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Final Exit

Al Brooks and Maxine Munt early in their career, and at the end of the Changing Scene.
Photo by Nick Del Calzo; inset courtesy Denver Pub

During intermission at Germinal Stage Denver a couple of years ago, Ed Baierlein was keeping watch over the lobby. "Look who's here," he said, his voice gentle. I turned and found Al Brooks standing behind me. Al smiled hugely, took my hand in both of his, and said something about someone who'd been doing a particular job for a long, long time. Al must have looked old -- he was already in his late eighties -- but when I remember that moment, I see him as he'd always been: a timeless figure, straight-backed, faintly puckish, pink-faced and gray-haired, and with that smoke-laden voice that always seemed to emanate from gravelly, watery depths.

Al's hands were warm on mine, and he repeated his comment. I asked if he was referring to Baierlein's long directorship of Germinal.

"No," he said. "No. No."

I tried two more names and got the same response. Al knew who I was, and he knew what he was trying to say, but the right words refused to come. Only later did I realize that he was talking about my decades of work with theater.

"I'm working on a novel," I said finally, to change the subject. "And you're in it."

"I am?" Al's eyes widened. "What am I doing?"

That brief conversation still warms me. For months I scanned the seats at Germinal on every visit, hoping to see Al again. In this world, you never know when an encounter with someone important to you will be your last. And this was mine with Al, who died in December at the age of 89.

Al Brooks and his wife, Maxine Munt, had enjoyed successful careers as teachers and dancers in New York City before coming to Denver in 1967 to open a dance studio at 1527 1/2 Champa Street; the space soon included a theater. A decade before the debut of the Denver Center for the Performing Arts, at a time when only a couple of tiny theaters struggled to survive in town, filmmakers, sculptors, painters, dancers, actors, writers and directors haunted the Changing Scene, a tall, thin building wedged between bars and porn shops. Audiences entered through the parking lot in the back, where a pensive clown painted on the wall pointed a gloved finger toward a canary yellow door. From there, a steep set of stairs led up to a lobby that served as an informal art gallery. To the left was the cozy, 78-seat theater; to the right, a room with a counter holding a large espresso machine, where Al served coffee in small china cups during intermission. Some of the plays and dances he presented were awful, some were brilliant, some were both. But every performance at the Scene was vivid, unpretentious and alive.

Michael Smith, for many years the chief drama critic at the Village Voice, is Al's nephew; he first visited the couple's New York loft as a teenager. "They set me an example of artists living the life of art," he remembers. "They opened up my mind." Maxine and Al possessed very different aesthetic senses. Al was a Juilliard-trained pianist, while Maxine preferred to dance in silence. Al loved multimedia, while Maxine's work was more austere and revealed a dry wit. "They were a wonderful pair," Smith says, "totally supportive of each other's work. And they both believed in the new and experimental."

In this, they were very much a part of their time and place. The '60s New York art scene seethed with excitement and innovation. In spaces all over the city, dancers and actors were tossing out convention. Dancers were insisting that dance didn't have to be beautiful. Walking could be dance, or sitting, or running, and every kind of movement was worthy of exploration -- as was the nexus between silence and sound, music and mere noise. Theater people, meanwhile, were mocking concepts like the well-made play and the fourth wall, and even questioning language itself. They wanted to challenge rather than entertain their audiences, and many sought theater's roots in myth and ritual. In spaces ranging from after-hour restaurants to lofts to personal living rooms, actors chanted, went naked, writhed on the floor, let rats loose to scuttle across the stage. Everywhere there was a belief that art had peculiar power and could change not only our perception of the world, but the stubborn old granite world itself.

Al and Maxine had visited Denver on dance tours, and when they lost their space in New York, Al thought about coming here and setting up a theater. For Maxine, Smith remembers, "it was very hard to leave New York and know their work was not going to be seen by the primary audience for serious work. I think it took her some time to come to terms with it."

The couple found the building on Champa, renovated it and began looking for talent. The earliest auditions were a trial -- "teenage girls lip-synching to ŒWhere Did Our Love Go?' and an eighty-year-old woman reciting ŒThe Face on the Barroom Floor,'" Al recalled a few years ago.

But word spread. Baierlein, fresh out of the Air Force, introduced himself to Al and said he had a play he'd written as his master's thesis. "Oh, well," Al replied. "When can you do it?" Baierlein wound up working as an actor, director and writer at the Scene for two years.

Nineteen-year-old Ann Musman was Al and Maxine's first dance student in Denver, and "they became my second set of parents," she says. Working with Al's multimedia pieces and Maxine's more inner-directed dances, she learned different approaches to her art. "Al talked to us about creativity. If you have this spirit in you and you don't do something with it, it's wrong, all wrong," Musman remembers. "He'd get mad at us because we had to get regular jobs. They had some rather guilt-inducing methods: ŒYou guys have so much opportunity here, and we don't make you pay rent to do your work. You should be in here choreographing and happily cleaning the bathrooms.' Art was their life. It gave me the courage later on to forget about being a secretary." Today Musman teaches dance and yoga.

