From King Henry V to Louisiana's Huey Long, history is filled with figures who balanced personal corruption against great achievement -- and whose achievements, in fact, arose from their corruption. For playwright Joan Holden, Robert Speer, mayor of Denver during the first decade of the twentieth century, was just such a man. "There's nothing he would not do," Holden says. "He would turn his back on a friend, make a promise and break it, ignore a crying social abuse like prostitution because it was good for the convention business." Speer rigged elections and worked with organized crime. But it wasn't pure power hunger that motivated him, Holden says; it was the desire to create a planned and civilized city. Denverites owe many of the city's amenities to Speer. He built the Auditorium Theatre and the Civic Center; he cleaned up garbage-choked Cherry Creek. He also helped create Denver's extensive parks system.
A couple of years ago, Holden wrote Nickel & Dimed, based on Barbara Ehrenreich's book of the same name, for Curious Theatre Company. But when artistic director Chip Walton asked her to write a play about Speer, she was less than enthusiastic. Then, "they set out bait," she recalls. On her next visit to Denver, Holden was housed at the loft of Curious boardmember Mickey Zeppelin, a history buff and Speerophile. The place was filled with books; tomes on the former mayor were arrayed on the table. Holden began to read. "I thought, well, this could be dramatic. There was a battle royale between the reform movement and the old-style political machine, which Speer was boss of...and I recognized in him the type of the great politician."
For thirty years, Holden was the playwright for the San Francisco Mime Troupe, acclaimed during the '60s and '70s for its anarchic humor and the wit with which it skewered the power structure. "Everybody writes about what they're passionate about," observes Holden. "Politics is my passion."
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Holden haunted the Western History Collection at the Denver Public Library, was assisted in her research by students at the University of Denver, talked to old-time Denverites and consulted with historians. She interviewed local politicos, including Susan Barnes-Gelt and ex-governor Richard Lamm. It wasn't her first contact with Lamm; he and Walter Gerash represented the Mime Troupe in 1966, when the company was arrested for obscenity in Denver.
Holden began to glimpse a story in these piled-up historical details. Nickel & Dimedhad been an episodic play that hewed fairly closely to Ehrenreich's memoir. Few of the details Holden needed for Paris on the Platte were on the record, however, so she was able to exercise more freedom in inventing scenes. Rather than recount Speer's entire life and career, the play focuses on a specific choice he was forced to make, and this story arc is set against the lives of two fictional women: a Vassar grad involved in the reform movement then sweeping America and a young black woman hoping to make a living in Denver. In all, the play features some thirty characters, brought to life by eight performers. Among those portrayed is famed turn-of-the-century madam Mattie Silks.
Walton thinks audiences will find the production surprising. "We're creating our own stylistic stew for the show," he says, "including multiple theatrical elements from that period: a ragtime player, melodrama, a dumb show."
Paris on the Platte received grants from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Rockefeller Foundation's Multi-Arts Production Fund. Although it deals with universal issues, neither Walton nor Holden necessarily predicts a life for the play beyond Denver. But it should prove enlightening for local audiences and deepen their understanding of their city.