Two weeks ago, Barbara Walton received the kind of phone call that quickens a curator's heart. Having worked at the Denver Public Library for the past fifteen years, she'd already amassed an impressive collection of programs and posters relating to community theaters in Denver, some dating back to the 1800s. But she wanted more.

"We place tremendous importance on local productions rather than traveling shows because of our great interest in what people do with their discretionary time," Walton explains. And if the local theater in question could be seen as avant-garde, so much the better.

"All theater is avant-garde," Walton says sternly, "or ultimately it doesn't survive."

Walton was very aware of the avant-garde theater that did survive -- not just for a season or two, but for over thirty years -- in a narrow building entered from the alley behind 1527 Champa Street. The Changing Scene, as it had been called since 1966, produced world premieres of experimental theater, dance, art, film and performance art -- sometimes at the rate of one new work per week.

"It was founded by two individuals, Alfred Brooks and Maxine Munt, accomplished modern dancers who came here from New York," Walton recites. "They were an incredible team -- very creative, very well-known locally and adored absolutely. Of course, I had called Mr. Brooks to ask him if he would consider giving us any theater materials he had."

Mr. Brooks had seemed interested but had no time to look through the past -- he was in the middle of a production at the time. In fact, although he was now past eighty, no one could remember a time when Brooks wasn't in the middle of a production.

"When he did call, it was very sudden," Walton remembers. "He said he would give me just about everything he had, but I had to come over right away. At the crack of dawn the next day, I took along a young man, a shelver, and we packed up well over thirty cartons. Posters and files and records and photographs. This is a treasure trove, and I was glad I could act so quickly."

The rest of the people at the Changing Scene, many of whom had been close to Al Brooks and Maxine Munt for years and were now helping them to pack up, were less enthusiastic. A series of incremental events -- Al and Maxine's failing health, their landlord's decision to raise the rent, the fact that the stairs leading to the theater, and their apartment, had finally become too steep -- had conspired to create not a theatrical farewell gala, but a theater-packing day late last month. The couple's former students, actors, directors and collaborators came over. Almost everyone drank wine, and the maple dance floor, upon which it had been forbidden to walk in shoes, ever, was soon covered with packing boxes. People stumbled around in a daze, wondering how an era could end so suddenly -- and with such an absence of a bang.

"A man who'd been there since the theater opened got up on a large ladder and began removing the theater posters," Walton recalls. "They went up in exact order, and that's how they came down. It was a sobering thing."

For everyone, perhaps, except Al Brooks, whose mood seemed to hold up well -- so well, in fact, that he expects to be at the Denver Drama Critics Circle dinner next Monday to pick up a lifetime achievement award for the Changing Scene.

"Oh, this man has the most optimistic view of life," Walton says. "I never knew him until two weeks ago, but now I feel as if I've known him all my life. When I left, there were embraces, and I was so happy I'd spent this time with him."

Back at the library, Walton began to organize the Changing Scene collection, a process she does not expect to complete anytime soon. "We'll store them, clean them, do as much preservation as we can," she says. "In addition to a history of theater in Denver, it's a history of the other arts as well. Mr. Brooks can be assured that we will take the best possible care of these things."

Since escaping from Kansas City (Al) and Omaha (Maxine) in the early 1930s, the Munt-Brookses have generally lived in the heart of the city. First in New York's Greenwich Village; then at a dance studio in New York's Midtown; next at 1527 Champa in Denver; and since August 1999, on the seventeenth floor of the Park Avenue Tower retirement complex located just south of Five Points. With its lobby populated by lost souls and a slow-moving elevator whose walls are postered with sad-sounding seniors' activities and even sadder dining-room menus, the Tower is the kind of place that reminds even the most vigorously middle-aged person that old age is right around the corner.

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Robin Chotzinoff
Contact: Robin Chotzinoff

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