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Extreme Makeover

The Ogden's rehab is done, but the future's still dark for other vintage theaters.

Steve Schalk knows exactly where the true essence of the Ogden Theatre lay: in its carpet. Decades of beer and sneaker grime had been ground into the quarter-inch matting, like sedimentary layers of musical memories.

Nasty, reeking, puke-stained memories.

The carpet was one of the first things that Schalk, a partner in concert-promotion group Nobody in Particular Presents, ordered ripped out after the Ogden closed its doors in mid-December for a massive interior overhaul. The theater originally opened in 1917 as a grand vaudeville house; its new look as a grand concert venue goes on display March 4, at a sold-out Flogging Molly show.

Just days before the debut, Schalk carefully steps through the chaos of construction materials and taps his foot on the newly installed flooring. "It's called Elephant Bark," he says proudly. "It's made from recycled tires. It's almost indestructible. You can put cigarettes out on it, spill cocktails, drop heavy things -- nothing."

Such resiliency will help ensure that the Ogden lasts through new generations of crowds. When NIPP's Doug Kauffman bought it in 1993, the theater had barely survived decades of sporadic ownership separated by long periods of dormancy on deteriorating East Colfax Avenue. To get the place up to standards, Kauffman put in $500,000 in renovations, with $187,000 of that coming from a low-interest loan offered by the Mayor's Office of Economic Development. But those initial improvements were only a fraction of what the building needed. "This rehab is really long overdue," Kauffman says.

The changes update the battered restrooms and front doors, refurbish the shabby paint job and completely redesign the floor plan so that the aisles now run along the sides of the audience area. Most noticeable is the expanded balcony that extends in a U shape toward the stage (also expanded), providing excellent vantage points for concert-goers not blessed with Paul Bunyan-like statures, and expanding the Ogden's capacity from 1,100 to about 1,700. The new layout is reminiscent of the Gothic Theatre in Englewood, where the vertical art-deco arrangement can make you feel like you're right in a performer's face. The similarity is no coincidence: Schalk oversaw construction of the Gothic's wrap-around balcony after he bought that struggling movie house in 1998. Built in the 1920s, it had to be renovated from floor to ceiling before it could be operated as a concert venue, and Schalk is using the lessons learned there to lift the Ogden out of dive status.

Denver was once home to dozens of movie palaces, all exuding the type of ambience and character being exhumed from the Ogden. Curtis Street alone featured the twinkling facades of the Empress, the Paris, the Iris, the Princess, the Rialto and the Victory -- until they were shuttered because single-screen theaters had become too expensive to operate in the face of suburban multiplexes. Vague memories of the Orpheum, the Centre and the Craig still abound. The majestic Aladdin, designed with Arabian arches and domes, was replaced by a Walgreens at Colfax and Race Street. Some theaters that escaped demolition lived on through schizophrenic ownership, then found new uses. South Broadway was a particular hot spot for redevelopment: The Jewell Theater at Jewell Avenue is now the Thrillseekers rock-climbing gym; the Pioneer Theater at Hampden Avenue in Englewood is now a Sir Speedy print shop; and the Webber Theater at Bayaud Street is now home to Kitty's South (at least it still shows movies). The venerable Vogue Theatre on South Pearl Street today holds lofts, and the York Theatre, at Colfax and York Street, was converted into a Seiko watch repair store.

The Paramount and the Mayan were saved by public campaigns in the '80s. The Hiawatha, built in 1928, continues to show art-house films as the Esquire Theatre, and ten years ago there was a similar scheme to open the Oriental as an art-house cinema. That effort failed, and the 79-year-old venue on 44th Avenue sat dormant until it was recently resurrected as an all-purpose theater, featuring music, comedy and movies. Unlike the Ogden's, however, the Oriental's aura was in the former porn theater's seats. New lessors Scott LaBarbera and Karen Boodman had the thankless job of removing the stained and sullied chairs before replacing them with more respectable seating.

Other theaters linger on, defunct or in a listless half-life. The Aztlan, which originally opened as the Santa Fe Theatre in 1926, still hosts an intermittent schedule of punk bands and dance parties, but hasn't had a serious facelift in decades. The Roxy Theater in Five Points is legendary as the only non-segregated movie house in town that would allow African-Americans to sit anywhere. Its most recent claim to fame was hosting all-ages hip-hop shows in 2001. Owner Charles Cousins, who caught ten-cent flicks at the Roxy as a boy, says the 504-seat theater has been leased to another operator who will begin hosting concerts there as soon as April.

The Holiday Theatre, at 2644 West 32nd Avenue, originally opened as the Egyptian in 1914 and was one of the few theaters screening Spanish-language movies in the '60s and '70s. The movie house was shuttered in the late '80s, when ticket sales fell off with the rise of the video-rental market. In 1993, Alberto Ovando bought the building, which also includes apartments and office space, and attempted to revive the onetime community hub, but the Holiday remained comatose. "We are working on trying to reopen," says Ovando, who began slowly fixing up the interior a year ago. The movie screen is still in good shape, but the place needs seats and projectors. He hopes to lease the space to someone willing to bring the building up to date.

Another classic neighborhood movie house, the Federal Theater, at 3830 Federal Boulevard, was built in the 1920s to showcase popular flicks and newsreels. By the 1980s, the place was being used as a porn theater and for dance parties and raves. For a while it was storage for the Ron Schrantz Carpet Remnant Clearance Center next door. In 2001, Jay Bianchi, owner of Quixote's True Blue and Sancho's Broken Arrow, proposed leasing the property and turning it into a concert venue and performance space. He gave up, though, after getting flak from the neighbors and failing to get a rent break from the building's owner, George Sager, who also owns the Oriental (and in the '80s held title to the Gothic). "It would have been at least $500,000 to renovate the Federal, and it would have taken a lot of time to do so," Bianchi says. "Time and money were working against each other."

After Bianchi passed on the space, the Industrial Arts Theatre performance group took on the 600-seat Federal in December 2002. The IAT was offered a reduced rent for taking the building "as is," and embarked on a $250,000 renovation even as it hosted productions of original plays. But the cost of maintaining the Federal was too high, and when the IAT left the building in 2004, the eighteen-year-old arts group closed up, too.

The Federal is still looking for tenants nostalgic -- and ambitious -- enough to lease the space. While it's clear that such a venture is enormously risky, you just have to look at the restaurants, retailers and coffee shops surrounding the Bluebird Theater to see the wave of economic renewal that can be generated by rehabbing an old movie house -- even one that showed porn -- before it's too late.

"Most of these theaters seem to be in run-down areas," Schalk says, looking out from the Ogden's new balcony. "If you let these places go for too long, the disuse can just run them into the ground, and the next thing you know, you have the Federal Theater."

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