Final Exit

During intermission at Germinal Stage Denver a couple of years ago, Ed Baierlein was keeping watch over the lobby. "Look who's here," he said, his voice gentle. I turned and found Al Brooks standing behind me. Al smiled hugely, took my hand in both of his, and said something about someone who'd been doing a particular job for a long, long time. Al must have looked old -- he was already in his late eighties -- but when I remember that moment, I see him as he'd always been: a timeless figure, straight-backed, faintly puckish, pink-faced and gray-haired, and with that smoke-laden voice that always seemed to emanate from gravelly, watery depths.

Al's hands were warm on mine, and he repeated his comment. I asked if he was referring to Baierlein's long directorship of Germinal.

"No," he said. "No. No."

I tried two more names and got the same response. Al knew who I was, and he knew what he was trying to say, but the right words refused to come. Only later did I realize that he was talking about my decades of work with theater.

"I'm working on a novel," I said finally, to change the subject. "And you're in it."

"I am?" Al's eyes widened. "What am I doing?"

That brief conversation still warms me. For months I scanned the seats at Germinal on every visit, hoping to see Al again. In this world, you never know when an encounter with someone important to you will be your last. And this was mine with Al, who died in December at the age of 89.

Al Brooks and his wife, Maxine Munt, had enjoyed successful careers as teachers and dancers in New York City before coming to Denver in 1967 to open a dance studio at 1527 1/2 Champa Street; the space soon included a theater. A decade before the debut of the Denver Center for the Performing Arts, at a time when only a couple of tiny theaters struggled to survive in town, filmmakers, sculptors, painters, dancers, actors, writers and directors haunted the Changing Scene, a tall, thin building wedged between bars and porn shops. Audiences entered through the parking lot in the back, where a pensive clown painted on the wall pointed a gloved finger toward a canary yellow door. From there, a steep set of stairs led up to a lobby that served as an informal art gallery. To the left was the cozy, 78-seat theater; to the right, a room with a counter holding a large espresso machine, where Al served coffee in small china cups during intermission. Some of the plays and dances he presented were awful, some were brilliant, some were both. But every performance at the Scene was vivid, unpretentious and alive.

Michael Smith, for many years the chief drama critic at the Village Voice, is Al's nephew; he first visited the couple's New York loft as a teenager. "They set me an example of artists living the life of art," he remembers. "They opened up my mind." Maxine and Al possessed very different aesthetic senses. Al was a Juilliard-trained pianist, while Maxine preferred to dance in silence. Al loved multimedia, while Maxine's work was more austere and revealed a dry wit. "They were a wonderful pair," Smith says, "totally supportive of each other's work. And they both believed in the new and experimental."

In this, they were very much a part of their time and place. The '60s New York art scene seethed with excitement and innovation. In spaces all over the city, dancers and actors were tossing out convention. Dancers were insisting that dance didn't have to be beautiful. Walking could be dance, or sitting, or running, and every kind of movement was worthy of exploration -- as was the nexus between silence and sound, music and mere noise. Theater people, meanwhile, were mocking concepts like the well-made play and the fourth wall, and even questioning language itself. They wanted to challenge rather than entertain their audiences, and many sought theater's roots in myth and ritual. In spaces ranging from after-hour restaurants to lofts to personal living rooms, actors chanted, went naked, writhed on the floor, let rats loose to scuttle across the stage. Everywhere there was a belief that art had peculiar power and could change not only our perception of the world, but the stubborn old granite world itself.

Al and Maxine had visited Denver on dance tours, and when they lost their space in New York, Al thought about coming here and setting up a theater. For Maxine, Smith remembers, "it was very hard to leave New York and know their work was not going to be seen by the primary audience for serious work. I think it took her some time to come to terms with it."

KEEP WESTWORD FREE... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Juliet Wittman is an investigative reporter and critic with a passion for theater, literature, social justice and food. She has reviewed theater for Westword for over a decade; for many years, she also reviewed memoirs for the Washington Post. She has won several journalism awards and published essays and short stories in literary magazines. Her novel, Stocker's Kitchen, can be obtained at select local bookstores and on Amazon.
Contact: Juliet Wittman