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The Denver theater where Grace Kelly got her start was abandoned for decades. Now, it's being revived

The Historic Elitch Theatre is home to 132 years of rich history, but some don't even know it's there.
Posted: 4:26 PM, Jul 07, 2023
Updated: 2023-07-11 18:40:41-04
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DENVER — At the rather unassuming street corner of 38th and Tennyson in Northwest Denver – down the street from Sprouts and nestled amongst a cozy townhome development – sits a building that holds as much history as any in Colorado.

To a passerby, it’s a large, blue wooden structure, adjacent to a courtyard browned by fetch-playing dogs and small neighborhood gatherings.

It’s no surprise that many across the Denver metro – and even some that live mere blocks away – don’t know the building’s illustrious history, its decades of dormancy, or its recent revival.

It’s the Historic Elitch Garden Theater, dubbed “Denver’s oldest cultural venue.” I visited the theater with Historic Elitch Theater Board President Greg Rowley to learn more about its fascinating past.

"Somehow, you can feel 130 years of history [here],” he said. “This building just has this magic to it.”

The Denver theater where Grace Kelly got her start was abandoned for decades. Now, it's being revived

Built in 1891, the theater was part of the original Elitch Gardens – which, unlike the downtown amusement park Denverites know today, was actually a botanic garden and zoo that John and Mary Elitch had opened the year prior.

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An Elitch Gardens program, dated Aug. 27, 1899

John Elitch passed away in the theater’s first year, Rowley said, leaving the zoological gardens and the theater in Mary’s hands.

She ran it for about a quarter-century before retiring in 1916, and trust me when I say she did just about everything one could at that park. Several photos that remain inside the theater show her kinship with the bears at the zoo.

“Mary Elitch is kind of this forgotten figure,” Rowley said. “She was an entrepreneur before women could be entrepreneurs. And here she was doing this amazing thing.”

“She was so well loved. [So] this is kind of her legacy. She's kind of our muse now, because we want to, we want to continue the amazing spirit that she created here.”

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A screengrab of an undated photo showing Mary Elitch with a pair of bears at Elitch Zoological Gardens.

The theater predates iconic buildings across the state like the Brown Palace, the State Capitol and the current Union Station building.

“The amazing thing is, those are all stone and brick buildings,” Rowley said, “and here we have this wooden building that has somehow lasted 132 years.”

It didn’t take long for the theater to make history, either.

Renowned inventor Thomas Edison was in Denver in 1896, and came to the Elitch Garden theater to debut his Vitascope – an early ancestor of the projector – to show the first short film in Colorado history, if not the first west of the Mississippi.

“The theater itself was actually more for plays. It was never really a movie house. Denver had tons of amazing movie houses,” Rowley said. “But we did get to have the honor of being the very first moving picture in Colorado.”

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An 1896 advertisement for Thomas Edison's Vitascope

And while the list of world-renowned inventors to stop there may well end with Edison, the list of acting alumni is as lengthy as it is impressive. Elitch’s was once one of the premiere theaters in the country, and was home to Broadway stars and future silver screen standouts alike.

When you walk in the theater’s front doors, you’re met with rows of headshots that line the concourse. Among them are names like William Shatner, Cybill Shepherd, Vincent Price and more.

You’ll also see Robert Redford, who was a student at CU Boulder for one year in 1955 before dropping out to get his start at the theater.

“Robert Redford's, a funny story, because we don't actually have a record of him ever performing here,” Rowley said. “But he says he performed here, so we gladly claim him. I'm not gonna argue with Robert Redford.”

Some that appeared here would become stars of the Golden Age of Film, like Joan Fontaine, Debbie Reynolds and Grace Kelly.

Kelly, who was essentially “an unknown” when she performed at Elitch’s in the summer of 1951, got a call while in Denver to come to Hollywood and play Gary Cooper’s wife in the movie High Noon.

She was afraid to break her contract at Elitch’s, but leading man Whitfield Connor let her go, and Kelly never looked back.

“She got into High Noon, and [three years later] she won an Oscar,” Rowley said. “After that she was a princess and the rest is history. So yeah, she’s one of the biggies.”

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Cast members of "High Noon" watch the World Series opener between the New York Yankees and the New York Giants on television on a Hollywood movie set in Oct. 4, 1951. The cast and crew from left are, Otto Kruger, Thomas Mitchell, Gary Cooper, foot on barrel, an unidentified studio staffer, Grace Kelly and Lon Chaney Jr. (AP Photo/Charles Handel)

The incredible claims to fame date back more than 100 years.

Antoinette Perry, the namesake of the Tony Awards, got her start at the Elitch Theatre in the early 1900s at the age of 11. A couple of years later, Cecil B. DeMille – who is credited with later creating the Hollywood industry – was part of the summer stock cast at the theater.

Before there were the theater’s saviors of the 21st century, there was Helen Bonfils. She acted at Elitch’s for many years, was a longtime manager of The Denver Post, and, in the 1950s, was the richest woman in Denver.

She financed an expansion of the theater that saw new seating added as well as the addition of a fly building backstage that allows for complex mechanics when it comes to props and other production techniques.

The theater closed in 1991. Elitch Gardens closed in 1995 and moved to the downtown location where it remains today.

And while the theater was saved from redevelopment by a historical designation shortly thereafter, it was abandoned and fell into disrepair.

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“The No. 1 search term people used to find our website was ‘abandoned buildings near me,’” Rowley said. “And so for many, many years, we didn't look very ready for prime time.”

Getting the theater ready for prime time became the mission of the Historic Elitch Theatre Foundation.

Last year marked 20 years of renovation efforts. Approvals can take months, and the requirements of historic recognition spare no attention to detail.

Rowley recalled the individual removal of every decorative rafter on the front of the building. Each had to be traced onto a new piece of wood, down to every notch and dent, he said, before it could be replaced.

“The nice thing is, you know what you're looking at is what was here 100 years ago,” he said. “And so as much as the process is a little painful, it's the thing I love about it is that you know that this is legit, and, and it's historic.”

While the renovation is not complete, the theater has reopened for business.

It’s hosting free summer movie nights every other Friday this summer, as well as what they call “First Friday history tours” where you can see and feel the magic of 132 years for yourself.

Doors open at 6 p.m. for the movie nights, and each “First Friday” event includes two different tour times. You can find more about the schedule for those events on the theater’s website here.

Up next for the foundation is the hopeful return of live theater.

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The interior of the Historic Elitch Theater

“This summer, we kept it kind of manageable, but we're really hoping next summer [...] to get live theater back on the stage,” Rowley said, adding that the mission could include partnerships with local theater groups.

Then he said, the foundation hopes to complete work on things like lighting, rigging and sound to make high-quality theater happen again inside Elitch’s.

“Our hope is that the theater kind of becomes a cultural arts hub for the the neighborhood and for the area,” Rowley said.