Like many Denverites, I love a good First Friday in the Art District on Santa Fe. But once you're finished with an evening of gallery-hopping, there are very few options in the area for your art walk after-party. You can hit Interstate Kitchen and Bar or the Monkey Bar, but the father of them all is Timeo's Theatre Bar, the watering hole inside the historic Aztlan Theatre, at 960 Santa Fe Drive.
On First Fridays, my friends and I love drinking and dancing in the always-packed bar at the Aztlan, a family business owned by longtime Denver resident Timeo Correa. He and his wife, Aurora, are always behind the bar on First Fridays, mixing up drinks and opening beer cans for the horde of thirsty hipsters and substantial crowd of older neighborhood regulars. The vibe is always friendly and energetic, generated in large part by the outstanding house cover band, NevaHeard — as in, "You've neva heard of us" — which pumps out blues and rock classics with a heavy dose of harmonica.
I've never been to Timeo's outside of a First Friday, and online details about the bar are scant; fortunately, a friend of mine is a regular and has the bar's number in her phone, so I was able to call on a weekday for some information. Correa answered my call and said we were welcome to come down and chat, so we stopped by for a history lesson of the bar and the neighborhood.
When we arrived, there were only two other customers: an older Latina lady with big hair having a conversation with Aurora, and an overly drunk young guy wearing a vest-and-Brixton-hat combo that suggested he was either in a band or wished he was Nathaniel Rateliff. During our conversation with Correa, he deftly balanced focusing on our chat and running kind-but-firm interference with said drunk guy, keeping him from butting into the conversation too much.
Correa has lived in Denver since he was three years old; his parents are from Mexico and Italy (Sicily, specifically). Because of his ancestry, he explains, he heard a lot about the stereotype of having "a knife in one hand and a pistola in the other." But Correa has always stood for nonviolent community change. He began his work as an activist in the ’50s and ’60s, working with the Black Panthers and the Crusade for Justice, successfully pressuring the City of Denver to integrate the Congress Park public swimming pool and the Twentieth Street Recreation Center by picketing outside and getting the media involved.
But after the death of Martin Luther King Jr., Correa continues, many of the organizations he worked with lost momentum, and things weren't the same. He started working at the University of Colorado, running programs to provide full scholarships to first-generation college students. He made it his mission to bring Joe Kapp of the Minnesota Vikings to speak to kids in Denver about being one of the first Mexican-Americans in professional football. In the mid-’70s, the political winds of change caused funding to dry up for Correa's job, so he and a business partner started looking into buying property for a new venture.
His partner backed out, but Correa decided to go ahead and buy the already-historic Aztlan Theater in 1972. Built in 1920, the theater had been sitting dormant for years. Correa fired things back up in the old reel-to-reel film booths, always intentionally showing "two Spanish movies and an action movie," because even if his clientele didn't speak English, they could still enjoy watching Bruce Lee fight. Throughout the bar, there are classic movie posters; Correa points out one depicting La India Maria, an iconic comedic movie character played by Maria Elena Velasco, who he says he once met and danced with in Las Vegas. The movie business boomed until the birth of the VCR, the owner continued, so movies became a losing proposition financially for the Aztlan.
The bar was born in the 1980s, when Correa started renting out the theater to other music venues as overflow, and later hiring someone to book shows specifically for the Aztlan. Many famous bands played the theater, including Run DMC, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, AFI and Slayer, as well as more recent local musicians like the Flobots. The Flobots also hosted successful voter registration events, because "they are also political," Correa notes with an approving nod. On this particular evening, just ahead of the Colorado primary races, he wore a "Vote" sticker on his shirt.
Although the days of big-name shows and promoters have mostly passed at the Aztlan, Correa still rents out the theater for special events or the occasional local rock or EDM show. He's thinking about selling the place to retire and do some traveling, but if he does, he wants to put something in the contract about keeping the place a bar and entertainment venue in order to avoid the now-all-too-familiar Denver fate of old buildings getting scraped and replaced by lofts.
Even before he bought the bar, Correa understood this neighborhood. It used to be rougher, with street gangs like the Inca Boyz fighting for territory on Santa Fe Drive. Nowadays, he sees people from all over the world coming in to listen to music on First Fridays and throw back always-cheap drinks; there's no happy hour here, just affordable prices all the time.
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Correa's son, who is in real estate, has told him many times that it's important "not to marry your property." He says that as the years go by, the theater and bar seem to be "loosening their grip" on him, which is why he is thinking about selling.
Correa points out other artifacts on the wall. One is a letter he wrote to City Council in opposition to the 2012 urban-camping ban. "It didn't really work," he says with a grimace, since the ban is still in effect today, but he's glad he did something to take a stand. Another is a letter from Representative Diana DeGette, which he had blown up and posted on the wall, congratulating the bar on winning Westword's Best Dive Bar in a Venue award last year.
The entire place is magnificent to look at, from the movie posters to the band stickers everywhere and the family photos and art filling the wall behind the bar. There's a glowing sign near the entrance to the tiny bathrooms that reads "Cry Room," which I have always wondered about. Correa explains that it is from the "cry room" that used to be a part of the original theater, a soundproofed room where families could go to calm fussy babies without missing the movie. His theater was the only place in town that had this feature at the time, and probably still is.
Timeo's Theater Bar is mostly open Friday and Saturday nights, and sometimes for Broncos games on Sundays. But on occasional weeknights, you can experience colorful characters, live music, cheap drinks and a step back in history. Since the bar's days may be numbered in its current form, now's the time to experience it, before Tim and Aurora Correa's tenure ends at this historic Denver dive.