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A Zooting Success

Student actors at North High School learned a lot from Zoot Suit Riots, the musical that took over their school -- and their lives -- this spring ("The Next Stage," April 22). They learned, for example, how to be better performers and how to pull off an ambitious group project. But perhaps most important -- for the male cast members, at least -- was a lesson about the overwhelming power of the zoot suit.

"These guys in this play are so cute," said a young woman in North's hallway after the opening-night performance. "I've seen them in school but never realized how cute they are. Those outfits are like, mmmm. Damn." Her friend agreed, enthusing about the "unbelievably awesome" production. "Usually they suck," she added, "but this one was good."

Zoot Suit Riots definitely did not suck. More than 2,500 people saw the play during its four-show run over Cinco de Mayo weekend. The show sold out on Saturday, and an auditorium stuffed with parents, teachers, city council members, community activists, musicians and kids were on hand to see a presentation from actor Tony Plana, who appeared in the original Broadway production of Zoot Suit and the 1981 film. With his wife, actress Ada Maris, Plana gave the students props and a pep talk about the art of acting.

"I was always telling them how talented they are," says director José Mercado. "But I think they got sort of complacent about hearing it from me. To hear it from Tony was just an amazing experience. He encouraged them to continue to study and pursue acting. It could be a life-changing thing."

After the closing performance the next afternoon, actor Elvis Nuñez led the cast and audience in a toast. "To the best damn play in the world," he said, hoisting a glass full of sparkling cider. Everyone drank, but it wasn't over yet. During the next few days, the students said they wanted to do the show again -- and the school's phone rang with inquiries about how people could see it. So Mercado decided to run Zoot Suit for an additional four shows on June 5 and 6, even though, technically, some of the cast members will no longer be wards of North: The school's graduation ceremony is Saturday, May 29.

"They're all going to be there," said Mercado. "Everyone said they'd do it."

Zoot Suit also attracted the attention of community theater groups, with offers for it to run at the Denver Center for the Performing Arts and the University of Denver's Newman Center. Even Hollywood took notice: Angelina Jolie pledged $500 to North's theater department after learning about the show through her masseuse, a friend of Mercado's. The play was considered such a success that North administrators have created a drama department -- with Mercado as the head -- and are adding another acting class next year. Mercado's biggest problem now, aside from serious sleep deprivation, is figuring out how to follow this act next year: He's talking with Chicano author Rudolfo Anaya about a musical adaption of his classic novel Bless Me, Ultima.

"Zoot Suit definitely put North's theater program on the map," Mercado says. "And the kids have a confidence now that certainly wasn't present prior to this. They discovered their ability to really do whatever they want to do, and also discovered a lot about themselves and their culture."

And they looked muy suave doing it. -- Laura Bond


Book 'Em

When Kelly Costello and Jamez Terry opened the Denver Zine Library in a small shed in their back yard last December, they were fulfilling a dream they had had for years: creating a resource center for alternative, do-it-yourself media. Unfortunately, the City of Denver is now trying to throw the book at the DZL.

On March 12, Costello and Terry got a notice from a zoning inspector stating that Denver Community Planning and Development had received a complaint about the DZL from an anonymous neighbor. The library, which archives and lends more than 4,000 self-published zines from around the world, is located behind Costello and Terry's modest rental house at 111 West Archer Place ("Book Keepers," March 18, 2004). Open twelve hours a week on Saturdays and Sundays only, the library sees an average of twenty visitors every weekend, from dedicated zinesters to curious passersby.

"All of the 25 or 30 neighbors who have come into the library have been very supportive," says Costello. "So I'm assuming that one person saw the sign on our gate and decided, ŒWe don't want this here.'"

The planning department is in the process of issuing a cease-and-desist order against the DZL for violating city zoning codes. "When you purchase a home, you make the investment thinking that you have a good idea of how the adjacent property is being utilized," says department spokesman Julius Zsako. "You don't expect a gunpowder factory, recycling yard or UPS terminal to be located there."

Terry, though, is having a hard time seeing how their tiny library rates as a prohibited use in a residential area. "I explained that we're not selling anything. I told someone from the zoning office over the phone that this was a hobby of mine, and the reply was, 'When I think of a hobby, I think of something that I do by myself, not with other people,'" Costello recounts. "Then I asked them, 'What if all these people are my personal guests?' And they said, 'We will send out a neighborhood inspector to determine if those people are there to see you socially or not.'"

