Metamorphoses. Avenue Theater.

Breaking news: The Avenue Theater, as we know it, is no more

Metamorphoses. Avenue Theater.

‘Metamorphoses,’ which featured a tank filled with 1,800 gallons of water, ran for seven months at The Avenue Theater, making it the longest continually running drama in Colorado theatre history.

After 34 years of laughs, chills, songs and comedy sketches, Denver also could be losing one of its precious few remaining downtown theater spaces

The Avenue Theater, as we have known it for 34 years, is history.

The Avenue Theater Group, which runs the uncommonly resilient little boutique theatre at 17th Avenue and Logan Street, has dissolved, said Dave Shirley, who has acted as the theatre’s Executive Director since 2017.

“We hung in there for a really long time, but we were just barely getting by,” Shirley said of the mighty little theatre that has had more near-death experiences than Harry Houdini. “It just got to the point where we were all tired.”

The Avenue Theater opened at its present location in 2003.

It’s not yet certain what will become of the 96-seat theatre that has been home to everything from seminal, award-winning dramas (Metamorphoses) and musicals (Hedwig and the Angry Inch) to signature comedies (Murder Most Fowl, Santa’s Big Red Sack.) The Avenue also launched Girls Only: The Secret Comedy of Women, which went on to become one of the longest-running shows in Denver Center history.  For the past year, The Avenue has been home to an ongoing improv-comedy competition event called ComedySportz.

The Avenue appears to be a victim of its own location and Denver’s unprecedented growth. Since moving from its original location at 2117 E. 17th Avenue in 2003, the surrounding “Uptown” neighborhood has exploded into one of Denver’s hottest commercial and residential districts. Over the past 15 years, The Avenue has gone from being one of the most easily accessible local theatres to one of the least.

The Avenue Theater is owned by a 90-year-old widow named Meryl Orlin, who is celebrated by everyone who has been involved with running The Avenue Theater as its longstanding champion. Over the past decade, she has continually resisted the instinct to increase rents to match the area’s increasing property values.

‘Girls Only’ opened at The Avenue Theater in 2007 and went on to become one of the longest-running shows in Denver Center history.

“Without the Orlin family, The Avenue Theater would have been gone eight years ago,” Shirley said. Added board member John Ashton: “The Orlin family have been extremely kind, generous and supportive.”

Marcy Hobbs, Orlin’s daughter, said nothing is set in stone regarding the property’s future. She did say the theatre “is a treasure” to her mother. “If somebody wants to make a go of it so my mother can continue to rent out that space as a theatre, we would work with them,” Hobbs said. But realistically speaking, Shirley added: “I can’t imagine any theatre company being able to make it work.”

If one can’t, Denver could be losing one of its precious few remaining downtown theater spaces, continuing a national trend of dwindling performance spaces within the nation’s city centers. The only true theatre spaces currently operating in downtown proper other than the Denver Performing Arts Complex are  The Bakery near Coors Field, the Clocktower Cabaret and several improv comedy clubs. Nearby are Curious Theatre in the Golden Triangle; Cleo Parker Robinson Dance in Five Points; and Su Teatro and Buntport Theater in the Santa Fe Arts District.

Going back to the Wells

The Avenue Theater was founded in 1985 by Robert Wells, who is currently performing in the Town Hall Arts Center’s production of Casa Valentina. The original location made for, by all accounts, a horrible theater space that a benevolent landlord named Charles Parks handed over to Wells for next to nothing.

The pipes leaked. There was no air conditioning. Seats weren’t even installed until 1991. But it was home to some of the most accomplished actors of the day: Mark Rubald, Beth Flynn, Pam Clifton, Bill Berry, Kevin Hart, Judy-Phelan Hill, Deborah Persoff, Terry Dodd, Amie MacKenzie, Chris Willard, Duane Black, Bryan Foster and Dale Stewart, among others. In later years, the lineup included Bill Hahn, Nick Sugar, Daniel Langhoff, Eric Mather, Karen Slack, Emily Paton Davies, Steven J. Burge, Geoffrey Kent, John Arp, Laura Norman, Megan Van De Hey, Rhonda Brown, Elgin Kelley, Erik Sandvold, Bernie Cardell, Gregory Price, Chris Whyde and many more.

More Colorado theatre coverage on the DCPA NewsCenter

“What’s funny is that John Ashton and I basically had no business sense whatsoever, but somehow we made this work,” Wells said at the time. “Really this was the first little theater in town to pay people. It’s not a living wage, but it helps.”

