Jolee Harston grew up listening to her grandmother reminisce about her days spent in Denver's Esquire Theatre. Though the movies she saw there faded from her memory, she remembered the energy of the theater and how it shaped her teenage years — providing a community space for her friends and family throughout the ’50s and ’60s.
When Harston was seventeen, she finally got to experience the Esquire for herself. At a midnight screening of The Rocky Horror Picture Show with a live shadow cast — a staple attraction at the theater — Harston watched costumed performers and patrons alike sing, dance and run through the venue. These people, and this place, were like nothing she had ever seen before in her quiet conservative community outside of Parker. Harston was hooked.
Now an adult, she visits the Esquire almost weekly to watch independent films not shown in other theaters, or to catch the late-night $5 movie series.
"My trips there are kind of like church for me," Harston tells Westword. "The Esquire isn't just a movie theater. It was more than that to my grandma, and it's certainly more than that to me."
Harston's weekly tradition may soon come to an end: The owners of the Esquire submitted plans to the city in late October to redevelop the nearly-100-year-old property. The proposed plan would turn the building at 590 Downing Street into retail, office and restaurant space. As of November 30, the plan had not been approved; according to the city, it's awaiting a resubmittal that addresses "a number of issues" in the initial proposal.
Harston was "devastated" when she heard the news of the impending project. She reached out to friends to figure out how to save their beloved theater, starting with an Instagram post. Before long, her efforts turned into a "Save the Esquire" social media page dedicated to sharing stories about the Esquire and an online petition to stop the development that has garnered over 2,500 signatures.
"I am overwhelmed but not surprised [by the response]," Harston says. "The Esquire is a piece of Colorado and Denver history. Seeing how the Esquire's impact has spread throughout the entire state and how passionate so many people are, it's really been an honor."
The Save the Esquire page is full of personal anecdotes from patrons of the theater. Stories range from first jobs and childhood trips to the theater being the last place where one frequent visitor saw a friend before she passed away. Guests recall popcorn machines from 1927 and the flood that temporarily shut down the place in 2018.
After opening in 1927 as the Hiawatha Theatre, the property served as a meeting place for the Jewish community in the 1930s, Harston says. When it reopened as the Esquire Theatre in 1942, it had Denver's first female theater manager and an all-female staff.
The Esquire continues to be a safe haven for marginalized groups today through showings of The Rocky Horror Picture Show, which is lauded as an iconic cinematic milestone for the LGBTQ+ community. Denver is one of the few cities that has never stopped showing the cult classic film since it was released in 1975, according to the local shadow cast, Colorado's Elusive Ingredient. They perform at the Esquire every month — acting out the movie as it plays on screen.
"The Esquire has been more than a valued performance space; it has been our home," the cast says. "The Esquire has been and continues to be a community space of inclusivity and opportunity. A safe space for our cast and audience to express themselves, artistically and as individuals. To lose something so historic and important would leave a hole not only in the lives of our cast, but in the community."
Harston says the Save the Esquire group is looking into making the theater a historic landmark, and is prepping statements to present to the city. But that might not be enough to save the theater.
Even if the Esquire is designated a historic landmark, it could still be redeveloped for new uses outside of operating as a theater, says Amanda Weston with Denver Community Planning & Development.
"The proposed alterations to the building would just be reviewed under a different, more stringent set of landmark design guidelines," Weston tells Westword. "Landmark status does not affect the use of a building. In fact, the adaptive reuse of historic structures is highly supported in Denver. We have a number of success stories, like Howard Berkeley Park Chapel, Woodie Fisher Kitchen and Bar, and Pancratia Hall Lofts."
The initial redevelopment proposal called for construction on the Esquire to begin in June 2024 and finish by January 2025. The Esquire's current lease expires in July 2024 with no option for the theater to renew, according to the property's listing on the real estate website LoopNet.
When asked about the potential redevelopment, theater co-owner Sam Leger tells Westword, "I don't have anything to say about that. ...We don't have any plans at the moment to do anything to anything. We just made a submittal."
Leger purchased the Esquire in 2021 for $2.1 million with co-owner Tim Finholm. At the time, Finholm told BusinessDen that other potential buyers were deterred by the Esquire's lease lasting until 2024, saying, “They wanted to go around and redevelop the property now rather than wait out the tenant.”
Franklin 10, the ownership group, released this statement over the weekend. "Landmark Theaters, the current tenant of the Esquire Theater, has indicated they will not be renewing their lease term. The last thing we want is to have the building standing empty. Ownership has no intention of demolishing the building. As stewards of the property, we are reviewing appropriate options for moving forward."
Even if the theater structure remains as part of a redevelopment, Harston worries that Denver will lose its cinematic diversity, a safe haven for art lovers, an increasingly rare affordable entertainment space and nearly a century of local history and culture. Community support for the Save the Esquire movement, however, makes her optimistic that they will find a resolution.
"I'm hopeful that the city and the current owners will see that this is not just a few people that love this theater. It impacts Denver and Colorado as a whole," Harston says. "I really am hopeful and, if nothing else, I'm proud and honored to be a part of this movement."
In the meantime, Harston encourages Denverites to go watch a movie at the Esquire while they still can.