Seawell celebration: He lived the life he imagined

Photos from the Donald Seawell Life Celebration held Nov. 9 at the Seawell Ballroom. Photos by John Moore for the DCPA NewsCenter. To download any photo for free, click on “View original Flickr image.”

Monday’s farewell to DCPA founder Donald R. Seawell was not so much the end of an era as a homecoming.

The estimated 400 who gathered in the grand ballroom that bears Seawell’s name included politicians, entertainers and theatregoers, as well as dozens of artists and staff representing four decades of Denver Center history. Attendees included Donovan Marley, the Theatre Company’s former Artistic Director for 23 seasons, and actor John Hutton, who performed on DCPA stages for more than 20 years. 

“Next to my father, Donald Seawell is maybe the most influential man in my life,” said Marley. Added Hutton, who traveled to Denver from Vermont to attend the ceremony: “Donald  and Donovan  were relentless champions of our company for decades.”

Pictured above right: DCPA Theatre Company actors Shannan Steele, M. Scott McLean, Christine Rowan, Jeffrey Roark, Lauren Shealy and Michael Fitzpatrick. Photo by John Moore.) 

Seawell died on Sept. 30 at age 103, which actually came as something of a surprise to those closest to him, given his oft-stated intention of living to 120. Hearing the breadth of Seawell’s life distilled to brief anecdotes throughout the 90-minute ceremony only made it seem all the more improbable: Debater of Winston Churchill. Adversary-turned-ally of Joseph Kennedy. Counterintelligence officer charged with fooling the Germans about the location of the D-Day invasion. Helping to write the charter that established the State of Israel. Assistant ambassador to France. Broadway producer. First to bring the Royal Shakespeare Company to America. Savior of The Denver Post from a hostile takeover.

And, above all: Visionary who in 1972 famously sketched the Denver Performing Arts Complex on the back of an envelope in a ghostly, ghastly part of downtown Denver, and at a time when no one other than Seawell imagined the remotest need for it. Today, the Denver Center for the Performing Arts is the largest non-profit theatre organization in America, last year attracting more than 800,000 visitors.

Read our full tribute to Donald R. Seawell

With respect the fictional Dos Equis advertising character, Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper said, “Donald Seawell is The Most Interesting Man in the World.”

Monday’s guest speakers dropped names like so many of Seawell’s ubiquitous French cufflinks: John F. Kennedy, Harry Truman, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Douglas Fairbanks Jr., Bob Hope and Frank Sinatra. For starters.

John Hickenlooper quote“He knew everybody,” Hickenlooper said. “Presidents, titans of industry, diplomats and movie stars. He could more than hold his own with the most immense egos in the world – and he was in every way just as captivating as the crowds he ran with.”

Judi Wolf, the memorial’s host and a fellow DCPA trustee, said Seawell loved life … and life loved him back. “He was an artist,” she said, “and life was his canvas.”

He died among the rarest of men: Having fully lived the life he imagined.

He was known as Dapper Don for his impeccable style and social elegance. “I don’t think Donald owned a shirt that didn’t have French cuffs,” Hickenlooper said. “Probably even his T-shirts have French cuffs.”

Seawell was a big dreamer and fierce overachiever; a leader who followed his own heart and simply ignored – or overcame – anyone who dared to say otherwise.

“No one stood in his way,” said DCPA Theatre Company Artistic Director Kent Thompson. “In fact, woe to anyone who even tried to stand in his way.” DCPA CEO Scott Shiller said Seawell “blazed new trails, pushed full steam ahead, offered no apologies and had no regrets.”

Wolf concurred. “He was kind and loving and patient … with himself,” she said with a laugh.

But on his dying day, Wolf said more seriously, Seawell took her hand and said, “Remember, Judy we are about show business.” She took her cue, and put together a tribute for Monday that was equal parts solemn reflection and pure show biz.

Six DCPA Theatre Company performers, most in the upcoming production of A Christmas Carol, performed some of Seawell’s favorite songs, including “There’s No Business Like Show Business,” “They Can’t Take That Away” and “I’ll Be Seeing You.” Actor Jeffrey Roark borrowed the chairman’s role from Seawell and Sinatra in singing a robust “My Way,” and Denver First Lady Mary Louise Lee, who got her professional start as an 18-year-old high-school student singing in a 1960s musical at what is now the Garner-Galleria Theatre, closed out the show with Whitney Houston’s “I Will Always Love You.” At Seawell’s final birthday party in August, Lee sang to him Bette Midler’s “Wind Beneath My Wings.”

“He powerfully led by example with courage, a strong heart, an incredible creative vision and, for his family, with tenderness and true love,” said Seawell’s granddaughter Brett Wilbur. 

Retired Denver Center Theatre Company Artistic Director Donovan Marley and his successor, Kent Thompson. Photo by John Moore. 

Seawell’s Denver legacy began when he struck up a business relationship with heiress, actor, philanthropist and Denver Post publisher Helen Bonfils. Seawell served as her New York attorney and co-producer on Broadway. In 1966, Bonfils asked Seawell to move to Colorado to fight a hostile takeover attempt of The Post by the Newhouse newspaper chain. Seawell won the day, but the 12-year battle did not end until just after Bonfils’ death in 1972. Seawell became publisher and chairman of The Post until selling the paper to Times-Mirror of Los Angeles. He used the $95 million from the sale to create the Bonfils Foundation that would secure the financial future of the DCPA.

