do, and live in this beautiful state, and raise a family,” said Beyette. “It’s been fantastic. Not a single day here has ever felt like work.”
Ronni Stark was a successful young actor who barely knew Haley when he hired her to choreograph and perform in South Pacific at BDT in 2000. She’s not sure her career as a choreographer that has followed would have happened without him. “He took a chance on someone he didn’t know, and I’m not sure anyone else would have,” Stark said.
Ross W. Haley was born on November 2, 1944, in St. Louis. He was the vocal music and theatre teacher at Montgomery City (Missouri) High School from 1966-67 and Boulder High School from 1969-76. He operated Boulder’s Dinner Theatre from 1977 until his retirement in 2004.
BDT Stage has defied all the industry odds by surviving for four decades while all but one other metro-area dinner theatre (the Adams Mystery Playhouse) has fallen by the wayside. Back in 1977, the cast and creatives weren’t sure BDT would even make it to opening night.
“My entire family lived at the theatre the two weeks before opening, and we were still hanging the lighting grid, stocking the bar and organizing the kitchen the day before opening night,” said Sarbaugh. “I still remember working on the backstage areas and wiring the lighting while the stage was still being built.”
Opening night was a bit of a disaster, said Dee Height, who is from one of eight original investor families that put up $17,000 each to buy the land and start the business in 1977. That’s a total of about $136,000 in startup money. “Crews were still laying down the carpet when it was time to open the doors for opening-night patrons,” Height said.” That first performance did not begin until 10 p.m. as the kitchen struggled to feed the crowd.
Duran said it was a little roughshod onstage as well.
“For one thing, none of us could dance,” said Duran, who would nonetheless go on to a 23-year career as a theatre performer in New York before returning to run BDT in 2004.
So was that first show any good? “It’s all relative,” Duran said with a smile. “It was a small production, but for the very first show at a brand-new dinner theatre in Boulder? It was fantastic.”
The theatre used prerecorded music in its early days, and original investor (and current co-owner) Gene Bolles remembers being rallied to record a small trumpet part for that first show. “Our sound booth was the bathroom,” Bolles said. “So I sat on the toilet with the microphone in front of me, and we did about a hundred takes.”
That first cast ranged in age from 17 to 25. Clough was the youngest.
“We tried our best, but I was 17, and I was doing what 17-year-olds do, which is get into trouble,” said Clough.
Two years after Joseph, Duran played Jesus in BDT’s production of Jesus Christ Superstar. “On the final night, we put peanut butter on Mike’s crucifix, and he had to sit in it,” Clough said. Duran said he will never forget the night Jesus died with peanut butter in his crotch.”
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As the theatre grew in scope and quality, Haley himself grew to become one of most colorful characters in the Colorado theatre community. He seemed to enjoy fostering needling relationships with local critics. But it was all in name of protecting his BDT family.
“Essentially if you could get a job with Ross Haley, you had a job for as long as you wanted to be there – and audiences loved that,” said Stark. “There was no one else like him.”
Ross is survived by sons Chris (Merry) Haley and Chad Haley; brother Mark Haley and five grandchildren. According to his wishes, there will be no service.
John Moore was named one of the 12 most influential theater critics in the U.S by American Theatre Magazine in 2011. Since leaving The Denver Post, he has taken a groundbreaking position as the Denver Center’s Senior Arts Journalist.