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Kitty's South: Has classic theater turned shuttered stroke palace run out of lives?

Yesterday on our Show and Tell blog, Bree Davies said goodbye to Kitty's East, an East Colfax landmark that was shuttered in recent days after being declared a public nuisance; in addition to offering up orgasm helpers, it seems the joint served as the setting for crack-cocaine dealing.

The closure got us to thinking about the other Kitty's -- Kitty's South, at 119 South Broadway. It's a building with amazing history, but today, it remains an anachronistic eyesore, with no better future in sight.

While Davies never got a chance to visit Kitty's East, and is a bit misty at the idea that she won't be able to do so now, I spent some time at Kitty's South. And no, it wasn't to purchase industrial-strength lube and an "Impulse Gyrating Bearded Dolphin" dildo -- an actual item for sale there when I visited.

Kitty's East.
Kitty's East.
Photo by Instagram user saibot34

No, my stop was predicated by "Give Our Regards to Broadway," a 2005 feature article in which Westword staffers combined forces to present a profile of the signature street, which is also home to Westword's offices. My complete portrait of Kitty's South is on view below, but here's a sample:

The video collection at Kitty's South offers something for nearly everyone. Travelogue aficionados will be fascinated by Handjobs Across America. Fans of police procedurals should enjoy Grand Theft Anal. Those intrigued by uncommon attributes and skills need look no further than Big Clits/Big Lips 5 and She Squirts 12, whose plots should be easy to understand even for folks unfamiliar with the earlier volumes. Reality-show connoisseurs have an entire "amateur" section at their disposal, featuring the likes of Real Hidden Fitting Rooms. And lovers of classic cinema can turn to the original Deep Throat. Leading lady Linda Lovelace, who lived in Denver for a time, has passed on, but on tape she continues to offer a peculiar brand of pornographic nostalgia.

Also on site were lots of items euphemistically referred to as "marital aids," plus booths where patrons could pleasure themselves in private while watching videos, as opposed to the actual, flesh-and-blood women who once gyrated on the other side of what presumably was a well-smeared glass barrier.

Better yet was the theater -- a gorgeous space that once screened films whose raison d'être was something other than masturbation.

Kitty's South: Has classic theater turned shuttered stroke palace run out of lives?
From the collection of the Denver Public Library

The venue was originally known as the Webber, and as I noted in the piece below, it was once among Denver's favorite movie houses. It dated back to the silent-film era and even hosted Hollywood premiers.

Here's a look at one such event, featuring a flick starring Erroll Flynn.

Kitty's South: Has classic theater turned shuttered stroke palace run out of lives?
From the collection of the Denver Public Library

But unlike the Mayan, a stone's throw away, the Webber eventually succumbed to economics, and in the '70s, Kitty's snared the space and took the theater in a radically different direction. But after a profitable run, a little thing called the Internet came along, and Kitty's South began really heading south.

Continue for more about Kitty's South.

A photo taken at the time of the Kitty's South closure. Note that customers are encouraged to visit Kitty's East.
A photo taken at the time of the Kitty's South closure. Note that customers are encouraged to visit Kitty's East.

In 2007, Kitty's South closed its doors, and in noting its passing, we spoke to Chris Swank, who'd previously turned the Bluebird Theater, another previous porn purveyor, into a popular music joint. Did he think something like that was possible for the Webber/Kitty's South? "There are so many theaters doing music now," he told us. "But it's in such a great part of town. It'd be nice to have something in there."

Instead, Kitty's has more or less moldered for the over six years since that conversation. Yet Pleasures, a store offering a more upscale variation on the Kitty's South formula (which may have helped hasten its demise), is still in business next door. And in 2011, the Baker Now website offered some hope for the Kitty's South space, as well.

"Construction permits have appeared, workers have been seen hauling material out of the building into a dumpster, a small fire broke out yesterday," the article notes, with this last event seen as a good sign, sort of -- an indication of how grim things were for Kitty's South around that time.

"From the open back door, old hemp ropes could be seen still leading from a pin rail up into the Webber's old stage rigging; in the adjacent dumpster was creepy old peep-show paneling and a scattering of used needles," the item continued. "The man leading the crew of workers in hardhats told me that they were basically cleaning up the interior -- opening up the entrance into the old theater, and that because of the fire, they'd also be working on the roof; he said this work was to ready the building for sale -- that if it weren't sold for retail use the city would make them tear it down."

Nonetheless, Kitty's South has thus far avoided the wrecking ball. Indeed, it would seem totally frozen in time were it not for a few extra splashes of graffiti and some additional layers of grime.

With Kitty's East gone, has Kitty's South run out of lives, too? Maybe not. After all, kitties have nine of them.

Continue for our 2005 visit inside Kitty's South.

Kitty's South, with Pleasures next door.
Kitty's South, with Pleasures next door.

