Inside the Bluebird Theater on Thursday evening, October 6, not everything was quite ready to go. A by-invitation-only audience--consisting mainly of music-biz scenesters, suit-wearing politicos and just plain folks from the Capitol Hill area--was admiring the building as a combo led by Ron Miles blasted out challenging jazz riffs. But the stairwells bore the mark of fresh, unpainted plaster, and two of the venue's restrooms had handwritten "Out of Order" signs taped to their doors. As a result, the open bar became a double-edged sword.
Then again, a photo display showing the condition of the Bluebird prior to its recent renovation made it clear just how improved this room was. The 450-seat theater, which opened in 1914, spent most of its life as a reputable movie house, where reputable people went to see reputable movies. But from the mid-Seventies until 1986, the space became known as a porno palace. In 1993, when Evan Dechtman, one of the Bluebird's new co-owners, first peered into the place, he was particularly appalled by its floors. All manner of bodily fluids and other once-sticky substances were smeared there, and they'd had the better part of a decade to, well, fester.
"The floors were nasty," emphasizes Dechtman, 26, "and the rest of the theater was frozen in time--literally. There was still popcorn in the popcorn machine, tickets were still in the ticket turner, signs were still up, newspapers were still folded from 1986. It was like the owners just freaked out and left."
You can hardly blame them. The building was structurally sound, but in many other ways, it was falling apart. According to Chris Swank, Dechtman's 28-year-old partner and the man who initiated the Bluebird project, the theater was a monument to water damage when he first saw it twenty months ago. A leaky roof and plenty of time had transformed this once-beautiful establishment into the architectural equivalent of an open wound.
Nevertheless, Swank saw promise --and an opportunity to get into a business with which he'd only dabbled in the past. As a high-schooler living near the Bluebird, he'd been in a band called VNX ("We weren't really sure what the letters stood for," he admits) that reached its pinnacle of success when it opened a show for the Dead Kennedys. But in spite of his adequate abilities on the guitar and bass, Swank initially opted for a more traditional profession, earning an engineering degree from the Colorado School of Mines in 1990. He achieved modest success in that profession and continues to work as a consultant to a computer-printer company based in Los Angeles. But, as he says, "I got kind of bored with my day job."
Last year Swank began to recruit monied pals to invest in his scheme to revitalize the Bluebird. Among those who contributed to the nearly $300,000 Swank raised from private parties was Dechtman, who had just left Tel Aviv University after suddenly realizing that the career in international diplomacy for which he'd been preparing was not for him. Once Swank shook approximately $220,000 out of the Mayor's Office of Economic Development (which also invested in the restoration of the Ogden Theatre, at 935 East Colfax), he got down to the business of making the Bluebird tolerable again.
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The work was ugly, but there were rewards; for example, Dechtman and company discovered posters for the Seventies nudie landmark The Life and Times of Xaviera Hollander, plus 25 masters of locally produced pornographic films. Dechtman can't say whether these movies feature, say, orgies involving any current Denver TV-news anchormen; he insists he's been too busy to watch any of them.
Today the Bluebird is in mint condition, with an interior that approximates the grandeur of the theater in its early days; especially of note are faux-classic paintings on either side of the stage. Less impressive on opening night was the sound, which was sometimes muddy and indistinct. Making it even more difficult to hear the intricacies of the Miles band's performance was a constant rumble of gab from the attendees, who seemed to look upon the music as a distraction rather than the reason they'd gathered there.
Still, the theater will sink or swim on the basis of its programming. Early signals are mixed: The booking of the Either/Orchestra (on October 15) bodes well, but the choice of Richie Havens to open the theater was, to say the least, uninspired. And the decision to utilize the building Sundays through Wednesdays as a revival movie house is a potentially exciting one that could fill a gap in the Denver entertainment scene that's been widening for years. As for the neighborhood, which has a rough reputation, Swank says, "It's a lot safer than people think. And this area is really ripe for revitalization. I see Colfax as being the Haight Street of Denver--the real soul of the city. And we want to be a part of that."
Now if they can just get the bathrooms working.