Let's Put On a Show!

If you're not careful, a telephone can ruin your romance. That's the message of Gian Carlo Menotti's 25-minute-long The Telephone. Although the opera was written in the late '40s, baritone Chris McKim, who's analyzed his part, considers it oddly up to date.

"This is one of my favorite lines: This thing can't be challenged. It has hundreds of lives and miles of umbilical cord. That was true back then, and now, with cell phones, the whole thing is re-emerging," he says. "You compete with the phone for people's attention. You see couples out on dates, both of them talking on cell phones. I even get an itsy-bitsy soliloquy about that."

In an opera this short, there's not much room for more. Written as a light appetizer for Menotti's dark, convoluted The Medium, The Telephone has an efficiently simple plot: Ben, the baritone, has an important question for his girlfriend, Lucy, but her phone keeps ringing. In desperation, he leaves her apartment, runs to the phone booth on the corner, calls her and proposes marriage.

McKim and Maureen Sorensson, who sings the part of Lucy, have been rehearsing at the Bug Theatre, a 150-seat former movie house in northwest Denver more typically associated with performance art than mainstream music.

"But it's better than a formal opera house," McKim says. "And I think it's wonderful and hysterical that we should be doing it here and now. The amazing series of coincidences, the confluence of things that have happened, the serendipity -- that's a stupid word, but that's what it is."

The Telephone will begin its three-day run exactly fifty years after it premiered in Denver -- in the same small theater.

"The papers called it a `gala opening,'" says Chandler Romeo, who's owned the Bug since 1994 with her husband, Reed Weimer. "Only in 1952, they called it the World Playhouse, and it was supposed to be Denver's home for art movies. Helen Bonfils had helped with the modernization. They ran the Denver premiere of The Medium -- the film version -- and the curtain opener was this little one-act opera buffa, live."

Chandler had known this for years but got more interested as the fiftieth anniversary approached. "I had a picture of one of the singers, almost a haunting picture," she says. "A few years ago, I showed it to my mother."

Her mother was very familiar with the opera. She'd sung the Lucy role informally while attending music school at the University of Colorado at Boulder. And Chandler's father, a Denver native, had directed it a few years earlier at the same school. They didn't know each other then. In fact, although both started their careers as professional musicians -- she a soprano and he a violinist -- they each ended up working for United Airlines, which is where they finally met and fell in love. They married in late 1952, right around the time The Telephone debuted in Denver.

Having always been the kind of person who likes to put on a show, damn the logistics, Chandler roped in not just her siblings, but Central City Opera to help mount The Telephone as a fiftieth-wedding-anniversary present for her parents. As it turned out, The Medium had just been re-released on DVD. Walter Lowendahl, its eighty-something director, was charmed by Chandler's concept of resurrecting the fifty-year-old evening and waived royalties. And so the entire original program will be re-created this weekend, and open to the public -- except for the October 26 dress rehearsal, which will take the form of a private anniversary party.

"Chandler brought us a CD," says her mother, Patty Romeo. "After a minute or so, Tony and I were singing all the lyrics. It's short and silly, but the music is wonderful. We remembered the whole thing."

The Romeos raised their children in Boulder, far from the 3600 block of Navajo Street. But by 1983, Chandler was a regular in that neighborhood. Reed, her future husband, was living in an apartment above Pirate: A Contemporary Art Oasis, a pioneering art collective that had become a center for the avant-gardest of art, with live bands and even livelier artists running rampant, especially during weekend openings. Artists themselves, Reed and Chandler loved the place. In 1985, they decided to buy the building and become Pirate's landlord. For financial help, they approached their parents.

"Oh, gosh, we were horrified," Patty Romeo recalls. "It was a terrible neighborhood. There was such vandalism. But we decided to support them, and we thought they'd just get over it."

Instead, the project prospered. When performance art threatened to overflow the Pirate space, Reed and Chandler began dreaming of a venue just for that. By the early '90s, the idea didn't seem so improbable: The area had acquired a certain hipness, in no small part because of their efforts, which ultimately earned them a Mayor's Award for Excellence in the Arts in 1996.

In 1994, an artist across the street from Pirate, who'd been using an old theater as storage space, invited Reed and Chandler in to look around.

"It hadn't been open in at least forty years," Chandler remembers. "It was spooky. It was great! The only lights were footlights. Brown walls, blue tin ceilings... We had to have it."

During the building's renovation, people stopped by to share their memories of the place. In 1917, Chandler learned, the theater had opened as a nickelodeon, later showing silent melodramas and then talkies. At times it was known as the Marquis, or maybe the Navajo. No one was sure, because everyone called it the Bug.

"This might have been because the floors were not exactly clean," Chandler says, "but we also heard that was totally untrue. Anyway, we liked it."

So did the art crowd. For several years -- until the performance-art concept fizzled -- weekend traffic on the block grew to what it had been when Chandler's father was a young man and he and one or another of his five brothers would stop by Patsy's or Pagliacci's for a late-night dinner after a gig with the Denver Symphony Orchestra.

"If you wanted to get good Italian food, that's where you went," recalls Denver vocal coach Winnie Hartman, who sang Lucy at the World Playhouse in 1952. "It was kind of like a Little Italy. Our local gangsters, the Smaldones, were somewhere in that neck of the woods, so it was authentic."

Winnie was 21 at the time and an aspiring soprano. When the Denver Post's music critic asked her to sing The Telephone with just ten days' preparation time, she agreed. "I was kind of out to lunch, and I did what I was told," she says. "Nobody directed it for us; we just did it, and it was great fun, even though the stage was uncomfortably warm, with that tin roof and all. I always thought it was a shame that the theater never got off the ground."

But it didn't, even though the Menotti double bill got good press. (With the Post critic acting as impresario, though, how else could it have been reviewed?) After two years as an art-film house, the World Playhouse closed and stayed that way until it finally re-embraced its Bug origins forty years later.

Winnie, who hasn't been back to the place since the '50s, will attend the dress rehearsal. The opera she sees will be the same, note for note, but she'll hear it in a different context.

"It was contemporary then, but now it's a period piece," Chandler says. "I mean, with cell phones, Ben could have just stood there in Lucy's living room and phoned her. But we decided to do it as a look back."

Typically, Chandler's gotten all mixed up in the set design, costuming and even catering -- as have her brothers and sister. "It's getting pretty incestuous around here," she says happily, "and there's still a lot of running around to do."

The matter of projecting the DVD onto a screen, for instance. "And maybe we should capture the sound of an old projector," she muses. "Wouldn't it be great to have that click click click?"

In the coming months, Robin Chotzinoff will commemorate Westword's 25th anniversary with 25 profiles of Denver today. Click here to read these stories.