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Preservation of the Historic Elitch Theatre


August 21, 2015 by Pamela Nowak

The Elitch Gardens Theatre closed in 1987 with one performance in 1991 in celebration of the building’s centennial anniversary. Monies raised by Raymond Burr, some $2 million, was earmarked for use for an educational program at the theatre but the funds were instead given to a local school. When the amusement park moved to a new location in downtown Denver in 1994, the theatre and the carousel shell, both listed on the National Register of Historic Places were the only remaining structures at the original site. The theatre sat vacant as the surrounding property was redeveloped.

In 2002, a nonprofit organization, the Historic Elitch Gardens Theatre Foundation, was formed by a group of citizens for the purpose of restoring the theatre and creating sustainable programming. The foundation was awarded $5 million in 2006, a combination of state and city funding, grants, and donations and work began on Phase One of restoration—focused on saving and restoring the exterior. Included was a cement foundation to support the exterior walls. This replaced an earlier system of beams-on-rock. The roof, gable, main entrance (lobby) and exterior walls were replaced and painted.

By 2010, exterior renovation of the Historic Elitch Theatre was complete but interior work was still necessary. Lacking indoor plumbing, air conditioning, and updated electrical systems, the building was virtually unusable. Complicating the issue was the need to preserve original woodwork and design. The building has not been used since 1991 and pigeons, cats, and foxes had made homes inside. Volunteers organized and removed the hand-painted oil-on-canvas curtain for proper storage. Animals were evicted the following year and repairs and cleanup began. In 2011, Barbara Medill, a friend of Mary Elitch Long’s, donated some of Long’s possessions to the Foundation and repairs were made to the leaking roof in 2012. That year, the interior was opened for Doors Open Denver and musicians and Shakespearean performers took the stage.

Phase Two of Historic Elitch Theatre renovations began with a 2011 grant of $425,000 from the City of Denver, Office of Economic Development. These funds were combined with $106,000 in private donations to begin interior work. Major strides were made to bring the electrical system up to code and make repairs to the stage floor. The auditorium was made ADA compliant with a new wheelchair area. Doors were equipped with emergency exit hardware and a fire suppression system was installed.

This work was completed in 2014 and the theatre was able to obtain temporary event permits and open for public events. Major work is still needed to install plumbing and restrooms.

Phase Three of Elitch Theatre restoration will focus on lobby restorations and installation of restrooms. All sewer lines were torn up during the redevelopment of surrounding property so this will also involve new sewer lines. Fundraising is currently being undertaken for this phase. Once completed, a permanent occupancy permit can be acquired and regular programming will begin to provide ongoing funding for restoring the former beauty of the interior and the theatre’s future as a Denver cultural center. A full year of events is being planned for 2016—the 125th anniversary of the building.

Currently, a ten member volunteer board makes up the Historic Elitch Theatre Foundation. Its members include local business people. The foundation sponsors concerts, lectures, movies and farmers’ markets that take place in the Theatre Plaza.

This week, the historic Elitch Theatre opened its doors for The New Works Festival (August 20 to 22), showcasing the work of new playwrights. The goal of the festival is to discover strong stories and foster them from the beginning stages of readings to a main stage production in the Historic Elitch Theatre. The festival is unique in that it invites audiences to participate in the selection process. The selection committee and audiences who attend the six readings will choose two top productions, which will be mounted as staged workshop productions in the festival’s second year. In the third year of the festival, an audience-selected workshop will be produced as a main stage show and world premiere of the work in the Elitch Theatre season programming in 2017.



Next week, I’ll head back in time to 1905 and discuss Denver as it was in the year my book is set. Each Friday, I will blog about some aspect of Elitch Gardens, early Denver, or other topics related to my next novel, Escaping Yesterday. In between, I will post small factoids on my Facebook page. You can join me there and I love new friends (

Due for release in September 2015, Escaping Yesterday is set in Elitch’s Gardens, in 1905, and follows the story of Lottie Chase. Lottie is willing to take any risk to save her daughter from their abusive uncle. Stranded in Denver, Lottie meets Caleb Hudson, manager at Elitch’s Gardens amusement park, who sees her as a manipulative huckster. Caleb, a veteran suffering from PTSD, craves the tranquility of the park’s gardens. Lottie brings anything but peace as she seeks to convince the owners to add thrill rides so she can collect the sales commission and support her daughter. Neither anticipates their growing passion, common demons, or the dangers they will face as they confront their pasts and free their love.

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