"There's this great seedy side to Denver history," says Michelle Baldwin, co-producer of Madams and Mayhem on Market Street, an original musical that opens this week. "People don't realize that this neighborhood was hopping. There were brothels up and down, pleasure houses for all the bigwigs. I think there are parallels to how LoDo is today. This area has always been a place for the rich to play."
Last fall, Baldwin and her partners in the LoDo Restaurant Group commissioned playwright/director Lennie Singer to script a play about Mattie Silks -- entrepreneur, ball-buster and legendary madam of the House of Mirrors. The building that housed the House, considered Denver's most upscale brothel, sits near the corner of 20th and Market streets and has been everything from a T-shirt factory to a restaurant and nightclub. The owners of Mattie's wanted to find a unique way to draw customers who didn't dig the frat-boy flavor of LoDo nightlife. They decided on -- what else? -- dinner theater. Now, six nights a week, dancing girls in corsets will entertain audience members the moment they walk in. Mattie's lower lobby has been transformed into a saloon, casino and dancehall; the dinner and play will take place in a grand upstairs room where Silks used to entertain clients.
"We wanted something musical, and we wanted a nice, elegant dinner," says Baldwin. "We thought it was intriguing to do a play about the place itself, because it has so much history. You're watching the play about the house in the house where it all actually happened, where these characters existed. And it's sex, which is always appealing."
Silks was a legendary Denver figure, but her profession didn't endear her to society types, and not much is known about her personal life. When Singer began researching the script, she looked for lore as much as hard-boiled history. (Singer, who directs the show, also penned the ragtime-style score with Matt Bassano.) She found an enigmatic woman who, from a young age, dreamed of running a bordello. A big-boned gal who liked her girls classy, Silks could chew the fat with the politicians, city planners, lawyers, judges and mining barons who were well acquainted with her establishment. She was regarded as a fair, if strict, businesswoman who had a heated rivalry with Madam Jennie Rogers, operator of the Soiled Dove across the street. Playing with all of this and taking some liberties with fact, Singer created a cabaret-style show that's got more drama than Sophocles.
"It's an actual play; it's got conflict, mayhem, love, murder, suicide," says Singer. "I wanted it to be historic, fun and bawdy without being cheesy. I wanted to do justice to Mattie.
"This is a person who had to be very aggressive, very determined and very strong-willed," she adds. "She made a real success of herself. She had a whole chain of brothels and bordellos and 'hotels' for young women."
"It sounds weird when you're talking about a whorehouse, but Mattie took advantage of the only real opportunity that she had at the time, which is a real accomplishment," says Beth Flynn, who plays Silks. "She took a lot of pride in the fact that she never went into the bedroom herself. She just ran the show."
More than a century later, Mattie's still entertaining Denver. This time, it's all perfectly legal.