Seawell was hailed Monday for having founded the resident Denver Center Theatre Company, now known in its 37th year as the DCPA Theatre Company, which over the years has embraced up-and-coming stars such as Tyne Daly, Annette Bening and Mercedes Ruehl. Seawell threw a grand opening party for the four-theatre Helen Bonfils Theatre Complex on New Year’s Eve 1979, an event that drew Lucille Ball, Henry Fonda and Douglas Fairbanks Jr. among the luminaries. Seawell declared the night no less than the start of “The Denver Decade in the American Theatre.” His company won the Tony Award as the outstanding regional theatre in 1998.

(Photo below and right: Denver Post Chairman William Dean Singleton and DCPA Trustee Judi Wolf. Photo by John Moore.)

The company leader from 1983-2005 was Donovan Marley, who came to Denver from California in 1983 to guest-direct The Hostage. Seawell asked Marley to stay and help establish his beloved National Theatre Conservatory, which grew to become one of the top acting masters-degree programs in the nation. By the end of that year, Marley agreed to become the Theatre Company’s third artistic director in its first five years. Marley brought badly needed stability and artistic stewardship over the next two decades.

“People in Donald’s position and clout and background often have all kinds of helpful suggestions for the Artistic Director,” Marley said, making it plain that the word really meant to say was the exact opposite of the word “helpful.”

“But not Don. He was always there to say, ‘What do you need?’ He was unbelievably supportive.”

Several speakers noted Seawell’s having brought the 10-play epic Trojan War cycle Tantalus to Denver in 2000 at a cost of $8 million. “That was one of the most impressive artistic feats that has ever come out of Denver,” said Hickenlooper, “and it would never have happened without Donald Seawell.”

Hickenlooper sat through all 12 hours of Tantalus twice, both in Denver and London. “That’s a lot of theatre,” Hickenlooper said with a laugh, although noting: “There was full frontal nudity – so they figured out a way to make sure no one lost their attention.”

Still, Denver Post Chairman and DCPA Trustee William Dean Singleton said he believes Seawell’s greatest theatrical achievement was hiring his own replacement as Chairman and CEO. At age 94, Seawell simply wore down well-connected University of Denver Chancellor Daniel Ritchie until he said yes in 2006.

“There were a number of times when we didn’t agree, and there were even some times when we quite strongly didn’t agree,” said Ritchie. But their struggles most often ended, he said, with a friendly bottle of Merlot.

Hickenlooper made it plain that he shared a real affection for the gentleman from North Carolina. He closed his remarks with a moment of uncommon sentiment, saying simply, “I am going to miss him more than I can imagine.” 

Donald Seawell’s granddaughter Brett Wilbur with two of her children.

Three great stories or quotes from the Seawell Celebration:

1 PerspectivesDCPA Theatre Company Producing Artistic Director Kent Thompson: “Donald had a deep love of the performing arts. Even more for the people who worked in the theatre in whatever role, from actor to writer to usher to ticket-seller to stage manager. And, of course, for the audiences who shared our work over the years and made Don’s vision a success. Theatre was in Don’s DNA, lodged somewhere deep inside. He dined out on live theatre. He especially treasured the moments when the audience and the performers breathed as one.”

2 PerspectivesColorado Gov. John Hickenlooper: “Donald was the publisher of The Denver Post in 1974 when Gary Hart was running for the U.S. Senate. Donald was sitting in his office at the newspaper when the head of the editorial board came in to discuss the paper’s endorsement. He said to Don, ‘Mr. Seawell? We took a vote on the editorial board. We voted 7-1 to endorse Gary Hart. … But we came to you for the deciding vote.”

3 PerspectivesDenver Post Chairman William Dean Singleton: Some people think Don’s greatest contribution was to the theatre, but I think it was to the newspaper business. When Newhouse Newspapers began to buy up shares in The Denver Post, Miss Helen called Don in New York and said, ‘Come and help me save our family’s beloved newspaper. It’s almost gone.’ Newhouse actually acquired a majority of Denver Post stock. This would be the first time the paper was ever owned outside of the Bonfils family. But Don took it all the way to the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals. He helped draft the brief that won the day. Here’s a quote from ruling: “A corporation publishing a newspaper such as The Denver Post certainly has other obligations besides the making of a profit. It has an obligation to the public. That is to the thousands of people who buy the paper, read it and rely upon its contents. Such a newspaper is endowed with an important public interest. It must adhere to the ethics of the great profession of journalism. Because of these relationships with the public, a corporation publishing a great newspaper such as The Denver Post is, in effect, a quasi-public institution.” And with that, Don prevailed. It is a decision that has since been used over and over to save newspapers from outside ownership. In fact – it’s been used against me a few times.”


DCPA actors past and present. Clockwise from top left: Sam Gregory (A Christmas Carol), Stephen Paul Johnson (Tribes), John Hutton, Leslie Alexander (A Christmas Carol) and Kathleen M. Brady. Photo by John Moore.

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