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Playing to an Empty House

For sale: The El Jebel Shrine Temple could be turned into lofts or condos.
David Rehor

A few weeks ago, Don Gilmore, a member of Friends of Eulipions, walked past the Eulipions theater group's former home in the massive El Jebel Shrine Temple, at 1770 Sherman Street, and glanced through one of the windows. He saw nothing. The offices had been cleared out; costumes, props and personal belongings had been moved and, in a symbol of the antagonism between the members of the original theater group and the new board of "suits" appointed to bail them out of financial trouble, the group's members hadn't been told where their things had gone.

It's easier to guess why their things are gone: The five-story Moorish temple, a Denver landmark, appears destined to be converted into residential lofts or condominiums. Last month, the Gray Group, a real estate company, met with the Denver Landmark Commission, which must approve any changes made to the exterior of landmark buildings -- those with historical, geographical or architectural significance. The company submitted a plan from the architectural firm of David Owen Tryba that would add balconies and lower the windows so that they would be more appropriate for residential use.

The plan received preliminary approval, but there are no guarantees the commission will approve the Gray Group's final design. Nevertheless, plenty of preservationists are worried, especially about the building's interior, which is full of grand ballrooms and performance spaces and is not regulated by the commission. "I'm very disappointed to hear it was going to be sold to be turned into housing," says Kathleen Brooker, the president of Historic Denver. "[Developers] take out the opportunity for the public to enjoy those spaces, as well as taking out the spaces themselves. The best use is one that would maintain the ballroom and theater for the enjoyment of the public."

Brooker would like to see the developer and the city work together to preserve the character of the building, perhaps by building a residential high-rise on the adjacent parking lot. "It's not beyond the realm of possibility, but it would take everybody coming to the table to preserve the space," she says.

One local developer, Steve Ownbey, says he had just such a plan. He was prepared to buy the building late last year, construct a new parking garage with space for stores on the adjacent parking lot (also owned by Eulipions) and keep the temple itself as a cultural arts center. Ownbey's plan would have left the theater's ballroom -- a space he calls "phenomenal as a small business conference center" -- intact. "It was a great plan. We had banks interested," he says. "We were prepared fully to go in and cooperate with Eulipions, keep it a great fine-arts facility. Then we would build our tower on the parking lot."

But Ownbey says he was told by the current board that if he talked to the Friends of the Eulipions -- which had been formed in the summer of 1999 to support the original theater group -- about a joint venture, that would kill the deal. The new board eventually declined his offer anyway.

As it turns out, the Gray Group may have had an advantage: The company's lawyer, Ed White, is the son of a voting member of the landmark commission, also named Ed White. The senior White voted in favor of the Gray Group's conceptual design.

The younger White says that since he wasn't representing the Gray Group in front of the commission, there is no conflict of interest. Bob Gray, president and owner of the Gray Group, sees no conflict, either. "If someone would say that, it would be completely wrong," he says. "To impugn a gentleman of his stature is not only outrageous, it's egregious and totally false."

If it were up to Jo Bunton Keel, the building wouldn't have been put up for sale in the first place. Keel, a former dancer, founded the theater group in the early 1980s as part of a grand vision to bring black theater to Denver. The temple and parking lot next door were purchased by the group in 1995, after years of patiently building a budget through community and corporate support and help from the city and historic-preservation loans. The plan was to pay back the loans with revenue generated from the parking lot. But the operation grew too quickly, and during a period of unstable leadership by its board of directors, Eulipions found itself fighting to stay out of debt and keep its doors open ("All the World's an Empty Stage," January 6).

The City of Denver offered to help keep the group afloat, but only if Keel stepped aside and let the city's representatives choose a new board. She agreed in early 1998, but by the summer of 1999, a rift had developed between Keel and the new board over what to do with the building. Keel was fired, the building's locks were changed, and plans got under way to sell the building and pay off the organization's debts, which total about $1.6 million ($1.2 million of which is what is owed on the mortgage), according to court documents. Keel started a counter-group called Friends of Eulipions and has been battling the current board in court for the last year.

In August, a Denver District Court judge ruled in favor of the new board, allowing it to sell the temple. But Friends of Eulipions attorney Alison Maynard appealed, asking for a stay to prevent the court's decision from being enforced. Though the stay was granted, the appeals judge told Friends of Eulipions that it would have to put up $2.7 million to protect the defendants in case the litigation adversely affected their ability to sell the building; the figure was the asking price for the temple minus $1.2 million that the organization owes on the mortgage. The bond should have been set only to cover the building's maintenance and insurance costs, Maynard argued, a figure she puts at around $17,000, and she filed a motion to have the bond lowered to that amount. When the motion was denied on September 18, Maynard immediately filed a motion asking the judge to reconsider. If she's unsuccessful in this motion, Friends of Eulipions will be unable to cover the cost, the stay will be lifted, and the current board will be able to sell the building. A decision is expected soon.

In the interim, the new Eulipions board has done little to stage theater in the facility -- or anywhere else, for that matter. The last show presented at the temple was an annual Black Nativity pageant in December of 1998. (Last year's pageant was held at El Centro Su Teatro, a performance venue at 4725 High Street in north Denver.) Since it dumped Keel last summer, the board still has not selected a new artistic director. As for the prospects for new shows, a boardmember says the litigation and impending sale of the building have prevented any talk about it. "There's nothing to discuss until that's finished," says Venita Vinson. "All of our time and energy is going into these lawsuits. It clearly is an unresolved situation."

Another boardmember, Darrell Nulan, says Keel and her theater mates can contact him whenever they want to retrieve the equipment and belongings that had been in the building. "I had no idea they were claiming an interest," he says. "If you haven't heard from anyone in a year, you would assume they're not claiming an interest."

Those comments are preposterous, Keel responds. "They locked us out," she says. "They wouldn't let us in. 'Amazement' is not quite the word. 'Shocked' is not the word. How can these guys keep doing what they're doing?"

And although the board talked last year about setting up some kind of endowment to re-establish a theater group, most of the original talent has started over with Keel under the newly created Eulipions Theater Group. Renting space at El Centro, the troupe opened its first show, Trio on Fire Island, this month. Although Keel says the subject matter -- the sacrifices that three black artists make while trying to lead a creative life -- wasn't chosen as an intentional statement, she realizes now that, "Hey, is this relevant or what?" The play concluded last weekend.

Eulipions Theater Group had to begin from scratch, of course, especially since it had to replace costumes, props, pianos, lights, microphones and the rest of the equipment that is still in the hands of the new board. In addition, the group can't rehearse at the popular El Centro -- there aren't enough time slots. Nor does El Centro have the space to let the Eulipions Theater Group extend the run of scheduled shows; four more productions are planned.

Nevertheless, says Jimmy Walker, a Eulipions founder and the director of Trio, "we just kind of pushed on. We're pulling together the way you do in old guerrilla theater productions."

In a sense, then, Eulipions has gone back to its roots. As for Keel, she's dreaming again of having a space of her own. "Any theater company needs a home," she says.


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