Elitch Theatre

The Historic Elitch Theatre is located at the original Elitch Gardens site in northwest Denver, Colorado. Opened in 1890, it was centerpiece of the park that was the first zoo west of Chicago. The theatre was Denver's first professional theatre, serving as home to America's first and oldest summer-stock theatre company from 1893 until the 1960s. The first films in the western US were shown there in 1896. Cecil B. DeMille sent yearly telegrams wishing the theatre another successful season, calling it "one of the cradles of American drama."

Elitch Theatre
Elitch Theater Denver CO.jpg
Elitch Theatre is located in Colorado
Elitch Theatre
Elitch Theatre is located in the United States
Elitch Theatre
LocationW. 38th Ave. and Tennyson St., Denver, Colorado
Coordinates39°46′6″N 105°2′46″W / 39.76833°N 105.04611°W / 39.76833; -105.04611Coordinates: 39°46′6″N 105°2′46″W / 39.76833°N 105.04611°W / 39.76833; -105.04611
ArchitectLee & Liden
Architectural styleStick/Eastlake, Shingle Style
NRHP reference No.78000844[1]
CSRHP No.5DV.143
Added to NRHPMarch 21, 1978
Elitch Theatre, as it appeared in 1923


John Elitch and Mary Elitch Long first opened Elitch Gardens on May 1, 1890, with animals, bands, flowers and an open-air theatre where Mayor Londoner of Denver spoke.[2] Inspired by Shakespeare's Globe Theatre, the first shows were vaudeville acts by accomplished local and national performers. In 1891 the theatre was enclosed and rebuilt for $100,000. The Boston Opera Company performed musicals, and light opera starting with The Pirates of Penzance. In 1893 the first summer stock theatre company, the Norcross Company, was organized in the East and brought to the gardens. Vaudeville shows continued until 1900.

In 1896, Edison's Vitascope was exhibited at the theatre showing the first films in Colorado.[3]

The Elitch Gardens Stock Theatre Company began performing in 1897 under the management of Mary Elitch Long. Its first season in 1897 opened with leading man James O'Neill, who had promised John that he would act in the new theatre when it was ready. The first show performed there was Helene.[4] The company became known for putting on ten plays in a ten-week summer season and attracting internationally known stars of the theatre and screen.

Sarah Bernhardt came to Denver in 1906 after the San Francisco earthquake destroyed the California Theatre where she was scheduled to perform. At Elitch's she played Camille at the matinée and LaSorcier at night. Douglas Fairbanks was hired into the same company. Prior in 1905, he was hired to sweep the stage for theatre tickets.[5]

Operating the park became too costly for Mary Elitch. With the purchase of Elitch Gardens by John Mulvihill in 1916, she relinquished control of the Gardens and theatre. (Two theatre boxes were always reserved for her and her friends). Mulvihill oversaw the theatre until his death in 1930[6] and was succeeded by his son-in-law Arnold Gurtler.[4]

In 1953, the Elitch Theatre was used to film scenes for The Glenn Miller Story.[7]

The Elitch Garden Theatre Company became its own incorporated business, separate from the Elitch Gardens Park, renting the theatre in 1963. The company stopped operating as a traditional resident summer-stock, switching to single, star-packaged shows from New York. The company had many successful years, but as time and culture changed the theatre building was neglected.

The park's Trocadero Ballroom was bulldozed in 1975. Fearing a similar fate, the community added the theatre to the National Register of Historic Places in 1976.

The Elitch Theatre Company's last season was in 1987. The park booked the "Incredible Acrobats of China" for a season,[8] then one night musical acts before it was officially closed in 1991. The Robber Bridegroom was performed with Patrick Cassidy for the theatre's centennial anniversary.[9] Actor Raymond Burr raised $2 million for an educational program at the theatre. The money was instead donated to local Cole Middle School.

The Elitch Gardens amusement park moved to the current central Platte Valley location in 1994. The new $94 million park was opened in 1995 with attendance reaching one million. Two fires in 1995 on the old Gardens property near the theatre cause public outcry for additional security.[10] The original Elitch property was sold to Perry Rose LLC in 1996 with the conditions that the theatre and carousel shell never be demolished.[4][11]

In 2011, Barbara Medill, a friend of Mary Elitch Long, donated some of Long's possessions to the Foundation, including an engraved silver table setting.[12] Around the same time, the hand-painted decorative historic "Anne Hathaway" curtain, (oil on canvas: circa early 1900s), was removed from its original wooden bats and stored for construction work. After years of neglect and severe water damage the curtain was rolled and stored in a backstage room at the theatre.

After a massive volunteer cleanup, the interior was opened for Doors Open Denver in April 2012.[13] Musicians and Shakespearean performers were the first acts on stage in the 22 years since the building closed.

