Would City Ruling Save or Doom Historic Theater Turned Porn Palace?

On November 19, the Mayan Theatre will celebrate its 85th birthday — and a last-minute save from the wrecking ball thirty years ago, when preservationists banded together to protect the circa 1930 theater and restore it to all its Mayan Revival glory.

But the signs aren’t as positive for a theater down the street that celebrates its hundredth birthday this year: A notice recently posted on the outside of 119 South Broadway notes that its owner has applied for a “certificate of non-historic status” from the city; if that certificate is approved, the owner could demolish the building.

And if it goes, not only will that erase the sordid history of Kitty’s South, the last official occupant at this address and one of Denver’s more infamous stroke palaces, but also the final vestiges of Webber’s Show, a movie theater so modern and marvelous that, a year after its construction, it rated a special mention in a 1916 issue of J.P. Chalmers’s The Moving Picture World. The Webber was Denver’s fourth motion-picture place, and rumor had it that creator/owner DeWitt C. Webber had an apartment in the theater with a window overlooking the auditorium so that he could watch the crowd, the orchestra that played for the talkies, and the movies on the screen.
In 1996, Rocky Mountain News columnist Gene Amole wrote about going to what was now called the Webber Theater to see Wings, the 1927 silent film that won the first Academy Award for Best Picture. Even when the fancy Mayan opened just a few years later at 110 Broadway, some movie fans still preferred the Webber, because it was one of the first theaters in the city with an effective air-conditioning system. But business cooled considerably in the ensuing decades, and in the ’70s, the building turned into Kitty’s South. That’s when you could find very different films here: On a visit (on assignment!) a decade ago, Westword’s Michael Roberts spotted copies of Handjobs Across America and Grand Theft Anal, as well as the classic Deep Throat, starring onetime Denverite Linda Lovelace.

Kitty’s South itself went south in 2007, its civic duty taken over by a Pleasures next door. Since then, rumors have periodically surfaced about a deal for the old theater — and more than one club owner has checked out the space as a potential venue — but there’s been no action. Until now.

With development booming across the city, a 7,000-square-foot building — with an empty lot attached, vacant except for a shrine dedicated to the victim of a nearby shooting on November 6 — in the heart of the white-hot Baker neighborhood “is definitely attractive,” says Wade Murphy, who closed a deal with the Handler Family Partnership, which had owned the theater and the adjacent property for generations, to purchase the package for $2.6 million. A month later, on October 21, Murphy filed for a certificate of non-historic status with the Denver Department of Community Planning and Development.

In order for a building to qualify for historic designation in this city, it must pass two of three criteria: architecture, history and geography. After getting Murphy’s application, staffers with the Landmark Preservation division researched the building and determined that it has “potential for designation” because it meets two of the three. It failed architecture: When the theater was built, it took its “cues from Spanish Colonial and Mission Revival style architecture,” city staffers noted, but a 1966 renovation removed all of the ornate ornamentation and switched out the facade.... And then came Kitty’s, which obliterated any remaining architectural wonders.

The other tests were easier to pass: For history, “the structure shall be more than 30 years old or have extraordinary importance to the architectural or historical development of Denver,” according to city requirements; 119 South Broadway got points for its “direct association with the historical development of the city.” The building also aced the geography requirement, because of its “prominent location.” Now that the staffers have determined that it has potential to be designated, if no one comes forward with an application to actually designate the property as historic, the permit is approved and the building could still be demolished. But if an application to designate it as historic is submitted, then the Denver Landmark Preservation Commission would step in, do its own research to determine if it meets two of the required criteria and, if so, move the application to Denver City Council. 

Many neighboring business owners in this increasingly hip area consider the old theater a landmark. And on Sunday, Nick Nunns, the owner of TRVE Brewing, at 227 Broadway, sounded the alarm that the new owners of Kitty’s had applied for non-historic status. “If granted,” Nunns posted on Facebook, “they can demo the building (and likely build something terrible).” 

Although he’d love to see the place become a venue like the Bluebird (which also did a stint as an X-rated theater before becoming a music hot spot), “I just don’t want it torn down,” Nunns says, sitting the next day in his sliver of a metal-brewery that features photos of old, abandoned buildings on the wall.  “If we as a 150-year-old city are tearing everything down that’s under a hundred years old, that’s a lot of history.” He was supposed to meet with Murphy last night to talk about his concerns, but in the meantime, he’s already found two other business owners who’ve agreed to join him in applying for historic designation for the theater to make sure that history doesn’t disappear.

If the tactic sounds familiar, it’s because on Monday night, Denver City Council voted on a landmark designation request for another building — another building whose owner wants to see the structure demolished, and has a million-dollar deal with Adams Development, which wants to build eighteen condos on the Jefferson Park property. Although residents rallied to save the circa 1880s Queen Ann Victorian at 2329 Elliot Street, council members voted against historic designation. Which means the building can be demolished.
So far this year, the city’s preservation planners have reviewed about 600 demolition requests or non-historic-status applications, which would allow demolition over the next five years; that’s a major increase over last year, according to Community Planning's Andrea Burns. One of the non-historic applications involved the Rocky Mountain PBS building in the Golden Triangle; that certificate was granted...but no matter what happens to the property, KUSA will get to keep the cement signatures of '60s stars. ) Only two historic-designation applications have been pursued so far, including that of the house on Elliot. But the year’s not over yet, and time remains to give Webber’s Show an encore.

But there's a twist in this movie script. As it turns out, the new owners may be giving the theater another act. According to Murphy, he filed that application to ensure that he and his partners won’t be held to keeping the “historic” Kitty’s facade...or any of the other scary Kitty’s detritus they found inside. “We plan on keeping the building,” he promises. “Everything we’re working on right now calls for using the building.” 

And what are they working on? Murphy doesn’t want to spill all the details, but he’s talking about an “epicurean space” (although not a restaurant), “a space where people can come in and enjoy themselves.” He knows it’s a difficult space — a leaky roof and a fire added to the aches of the century-old structure — but he’s determined that, above all, it will be a “space the neighborhood can be proud of again.” And he says he’s open to talking with the neighborhood about what that will be.

Murphy is a Denver native, and his mother was an interior designer; he remembers driving with her down this stretch of Broadway, Denver's former "Miracle Mile," and looking at all the shops and businesses along the way...including what was by then Kitty’s South. History isn’t always pretty, but the ugly truth deserves to be remembered, too. “It’s a great capsule of Colorado’s history on one street,” he says. “We really want to honor that.”

The show must go on!