Local Legend

Miss Helen hits the boards at the DTC tonight.

Bonfils is one of the biggest names in the history of Denver; it belongs to the family who owned the Denver Post for many decades during the early to mid-twentieth century. And though she always said that she had lived in the shadow of her father, Frederick, Helen Bonfils -- who was politely called “Miss Helen” during her lifetime -- has become the best-remembered of the Bonfils crew.

There’s no mystery to that. After all she not only ran the paper as her father did, but she became a major philanthropist throwing millions at the Belle Bonfils Memorial Blood Center, the Denver Zoo and the Dumb Friends League. Her greatest gifts, however, were given to support the Mile High City’s cultural life, especially in the performing arts. But her interest in drama was more than merely philanthropic, because she was an actual player in the realm, being both a Broadway producer and actress who worked under the counter-intuitively chosen name of “Gertrude Barton.” Back here in Denver, she was involved in turning Elitch’s Theatre into a first-rate regional venue, and in 1953 she built a proper—so-called “legitimate” theater on Colfax Avenue and Elizabeth Street, facing the City Park Promenade, which is today the Tattered Cover Bookstore. The stately art moderne building originally known as the Bonfils Theater (pictured) is by John K. Monroe, a Denver architect who had been Jacques Benedict’s junior partner. It’s a major city landmark and its adaptive reuse was a victory for local preservationists who feared the once neglected building would be leveled.

Then there’s the establishment of the Denver Performing Arts Comple and though Helen Bonfils died in 1972 when that was just being conceived of, it was her money and her lifelong dream to do it. Ironically, it was the creation of this group of theaters that ultimately orphaned the Bonfils Theater on Colfax.

Her fascinating life is the topic of a discussion to be presented tonight, Tuesday, July 15 at 7 p.m. at the New Denver Civic Theatre at 721 Santa Fe Drive. Featured speakers are Henry Lowenstein, who was the long-time director of the Bonfils Theater during its heyday (for a time, the place was actually known as the Lowenstein Theater before its conversion to a retail establishment) and he knew Helen very well and will share his anecdotes about her. Lowenstein will be joined by author and former Denver Post reporter, Eva Hodges Watt who has written a biography entitled Papa’s Girl: The Fascinating World of Helen Bonfils.

The discussion, sponsored by the Colorado Center of Literature and Art and the Colorado Yale Association is being moderated by Chris Citron. The event is free and open to the public.
Tue., July 15, 7 p.m., 2008

 
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