"Kitty's South, 119 South Broadway" -- February 17, 2005

The video collection at Kitty's South offers something for nearly everyone. Travelogue aficionados will be fascinated by Handjobs Across America. Fans of police procedurals should enjoy Grand Theft Anal. Those intrigued by uncommon attributes and skills need look no further than Big Clits/Big Lips 5 and She Squirts 12, whose plots should be easy to understand even for folks unfamiliar with the earlier volumes. Reality-show connoisseurs have an entire "amateur" section at their disposal, featuring the likes of Real Hidden Fitting Rooms. And lovers of classic cinema can turn to the original Deep Throat. Leading lady Linda Lovelace, who lived in Denver for a time, has passed on, but on tape she continues to offer a peculiar brand of pornographic nostalgia.

Kitty's South does, too. In an age when perversions of every description are just a mouse click away, there's something a bit old-fashioned about the establishment, which supplements its video cache with a theater, an arcade, and a shop filled with the kinds of playthings not generally peddled by Toys 'R' Us.

At this hour, Kitty's is hardly flooded with patrons taking advantage of its time-tested delights, but a few people are on the premises, their presence advertised by muted noises emanating from the arcade booths that occupy a dark labyrinth just off the brightly lit shopping zone. The sounds suggest video games heard from the next room, except that squishes and splats replace beeps and blips.

Until a few years ago, living, breathing women created much of the clamor at Kitty's, twisting and bending for the amusement of such consumers and hangers-on as singer-songwriter Jeff Dahl, who hanged himself at a Connecticut hospital in 1995. Dahl's friend Gary Watson used to manage Kitty's South, and he regularly gave Jeff such tasks as dusting the stock of romantic aids. In a tune called "Goin' to Kitty's," Dahl catalogued his experience with lines like "They've got blow-up dolls and Acu-jacks/They've got nasty movies in the back/And the girls behind the glass all know my name."

Unlike Dahl, Ron Tarver doesn't sing the praises of Kitty's South. Tarver, whose Broadway Terrace Realty office is about a block from the store's entrance, has been involved in neighborhood groups for decades, and he's railed against what he sees as the joint's negative impact for nearly as long. But even Tarver concedes that Kitty's is not the sleaze magnet it once was. "I don't know how they stay in business," he says. "You don't see that many people going there anymore." Nevertheless, "when you drive down the street, you still see the marquee."

The sign out front once featured the names of Hollywood's finest. Originally known as the Webber, the theater was one of Denver's original movie palaces; in a 1996 column, late Rocky Mountain News scribe Gene Amole remembered going there to see Wings, the 1927 silent film that won the first Academy Award as Best Picture. Some old-timers preferred the Webber over the Mayan, just up the street at 110 Broadway, because it was one of the first theaters in the city with an effective air-conditioning system, and its owner and namesake made going there fun even before the curtain opened. "He'd sometimes come down there with his top hat and cane and pass out candy," Tarver says.

The brand of sweets changed considerably when Kitty's took over the space in the '70s, long after the Webber screened its last big-studio blockbuster. Tarver says that many neighbors were upset by the sort of people drawn to the area by Kitty's and the Ballpark, an elaborate gay bathhouse that occupied the basement of the now-leveled building next door. At one point, Broadway business leaders decided that the only way to remove this blight was to purchase it. "I took some of the bank presidents and some other people into the Ballpark and part of Kitty's on a tour," Tarver remembers. "We were going to get them an SBA loan, and they were going to buy the whole thing and turn it into a high-end restaurant. But something went wrong, and it never happened."

So Kitty's South is a survivor, and it's got a colorful ancestry of its own. The store and its sister outlet, at 735 East Colfax Avenue, are the property of Chicago's Capitol News Agency, a company once owned by Reuben Sturman, the acknowledged king of porn who was profiled in Eric Schlosser's book Reefer Madness: Sex, Drugs, and Cheap Labor in the American Black Market. Sturman "started out as a successful upper-middle-class businessman in suburbia, and by the end he was almost a Scarface-like gangster, totally drunk with the hubris of thinking he could defeat the federal government -- and he almost did," Schlosser says.

Sturman died in prison more than seven years ago, and today Capitol News Agency shares many of the values associated with successful mainstream enterprises, including attention to detail and strict quality control. Despite Jeff Dahl's absence, there's no dust on such merchandise as the Vibrating Dual Bullets, the Silicone Pleasure Orb, the five-piece Hog Tie & Cuff Set, or a dildo known as the "Impulse Gyrating Bearded Dolphin." Moreover, a placard leading to the arcade-booth area notifies customers that they must maintain strict hygienic standards: "No individual occupying a booth shall at any time engage in sexual activity, bodily discharge or littering." Granted, some people may not heed this warning, but at least the carpeting near the booths is free of foreign substances.

The young woman working the counter at Kitty's South politely declines an interview; talking to the press is against "corporate policy," she says. Then she goes back to opening the mail, unboxing explicit DVDs while the stereo plays a song by Morrissey, who's been making people feel depressed after orgasm since the days when the Ballpark was in full swing and Kitty's South was an affront to morality, not a quaint anomaly. Takes you back, doesn't it?

More from our Breeality Bites archive: "Goodbye, Kitty's East. I never knew ye. Ever."


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