Historic Elitch Garden Theater – Denver, CO

When you visit Denver or decide to explore the city as a resident, there are various sites and attractions to enjoy. 

There’s Mount Evans and Cheesman Park, and sports fans are sure to insist on a stop at Empower Field at Mile High or Coors Field for those who want to get out into the beauty of nature. 

It can be tough to decide what is the highest on your list with so much to see. It is important for the history buffs in your group that you do not miss out on exploring the city’s history by checking out the Historic Elitch Gardens Theatre.

Historic Elitch Theatre

Located in northwest Denver, Colorado, the Historic Elitch Theatre is built at the original Elitch Gardens site, opened by John Elitch and Mary Elitch Long in 1890. The Elitch Gardens included the first zoo west of Chicago, bands, flowers, and an open-air theatre.

The Elitch Theatre was the first professional theatre in Denver and was the home to America’s first and oldest summer-stock theatre company from 1893 to the 1960s. Those who attended the theatre were the first in the western US to see films in 1896, using Thomas Edison’s Vitascope to show the first films.

Performances And Films At The Elitch Theatre Building

Originally, the theatre hosted local and national vaudeville acts until 1891, when the theatre was enclosed and rebuilt. Musicals and light operas such as The Pirates of Penzance were performed in the historic auditorium, and vaudeville acts continued until 1900.

In 1897, the Elitch Gardens Stock Theatre Company began to perform, starting with Helene starring James O’Neill as the leading man. During this first successful season, the theatre company put on ten plays in the 10-week summer season, bringing international acclaim and many major movie and theatre stars with it.

Why Visit the Historic Elitch Gardens Theatre?

After separating from the Elitch Gardens Park in 1963 and becoming its own incorporated business, the Elitch Garden Theatre Company switched from traditional summer-stock performances to single shows from New York with major stars. 

Unfortunately, time and culture changed, and the historic exterior and interior were neglected.

When the Trocadero Ballroom was demolished in 1975, fears that the same would happen to the theatre. In 1976, the theatre was added to the National Register of Historic Places. 

The final season for the theatre company was in 1987, and the building fell into disrepair (along with much of its contents, including the historic “Anne Hathway” curtain, which was eventually stored improperly and destroyed by time and neglect).

Cecil B. DeMille once called the theatre “one of the cradles of American drama” in his yearly telegrams wishing it a good season, but that description would hardly fit the theatre in its then-current state. After the theatre closed officially in 1991, it was empty for 11 years. 

To raise funds to maintain, preserve, and restore the theatre and carousel pavilion to its original grandeur, the nonprofit organization Historic Elitch Gardens Theatre Foundation was formed in 2002.

Interior And Exterior Restoration

After raising $5 million in federal, state, and city funding for economic development and grants and private donations, work began on the building’s exterior. In this opening phase, restorations (completed in 2007) included:

  • concrete foundation for exterior walls
  • replacement and painting of roof, gable, main entrance, and exterior walls
  • lobby renovations
  • demolition of some dressing rooms and Westside shops

Following these improvements, phase 2 began and included health and safety upgrades, restoring electricity and lighting, and a fire suppression system—this upgrade allowed for temporary occupancy and the ability to start tours and limited events.

Phase 3 included restrooms, a new roof, and various other upgrades that gave the theatre permanent occupancy. The theatre’s restoration is still not complete, and fundraising continues for interior renovations such as theatre rigging, lighting, sounds, and other elements which can reopen the building for multimedia performing arts.

Stars At The Theatre

In its prime, the building hosted a variety of major stars on the screen and stage. Although the amusement park in the same area was a draw for families of the time, those celebrities who appeared here certainly garnered the attention of many. 

Such stars included Grace Kelly, Douglas Fairbanks, Sarah Bernhardt, Vincent Price, John Astin, Patty Duke, Raymond Burr, Cesar Romero, William Shatner, Cloris Leachman, and many more.

When it comes to American drama and the history of the stage, one cannot deny the importance of one of Denver’s most special, locally landmarked places. 

Hopefully, the full restoration project will be completed one day to continue events at the park. We can all relive the greatness enjoyed by Denver residents of the late 1800s and early 1900s.