Golden Oldies

Two vintage cinemas mark seventy-plus years of enchanting Denver.

When Twentieth Century Fox opened the Mayan Theatre at 110 Broadway in 1930, promoters christened the occasion with an elaborate celebration. They screened a print of Ernst Lubitsch's Monte Carlo, a film touted to be "As exciting as a caress! As intimate as clinging silk!" Adult patrons were charged 35 cents per ticket, children a dime. And, as if clingy fabric and pocket-change prices weren't enough to pack in the Dust Bowl Denver crowd, Santa Clara Indians danced on the roof with torches that night to exorcise any demons in the building. Their efforts proved beneficial, and for decades the Mayan thrived.

In the 1960s and '70s, though, decreasing attendance forced the movie house into rough times, and it was eventually abandoned. The Mayan sat unoccupied for years, falling apart, and was scheduled for demolition. Then a group of nearby residents started a grassroots effort to restore the gem, saving the venerable structure from the wrecking ball. By 1986, a meticulous $2 million renovation had given the Mayan a much-needed facelift. Inside, the upstairs balcony was converted into two smaller theaters, making it viable in the multiplex market. Today the Mayan, originally designed by local architect Montana Fallis, is one of three remaining theaters in the U.S. built in the art-deco Mayan Revival style.

The local office of the Landmark Theatres chain, which operates both the Mayan and the less showy Esquire, has decided to throw a combo birthday bash called, simply, the 75th Anniversary of the Mayan and the Esquire. The celebration will take place at both theaters this weekend.

Located at Sixth Avenue and Downing Street, the Esquire has the appearance of a cinema built in the early 1960s, but it is actually older than the Mayan. Originally erected in 1928 as the Hiawatha Theatre, it, like the Mayan, offered one screen and a balcony. Over time, owners added a second screen and ditched the name Hiawatha in favor of Esquire. The Esquire was given a new facade in the 1960s, which explains its current retro appearance. Though not nearly as much of the Esquire's history is documented as the Mayan's, any Denverite worth his weight in ticket stubs knows that both venues have long served as the city's chief purveyors of indie cinema. For that reason, despite their marginal difference in age, Landmark came up with the double celebration.

"The Esquire is technically a little older," comments Landmark Theatres manager David Kimball. "But I don't think the purists will run me down."

Kimball's lack of concern about roving film fanatics stems from his certainty of Denver citizens' love for the two theaters. In preparing for the anniversary, Kimball solicited customer memories and was pleased to discover many reminiscences regarding the timeless twins.

"We heard about people that proposed or were proposed to at one of our theaters, people who would come here on the trolley before automobiles were widespread. A friend of mine recalls sneaking into The Graduatelong before he was of age."

For fans of either dream castle, Kimball and company have organized an entire weekend's worth of festivities. Things kick off at 10 a.m. Saturday at the Mayan with a performance by the Azteca Dancers, followed by screenings of The Wizard of Oz, I'm No Angel and The Last Picture Show. The Esquire takes the torch on Sunday, also at 10, with a presentation on razed theaters by history buffs Tom Noel and Dennis Gallagher, followed by a screening of Casablanca, Singing in the Rain and Buster Keaton's The General, with live accompaniment by the Mont Alto Orchestra.

"This is a really nice way to celebrate the community," Kimball concludes. "A nice way to say thanks."

 
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