Jo Bunton Keel, founder of the Eulipions theater group.
Jo Bunton Keel, founder of the Eulipions theater group.
David Rehor

Surprise Ending

Last November, after the board of directors for the Eulipions theater group sold the historic El Jebel Shrine Temple for $3.9 million, board chairman Darrell Nulan said that whatever proceeds weren't directed toward the group's debt would be used to establish an endowment that would ensure the future of the organization, which hadn't mounted any productions for several years ("House of Blues," November 23, 2000).

Since then, Eulipions has paid off its loans and creditors, but Nulan now says the roughly $1 million that was left over will go not toward putting on theatrical productions but toward black arts in Denver in general. "We don't want to limit the endowment to just one group," he says. "At this point, we are talking about an endowment to benefit all arts groups."

Nulan says he doesn't remember making his earlier comments about the endowment being just for Eulipions, and he sees no problem with the new plan. "We came in to see if we could save Eulipions," he explains. "This may be the best way to preserve Eulipions." Nulan says the board will remain in place to administer the endowment.

That comes as a surprise to the group's founder and many of the original theater people, none of whom are still with the organization. "How do you take the money someone else was working for and then give it away?" asks Jo Bunton Keel, who started Eulipions in 1982. "How do they get off on that?"

Adds her colleague, Roslyn Washington, "A theater company not doing theater? That makes a lot of sense."

Part of the anger comes from the way that Eulipions fractured in the last few years. The problems began in 1995 after the group purchased the El Jebel Shrine Temple, at 1770 Sherman Street, and quickly found itself in financial trouble trying to maintain such a large structure. In an agreement with the city of Denver, which loaned money to the group, the old board of directors was dismantled in 1998, and a new board -- made up of lawyers and business types, not theater people -- was appointed to serve for 120 days in order to rescue the group from its debt. Keel and her theater friends fell out with the board, however, and left to form a new organization in 1999 called Friends of Eulipions. That group then sued the new board, saying they had overstayed their 120 days and had no right to sell the building.

Although Friends of Eulipions, which does produce theater, failed to convince the court to prevent the sale of the building, its members believe the endowment belongs to them. Nulan disagrees, but he says Friends of Eulipions can apply for some of the money, just like any other black arts group. "We're prepared to fund black theater, black music, dance, art of all types," he says. "Ms. Keel and her group are clearly eligible to apply for grants."

Friends of Eulipions attorney Alison Maynard is now questioning the new board's fiscal abilities, and she alleges that the board has committed several breaches of its fiduciary duty. She says the board brought financial hardship on itself by failing to apply for grants that the theater group had received in the past. She also says Eulipions brought in some $350,000 in ticket sales in 1995, a number that dropped to "zero when the defendants took over, because they didn't hold a theater season. They created this self-imposed hardship."

In addition, Maynard has learned that Nulan, who is an attorney, provided legal service to Eulipions. According to court testimony, his law firm, Trimble, Tate and Nulan, collected $14,000 from loans and legal services to Eulipions. Maynard says it's a conflict of interest for Nulan to be running a nonprofit organization that is also paying his company, and she points out that "$14,000 is a lot of money for a nonprofit."

Nulan responded to those allegations in court documents, saying that most of the charges were billed by the law firm of Tate and Tate before it merged with Nulan's firm in April 1999.

And Friends of Eulipions is still contesting the sale of the building; its members recently filed an appeal with the state appellate court. "Everything that happened has been made to look like it's sour grapes," says Washington. "We've never had our day in court. It's just bogus." A decision from the court is not expected anytime soon.

The new owners of the building, developers Martin Wohnlich and Wes Becker, have announced plans to build a 51-story, 650-foot tower on the El Jebel parking lot next door, which they also bought. The high-rise would include retail space, parking, offices and condos. Revenues from the project would then be used to restore the architecturally significant temple, which would be rented out. The project still faces a year-long process of planning and approval, however, including an application for a zoning variance, since the tower would be within a protected mountain-view plane that the city established from the Denver Museum of Nature and Science west to downtown.

Maynard says the project is fine with her; she is confident she'll prevail in court, no matter who owns the building. "If they build something on the parking lot," she asserts, "it will belong to my clients."


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