Denver's Elitch Gardens -- a family affair from the start, 91 years ago

Situated between the roller coaster and Ferris wheel in an old-fashioned, 32 -acre amusement park, Elitch Theater is one of the few of its kind which is still (after 91 years) filling its well-worn leather seats and turning a profit.

Its intimate stage resonates with memories of the actors who have delivered their lines to eager Denver audiences since the increasingly cosmopolitan energy center was little more than a dusty cow town.

Mr. and Mrs. Tom Thumb were at the theater's opening in 1890. The leading man of its first stock company was James O'Neill, father of the playwright Eugene O'Neill. As a boy, Douglas Fairbanks sneaked through the fence and talked himself into a job sweeping the stage in return for tickets to the performances. A young Edward G. Robinson was fired because of his sloppy appearance: He returned later as a big star.

Then there was the matinee idol Frederick Perry. While hurrying to a performance one night, he encountered, at the stage door, a large black bear that had escaped from the nearby Elitch zoo. He managed to slip through and slam the door shut just ahead of the bear, and a few moments later was delivering his lines. But members of the audience claimed to have noticed that his timing was a little off that night.

Pat O'Brien recounts that joining Elitch's company for a summer was something that he and his close friend James Cagney dreamed about when they were starting their careers. Cagney never did perform there, but O'Brien finally did for the first time in 1980. When his picture was hung in the theater, he called it the crowning moment of his professional life.

In a period when the number of summer-stock theaters has shrunk from 27 to 9 in the Denver area, Elitch's continues to blend commercial and artistic success. The reason, say local theater people, is a deft mix of light comedies, musicals, and heavier fare. This year's frothy season opener, for instance, is Jean Kerr's comedy ''Lunch Hour,'' featuring James MacArthur, who played in the television series ''Hawaii Five-0,'' and Cybill Shepherd of ''The Last Picture Show'' fame.

On the more seriously dramatic side, there will be a new series of play readings, featuring contemporary plays. These are part of a program of ''theatrical consciousness raising'' - ranging from ''Dirty Laundry,'' a comedy of light menace among people who meet in a laundromat, to ''The Patriot Game,'' centered on the death and burial of the Irish Republican Army's Bobby Sands.

One of the reasons for Elitch's special ambiance is that it has been a family affair since its beginning. The theater's founders, John and Mary Elitch, arrived in Denver in 1882. John had been an actor before they were married, and the couple found in frontier Denver a town hungry for theater. Residents thronged to visiting road shows, but they had no theater of their own.

Thus Elitch Gardens was born. In the early days, it was a vaudeville theater. It was so successful that Mr. Elitch formed a traveling troup to perform on the West Coast. On the first tour he died prematurely, but his wife ably kept the theater going.

One season Helen Bonfils, owner of the Denver Post and Elitch's producer in the 1960s, played a part in ''The Man Who Came to Dinner,'' while her husband acted the part of the cranky main character.

And the husband-and-wife team of Whitfield Connor, a bushy-browed Irish actor-producer, and Haila Stoddard, who are currently guiding the theater through the dramatic shoals of the post-television age, met here as actors. On the hot summer's day following the theater's successful opening for this season, Mr. Connor, Miss Stoddard, and her sons Christopher Kirkland and Tarquin Bromley gathered on the theater patio to talk about Elitch's, in particular, and the state of the theater, in general. From the background came the metallic swish to the nearby roller coaster and the squeals of its excited passengers.

''Its resonance is what is so wonderful about this theater,'' says Mr. Kirkland, who acts as Elitch's manager and is artistic director of the Playwrights' Center in Minneapolis. ''It resists all your faddish impulses, and makes you go back to basics.''

To illustrate this point, he tells of a performance of ''Giselle'' they staged a few years ago. Because of the small stage, they could not use the standard choreography. So they went back to the original version. In the prop room they found the original scenery, all hand-painted linen. They used members of the Colorado Ballet and a small ensemble of local musicians. ''The result was an intimate 'Giselle.' After it was over, we realized we had re-created a unique piece of art, and it was a commercial success,'' he notes.

While warm and responsive, Denver audiences remain conservative and family-oriented, Connor says. While playwrights themselves have become much more conservative than they were a few years ago, he reports, the public is more broad-minded.

Miss Stoddard says: ''The theater is living, changing. It always reflects its time, but it is always a little ahead. Sensitive playwrights pick up trends just as they are beginning, and probably help them to spread.''

This theatrical family sees signs of renaissance in the public's attitude toward their art. ''People are bored with television. Our subscriptions are up, '' says Kirkland. ''The more computerized the world gets, the harder we have to hang on to our humanity,'' adds his mother.

They argue that the visually literal nature of films and television is freeing the theater to be more abstract, more fluid and imaginative. Mr. Kirkland, for instance, is sponsoring a project in what he calls ''nonverbal'' theater. This involves an exploration of the possible use of sound sculpture and odors to supplement conventional dramatic techniques.

Although the Elitch will always feature musicals and revivals, Connor and Stoddard see the theater introducing more and more plays on its own. For one thing, they see a growing number of gifted writers in the Rocky Mountains and the Midwest who need some nurturing and guidance.

''There are a number of good writers around who are capable of creating extremely good plays, but to whom dramaturgy is a mystery. But to us, it's like breathing,'' the veteran actress says.

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