The historic Elitch Gardens Theater prepares for the next act
The curtain is about to rise on a new act to the old Elitch Gardens Theaterone of the last remnants of the amusement park that left northwest Denver in 1994.
When Mary and John Elitch opened Elitch Zoological Gardens in 1890, there were not only gardens and a zoo, but also the Grand Pavillion Theatre, which featured vaudeville entertainment. The shows were so successful that John Elitch started the Goodyear, Shilling & Elitch minstrel troupe, which performed in various Colorado locations before moving to California – where John Elitch developed pneumonia and died. This forced Mary to sell the property to a syndicate of Denver businessmen the following year, but she was able to buy it back after the Silver Crash.
By then, the current theater building had been added. In 1893 it became the home of the
first summer theater in America. Elitch Gardens had a regular company as well as “star-filled” shows, in which guest actors performed with the troupe. The theater company continued to perform shows through a variety of owners; in 1964, it was incorporated as a separate entity from the amusement park.
In the mid-1980s, when the then owners, the Gurtler family, announced that they would be moving Elitch Gardens amusement park at the Central Platte Valley, the theater group launch a campaign to buy his building – but to no avail. Even so, the buildings remained in place after the amusement park was removed and the site redeveloped. Developers – including Chuck Perry, who was an usher at the Elitch Theater in his youth, incorporated both the theater and the pavilion into their design.
In 2002, the The Historic Elitch Gardens Theater Foundation was established restore, conserve and maintain the theater and pavilion; the nonprofit estimated the cost of the restoration at $14.2 million. By 2006, the foundation had enough money to begin the first phase, which included the restoration of the carousel pavilion and emergency improvements to the theater, including replacing the side of the building, repairing the stairwell, animal removal and foundation problem solving.
In 2013, the foundation moved into phase two, which included managing health and safety issues as well as interior work to ensure the building was up to code.
Phase three began in 2020; with the installation of toilets, the building obtained its certificate of permanent occupancy. Other work was also carried out on the electrical system and the stage, and the building was repainted.
This summer marks the first time in four years that the Historic Elitch Theater has offered regular public programming, with free movie nights (Sing 2 is scheduled for Friday, July 22) and tours on the first Friday of the month that not only discuss the history of Elitch Gardens, but also offer an inside look at the theater itself. Next summer, the foundation hopes to put on shows in collaboration with local theater companies.
Meanwhile, the foundation just received a $70,000 grant from the Lowes Hometown Initiative, which will help cover the waterproofing and painting of the Fly Building, a prop at the theater that was donated by former member Helen Bonfils. of the theater company and the daughter of Denver Post‘s founder who later published the journal herself. The structure included changing rooms and more space for sets that allowed for larger productions, but it was no architectural marvel. Fixing what the foundation’s current president, Greg Rowley, calls “a big, ugly cinder block building” is one of the final parts of phase three. “It’s not as simple as rounding up volunteers and having them painted. You have to hire professionals and either put up scaffolding or an elevator,” he explains. The foundation hopes to complete the project by October.