Two weeks ago, Barbara Walton received the kind of phone call that quickens a curator's heart. Having worked at the Denver Public Library for the past fifteen years, she'd already amassed an impressive collection of programs and posters relating to community theaters in Denver, some dating back to the 1800s. But she wanted more.
"We place tremendous importance on local productions rather than traveling shows because of our great interest in what people do with their discretionary time," Walton explains. And if the local theater in question could be seen as avant-garde, so much the better.
"All theater is avant-garde," Walton says sternly, "or ultimately it doesn't survive."
Walton was very aware of the avant-garde theater that did survive -- not just for a season or two, but for over thirty years -- in a narrow building entered from the alley behind 1527 Champa Street. The Changing Scene, as it had been called since 1966, produced world premieres of experimental theater, dance, art, film and performance art -- sometimes at the rate of one new work per week.
"It was founded by two individuals, Alfred Brooks and Maxine Munt, accomplished modern dancers who came here from New York," Walton recites. "They were an incredible team -- very creative, very well-known locally and adored absolutely. Of course, I had called Mr. Brooks to ask him if he would consider giving us any theater materials he had."
Mr. Brooks had seemed interested but had no time to look through the past -- he was in the middle of a production at the time. In fact, although he was now past eighty, no one could remember a time when Brooks wasn't in the middle of a production.
"When he did call, it was very sudden," Walton remembers. "He said he would give me just about everything he had, but I had to come over right away. At the crack of dawn the next day, I took along a young man, a shelver, and we packed up well over thirty cartons. Posters and files and records and photographs. This is a treasure trove, and I was glad I could act so quickly."
The rest of the people at the Changing Scene, many of whom had been close to Al Brooks and Maxine Munt for years and were now helping them to pack up, were less enthusiastic. A series of incremental events -- Al and Maxine's failing health, their landlord's decision to raise the rent, the fact that the stairs leading to the theater, and their apartment, had finally become too steep -- had conspired to create not a theatrical farewell gala, but a theater-packing day late last month. The couple's former students, actors, directors and collaborators came over. Almost everyone drank wine, and the maple dance floor, upon which it had been forbidden to walk in shoes, ever, was soon covered with packing boxes. People stumbled around in a daze, wondering how an era could end so suddenly -- and with such an absence of a bang.
"A man who'd been there since the theater opened got up on a large ladder and began removing the theater posters," Walton recalls. "They went up in exact order, and that's how they came down. It was a sobering thing."
For everyone, perhaps, except Al Brooks, whose mood seemed to hold up well -- so well, in fact, that he expects to be at the Denver Drama Critics Circle dinner next Monday to pick up a lifetime achievement award for the Changing Scene.
"Oh, this man has the most optimistic view of life," Walton says. "I never knew him until two weeks ago, but now I feel as if I've known him all my life. When I left, there were embraces, and I was so happy I'd spent this time with him."
Back at the library, Walton began to organize the Changing Scene collection, a process she does not expect to complete anytime soon. "We'll store them, clean them, do as much preservation as we can," she says. "In addition to a history of theater in Denver, it's a history of the other arts as well. Mr. Brooks can be assured that we will take the best possible care of these things."
Since escaping from Kansas City (Al) and Omaha (Maxine) in the early 1930s, the Munt-Brookses have generally lived in the heart of the city. First in New York's Greenwich Village; then at a dance studio in New York's Midtown; next at 1527 Champa in Denver; and since August 1999, on the seventeenth floor of the Park Avenue Tower retirement complex located just south of Five Points. With its lobby populated by lost souls and a slow-moving elevator whose walls are postered with sad-sounding seniors' activities and even sadder dining-room menus, the Tower is the kind of place that reminds even the most vigorously middle-aged person that old age is right around the corner.
But if any of this matters to Al Brooks, he hides it well. Having moved in with his wife of fifty years, his baby grand piano, some sherry and some glasses, he looked around him and decided that the view was fabulous.
"Have you visited here before?" he asks. "At first I thought it was so imposing and terrifying, but you know, our apartment is just divine! Most of the people who live here are somewhat impoverished." He considers this for a moment. "And how did we come here? It was hard giving up 33 years of a terribly rewarding life. Although never financially. We had to go somewhere," he decides, "and we didn't have any money. So we came here."
By last summer, Maxine had survived debilitating operations on her knees and intestines, and Al had suffered two heart attacks. Then Robert Waxman, their landlord for the last twenty years, raised the rent by $400 a month -- hardly extravagant in the current financial climate of downtown Denver.