After studying in New York, dancer Nancy Mangus returned to Denver in 1969. "Denver did seem pretty sparse in all the art forms compared to what it is now," she says. "Just a little town, and you could find a parking place anywhere." So encountering the Scene was a godsend. Mangus remembers dancing naked in the mountains while Al filmed video segments for a piece called "The Naked Butterfly." She also recalls the "funny little parties and cheap sherry" in Al and Maxine's apartment above the stage.

Rob O'Neill found his future at the Changing Scene when, as a young mental-health worker, he wandered into a dance class and "stepped [or leaped] into a whole new world." He is now a teacher at the renowned Fieldston School and an adjunct at New York University. "I will forever hold Maxine and Al in my heart," he says. "It is with pride and gratitude that, as a teacher, I can honor and pass on their gifts."

The Scene became a kind of conduit between Denver and New York. Al and Maxine frequently traveled to both New York and London to keep up with theater. In turn, some of New York's most interesting young playwrights -- Jean-Claude van Itallie, Israel Horovitz, William Hoffman and Michael Smith himself -- staged their plays at the Scene.

I retain bits and pieces from productions I saw there in the 1980s and 1990s. There was Road, by David Jones, which I attended with horror-meister Ed Bryant and which inspired one of Bryant's more disturbing short stories. There was an annoyingly and opaquely post-modern piece featuring actors in brightly colored leotards. Robert Patrick, author of Kennedy's Children, brought his Untied States, and he and Al had some kind of falling-out during the rehearsal period. I also remember an evocative play about Alexander the Great that starred a fiery young actor named Conor O'Farrell, who's since appeared in such television dramas as ER, Nip/Tuck, Without a Trace, Medium and Desperate Housewives.

Discouraged by a stint in New York, O'Farrell had come to Denver to get away, and here found "a small theater scene, and all the actors and directors knew each other. It gave me a love for doing it again," he says. "The great thing I remember is how supportive Al and Maxine were. I tell a lot of young actors who ask how to get started, ŒGo someplace like Denver that has a really great theater scene and become a big fish in a small pond.' L.A. beats the crap out of actors who start in their twenties. Denver gave me confidence in kind of a naive way."

On O'Farrell's last visit to Denver -- to shoot a Perry Mason episode-- "I went down to the Changing Scene and sat in the office with Al, and he chain-smoked and we talked about plays and old times," he recalls.

In the early '80s, I traveled regularly to Cañon City to direct a theater program at the Colorado Women's Correctional Facility, an intense project. Sometimes rehearsals fell through because of racial tension among the inmates; sometimes one of our actresses ended up in solitary; sometimes the entire prison was locked down because inmates from one of the men's prisons had attempted an escape. We persevered, the cast and I; we even had T-shirts made with our name on them: the Pent-Up Players. After months of rehearsal, we succeeded in putting together a play about a young woman facing her parole board. Impressed by our work, warden John Griffin said he'd allow us to perform it in Denver. This breath of freedom meant a lot to the women. For some, it was a chance to see families unable to make the trip to Cañon City. For others, returning as actors to the city where they'd "fallen" represented a kind of triumph and vindication. Nobody wanted to blow the opportunity. The older women laid down the law to the younger ones: No sneaking off, no drugs, no infractions of any kind. There was just one problem: I needed to find a venue.

The theater people I reached were sympathetic but unable to help; they all had their own works in production. Finally, I reached Al at the Scene. "Sure," he said.

I carry an indelible image of Griffin and eight or nine prisoners standing on the sidewalk, having just disembarked from the prison van, all staring at the front of the Changing Scene and the strip joint and bail bondsman's office on either side. Griffin's expression flickered between perplexity and rage; I was sure that at any moment, he would order the women into the van and haul them back to prison. But then Al was standing at the door, with that dignified, upright dancer's posture, smiling and ushering everyone toward the parking lot, the clown and the stairs. As the women took their places on the stage for a run-through, he vanished behind the scenes, emerging twenty minutes later with a sheaf of mimeographed programs listing the play's title and each actress's name.

The audience for that Sunday afternoon performance was unlike any that had gathered before at the Scene. Jovial, multi-racial, boisterous but attentive, friends and relatives urged the actors on with cheers and sympathetic murmurs. At intermission, Al handed out his china cups of espresso as if he were serving royalty.

Maxine and Al closed the Changing Scene in 1999 (the space is now occupied by Bovine Metropolis Theater); Maxine died a few months later, at the age of 87. Dancer Jan Locketz remembers that on her last visit to the Scene, "Maxine took my face in her hands and searched my soul with her clear blue eyes. She asked me if I was all right. It was such a caring gesture, intense and gentle all at once."

Al had a stroke about eight months after Maxine's death, and both his health and spirits declined last year. "He would say, ŒOh, I'm so old,'" Mangus says. "In a way, he lost the memory of his whole life and of Maxine. It was a real era that is just lost. I feel lucky to have had this passion, to have been a modern dancer, living on $2,000 a year, even though it didn't continue, because I wonder how many people have experienced a true passion in their lives, no matter what it is."

I think about Al's response to my comment about his presence in my novel -- "What am I doing?" -- spoken with such surprise and delight that he seemed to be envisioning himself in an alternate universe even as we stood together in the lobby. In an odd way, it made sense that a man who had spent his life in the service of art, and in examining the interstices between music and silence, would see fiction as something so concrete it could be inhabited. And if it is, every one of us who ever set foot in the Changing Scene knows exactly what he's doing.