Daily Camera (Boulder, Colorado)
January 9, 2011 Sunday
Boulder Theater celebrates its 75th anniversary
By Aimee Heckel, Camera Staff Writer
It has been called the pride of Boulder. The most beautiful theater in Colorado. Haunted and historical. And an embattled theater whose survival has been the subject of great controversy.
When it opened in 1906, the theater at 2032 14th St. in Boulder was called the Curran Opera House. After a naming contest in the 1930s, a major facelift and a change of focus from vaudeville to movies, the Boulder Theater, as it’s recognized today, was born.
Today, the Boulder Theater celebrates its 75th birthday, kicked off last night with a sold-out concert by Jeff Tweedy, leader of the rock band Wilco. Special concerts, as well as a fundraiser, will continue throughout the year.
Technically — and here’s where the fun starts, because records are patchy and complicated — the theater is 104 years old, tracking back to its turn-of-the-century opening. Although newspaper archives typically date the theater back to this birthdate, the current owners start counting at the name change, making today the Boulder Theater’s "silver" 75th.
Regardless of where you stick the bookend, the theater has played an integral role in Boulder’s history, says Cheryl Liguori, general manager.
"We have people who come by on a regular basis who want to look in the theater and reminisce," she says. "They met their spouse at a movie in the balcony, or used to come here as a kid with their milk bottle from the dairy. It’s a pretty big piece of the heart of Boulder for many generations."
Even astronaut Scott Carpenter, speaking at the theater on his book tour in the late ’90s, told how he met his wife at the theater when he was an usher taking her ticket. Even more, he said, a film he saw there inspired him to become a pilot and astronaut.
The 1936 redesign — which the colorful Art Deco exterior that remains today — was one of a handful of notable renovations for a theater that has more lives than a cat. It has been closed and reopened at least four times, and passed through the hands of at least 10 owners. Including one, convicted in 1994, of theft and nine felony fraud charges, in association with running the theater.
In an attempt to keep the theater alive, funding has twice been brought to the voters — in 1980 and 1994 — and twice rejected.
The Boulder Theater has been an opera house, a silent-movie house, movie theater, nightclub, concert hall and community center.
When Doug Greene, current owner, bought the building for $1.7 million in 1996, he says it was on the edge of being turned into a restaurant or brewpub. Greene says he bought it blindly, refusing to visit the theater until the transaction closed.
"I was afraid I would back out if I saw what disrepair it was in," he says, speaking overseas visiting Holland.
Sir Laurens van der Post, a mentor to Prince Charles and godfather to Prince William, as well as Greene’s mentor, traveled to Boulder to dedicate the new life of the theater. He died a few weeks later, at age 90.
"He strongly believed that a theater was part of the lifeblood of a community, and that no community could reach its potential without a strong local theater to build the community’s emotional character," Greene says. "After he pounded into my brain again and again that concept, I knew that I could not let the theater disappear into the dust bin of history."
Flashback, 1906. It’s opening night for Boulder’s new Curran Theater, "one of the biggest society events in Boulder’s history," newspapers report.
"Society was there in its glad rags last night and in a glad frame of mind. It was a brilliant scene…."
The theater, bought for $21,000, boasts 540 wooden seats with a 25-cent ticket price. Vaudeville is the main attraction, and "the advertising and asbestos curtains were the finest that could be bought." Rumor is, dark tunnels run underneath the theater to the courthouse.
Within a few years, the theater sees its first "cameraphone," a combination of a phonograph and moving pictures. By 1913, movies begin to supersede stage plays. People wait "in the streets for great distances awaiting entrance" to see movies from the hand-cranked projection machines, with breaks in between acts when the film must be wound and changed.
To better serve the motion-picture demands, the Curran is renamed, gutted and rebuilt in 1935. Construction includes the expansion of the opera house, two 25-foot murals and, "the front of the building will be in almost every color of the rainbow," archives account. Ushers get two new sets of "snappy attire."
Even safety improves. In case of a fire, new vents will automatically open "and the stage would become something of a huge fireplace in that the flames could not lick out into the auditorium," according to one article.
Seventy-five years and many reincarnations later, current owner Greene says the theater is thriving — especially after it recently merged with the (once competitive) Fox Theater. The Boulder Theater has been voted best indoor venue and best jazz venue in the state, among other awards. This year also marks 15 years of consistent ownership, one of the longest stretches in the theater’s recent history, if not ever.
A lofty list of notable faces has graced this stage, from Johnny Cash to Franklin Roosevelt to Bonnie Raitt. Herbie Hancock once called it his home away from home.
Owner Greene remembers seeing BB King perform at the theater in 1992. That’s when Greene says he fell in love with the unique vibe of the theater, despite its bumpy path to keep doors open.
Today, the Boulder Theater boasts more than 300 events every year — including multiple film festivals and the occasional cult movie showing.
You know, to honor its roots in film, says general manager Liguori.
At a quick glance, the Boulder Theater still looks the same as it did in the 1930s. The balcony sports original seats, now in need of repair. The paintings loom above the auditorium, as they consistently have, whether the stage lights were on or shut off for a few years.
As for the rumored underground tunnels?
Liguori has heard about them. But that will remain one of Boulder’s mysteries.
Contact Staff Writer Aimee Heckel at 303-473-1359 or heckela