"But I sat down with a pencil and wrote and erased until I saw that we would need to sell forty seats at full price for each performance just to pay the rent," Al recalls. "I didn't want to lose the theater, but I knew it was time."
Sitting in his new apartment, with Maxine confined to a bed in the next room but screening all the calls, Al jiggles his foot, then stands up, walks around, stretches. He still has the muscular, restless demeanor of a dancer. "I've just been having these thoughts," he says. "During my life, the whole arts scene has changed so much. This is kind of a long story, but I've had a long life."
To begin with, Al's father wanted him to be a lawyer. "He was a very successful Kansas City lawyer; he knew Harry Truman," Al recalls. "But after hearing cases at the dinner table every night, I had no interest." An accomplished pianist, Al ended up at the University of Virginia and then was wooed away to become a double major -- performance and composition -- at Juilliard.
"I learned independence," he remembers. "Juilliard was wholly impersonal. All anyone knew there was practicing. No camaraderie at all. I had a one-room apartment for thirty dollars a month, with a marble fireplace and parquet floors. My father came to see me in New York and thought I was being terribly extravagant. 'Do you realize you're spending a dollar a day on rent?' he said. But New York was magic to me."
As were the connections he made there. Attending a summer program at the Cummington School in Massachusetts, Al was exposed to chamber music, readings of new plays by famous authors (several of whom were present) and modern dance. "It was a forty-person school of the arts," he remembers, "forty persons, including teachers. It shaped my whole life. We had something called General Appreciation. Of what? Well, everything under the sun, it would appear. We played all the leading roles of Shakespeare holding the book in our hand."
Al soaked it up like a sponge, impressing his modern-dance teachers in particular. Back in New York, they invited him to the "eurythmics" classes they taught at Carnegie Hall.
"What a relief from sitting at the piano all day," Al remembers thinking. "I just took to it."
Enough so that in a year's time, he was invited to dance with modern-dance pioneer Hanya Holm, who had just begun pioneering. By the time Al was drafted, at the start of World War II, he had all the confidence he needed to compose, cast, choreograph and direct complex musical revues -- just one set of the many skills he put to use while in the Air Force.
Back from Europe, "fat and out of shape," Al returned to Hanya Holm's dance company, where, at a summer workshop in Colorado Springs, he met his future wife, Maxine Munt. "She had created one of the first dance majors not associated with the phys ed department, at Adelphi University," he says. "I began teaching for her there, and we gave a summer course together and started a company together, and we just kept going."
Married in 1950 in Paris, where they were studying dance, the two returned to New York and rented a studio near Times Square, screening off a corner for use as an apartment. Al's nephew Michael Smith, onetime drama critic for the Village Voice, remembers his aunt and uncle's urbane '50s lifestyle.
"They were crazy about the city, and every Sunday would go on an expedition to a different place, taking the subway to some part of the city they didn't know and then walking around to see what was there. My father was rather stiff with them, but Mother would take me to see them whenever she had the chance...What made them special was that they lived the life of art, not the life of comfort or respectability or self-amusement that I had grown up knowing. As I was coming of age, they represented an alternative to the assumptions about success that underlay my whole upbringing and education. Al and Max didn't have much money, but they were doing what they wanted to do, what they believed in and loved."
It was becoming increasingly difficult to do what they loved in New York, however. In the mid-'60s, with their studio building scheduled for demolition, Al and Maxine faced the prospect of finding a new place to live. Touring as the Munt-Brooks Dancers, they'd come through Denver several times and had admired its clear blue climate and the mountains at the edge of town. But when Al called around for advice on the state of the arts in Denver, he was quickly discouraged.
"You see, we didn't know anyone," he recalls. "I called the head of theater at DU. He said, 'Absolutely not. Don't come here. As far as dance goes, we had Merce Cunningham a year or so ago, and no one came at all. It was terrible.' And when I said we wanted not just to teach dance, but to open a theater and do nothing but world premieres, he just thought that was a dreadful idea. But it was my long-held conviction, and Max's too, that the arts were all interrelated. In Denver, we could do something about that."
So in 1966 the Munt-Brookses settled in the second and third floor of the building at 1527 Champa -- with the theater on the second floor and the dance studio/living space on the third, as it had been in New York. Few Denverites were used to the idea of living downtown, much less in what was to become a fashionable loft space many years later, but Al settled in instantly, taking his evening constitutionals on the unmalled 16th Street and savoring the smell of homemade ice cream from a now long-gone drugstore. "Oh, the smell of chocolate...it just made your mouth water," he reminisces. But, he adds, "there were times during the first years, I'd just hear Max sobbing. And I'd say, 'What's wrong?' And she'd say, 'Oh, I miss New York.'"
