All the World's an Empty Stage

For the locked-out founder of Eulipions, the playís still the thing.

Keel had always wanted to find a permanent home for Eulipions. Since the mid-'80s, she had crawled through the attics and walked through the basements of more than a dozen buildings. By the time she returned from Harvard, it was obvious the group needed a new building.

"We were down on Welton in an old Safeway store, and it was jam-packed," says Beverly DeCluette, a former boardmember. "The people couldn't see."

That wasn't true of Keel's plan, however. "Everybody bought into the vision," says Hiawatha Davis.

Eulipions' former home at 2425 Welton.
David Rehor
Eulipions' former home at 2425 Welton.
Who's watching over them? Scenes from this season's The Black Nativity.
David Rehor
Who's watching over them? Scenes from this season's The Black Nativity.

And not just members of Eulipions. The following year, the Colorado Historical Society gave Eulipions a $75,000 grant to study whether purchasing and renovating the temple at 1770 Sherman Street was feasible, and the Mayor's Office of Economic Development kicked in $25,000 to draw up a business plan. Keel and company also received about $100,000 in free consultation from a local law firm specializing in real estate. By 1994, the group's operating budget had grown to half a million, half of which consisted of small donations from the community.

Yet financial troubles were already looming. The group was incurring debt, says Walker, owing about $14,000 in back rent at 2425 Welton. Another $36,000 in rent would later come due at a temporary storage building the organization had been using. But Keel and her staff weren't thinking about that -- they were too close to fulfilling their dream.

Lenders thought Eulipions could make a go of the space as well. US Bank loaned the group $500,000, MOED added $344,000, and the National Trust loaned $100,000. The Colorado Historical Society tossed in another $98,000 grant and promised another worth $484,000. (That grant has not been issued but is still promised, says Keel.)

In 1995 Eulipions purchased the temple for $1.775 million. "It was a solid business deal," says Keel. "For the city, it was a guaranteed source." Interest on the bank loan was 9 percent; the National Trust's loan was 7.5 percent, and the city's loan was 3.5 percent. Along with the building, Eulipions also bought the adjacent parking lot at 1754 Sherman, negotiating a deal with a parking management company that would bring in $75,000 per year. That revenue would pay off the bank and city loans. "The whole loan structure was one of almost certainty, except for the National Trust," says Keel; that loan would be serviced by renting the building's ballroom for proms and parties.

Still, the loans and grants had specific purposes -- such as purchasing the building and making renovations. Eulipions still had to pay operating expenses, and income had to be generated from putting on shows, renting out the space and continuing to raise funds.

After Eulipions purchased its building, most of the eleven-member board of directors felt as if they had accomplished their goal of finding a permanent home for Eulipions and departed. Throughout 1995, new faces came and went, and the following year, the board held only three meetings. Eventually there were only three boardmembers.

Despite the unstable leadership, the theater group underwent an ambitious expansion. Before the move, the organization employed four staff members; by the end of 1996, there were 22. Most had no connection to the arts. Instead, they were job coaches and crisis counselors.

Washington had left the board years earlier, and when she came by to check out the new place, the changes made her uncomfortable. Staff members were applying for a city grant to start up a culinary arts school in the kitchen, she says, "kind of 'cause the kitchen was screaming for it, and that would have been great. But is that what we're supposed to do?"

And people began to grow disconnected. "I'd walk into the building and someone would say, 'Hi, how can I help you?' They didn't know me and I didn't know them. It was a real hard thing for me to swallow."

"At the smaller space, the focus was on just the play," says Andre Freeman, who managed the temple. He had worked as a volunteer at Eulipions since he was a child. At the new place, he says, there were more business opportunities to work with -- more ideas about what to do. Too many ideas. By the end of 1996, the group was crashing.

"We tried to expand too fast," says Keel -- mainly, by hiring too many people. "Our revenue did not keep up with our expenses." Very quickly, the guiding principle of Eulipions shifted from artistic performance to simple survival.

"I take responsibility for that," Keel continues. "We thought, 'Yeah, this building is the answer. All we need are the people to put in place and we'll go.' One, that was false. Two, we got into an area we should not have gotten into, which was more in employment and training."

Problems compounded. Because the building had been vacant for years, Public Service Company had not been able to provide an estimate of monthly utility costs before the group moved in. Eulipions figured the utilities would cost around $2,000. The first bill was $9,600.

Moreover, Davis says, "they hired a white fundraiser with a good track record, but he'd never raised money for black folks. He didn't raise a quarter. But [Keel] kept him on contract well past what should have been his drop-dead date." The job grant from the Mayor's Office of Employment and Training to start up the culinary school fell through because the kitchen, it turned out, needed extensive renovations. "[Keel] started running into all these issues that were slowing things down," says Davis. "Anyway, the sky fell."

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