In 2016, Curtains Without Borders (a non-profit organization promulgating proper storage etiquette of antiquated theatre curtains and drapes.) Representatives from the group gave a lecture at the Elitch Theatre about theatre grand drapes and curtains. They were asked to review the Elitch Theatre's "Anne Hathaway" grand drape and consult on its restoration. The drape was removed from storage, and unrolled by CWB representatives and theatre volunteers who discovered improper storage. The drape was illegible, and the paint dissolved into dust as the curtain was unrolled. The curtain was displayed on the backstage theatre floor for lecture attendees to view. Those who regarding it as a piece of Colorado history were devastated that it had been destroyed by time and neglect.

In 2018 the outdoor films and summer children's programming at the theater were cancelled due to $800,000 in damages caused by wind and a hail storm.[14]


The theatre closed in 1991 and sat empty for the next 11 years.

Interior of the Historic Elitch Gardens Theatre, June 2010

A nonprofit organization, the Historic Elitch Gardens Theatre Foundation, was formed in 2002 to raise funds, maintain, preserve and restore the theatre and carousel pavilion.[15] In 2006, the Historic Elitch Gardens Theatre Foundation received $5 million in federal, state, and city funding, plus grants and private donations. Work began on phase 1 -- saving and restoring the historic exterior.[16] The groundbreaking for the renovation of the theatre began with restoring the building's exterior, including a concrete foundation under the exterior walls. The roof, gable, main entrance/lobby, and exterior walls were replaced and painted.[16]A section of dressing rooms and shops on the West side of the building was demolished. Exterior restoration on the historic auditorium was completed in 2007.[17][18]

Phase 2 of the restoration (2013-2014) included various health and safety upgrades, including restoring electricity and lighting throughout the building and the addition of a fire suppression system. This upgrade allowed the theatre to get temporary occupancy and begin tours and limited events.[19]

With the completion of Phase 3 (2020-2021) restrooms were added, a new roof was put on, and various other upgrades were made, allowing for the theatre to gain permanent occupancy.[19]

Fundraising continues for interior renovations, including the need for theatre rigging, lighting, sound, etc. The vision is to reopen as a multimedia performing arts complex for the community offering education, film, live music, and theatre.

Stars Who Appeared at The Elitch TheatreEdit

*** Brandon deWilde died in motor vehicle accident in Lakewood, Colorado, days after his final performance at the theatre.



  1. ^ "National Register Information System". National Register of Historic Places. National Park Service. April 15, 2008.
  2. ^ "Elitch Gardens Opens: Crowds Brave Rain". Rocky Mountain News. 2 May 1890.
  3. ^ "Edison Invention At Elitch's". Rocky Mountain News. 16 August 1896.
  4. ^ a b c Moore, John (16 April 2006). "Famous, soon-to-be-famous crossed Elitch stage". Denver Post.
  5. ^ Borrillo, Theodore A. (2012). Denver's historic Elitch Theatre : a nostalgic journey (a history of its times). [publisher not identified]. ISBN 978-0-9744331-4-1. OCLC 823177622.
  6. ^ "John M. Mulvihill, Theatre Man, Dead; Succumbs in Denver to Illness Dating From His New York Visit". New York Times. 15 January 1930. p. 25.
  7. ^ Otte, Jef (6 June 2012). "Radium and roller coasters: A brief, dirty history of Elitch Gardens". Westword. Retrieved 3 August 2012.
  8. ^ "Acrobats of China bring an incredible act to Elitch's". The Gazette. Colorado Springs, Colorado. 15 July 1988.
  9. ^ Rosen, Steven (15 June 1991). "'Bridegroom' opens Elitch's 100th year". Denver Post. p. 1D.
  10. ^ Robinson, Marilyn (4 November 1995). "Fire spurs call to up security Old Elitch park scene of blaze". Denver Post. p. B1.
  11. ^ Sinisi, J. Sebastian (29 August 1995). "Landmark status urged for Elitch Theatre". Denver Post. p. B3.
  12. ^ Jefferson, Elena Ashanti (19 February 2011). "Friend of Mary Elitch helping with theatre's restoration effort". Denver Post.
  13. ^ Painter, Kristen Leigh (16 April 2012). "Denver opens doors to unique buildings, landmarks". Denver Post. Retrieved 3 August 2012.
  14. ^ "You Are Here: 100 years later, The Historic Elitch Theatre is still entertaining Denver families". KUSA. Retrieved 2018-10-04.
  15. ^ "Elitch Theatre announces restoration plan". Denver Business Journal. 17 April 2006.
  16. ^ a b Staff, Westword (2017-08-23). "Historic Elitch Theatre Hosts First Major Concert in Decades". Westword. Retrieved 2018-10-04.
  17. ^ Chandler, Mary Voelz (15 August 2006). "Cleaning up its act; Elitch Theatre restoration raises money and spirits". Rocky Mountain News.
  18. ^ Moore, Paula (30 March 2008). "Restoration of Elitch theatre needs at least $5M more". Denver Business Journal. Retrieved 3 August 2012.
  19. ^ a b "Historic Elitch Theatre | Denver, CO". Elitch Theatre. Retrieved 2021-04-03.

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