Art News

Why Walt Keller Moved From the Lumber Baron Inn to Hollywood

Walt Keller, not far from where he grew up.
Walt Keller may live in California now, but most of his story was written in Denver. And although he's a working, 53-year-old actor trying to thrive in the youthful, fiercely challenging entertainment industry in Los Angeles, he's made some headway.

Keller has already appeared in several roles, many of which are still unreleased and can’t be discussed just yet. But he’s probably best known for his turn as Mr. Rogers in the NBC smash series This Is Us, where he earned his red sweater, fish food and trolley with aplomb. But he’s also landed non-speaking roles in a lot of other productions, including the recent film Babylon. “Los Angeles is vast,” Keller says, “and there’s so many people coming here. This field I’ve entered is so freaking competitive. A churn of people coming into Hollywood and moving out.”
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Walt Keller as Mr. Rogers
NBC/Walt Keller
But Keller's life story has given him the guts to stay put. It wasn’t so long ago that he was here in Denver, where he became a success in real estate and the bed-and-breakfast game with the Lumber Baron Inn.

Keller was born in the Mile High City, to parents whom he describes as “troubled people.” His father, a decorated WWII veteran now buried in Arlington National Cemetery, was in the 15th Air Force, Second Bomb Group, 96th Bomb Squadron — the Red Devils. “These bombers, from what I understand, had the lowest survival rate,” Keller says. “He was shot down a couple of times. It’s how he won the Distinguished Service Cross.” After the war, however, his father struggled with alcoholism, and that, combined with what we now know as PTSD, caused him to lose his first family in Missouri before meeting Keller’s mother and eventually moving to Denver.

Keller’s parents bought a house at 2338 Federal Boulevard. His mother was younger than his father; she was a talented pianist and artist who supported her son's experimentation with the arts. “She’d love that I’m doing what I’m doing now,” he says, smiling. “She got me into my first play at Boulevard Elementary. She really encouraged me.” But she, too, was an alcoholic, and had mental health issues. Keller’s adolescence was one filled with “police visits to the house,” as he puts it.

His teachers at North High noticed that something was wrong and came to check on him. Life was changing for Keller, and so was Denver. His own elementary school on Federal was closing and being renovated into condominiums, perhaps forecasting his own foray into property salvaging and redevelopment. “The principal called me in one day and gave me a heart-to-heart," he recalls. "I was honest with him about how things were rough at home.”

That principal was Lino Gonzales, and he offered Keller a place to stay in his own home if needed. Gonzales and his family lived out in Littleton, which initially didn’t appeal to the young man. “And I didn’t want to live with the principal,” he admits with a laugh.

But within a week, Keller’s home life worsened. “It got to be very scary,” he says. “So I went back to the principal’s office and asked if his offer was for real. He said [it was], and I said I thought I was ready. Trouble is, he wasn’t ready. I don’t even think he’d talked to his family about the possibility yet.” After a child-neglect case was opened, Keller entered the foster system and moved into a room at the Denver Children’s Home. He stayed there until Gonzales’s offer to take him in was approved by the state, and he finished out his senior year riding to and from school with the principal.

“The 1987 Vikings were notorious pranksters,” Keller remembers. “We pulled one of the biggest pranks in North High history.” It was at a pep rally; the whole school was there. A group of students snuck in live chickens in their backpacks, and at a pre-planned moment during the rally, smoke bombs went off under the stands and firecrackers were set off. Then, amid the fog and cacophony, came a wave of live chickens, emerging like soldiers in battle. “Complete mayhem,” laughs Keller. “Today we’d all probably still be serving our prison sentences for that sort of thing. But this was 1987; it was a little more innocent back then. We still talk about the chickens.”

It was only four years later, after getting a political science degree with a minor in theater from Colorado College, that Keller decided to return to his old neighborhood in northwest Denver. “Maybe I didn’t have enough courage to leave the nest, I’m not sure,” he muses.
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The Lumber Baron Inn
But he was sure that he wanted to do some good: “Back then, it was tough times. High crime, socioeconomically depressed. So I wanted to come back and be a teacher. That’s what I did: I taught social studies at North High.”

He and his then-wife, Julie, also bought an old Victorian house at 37th and Bryant. “It was a 23-unit condemned building. At that time, the City of Denver had this boarded-up-house program where you could buy these derelict properties for a discount," he explains. "There was a huge HUD home section in the newspaper. That’s how I found that first house. We bought it from the bank for $80K on April Fools' Day 1991.”

That old Victorian — after a lot of attention and renovation — would become the Lumber Baron Inn.

Murder has never been far from the heart of the Lumber Baron, in both fact and fiction. The house is infamous for the still-unsolved 1970 murders of two young girls on the premises. “It was always an ambition of mine to find that killer, to finally solve that crime,” says Keller. “I would love for some justice to finally be shown to those families.”

In the process of revealing the history of the Lumber Baron, Keller found a way back to theater. He his wife began running what he describes as “the first open-to-the-public, ticketed murder-mystery dinner theater.” It was then and there that Keller got back into performance — writing, producing and, yes, acting in Denver dinner theater.

It began with a corporate holiday party that the Lumber Baron hosted in its third-floor ballroom. It was a murder-mystery dinner party, and Keller noticed how much fun everyone was having. After the event, he kept getting calls from people asking when he’d host another, and he and his wife saw an opportunity. They offered a public event as an experiment to see what the response would be. It sold out. They scheduled another the next month, and that one sold out, too. “We ended up doing twelve shows that first year,” Keller recalls. “And then we got ambitious, and we set a schedule for the following year [with] two a month.”

That ambition didn't wane; eventually, the Lumber Baron was hosting 112 shows a year.

Meanwhile, Keller was advocating for major changes to his part of town. He’d buy homes in distress, fix them up and sell them to people with similar interests in history and community. He also helped create the Adams Mystery Playhouse — another murder-mystery dinner theater venue — in an old mortuary just a couple of doors down from where he’d grown up on Federal. “Probably the biggest thing I helped with was bringing the Ana Marie Sandoval dual-language Montessori school to the neighborhood," he reflects. "It was this community movement that really made a difference for everyone.”

After the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the Lumber Baron's budget became extremely tight, as no one was really traveling. He thought about selling during the sub-prime mortgage financial crash of 2008, but nothing panned out. The deciding factor came in 2015, when Airbnb had become a major competitor. “The traditional B&B community, which I’d worked extensively with, networked to create a support system and a customer base — I watched it all just collapse, just melt away into the Internet," Keller says.

It was 25 years to the day, on April Fools' Day in 2016, that Keller sold the Lumber Baron Inn to its current proprietors, who have kept it running under the same name and even had a Travel Channel show set there. “Selling the Lumber Baron was a big decision. But I’d been through a couple of ups and downs,” he says.

“So the time had come,” he continues, for his chapter in northwest Denver to end, and for his Hollywood era to begin. After selling the inn in 2016, he moved to L.A. on the advice of a cousin who lived there and offered to help move him out. He'd been acting already; why not give the industry writ large an honest shot? Keller took acting workshops in California for years to prepare, then jumped into the audition game. He's had some success, seen some disappointment and is taking this new challenge day by day.

“Life is a winding road,” he says with a grin. “The crazy thing is that road leading someone from Denver out here to Hollywood.”

But even as he sits in his small beach house in Pacific Palisades, the Mile High City looms large in Keller’s plans.

“One of my great dreams is to land a significant role for a film that’s shot in Colorado," he says. "Nothing would please me more.”