Good Neighbors

Denver's Industrial Arts Theatre Company has been alive and kicking for over fifteen years. The resilient troupe has called more than one inner-city venue home during that time, and the recent demise of the Denver Civic Theatre -- its most recent roost -- isn't going to change things. The folks at IAT simply picked up the pieces to move into a new work in progress: northwest Denver's old Federal Theatre, a long-defunct neighborhood movie house that's spent its recent years as a silent neighbor of the chaotic Ron Schrantz Carpet Remnant Clearance Center.

The Federal was built in the 1920s to showcase the new talking pictures. There were retail businesses and apartments on the sides, as depicted in a 1927 photo, and the theater was flanked early on by a Piggly Wiggly market and Baird's Pharmacy; popular flicks and newsreels were touted on the marquee. Like many neighborhood movie houses, it underwent numerous transformations: In the 1980s, it had degenerated into a porn venue; in even more recent years, it's been host to random raves and private dance parties. But mostly, it lay fallow over the last decade or so, hiding such relics as gunnysack popcorn bags and an old Fresca bottle in its congested air ducts.

"It was filthy," IAT spokeswoman Katie Benfield says. "You could just tell the air was sick." But that air is clearing: Renovation has become a community effort led by IAT staff, and good old-fashioned sweat equity is slowly transforming the place. The property is owned by landlord George Sager, who also owns the Oriental Theatre at 44th and Tennyson, a similarly reclaimed live-theater venue. "Money is the main issue holding us back," stage manager Kimber Forrester notes predictably, adding that renovations at the Federal are only about one-third of the way completed. With luck, lovers will soon be making out in the balcony again, but this time in a renovated space that serves as a well-rounded community arts center offering gallery shows, music and comedy along with IAT's full-blown theatrical fare.

Improvements in the still-raw space encompass everything from a much-needed coat of paint to an extended stage; in the future, Benfield notes, the group hopes to transform the balcony into an enclosed open-performance/meeting space, and the ground-floor area into a large gallery. The main auditorium, originally built to seat 550, will be scaled down to a capacity of 200 to 250, and the octagonal tower rooms flanking the balcony (Benfield calls them the "grand silos") might eventually become practice rooms or studios. And though a proposed coffee shop in the lobby is just a dream at this point, she adds, it's a goal that's not out of the question.

To raise money toward that promising future, IAT will host an open house on Friday night to provide a little taste of what's in store for the space. But the gala's not strictly a benefit: Though the troupe suggests a $20 donation to attend, no dough is required. According to Benfield, they'd really like to draw interest from people in the neighborhood; to that end, walk-ins are not only invited, but encouraged. Inside, guests will nosh and learn. After appetizers, the IAT plans a presentation about the theater's future, featuring mock-up drawings. Following that, there'll be entertainment by local bands, a belly-dancer and a trendy fire-spinning troupe (how much they're allowed to do, notes Benfield, is up to the fire inspectors).

And after that? IAT plans to premiere its first production in the building -- What Cops Know, a theater verité piece based on a nonfiction book of the same name -- at the end of March, along with a gallery show by sculptor Clint Moinat. A postponed production of Barefoot in the Park will follow in June, if all goes well. Improv evenings with Comedy Helper and readings of new plays by members of Colorado Dramatists are also in the works; it all adds up to a new heyday for the Federal Theatre and the IAT.