BEST THEATER PERSON WE LOST 2006 | Al Brooks The Changing Scene | Best of Denver® | Best Restaurants, Bars, Clubs, Music and Stores in Denver | Westword
On February 7, a group of people gathered at Germinal Stage Denver to remember Al Brooks and the theater that he and his wife, Maxine Munt, had run on Champa Street for more than thirty years. The group included actors, directors, dancers, writers, visual artists and Brooks's nephew, playwright Michael Smith, along with Smith's son, named Albert after his great-uncle. Some participants remembered Brooks as the man who had started their artistic careers; others commented on his commitment to a life in art; painter Charles Parsons spoke of first seeing the woman who would become his wife on the stage of the Changing Scene. Parsons also remembered Brooks attempting to parallel-park his brown Studebaker, smoking, hitting the car behind him, smoking, hitting the car in front of him, smoking, all the while talking non-stop. One of the most moving comments came from a playwright: "Everywhere, doors were slamming," he remembered. "But Al Brooks said, 'Come here. This is my space. Come here and work.'"
The story of this theater, like much of Denver's history, was shaped by tuberculosis. At the turn of the previous century, George Swartz, a tuberculosis patient and Shakespeare aficionado, moved to the area for its dry, sunny climate and bought a house. He built a theater into his basement and presented all of Shakespeare's plays there. During its existence, the theater has gone through periods of use and periods of darkness. Paul Willet ran it from 1964 to shortly before his death in 1984, using the quaintly old-fashioned setting to present uncompromising plays. Wade and Lorraine Wood purchased the Victorian this year and are presenting an interesting and eclectic roster of plays. True to the gracious spirit of the place -- and the ghost of Paul Willet -- they serve tea, coffee and cookies during intermission.
Taking over one of those old, defunct theaters and turning it into something grand is a common fantasy. It's much less common that people actually do it. Why? Because many of these places are decaying pieces of crap that are fraught with dangers economic, psychological and physical. The contentious neighborhood-association meetings alone have sent many a wannabe theater owner to the nuthouse. When Scott LaBarbera and other partners began throwing shows in the Oriental Theatre last fall, it seemed like another well-intentioned escapade doomed to failure. But six months and a significant renovation later, the 78-year-old former movie house has emerged as one of the best new performance spaces in town, featuring a diverse slate of comedy, live music, community meetings, films and even a gong show. The Oriental demonstrates that west Denver can not only support such a venue, but desperately needed one all along.
It's hard to remember a time when the Ogden Theatre wasn't a showcase for local and national acts. But it was just thirteen years ago that the old auditorium was bought by Doug Kauffman of Nobody in Particular Presents and turned into a music venue. Even though he brought the space up to code, the Ogden was known by musicians and fans for the dead sound quality, the bus-station bathrooms and generally gritty interior. That all changed this spring, when the Ogden finally got its much-needed facelift. The most noticeable improvement is the new wrap-around balcony and floor layout, which not only improves audience sight lines, but also the sound. And don't forget to check out the bathrooms.
The days when music lessons were a sign of wealth and privilege are over in Denver -- or, at least, they're on their way out, thanks to local jazz saxophonist Jason Justice. When Justice saw a need for better music education for children in poor urban communities, he formed Instrumentos de la Libertad, a non-profit organization dedicated to providing inner-city kids with free instruments and instruction by musician-volunteers. Not only does music enrich the soul, Justice figured, but studies have proven that it can actually add points to a child's IQ. Instrumentos is still in its fledgling stages and always in need of donations; for more information on how to help, visit
Denver's performance-poetry scene has exploded in recent years, with readings, happenings, open mikes and slams nearly every night of the week. And while the Mercury Cafe still hosts the hottest slam every Sunday, and Cafe Nuba is still so hip it keeps outgrowing its host venues, Cafe Cultura is the city's freshest poetic form. The second Friday of every month, the cafeteria space of the alternative Denver Inner City Parish school in West Denver transforms into a makeshift performance space, with folding chairs, fluorescent lights and scores of talented young Chicano writers vying for a few minutes on the mike. The subject matter ranges from political to personal; somebody might sing their poem, or bring a guitar, or a drum, or a paintbrush. No matter the delivery, though, Cafe Cultura's bold young bards have plenty to say, and now they have an artful, community-oriented space in which to say it.
Never mind the cappuccino -- how about a cup of Puccini for a nightcap? Romanian folk dances at three in the morning? Seven nights a week, from midnight until 7 a.m., insomniacs and culture-lovers can binge on Classic Arts Showcase, an unpredictable lineup of arias, dance numbers and concert performances, including classic clips from the likes of Maria Callas or Nelson Eddy -- all courtesy of Denver's municipal-access cable channel. The syndicated program is commercial-free and, like the wee hours, goes on and on.
Okay, so Denver's not Chicago, where every year artists, musicians, educators, activists and community leaders join forces for Estrojam, a concert/workshop/panel/discussion/film festival designed to promote and benefit pro-woman, non-profit organizations that support non-violent social change. But we've got the next-best things: regular Estrojam fundraising events in Boulder. Featuring both local and national talent, the fundraisers are sassy and unapologetically feminist -- but that doesn't mean boring. It does mean provocative dancing and burlesque performances that leave a little something to the imagination, as well as rump-shakin' tunes and poetry. From the Avant-Punk show in December -- which featured punk-rock burlesque artist Regan Drouin from New Orleans -- to the recent Valentine's Day event, Estrojam benefits combine a little romance, gentle teasing and a big dose of naughty for a hell of a good time. See for info on the next local show, a Burlesque Carnival with live Brazilian samba. Go, Estro!
How many urban areas can claim a circus burlesque artist as a local? Thanks to Brandy Dew, Denver is one of the few. The bold beauty teaches classes at Broomfield's Flashdance Studios and studies with the Boulder Academy of Circus Arts and CU-Boulder's Theater and Dance program. If you've ever seen Miss Dew perform, she's probably left you breathless, utilizing her training in tumbling, contortion, aerial tissue, belly dancing, go-go moves, pole technique, striptease and burlesque to put on an unbelievable show. Dew is dazzling on circus hoops hung from the ceiling, and she does things on a stripper's pole that most exotic dancers wouldn't dream of trying. She's like the Flying Wallenda who got thrown out of the family act for being too sensual, and she performs without ever losing what might just be her sexiest attribute: an ear-to-ear grin that proves she loves what she does.
There's no shame in following a trend if the craze in question is belly dancing. Local shimmiers Kaya and Sadie are the finest of Denver's hip-undulating sirens; both are world-class belly dancers who've showcased their skills in instructional videos, in dance workshops and at a range of events around the metro area. And although the lovely ladies work impeccably as a team, each has her own unique style and can help you develop yours. Kaya and Sadie offer classes for novices and intermediate dancers alike -- but if you'd rather watch the booty-shaking than join in, you can check their site for upcoming performances. Go ahead -- belly up.

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