New York it decidedly was not. Al and Maxine were never shy about their mission -- a mission that could certainly be construed as condescending by people who didn't know them -- "to increase awareness so that people in Denver wouldn't blindly accept bad taste." Not only that, but they fully intended to put on a new "world premiere" each week, as well as to attract students to their dance studio. They hired a publicist, "a wonderful man," Al recalls, "who was so enthusiastic and took our money and did nothing with it." They ran ads in the dailies and held "amateur Sundays" to encourage Denver talent to come out of the woodwork.
"An eighty-year-old woman reciting 'The Face on the Barroom Floor,'" Al recalls, "and a line of gum-chewing teenage girls doing the cancan. But every once in a while we'd get someone good."
Ed Baierlein, longtime owner of the Germinal Stage Theater, was one of the good ones. While stationed at Lowry Air Base, and with a background as a playwright, he came to the Changing Scene to get a sense of Denver theater.
"We saw Lightscapes, a kind of dance/theater piece based on the work of e.e. cummings, with big lighted sculptures," he recalls. "Afterward, I made myself known to Al -- told him I had a play. 'Oh?' he said. 'When can you do it?' We looked at each other and figured out real quickly who would play what roles. We were two short. We had a casting call. One person showed up. So we cast one of Al and Maxine's dancers, and the play eventually ran one weekend that August."
Baierlein stayed on at the Changing Scene for the next two years, directing his own plays and some by others, including Denver resident Mary Chase, known to the outside world for having written Harvey. "It was a mom-and-pop store," remembers the director. "Just like my wife and I eventually did at the Germinal Stage."
"We would go around to society people's houses and do demonstrations to try to get interest," remembers Ann Musman, Al and Maxine's very first student of modern dance. "I was nineteen, and they put me in their company right away. They became like another set of parents to me, and it was pretty thrilling, because they took me on tour -- to places like Aspen and Santa Fe -- and treated me like an adult."
Her newly adult world was full of exotic moments, including the night the manager of the X-rated movie theater located on the first floor, directly below the Changing Scene, alerted the vice squad that something unlawful was going on.
"I don't know what they claimed we were doing, but the performance was very bizarre," Musman admits. "It was a special performance for a bunch of lawyers, if you can believe it, and I remember we were climbing around a structure in leotards and tights, and it was experimental and maybe not very good, but the vice squad stomped in and were rude and shut us down. Of course, we opened back up again."
Michael Smith, by now a published playwright, came to Denver to see his aunt and uncle and had a similar encounter.
"I stayed on to direct another play, William M Hoffman's play about Jesus, titled XXXX. Since there was an X-rated movie theater downstairs at the time, this title seemed to be misleading and asking for trouble, and despite the author's resistance, I did the play under the title Jesus Play. The play opens with a scene in which a naked actor has a conversation with his penis. One night the vice squad showed up, and Al kept them talking in the lobby until the moment passed and the actor had his pants on."
"Perfectly marvelous," Al recalls -- although whether it was the nephew, the play or the police that was marvelous is not quite clear. (Probably all three.) Al didn't worry much if the performances he backed were hits or flops, so long as they were new and interesting. He's as likely to mention a couple who did contact improvisation with a newborn baby as he is a filmmaker whose early years at the Changing Scene propelled him to stardom in the world of experimental film.
"We even had a women's theater group from the prison at Cañon City," he recalls. "I had a sweet little old lady who was a murderess acting in our theater. Until they got all those women loaded up in their vehicle, I'll tell you, I was nervous."
But not nervous enough to turn down the felonious actresses -- which is exactly what every other theater in town had done.
"What Al and Maxine were doing was the cultural revolution," recalls Cindi Kahn, who came to Denver in the '60s to make documentary films. "I made one called The Fine Art of Protest, part of which took place at this innovative theater, the Changing Scene, that was going to change the cultural scene in Denver. They were going to bring in a lot of different media and forms and let them flower: one night theater, one night dance, a third music. My husband, Ed, was a lawyer at Holland & Hart at the time, and he thought up the name Changing Scene. Al loved it, and he always wanted Ed to try acting."
Instead, Ed Kahn persuaded Holland & Hart to work pro bono for the Changing Scene.
"I remember one very small dance group they brought in from New York," Cindi says. "They were so exciting. A friend of ours was in the hospital with a broken leg -- we danced into his hospital room at 11 o'clock, trying to show him what we'd seen, which, of course, we couldn't. All of what we saw was experimental, and some of it was boring, but you'd come out at intermission, and here was a wonderful art show -- sculptures or painting or film clips.
