“We are so thrilled to be letting people in and experience the magic of this 135-year-old building,” says David Nehls, vice-president of the Historic Elitch Theatre Foundation and chairman of the new Classic Indoor Film Series, which opens Friday, August 28, with a screening of Spaceballs, Mel Brooks's parody of Star Wars.
The film series includes movies that feature performances by alumni of the Elitch Theatre stage – in the case of Spaceballs, the late Dick Van Patten. Upcoming films include The Miracle Worker (featuring Patty Duke, who appeared at Elitch in 1974 in The Marriage Gambol), Some Like It Hot (Joe E. Brown, who was in 1963's in Harvey) and The Best Years of Our Lives (star Fredric March was part of the stock company from 1926 through 1928).
The theater, a wooden Victorian jewel box with balconies, boxes and old-fashioned fly space, as well as exquisite acoustics, dates from 1891, a year after the original park’s opening. It was the home of a summer repertory theater company from 1897 to 1963. This stock company would mount ten to a dozen plays in as many weeks, a dizzying feat that served as boot-camp training for future acting greats such as March, Edward G. Robinson, Raymond Burr and Grace Kelly. Theater management moved to booking touring productions and concerts after that, keeping the theater lit through the 1991 season. (The amusement park moved to its current Platte Valley location four years later.)
What followed was a preservation horror story. Despite assurances from civic and cultural quarters, a proposal to maintain and upgrade the theater, turning it into a year-round performance space, never developed — and the auditorium sat empty. At some point, a garish paint job was slapped over the theater’s subdued green-and-gold color scheme and delicate gingerbread woodwork. Finally in 2002, a group of concerned locals formed the foundation, and began the long and difficult process of writing grant proposals, raising funds and implementing a plan to get the place open again.
“We started from the ground up,” says Nehls. “There was no plumbing, no electricity, no bathrooms.” The exterior was stabilized in 2007 (the old foundations were simply posts set on rock piles). And by 2014, all the improvements had brought the building up to code enough to allow indoor performances.
Now the momentum is building. A New Play Festival just graced the stage this past weekend, and the film fest goes into September – still the traditional closing time for the theater, which never featured heating or air-conditioning.
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The rebirth of the Elitch Theater is a labor of love for the many people involved. “It’s really hard,” Nehls says. “There’s a drive you have to have to take on a project like this. We have a board of ten people who are really driven, and there’s just so much stress. Sometimes we spell each other – we can get so caught up in it that it affects our health.”
But there's a lot of history to get caught up in. At one point, the Elitch Theater was the only place to see nationally known theatrical talent live. The relatively intimate confines of the theater made the experience especially vivid for aspiring young thespians (this writer included). A kid from East High School went from sweeping the stage one summer to appearing on it opposite Sarah Bernhardt the next: the future swashbuckling silent-film superstar Douglas Fairbanks Sr.
These stories are part of what makes the theater so special. “It is so gratifying that people are responding to what we are doing,” says Nehls. “There is a connection to this building that people have here. They saw shows here, they were ushers – when they come in, they feel compelled to share their story. And we love it! We are thrilled to talk about it, to hear those stories and let people enjoy the space again.”
The Historic Elitch Theatre Foundation presents Spaceballs as part of the Classic Indoor Film Series at 6:30 p.m. Friday, August 28, in the historic theater at 4655 West 37th Avenue. Actor J.J. Bullock, who played Prince Valium in the film, will be on hand for a talkback after the screening. For more information, visit historiceltichtheatre.org.www.historicelitchtheatre.org