In September the reopening of the Oriental Theatre, at 4335 West 44th Avenue, was being touted as a harbinger of good things for northwest Denver--an indication that art, culture and enterprise might soon attract more people to this vibrant but often neglected section of the metro area. But just two months later, the ambitious scheme to turn the Oriental into the city's best art-movie house has already collapsed against a backdrop of disappointment and acrimony.
"Ten weeks is not really enough time to make an adequate assessment about any business," says Raymond Amos, the Oriental's manager, a lover of international cinema and the driving force behind its brief resurrection. "But there was a lack of shared vision between the two partners involved in it."
Indeed, Longmont-based George Sager, Amos's associate in the project, is no film buff. He owns both the Oriental and the Federal Theatre on Federal Boulevard--and until the late Eighties, he held title to the Gothic Theatre, a South Broadway hall that became a popular concert venue. But, Sager says, "I am not a retailer or a theatrical promoter. I'm a landlord. And because the theater attendance [at the Oriental] didn't generate sufficient income to handle the operational costs, I simply elected not to continue my support."
Amos admits that throngs weren't flocking to the Oriental; on a few Monday nights following its grand opening, not a single patron bothered to drop by. But he claims that crowds had been growing in the weeks just before the theater's November 27 shuttering: "Things were picking up. We were on a steady incline of revenues and attendance. We were getting closer to making a profit, and I was very optimistic. But now we'll never know what would have happened."
The Oriental has gone through many incarnations since it was built in 1927. At first it was distinguished from the other movie joints sprinkled throughout the city by its decor--inside the 500-plus-seat auditorium are murals of palaces meant to suggest the grandeur of the Orient. The theater survived the Depression, but by the Sixties ticket sales had fallen off: Would-be customers seemed more interested in watching The Beverly Hillbillies than going to the movies. In an effort to keep the theater's doors open, the owners began screening X-rated adult fare, but that concept didn't fly, either. The Oriental struggled on as a dollar theater dominated by second-run films until 1987, when it closed again. For four years after that it served as the home base for a nondenominational church; more recently, Amos says, it was rented out to entrepreneurs who staged karaoke championships.
The theater was sitting vacant again when, in mid-1994, Amos convinced Sager to let him try to remake the Oriental as an art house. "The focus was to be primarily on Asian, African and Latino film," Amos says. "There isn't much by Third World filmmakers that gets shown in Denver, and I certainly thought this area could support it."
To test this theory, Sager and Amos formed a partnership where Sager provided most of the funding for the reopening and Amos did most of the work. Beginning in June, Amos began cleaning and repairing the theater, as well as lining up the films that would be screened following the September 16 grand opening. When he was unable to obtain the right to show first-run films, he booked pictures that had just finished showing at Landmark theaters such as the Chez Artiste and the Esquire. He also worked with residents of the surrounding Berkeley neighborhood and with Jennifer Owens, who opened an espresso cafe called Catcha Latte next door to the Oriental in October. "We shared a common door that went from the foyer of the theater into the shop," Owens says. "People could order here and take whatever they wanted into the show with them."
Unfortunately, the initial batch of films Amos scheduled failed to attract many folks, and when he finally got his hands on first-run art flicks like Stepping Razor Red X, no local newspapers bothered to review them. "There was a real lack of media support," Amos suggests. He adds that In the Land of the Deaf, which was lauded by area reviewers, attracted more attendees than anything else he screened at the Oriental.
Amos was scratching to make ends meet. He hired two people to work weekend shows, but during the rest of the week he was the Oriental's only employee: "I opened the doors, I sold the concessions and then I ran upstairs and started the film. And after it was over, I opened the doors and allowed the patrons to leave, and then I cleaned up the popcorn and Coke spills and mopped the floors in the bathroom." By November he was putting in ninety-hour weeks at the theater, but he says he didn't mind because he sensed he was making progress.
Sager's decision has put an end to that and has left Amos decidedly bitter. He poured several thousand of his own dollars (earned by subleasing several apartments in Longmont) into the operation and is now certain he'll never see any of the money again. Moreover, he fears that the Oriental's exit will be a blow to the area.
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"We were looking forward to a long and lasting relationship with the Oriental," confirms Karen Underwood, president of United Berkeley Neighbors. "It was a potential economic boost to that corner, and it has so much history. We feel a real sense of loss." Owens, too, is disappointed, but she says she's confident her espresso cafe will be able to survive. "And we're hoping that the Oriental will reopen as a theater again soon."
There's no guarantee of that. Sager denies rumors that he's going to turn the Oriental into a furniture store, but he won't promise to lease the building only to someone who wishes to use it as a theater. Neither has he pursued placement of the Oriental on local or national historic registries that would restrict its use. He says he wants to see the Oriental succeed as a theater but concedes that he's allowed the Federal Theatre to be used as what he calls "a carpet display area."
"I'd hate to see that happen to the Oriental," Amos says. "It's a fantastic old building that should be preserved. I hope someone decides to pick up the ball and do what needs to be done.