"The other thing that struck me," she adds, "was that Al and Maxine lived where they worked."
"They were exotic," recalls Laura Snapp, who began taking classes from Al and Maxine when she was twelve. "They were very Martha Graham, but not in the beatnik sense. It wasn't as narcissistic as ballet, either. Maxine was a wonderful teacher, and she was extremely angular and very dramatic. And here's the thing: They both believed you could do anything you wanted, particularly artistically. That meant a lot to me, who was a knucklehead when it came to art."
At the time, Laura Snapp was too young to wonder how Al and Maxine survived financially, but she often ponders it now. Whatever production they had scheduled always ran -- with or without an audience. Playwrights were treated as visiting dignitaries, whether or not anyone came to see their work.
"They were completely absorbed, and I never imagined them outside that building," Laura recalls. "When I heard they had a car, I was just mystified. What did they do -- drive to the grocery store like other people? Do their laundry?" They seemed, at the time, so much more important than those everyday things.
"She could project with her voice like a fire-eating dragon," Snapp says of Maxine. "They fought. It was a very feisty give-and-take, confrontational marriage. They'd fight and they'd stop fighting, and they obviously loved each other, and they both had voices that carried across a room. You never think about people like that getting old."
"They just loved what they did, and they'd still be doing it if it were humanly, physically possible," says Jackie Campbell, drama critic for the Rocky Mountain News from 1977 to 1996. "There was nothing to compare it to. The plays were so new that they were sometimes extremely obscure, and I had to do my best to review them faithfully, because I had no frame of reference. But can you imagine how much it meant to me? Seeing the same plays over and over again and then going to the Changing Scene? I have been there when I was an audience of one, but Maxine sat in the back and applauded loudly -- and truly, no one seemed to mind. You entered between dumpsters, in an alley, and they always reeked -- but never mind. I always mounted those steps with such anticipation."
Jeremy Cole, who directed on and off at the Changing Scene from 1985 until last year, eventually came to see Al and Maxine as "established avant-garde. They insisted on doing shows that pushed the envelope. Al's biggest complaint was any show that took place in a living room. He called that 'kitchen-sinky,' and he made it clear that his theater didn't do kitchen-sinky."
Any other plays, however, were fair game. The first time Cole visited, introducing himself as a young director in search of a property, Al (or was it Maxine?) looked up from a stack of scripts, then handed over three. "It was absolutely hands-off, sink or swim," Cole recalls. "It was terrifying and refreshing and the best way to learn."
As the years went by, Cole tried several times to argue Al and Maxine out of their firmly held commitment to a style of theater he sometimes characterized as weird for weird's sake. "But I think they would feel like failures if they had a hit," he says now. "If people walked out laughing and happy, they'd know whatever they'd done was too mainstream. They'd rather have people scratching their heads and arguing later over coffee. They are fierce advocates of the off-the-wall."
Just as, privately, they are fiercely devoted -- even protective -- of just about anyone who passed through their theater. One late night, when Cole, who doesn't drive, was still up painting a set, Maxine came downstairs with the sole purpose of pressing a $10 bill into his hand. "I don't want you walking," she said. "Take a cab."
Last year, as she lay in the hospital weak with pneumonia, Cole came to pay his respects -- but he found it impossible to discuss Maxine's health, for better or worse. "I was applying for a drama-directing trip to New York, and she just wouldn't talk to me about her. She said, 'Don't worry about me, honey, I'm fine. Now what's this New York thing all about?'"
One day in mid-February, Al Brooks lies in bed beside Maxine, between visits from her oxygen technician, occupational therapist and practical nurse. It is difficult for her to walk, and Al, after his heart attacks, can no longer carry her, as he'd done for the past three years. Forty-eight hours later, he will have cancerous tissue removed from his face.
Still, he is thinking not about his health or Maxine's, but about their theater and what might become of it.
"Our board is supposed to meet tomorrow night, although I'm sure they don't all realize it's Valentine's Day," he says, laughing when reminded that in the world outside Al and Maxine, Valentine's Day is often given lesser importance than a board meeting.
Present at the meeting will be the Changing Scene's new de facto tenant, Robert Waxman himself, who had been its landlord for 25 years and is now entertaining offers from prospective theatrical impresarios. No matter who leases the space, Waxman will tell the board, he wants nothing altered.
"I want it kept exactly the same as it is," he says. "Same name, and I want whoever leases the place to do exactly what Al was doing. He is a wonderful man, a real gentleman, and the praises that people put on him, you wouldn't believe."