Zsako also says that the DZL violates another zoning code that mandates "minimum setback requirements," guidelines that determine exactly where non-attached structures may stand in back yards. This alleged infraction makes very little sense to Terry. "The shed borders the alley. It's in the same place in our back yard as everyone else's garages are in the neighborhood," he says. When asked if the shed will remain in violation even if the library is relocated, Zsako answers, "It might be a matter of moving [the shed] a couple of feet away from the property line."

For now, Costello and Terry are waiting for to receive the cease-and-desist order from DCPD; fifteen days after it arrives, an appeals hearing will be held. Costello says that their landlord, although "a little nervous" about the situation, has given his permission for the DZL and is willing to let the legal proceedings run their course without stepping in. Legally, the library is allowed to stay open until the outcome of the hearing is determined; until then, the two proprietors are considering circulating a petition and seeking a meeting with city councilwoman Judy Montero.

"I know that the neighbors on both sides of us are supportive of the space," Costello says, "but I'm really annoyed with whomever is anonymously complaining about us instead of just talking to us directly. I know that the zoning people are just doing their jobs, but it's frustrating." -- Jason Heller


Building Blocks

There are signs of life at the Evans School, the formerly beatific elementary school that's been sitting at the corner of 11th Avenue and Acoma Street, unoccupied and unloved, for three decades ("After the Fall," February 12). Men with hard hats and cranes have been at work on the site nearly every day, sloughing off old paint, replacing broken windows and uprooting weeds from the 65,000-square-foot property.

"We're just thrilled and relieved to see something happening there," says Margerie Hicks, executive director of the Golden Triangle Neighborhood Association. "We're all just keeping our fingers crossed that it keeps up."

Designed by prominent turn-of-the-century architect David Dryden, the school was a jewel on the Denver skyline when it was built in 1904. But it's been vacant since 1974, when brothers Richard and Alan Eber bought it from Denver Public Schools. The Ebers have been trying to figure out what to do with it ever since. They've discussed turning it into high-end condos, retail spaces, offices or a mixed-use facility that combines all three. Located in the middle of a booming neighborhood, the building is now estimated to be worth millions. But it will also take that much to restore: An architectural assessment performed in 2002 placed the cost at more than $9 million. Last February, Richard Eber said he has struggled to find the financing for such a massive project and has waited for "just the right time" to make sure it was a success. "The timing and practicality of this thing have to be just right," he said.

In 1980, the building was entered into the National Register of Historic Places; in 2000, it was designated as a Denver landmark after Historic Denver Inc. applied on its behalf. Still, it languished, and neighborhood groups, architects, historic-preservation advocates and citizens feared the massive structure would fall irreparably into disrepair. It was a blight on a neighborhood experiencing a cultural and economic boom, including construction of the Daniel Libeskind-designed expansion of the Denver Art Museum, set to open two blocks away in 2006.

Last May, 34-year-old Tracy Rollert died after falling from a second story ledge at the school. She and her boyfriend, James Farley, had hopped the chain-link fence surrounding the building, planning to explore the vacant structure with flashlights. The accident, combined with mounting pressure from preservation groups, neighbors and even some Denver City Council members, motivated the city to take a more aggressive stance toward the property's owners. The Denver Community Planning and Development Agency cited the Ebers for leaving the building unoccupied for more than three months and drafted a rehabilitation plan that called for the owners to hire an architect and undergo a full cleanup within six months. If they failed to comply, they faced possible fines of $1,000 a day.

The initial deadline was extended after it blew by in January, but by mid-April, there were workmen chipping away at the site. In a May 4 meeting with the city's planning department, the Ebers announced that they'd hired architectural firm Martin Design to bring the building up to code -- the most important component of the first phase of reconstruction. The Ebers say they're still considering using the space for offices, though they've continued early discussions about using part of it to house the P.S.1 charter school, which is rapidly outgrowing its current home in the Rocky Mountain Bank Note building at Tenth Avenue and Delaware Street. In April, P.S.1 sponsored the Ebers' application for more than $400,000 in State Historical Fund money to help finance the renovation. The awards will be announced in July. -- Bond

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