Sometimes folks tackle a project even though they know it's gonna be bigger, tougher and meaner than they are. That's how it was for local artist Michael O'Donnell and the Historic Oriental Theatre: One day he looked at the now-empty north Denver movie palace, a neighborhood treasure he'd grown up with, and knew it was his destiny to rebuild it. O'Donnell dreamed of seeing the neon sign in front, dark for fifteen years, once again lighting up the corner of 44th Avenue and Tennyson Street -- even if it meant stretching himself to the financial limit.
Earlier this year (after a trial run at Halloween when O'Donnell rented the then-seedy joint for a one-night event under the moniker of MOD Productions), he and right-hand man Cory Morrison took the plunge.They leased the old theater with plans for turning it into a multi-use venue that would book live music, classic films, theater, comedy and whatever else rolled their way. They used up inheritances and maxed out credit cards to refurbish the place in style. "We've had old neighborhood folks from the Holy Family nursing home come over and start crying when they see what we've done," Morrison says.
It wasn't the first time someone had taken on the Oriental with big dreams in recent years, but the others ended in failure. With the exception of some hits and misses, that hasn't been O'Donnell's fate so far. "Some shows didn't go well," Morrison admits. Monthly performances by the fire-eating, body-impaling Crispy Family Carnival haven't been as well attended as expected. Other events were marred by bad weather. A couple of weeks ago, on the eve of the debut of a new film series and what O'Donnell had intended as the theater's official grand opening, he'd run out of rent money. The future looked grim.
But at the eleventh hour, after a day of hectic phone-calling, O'Donnell scraped up a last-minute loan. In addition, Heidi and Steve Naples of Heidi's Brooklyn Deli came aboard as sponsors, making it possible for the show to go on. And O'Donnell and Morrison, the ever-optimistic, bare-bones staff of MOD Productions, thinks things will turn around.
"Some people walk by and tell me they never even knew this theater was here," Morrison says. "Now they do."