Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Bonfils Memorial Theatre

Artist rendering of the spectacular Bonfils Memorial Theatre for its' opening in 1953. Today it's the Tattered Cover Bookstore.

When former Denver Post publisher Helen Bonfils built her 550-seat theater palace as a memorial to her parents, it was the first new live theater built anywhere in Denver in 40 years. It soon became the epicenter of Denver society.

For untold millions of Coloradans, the Bonfils served as their first experience in live theater. And for many of their grandchildren as well.

Bonfils Theatre: Some of the names

A few local Bonfils theater alumni:

John Ashton, Dwayne Carrington, Tony Church, Joe Craft, Tupper Cullum, Paul Dwyer, Michael R. Duran, Robert Garner, Michael Gold, Bev Newcomb-Madden, Jeffrey Nickelson, Cleo Parker-Robinson, Deborah Persoff, Alex Ryer, Rick Seeber, Roger L. Simon, Robert Wells.

Celebrities who appeared in Bonfils Theatre productions:

Helen Bonfils, Mary Jo Catlett, Julia Child (she gave an onstage cooking demonstration), Kevin Kline, Patti LuPone, Gary Montgomery, Ted Shackelford, David Ogden Stiers, Marilyn Van Derbur (Miss America), Joan Van Ark, Paul Winfield, Emlyn Williams.


Ten unforgettable events in the theater’s history

1. When the Bonfils Memorial Theatre opened in October 1953, millionaire Broadway producer Blevins Davis (“Porgy & Bess”) called it the finest theater of its kind in the country. “There is nothing better in New York,” he said. A congratulatory telegram was sent to founder Helen Bonfils by president Dwight D. Eisenhower. “All of Denver society would show up for every opening night, presided over by Miss Helen, who would walk to her seat as the audience applauded her,” said former theater critic Thom Wise. “The society writers would cover, in detail, what all of the prominent women would wear, and who sat next to whom. In those days, the Bonfils Theater was the social center of the city.”

2. Tragedy struck in 1954. During the intermission of “Jack and the Beanstalk,” a crew member fell from 18 feet up the stalk and down through an open trap door to his death. A shaken Bonfils was determined “she better have someone in there who knew what they were doing,” said producer Henry Lowenstein. “And that’s how I got hired.”

3. People still buzz about the night Carol Channing attended “Sorrows of Stephen” in 1982 and hung out with the cast for hours afterward. But nothing topped a 1955 tribute to Denver playwright Mary Chase. She was being honored after a performance of her “Harvey” when Jimmy Stewart, the star of the film version, emerged from the back row; he had watched the entire performance unnoticed.

4. In 1957, Judge O. Otto Moore, chief justice of the Colorado Supreme Court, played the William Jennings Bryan-inspired role in the Scopes Monkey Trial drama “Inherit the Wind.” “We all thought that issue was finally behind us, and look what’s going on now,” Lowenstein said. “Here we are 50 years later and the issue is as alive as ever.”

5. In a 1965 production of “Dark of the Moon,” a backwoods Ozarks preacher rapes a woman as townspeople crowd around, shielding the audience from view. Lowenstein was prepared for the worst when he was summoned to the lobby to face a preacher who had an unexpected agenda. “He said, ‘I have a couple here who really wanted to see your show before they leave on their honeymoon. But they haven’t been married yet. Since you already have the lectern set up, can we marry them onstage here?’ They got married right then and there, with all my staff as witnesses. It was absolutely wonderful.”

6. The new “Perry Mason” series was filmed inside the Bonfils from 1987-89, among many other Denver locales. Raymond Burr was a consultant to Helen Bonfils on the original design of her theater. That’s why he chose to film his series there, Wise said.

7. A large portrait of “Miss Helen” graced the building’s foyer. The newspaper magnate’s first love was the theater. She would spend most theater seasons in New York as an actor and producer. She summered in Denver with her husband, George Somnes, who produced and directed plays at the Elitch Theatre. After her death in 1972, many Bonfils regulars became convinced that in her portrait, the sky behind Bonfils would grow gloomier if the current show were one she would not have liked.

8. In 1971, 23-year-old Kevin Kline was joined by David Ogden Stiers, Patti LuPone, Mary Lou Rosato and others from John Houseman’s The Acting Company to perform three shows in repertory for three weeks. Lowenstein fondly remembers driving the young stars in his beat-up Scout through a blizzard to the Career Education Center, where they conducted a workshop for children. Kline came back for at least two other runs at the Bonfils in the 1970s.

9. In 1971, 10 days before an opening night, Lowenstein canceled a production of “The Imaginary Invalid,” being staged in conjunction with the University of Denver. After four months of rehearsal, it was looking like a disaster. “I was the bad guy,” said Lowenstein, who then rushed “The Taming of the Shrew” and “Becket” into simultaneous production so that the entire cast of the canceled show would have parts. But that didn’t quell the animosity. Opening night was canceled by a bomb threat. Then the next night as well. “By the third night I said, ‘I can’t do this anymore. They can close us forever if we do this night after night,”‘ he said. That night a threatening note was found in a dressing room with letters cut from a magazine. “It was pretty clear that somebody in the cast was involved,” Lowenstein said. “But I said, ‘I don’t give a damn. This show is going on. I am willing to risk it.”‘ Neither show, it turns out, was a bomb.

10. Lowenstein considers Robert Wells’ 1983 production of “Sweeney Todd” the theater’s greatest artistic achievement. “That was the one show I would say absolutely got it right,” he said. “Everything about it was the way it should be.” It was the highlight of Wells’ 35-show run as well. “It was a knockout,” he said. Three years later, the theater closed.

Thank you to John Moore for the information on this post.

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