The Avenue ushered in the era of open-ended runs to Denver. In addition to Murder Most Fowl, The Avenue housed such long-running hits as Greater Tuna, Sylvia and Dearly Departed. But it did more than comedy, and even dabbled in environmental theater. Stanton’s Garage was presented in a real garage on East 17th Avenue, and Hot’l Baltimore was staged in the lobby of the Barth Hotel.


Bill Berry, John Ashton and Pam Clifton during one of The Avenue Theater’s more uncertain, but still comical, periods.

In 1990, Wells turned over both the business and creative control to Ashton, also a recovering journalist who wrote for The Denver Post, Rocky Mountain News and Westword. But in 2000, Parks sold the property to Three Barrels Inc., which tripled Ashton’s rent over the next three years and in 2003 unceremoniously yanked his lease entirely.

“When the new owners took over, they sat me down and said, ‘The days when guys like us can give guys like you a break are over,’ ” said Ashton, who then pulled off the $150,000 move to the current space 17 blocks closer to downtown.

John Ashton breaking ground – literally – on The Avenue Theater in 2003.

John Ashton breaking ground – literally – on the new Avenue Theater in 2003.

The new space, located next to a still-operating dry cleaner, had most recently been a business that stored furs. Ashton’s friends saw a bland brick space that was empty save for the dirt, grease and an abandoned, entombed 2,000-pound steel safe that somehow had to be moved. (Alas, it was empty.) The roof leaked, there was no heating or air conditioning and minimal plumbing. But all Ashton saw was possibility. “Honestly, my first impression was that it looked like it was about to become a great theater space,” he said.

The new Avenue Theater was superior to its predecessor in every way, sporting a semi-spacious lobby; a beer, wine and snack bar; an actual box office; and seats from the old Auditorium Theatre complete with their historic ornamentation. Ashton opened with a revival of Sylvia. The next year Mary Zimmerman’s Metamorphoses opened on a set that held 1,800 gallons of water. The play, directed by Jeremy Cole, ran for seven months, to this day the longest continuously running drama in Colorado theatre history.

“I think John Ashton pulled off a real miracle here, and it’s a tribute not only to his energy but to his place in Denver theatre history,” said Tupper Cullum, an actor and member of the original construction crew.

In 2005, Ashton and business partner Robert Roehl sold the theater back to Wells and his business partner, Dave Johnson, who established the theatre’s non-profit status for the first time. But leadership of the theater has been in a state of flux ever since. While Dave Shirley never officially adopted the title, he has served as The Avenue’s fifth Executive Director since 2010.

The current board is made up of Shirley, Ashton, Abby Boes, Susan Hennessy, Chris Fleming and president Tony Molinaro.

(Story continues below the photo gallery:)

Go to our full gallery of nearly 50 Avenue Theater photos

In January 2018, Shirley and his wife, Jane Shirley, launched a new era for The Avenue as a home for ongoing comedy programming. They introduced ComedySportz, a nationally franchised, fast-paced game show that pits two teams of comedians against one another like a sporting competition. Last month, The Shirleys presented their 10th seasonal staging of Santa’s Big Red Sack, an edgier kind of holiday sketch-comedy show that dates back to the couple’s first big theatrical endeavor in Denver, when they founded the Rattlebrain Comedy Theatre, which is known today as the Clocktower Cabaret on the 16th Street Mall.

ComedySportz was well-attended, and Santa’s Big Red Sack just had its most successful year on record, Dave Shirley said. He’s proud that ComedySportz employed eight local comic actors a night for more than 100 performances ­– all of whom got paid, “even though I never felt I could pay them what they deserved,” he said.

The problem is that while most small theatres rely on ticket sales for only about 50 percent of their revue, The Avenue had no other funding sources. Asked what he has learned about making small theatre financially viable over the past two decades, Shirley deadpanned, “It’s hard.” But Jane Shirley said she is proud that The Avenue Theater Group is dissolving with no debts and all bills paid.

Finding a way forward

Dave Shirley said he intends to find a new home for his three most reliable titles – ComedySportz, Santa’s Big Red Sack and Dave Shirley’s Oddville. But the couple will look to their next incarnation with the full knowledge that it is the model of making and presenting theatre that has to change. “The days of thinking you can just take over an empty space and put theater in there and you can make it work alone are over,” said Jane Shirley. “It’s impossible.”

