Elitch Gardens Theatre has seen better days, such as when Grace Kelly, Douglas Fairbanks and Robert Redford performed there. Now the historic theater is poised for a rebirth, thanks largely to the efforts of University of Colorado Denver faculty member Jose Mercado.
Mercado, an assistant professor in CU Denver’s Department of Theatre, Film & Video Production, is spearheading the Elitch Gardens Theatre Foundation’s effort to renovate the theatre at the original Elitch Gardens site on 38th Avenue. He views the project as not only preserving one of the city’s cultural landmarks — it is the oldest standing summer stock theatre and first woman-owned theatre in the country — but a platform on which to cultivate performance-art education, especially for Denver’s under-served communities.
“It’s the only thing that remains, in addition to the old carousel pavilion, from the old Elitch Gardens,” Mercado said of the theatre built in 1891. “The theatre itself has sat vacant for over 20 years and has fallen into disrepair. However, in 2008 there were exterior restorations that essentially saved the building from collapse.”
The nonprofit foundation is working with various agencies and foundations committed to historic preservation and education to reopen the facility as, to begin with, a summer theatre venue. The foundation received a $425,000 grant from the City of Denver’s Office of Economic Development toward the effort.
Mercado, a professionally trained actor, taught theatre at North High School before joining the CU Denver faculty in fall 2007. He saw how the arts had a “huge impact in the community,” as well as a benefit to students’ academic performance. He watched CU Denver students mentor the younger thespians, serving as a bridge for high school students into higher education.
With arts funding in decline in Denver Public Schools, especially at schools in poorer neighborhoods, the revival of an urban theatre such as Elitch Gardens presents an opportunity to fill the education void, Mercado said. It also will help expose young people to the arts, which is critical to sustaining cultural vibrancy in the community.
“I see this is a fantastic synergy between our university and Elitch Theatre, where our students can get into the community and dig in and do some great work that inspires youth who may not have access to these resources,” he said.
Once Elitch Gardens Theatre is fully renovated it could become “a place where all student work is celebrated,” said Mercado, who recently directed “Blood Wedding” at CU Denver.
The talents of a couple CU Denver students and the historic vibe of Elitch Gardens Theatre will merge April 14-15 when the theatre is part of the annual Doors Open Denver tour. The students will perform a scene from Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet” as the theatre is featured among 70 historic Denver sites open to the public. For more information on Doors Open Denver visit: www.DenverGov.org/DoorsOpenDenver.
Key work to make the Elitch Gardens Theatre suitable for summer productions are installation of restrooms, repairs to the stage and ceiling and modifications to make the venue compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act.
The next phase will be to winterize the building, Mercado said. “We’re eager to get some programming in there. … Ultimately, we want to make it a year-round theatre.”
For more information about the Elitch Theatre renovation cause, go to the website www.historicelitchtheatre.org.