All the World's an Empty Stage

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

Though the MOED loan and the US Bank loan never defaulted, the loan from the National Trust did, in March 1997. "There was no way we could keep pace," says Keel. "We had to lay folks off. We still owe people about $40,000 in back salary." By the end of the year, the Eulipions ballroom had gone into receivership; early the next year, the group amassed an additional $116,000 in debt to vendors and ex-employees.

The city, too, had leverage against Eulipions. When the organization set up its loans with the bank, the city and the National Trust, it entered into a cross-default agreement. That meant if one loan defaulted, the other lenders could declare their loans in default as well. The National Trust was threatening foreclosure, says the Community Development and Planning Agency's Hipp.

As if Keel didn't have enough troubles, in July 1996, her oldest son died of AIDS, and the loss greatly reduced her focus. She says that she did not "come out of being dysfunctional until last August." Keel trusted her board to take care of things, but the board was too much in flux to keep Eulipions out of harm's way. Her world collapsed, and she could do nothing about it.

Another scene from The Black Nativity.
David Rehor
Another scene from The Black Nativity.

But Mayor Webb could. Keel met with Webb one day toward the end of 1997. As she recalls, Webb said, "I want to help you with this, but you're not thinking clearly. Why don't you be the artistic director and we'll find a business director."

Keel stepped down as executive director to become the group's artistic director. But the city wanted a whole new board. "We encouraged them to change the board structure because of the increased liabilities," Hipp says.

According to Walker and Keel, City Attorney Dan Muse told the members of Eulipions in unsparing terms what was going to happen: The city would bail out the theater group only if the current board exited stage left. "The heavy-handedness from Dan is just Dan. That didn't come from the mayor," says Keel. "Still, the mayor and the city haven't been very helpful."

The original boardmembers did not like the idea that they were being replaced, but Beverly DeCluette and Adrienne Benavidez both resigned on January 23, 1998. Gerie Grimes, however, managed to resign and reappoint herself to the new board on that same day. "It really all came down to Gerie Grimes," Keel says. "They were all supposed to resign, but somehow Gerie stayed on. She had convinced the powers that be that she held some kind of historical continuity." (Grimes declined to comment to Westword.)

The key figure among the replacements seems to be Venita Vinson, a consultant and former Webb chief of staff. Vinson had been a member of Eulipions' board of directors back in 1982, but had been off the board for years. When she heard the rumors that Eulipions was in trouble, however, she'd gone to Keel to offer her help. Vinson recalls that in the fall of 1997, she and Keel met with state representative Penfield Tate, banker Jumetta Posey and local activist Yusef Karouma to discuss solutions. "I only did this because she was a friend," says Vinson. "Just like wanting to save Eulipions now, this was a labor of love. If we could bring in people with a different expertise, it made sense to do that."

And so Vinson, Posey, Grimes (an administrator at the Hope Center in north Denver) and attorney Darrel Nulan were brought in to replace the old board. Vinson says it was Keel herself, and not the mayor, who gave her blessing to all of the new members. The final boardmember was Ernestine Smith, whose daughter was a member of Eulipions. "She brought something the rest of us didn't bring," says Vinson. "She brought a sensitivity to the problems of an artist."

The others were not theater people; they were suits. "I think she certainly could have offered alternatives, but you have to realize Jo was in a crisis," says Davis. "If someone comes and says 'I'm in investment, and I think we can pull this thing together,' that's an area where you feel you need somebody with that kind of skill."

At first, relations between Keel and her new board were cordial. And the new board got some things done: It secured the city's $109,000 bail-out loan, which enabled Eulipions to pay off the National Trust, and renegotiated the parking-lot contract (whereas the original deal had brought in $6,250 a month, the new deal upped that to $11,000).

"They did solve some problems," Davis says. "They did do a large piece of what they came in to do."

Darrel Nulan agrees. "The prior board was unable to run Eulipions," he says. "The present board's initial charge was to look everything over and come up with a viable plan to save the building."

What is at issue is whether the new board overstayed its welcome. Keel and her supporters say it was an interim board only, charged with digging Eulipions out of the money pit and then, after 120 days, appointing a new board. The resignation letter signed by outgoing boardmembers DeCluette, Benavidez and Grimes appointed their replacements "as the interim board for 120 days."

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