The solution for the Shirleys and other small theatre purveyors may lie in the concept of collaborative space-sharing with a multipurpose community that doesn’t serve just one artistic purpose. One new model that is making a go of that is Theater 29 – six playwright-driven theatre collectives sharing one physical space in West Denver.

But for now, Ashton said, the time has come for everyone involved with The Avenue Theater to go and do other things. “The Avenue has been a major part of my theatre life for quite some time now,” he said. “I am proud of what we have accomplished, but it’s pretty sad just because of the history that’s been lost.”

John Moore was named one of the 12 most influential theater critics in the U.S. by American Theatre Magazine. He has since taken a groundbreaking position as the Denver Center’s Senior Arts Journalist.

The final show Santa's Big Red Sack

The final show presented by The Avenue Theater group was last month’s 10th anniversary staging of ‘Santa’s Big Red Sack.’

The Avenue Theater/Through the years

Since the move to its present location at 417 E. 17th Avenue:


  • Sylvia
  • Dearly Departed
  • Things You Shouldn’t Say Past Midnight
  • Murder Most Fowl


  • Fully Committed
  • The Vagina Monologues
  • Metamorphoses


  • Shirley Valentine
  • Parallel Lives
  • The Rocky Horror Musical
  • The Fourth Wall
  • The Syringa Tree
  • Tribal Tales of Africa
  • Murder Most Fowl


  • The Smell of the Kill
  • Destination Dinosaurs
  • Beyond Therapy
  • Tales of an Englishman
  • The A.C.E. Show
  • Some Unfortunate Hour
  • Denver Improv Festival
  • F.E.: The Town that Christmas Forgot
  • Murder Most Fowl


  • Destination Dinosaurs
  • Ami Dayan’s The Man Himself and Conviction
  • Right On, America!
  • Girls Only: The Secret Comedy of Women
  • Burdette Parks’ Benjamin Franklin, Printer, Etc.
  • Dog Sees God: Confessions of a Teenage Blockhead
  • I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change
  • When Animals Improv
  • The Bible: The Complete Word of God (Abridged)
  • Denver Improv Festival


  • Girls Only: The Secret Comedy of Women
  • Oleanna
  • Almost Denver: Songs and Failures of Jim Aurora
  • Free Gas: Chicken Lips Gives it to America
  • Convention
  • Bubs, A One Man Musical
  • Politix
  • November
  • A Chicken Lips Christmas
  • What the Dickens


  • That Woman Show
  • The Vagina Monologues
  • Die, Mommie, Die
  • 60 Minutes: The Musical
  • Murder Most Fowl
  • Santa’s Big Red Sack
  • What the Dickens?


  • Secrets of a Soccer Mom
  • The Bootyguard
  • Hedwig and the Angry Inch
  • The Love List
  • Phamaly’s VOX Phamilia: Triage
  • Santa’s Big Red Sack


  • Mekong Joe
  • The Good Body
  • The B-Team
  • Hedwig and the Angry Inch
  • Breach
  • The Divine Sister
  • Completely Hollywood (Abridged)
  • Phamaly’s VOX Phamilia: Quadrapalooza
  • Dave Shirley’s Rattlebrain
  • Santa’s Big Red Sack


  • Scriptprov
  • Love Child
  • Murder Most Fowl
  • Dave Shirley’s Rattlebrain
  • String of Pearls
  • Santa’s Big Red Sack


  • The Complete World of Sports
  • Minimum Wage
  • Motherhood Out Loud
  • Santa’s Big Red Sack


  • Sylvia
  • RFK
  • Phamaly’s Vox Phamilia
  • Date: Real Online Love Affairs
  • Santa’s Big Red Sack


  • Five Lesbians Eating a Quiche
  • Cock
  • Bright Ideas
  • Equus
  • Phamaly’s Baby with the Bathwater
  • Santa’s Big Red Sack


  • The Money Shot
  • Tigers Be Still
  • Tell Me on a Sunday
  • Bakersfield Mist
  • Wait Until Dark
  • Santa’s Big Red Sack


  • Almost, Maine
  • The Golden Years
  • Robert Dubac’s The Book of Moron
  • Oddville
  • My Brilliant Divorce
  • ComedySportz
  • Santa’s Big Red Sack


  • ComedySportz
  • Denver Magic Show
  • Billy Galewood
  • Oddville
  • Mean Gays
  • Santa’s Big Red Sack