The people who have been coming to look over the theater space have given Waxman a new appreciation for Al and Maxine's international reputation, and he'd like to keep that reputation alive. Does it matter that he never attended a single performance at the Changing Scene? "I just never did," Waxman shrugs. "Still, it's a beautiful space, and I've found some interesting things cleaning up around here."
"So I feel a little sad," Al reflects, back in his apartment. "I mean, the Scene will still be Changing, but not in quite the same way. But then, I feel a little glad, too. I'm glad the whole place isn't going to be torn down."
The phone rings constantly -- former dance students, actors, parents and children of same. Al seems to be hoping for a call from Chuck Parson, whose sculptures still stand inside the theater, and who acted, designed sets and performed music there starting in 1974. Someone has to put a value on the art left in the theater, and Al thinks Chuck can do it.
Chuck feels differently.
"I guess the time has come, but I just can't put a value on any of it," he says. "I walked into that place, and it was an intellectual and physical island for me. I did sets and set design and fabrication and painting. Every time I had a new work or installation going, Al or Maxine would say, 'Let's see it. Put it up.' And when Max has been in the hospital, I've actually identified myself as Al's son so I could go in and see her. A lot of us look at them artistically as parents, and now it's our time to help them."
It was Chuck, his wife, Evalyn, Evalyn's sister Karen and her husband, Pete, along with a handful of others from the early Denver days, who came to pack up the theater and Al and Maxine's personal effects late last week.
Walking through the empty dance studio/ apartment, Chuck remembered nights spent there after he "failed on stage," talking and sometimes crying with Maxine, who generally sat in her rocking chair, looking out into the downtown night.
"Al and Maxine have spent incredibly tense and strenuous times up there, and they've never been able to escape it, and that's been their choice," he says. "Imagine -- you have a show running six weeks, the rehearsals have gone on before that, the noise comes up through the floor, actors come through and use the restroom as their backstage restroom. Their door was always unlocked. That's how their marriage has always been."
In gratitude for that -- as well as smaller stories about the couple, such as how Al and Maxine always scraped together enough money for a yearly trip to London, but never had enough left for cocktails on the plane and so smuggled on their own vodka -- Chuck began organizing his infamous Left Footer's Balls to raise money for the Changing Scene. Held every two years, the balls featured a live band and gigantic, fancifully inept production numbers like Wanda and the Flambes, who juggled fire while skating. "They couldn't skate, and they certainly couldn't twirl fire," Chuck recalls, "but they wanted to anyway, and I said okay."
Maxine attended the 1996 event leaning on a walker, but she was amused all the same by the Senior Walker and the All Stars production number that featured geriatric dancers twirling walkers. By 1998 she was too sick to attend.
"I wish she'd been there," Chuck recalls. "I mean, I met my wife at her theater."
Evalyn came to the Changing Scene in the early '70s, with a degree in dance from Colorado State University. She got a job at the Woolworth's across the street, "selling nail polish to people who wanted to match the color of the bow in their poodles' hair," she recalls. "The first time I went into the theater, they had that porn theater downstairs, and all I heard was moaning and groaning, and I thought, 'Oh, my god, what kind of dance is this?' But it turned out to be their own style. Maxine was more aware of the space around her during movement. Al was more demanding. He'd say, 'Do this!' I'd say, 'That's not possible,' and he'd say, 'Oh, well, do it anyway.' They never had children -- we ended up being something like that."
As a surrogate child, Evalyn felt she had to fib whenever she engaged in an activity at odds with modern dance -- "I lied when I sprained my ankle cross-country skiing" -- and she took Al's costuming suggestions with a grain of salt. "He always told us, 'What do you need costumes for? Do it naked!' He had no concept of how much trouble he could get into," she recalls.
Sometimes it's hard for her to remember the vitality of those days -- and the vitality of Al and Maxine. "They are both dancers and always will be," she says, "but it's hard when your mind functions but your body can't do the basic things."
Not that it's changed some things more basic than movement.
"I brought my daughter over to see Maxine last summer," Evalyn remembers, "and she's a dance major, too. She told Maxine she wanted to go to London after graduation to experience that for a while. And frail little Maxine, she had her fist in the air, and she said, 'Just grab life. Take it and run!'
"And that's how they were," she says. "That's how they were."
Get the Weekly Newsletter
Our weekly feature stories, movie reviews, calendar picks and more - minus the newsprint and sent directly to your inbox.
- Senate Committee Approves Medical Marijuana for Veterans
- Reader: Denver Is Full of Smokers and Beta Males Who Refuse to Grow Up
- Denver Health To Limit Patients Passively Enrolled In Its Medicaid Plan