The Elitch Theater in Denver Celebrates Pride with Rainbow Cult | Westword

Historic Elitch Theatre Celebrates Pride With Rainbow Cult

It's an all-day glittery gala at Denver’s oldest theater, which is screening the '90s drag classic To Wong Foo.
To Wong Foo and the Elitch Theatre plan to celebrate Pride together.
To Wong Foo and the Elitch Theatre plan to celebrate Pride together. Ihor Loboda
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Denver's own Rainbow Cult invites everyone to "get ready to sashay down the red carpet" at the To Wong Foo Movie Festival this Saturday, June 15. The full-day extravaganza of drag performances, immersive experiences and glitter-festooned fun all happens at the Northside's historic Elitch Theatre.

"The Elitch Theatre is this little gem in the Highlands," says Rainbow Cult founder Andy Scahill. "It's perfect for a showing of To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar, you know? It was in disrepair for decades, and then volunteers stepped in to rehab it, and now its time to show it off. And the film is sort of a debutante-ball kind of film. So this is the debut of the new and improved, Chi-Chi Rodriguez-like Elitch Theatre. That's how I've been thinking about it, anyway."

To Wong Foo is a 1995 American comedy film about three New York City drag queens, played by Wesley Snipes, Patrick Swayze and John Leguizamo. They embark on a road trip to compete in a prestigious drag competition in Hollywood, encountering various challenges and learning valuable lessons about acceptance, friendship and self-identity along the way. The film is known for its heartfelt performances, vibrant costumes and uplifting message of empowerment. It's also, Scahill admits, "one of the worst film titles."

Scahill says that in all seriousness, the theater is "incredibly beautiful," and he's excited to be able to help celebrate its ongoing resurrection. Its history as a performance space of national significance is lengthy: As home to the oldest summer stock theater in the country, it hosted such legends as Grace Kelly, Cecil B. DeMille, Douglas Fairbanks and Edward G. Robinson, among many others.
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Andy Scahill (center) at the Rainbow Cult CLUE event earlier this year. Jo Besso (R) and Steph Mango (L) were the winners of the costume contest at the event.
Rainbow Cult
Scahill says he's fallen in love with the theater and its history to such a degree in this process that he's adding tours of the locale to his busy schedule. "It has some great ghost stories, too," he promises, relating one about the great Shelley Winters, who was in rehearsals and complained about a woman in the upper balcony standing in her eyeline, distracting her. (Reportedly, her exact words were: "Who's that bitch in the boa?") But there was no woman in the balcony — at least, not in the flesh.

Denver historian Tom Noel, sometimes known as Dr. Colorado, says only half-jokingly in the documentary The Ghost of Elitch Theatre that "there are a thousand and one reasons why that theater should no longer be there," noting past fires, even arson, that threatened its continued existence. "So I think you have to give Mary Elitch's ghost the credit for holding it up," he says. Mary Elitch, who started her eponymous Gardens back in 1890, has been seen by many still walking the theatre's aisles.
Scahill says that the theater contacted Rainbow Cult with the idea of partnering up for some Pride programming just as he'd been thinking about finding a place that had some opulence to it for To Wong Foo — so it seemed like the perfect fit at a perfect time. "I think the theater thought we'd just do a movie-and-a-drag-queen kind of thing, but we proposed something much larger. A full-day festival, the movie in the evening, and then once the film is over, we plan to raise the screen and open up the stage to the audience for an afterparty. The backstage is just as beautiful as the rest of the theater," Scahill promises.

The festival begins at 2 p.m. on the Elitch Theatre lawn (4655 West 37th Avenue), where there will be a "Red and Wild" festival (just like the movie's) with vendors, food trucks and booths of all sorts. DJ Buddy Bravo will provide the music, and the Parasol Patrol will be on hand to ensure that everything is family-friendly and safe. Partners Tennyson Pride (organized by Call to Arms Brewing) plan to have their parade from 4 to 5 p.m., and then at 6 p.m., the theater doors fling open to start the film event with live drag performances and a keynote by the legendary Jessica L'Whor. The afternoon festival and parade are free and open to the public, and tickets for the evening performance and afterparty are available through eventbrite or through the Rainbow Cult website.

One dollar of every ticket sold will go to benefit the advocacy organization One Colorado, the state's leading organization dedicated to advancing equality for LGBTQ+ Coloradans and their families.

Scahill argues that To Wong Foo continues a trope of the nonbinary healer seen in many other works of pop culture: Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, even David from Schitt's Creek, who opens an apothecary. "These and other works feature nonbinary and queer folks going into depressed and sick communities and healing them. Historically, queer people have always been the medicine people, the apothecaries, the shamans, the healers and the storytellers," he explains. "Evolutionary biology bears this out — what has been called 'uncle theory,' but I prefer 'auntie theory.' Auntie theory is anti-heteronormative and references the beautiful history of aunties within communities of color. The girls of To Wong Foo — and let's be honest, today we would say these are transgender women, a phrase unutterable in 1995 — become, for a period, the aunties of this small Nebraska town and allow it to live again."

To Wong Foo Movie Festival, 2-6 p.m., film at 7 p.m., Saturday, June 15, Elitch Theatre, 4655 West 37th Avenue. For more information and to purchase tickets, see the Rainbow Cult event website.
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