There are ghosts on the grid.
The new owners of what was once the Webber movie theater at 119 South Broadway recently applied for a certificate of non-historic status — a first step toward allowing the building to be demolished. Losing landmarks is nothing new in Denver; waves of development have been altering the city’s landscape since the town was nothing more than a plank set across two whiskey barrels. Decade after decade, booms and busts have left the town crammed with a hodgepodge of buildings from every era, living together in funky familiarity.
A lot of iconic places are gone now, grand old caverns that decayed into eyesores and then were scraped away for the sake of redevelopment. I miss many of them, but in particular I miss the movie theaters. The region is lucky, though, since sixteen period movie houses survived, and still show movies or serve as concert halls. However, at least 130 cinemas that used to exist in the area no longer do. So I decided to find what was left of them.
From the turn of last century to the Great Depression, Denver’s downtown was a lively, lit-up, “open” town – one in which booze, women, gambling and other vices could be accessed easily. Curtis Street was an illuminated canyon of theaters, pool halls, cafes, hotels, bars and restaurants. When he visited, Thomas Edison called Curtis “the best lighted street in America” – but as it turns out, Edison would show up in any given town and make the same assertion. He was an inventor who was also a skilled and ruthless promoter.
The names, the wonderful names, were the first thing that hit me during my research. Scattered across downtown were movie theaters such as the Bijou, the Rivoli, the Mystic, the Lyric, the Fun, the Gem, the Ritz, the Comet, the Alpha and the Omega.
The changes in the number of cinemas and their vectors across the city are instructive. From crowding the oddly oriented streets of old downtown, theaters made a solid leap into the Highlands area, and slower encroachments south along Broadway. By and large, these beautiful picture palaces, large and small, didn't survive. And after the '30s — which started with the opening of the Mayan Theater — few new houses were built for decades. The mass exit to the suburbs after World War II, coupled with the rise of TV, killed the theater business. There was an explosion of drive-ins, though, and Denver boasted almost two dozen between when the first one was built — the East 70 at 12600 East Colfax Avenue in Aurora, in 1947 — and the first went down, when the Valley at 6360 East Evans Avenue was closed in 1977.
I have favorites. The Centre, with its unique catty-corner entrance at 16th and Cleveland and steep, curving, fairy-tale balcony staircases. The magnificent Aladdin, at 2000 East Colfax Avenue, was the first movie house west of the Mississippi to play The Jazz Singer in 1927 (it turned back into a live stage house for a time after failing as a movie house in the early 1980s, but couldn’t be saved and was torn down for a Walgreens). The Vogue on South Pearl Street was the perfect little neighborhood cinema, noted for its art films. And no one who ever saw a show at the Cinerama-sized Cooper and the Century 21 will forget the experience.
Here are some of Denver’s lost theaters:
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Watch for more lost theaters soon.