The Bonfils Memorial Theatre on East Colfax Avenue was built by Helen Bonfils for the Denver Civic Theatre in 1953. As the first theater for live performances built in Denver in forty years, the cream-colored building staged more than 400 productions before it closed in 1986. It sat mostly unoccupied for two decades before the St. Charles Town Company converted it into a new home for the Tattered Cover Book Store in 2006.
A New Home for the Civic Theatre
Established in 1929, the University Civic Theatre was an amateur theater company that drew support from wealthy local arts patrons such as Margery Reed, Florence Martin, and Helen Bonfils, the publisher of the Denver Post. Originally based out of Margery Reed Hall on the University of Denver (DU) campus, the Civic Theatre functioned in its early years as an intimate club with only a few hundred members.
In the 1940s Civic Theatre membership rapidly expanded into the thousands, making a new home necessary. Plans for a new building were first drawn up during World War II. In 1942 Helen Bonfils gave a building at 1425 Cleveland Place to DU as the site for the Civic Theatre’s new home. Wartime restrictions made it illegal to build or remodel theaters, however, so in the meantime the university remodeled the building for other uses.
After the war, Bonfils and the Civic Theatre allowed DU to keep 1425 Cleveland Place and started to search for a new site. By 1948 they had found one at East Colfax Avenue and Elizabeth Street, across from the City Park Esplanade and East High School. Soon a ten-room house at the site was moved to a different location, and construction on the new theater began.
Bonfils Memorial Theatre
At first the Civic Theatre hoped to have its new home ready in time for the 1950–51 season, but building restrictions during the Korean War delayed the project for several years. The new theater finally opened on October 14, 1953, with a production of Green Grow the Lilacs for 500 guests to kick off the Civic Theatre’s twenty-fifth season. At the same time, the Civic Theatre changed its name from University Civic Theatre to Denver Civic Theatre to mark its move away from the university campus.
President Dwight D. Eisenhower sent Helen Bonfils a telegram of congratulations on opening night. She had bankrolled the $1.25 million building using funds from her father’s Frederick G. Bonfils Foundation, which he established to support educational and cultural organizations. She named the building the Bonfils Memorial Theatre, in memory of her parents, and rented it to the Civic Theatre for one dollar a year.
The building’s architect was John K. Monroe, whom Helen Bonfils knew from his work for the Archdiocese of Denver, particularly the Bonfils-funded Holy Ghost Catholic Church downtown. For the Civic Theatre, Monroe designed a one-story Art Moderne building with a tall, rectangular stage fly loft structure at the rear. Encased in cream-colored brick and buff-colored terra cotta trim, the building’s exterior was characterized by a clean, almost classical look that was balanced by the curve of the aluminum entrance canopy on Elizabeth Street.
The audience entered the theater under the Elizabeth Street canopy and passed through a travertine lobby with a Prussian blue rug, wood-paneled walls, pumpkin-colored plaster, and tall windows facing Colfax. The west side of the lobby had a shrine to London’s Abbey Theater. A grand staircase led down from the main lobby to the lower lobby, which had a bar and restrooms.
The theater itself sat 550 people and featured gray walls, red carpet, and a Prussian blue curtain that came down behind its proscenium arch. It was the best-equipped amateur theater in the country, complete with nine dressing rooms and an electronic lighting switchboard that was a smaller version of the system used in New York City’s Metropolitan Opera House. Monroe designed it to be used for a variety of productions, including plays, operas, movies, concerts, and lectures. It could also be used as a television studio, making it perhaps the oldest building in Denver designed with television production in mind.
The main artistic force behind the Civic Theatre during its years in the Bonfils Memorial Theatre was Henry Lowenstein. Initially hired in 1956 as a stage designer, he later became a producer and influenced a generation of Denver actors, stagehands, and theatergoers.
When Helen Bonfils died in 1972, the theater became part of the Bonfils Foundation. Denver Post chairman and publisher Donald Seawell controlled the foundation, and in 1974 he pushed for the creation of the Denver Center for the Performing Arts (DCPA), a massive complex of theaters and concert halls on Fourteenth Street downtown (now known as the Denver Performing Arts Complex). The Bonfils Memorial Theatre came under the umbrella of the DCPA governing board, which started the professional Denver Center Theatre Company at its downtown complex and kept the Bonfils building as a community theater.
With the rise of professional theater at the DCPA, interest in community theater at the Bonfils building waned. In 1984 the DCPA governing board, concerned about the Bonfils Theatre’s operating deficit, decided to close the main stage. Cabaret and children’s theater performances continued for a few more years, but without the main stage it had even less hope of balancing its operating budget. In 1986 the theater was renamed in honor of longtime producer Lowenstein, but six months later the DCPA board voted unanimously to close it for good. Lowenstein and the Denver Civic Theatre moved to a former silent movie theater on Santa Fe Drive.
Rebirth as Tattered Cover
After the Bonfils Theatre closed, it sat mostly unused for nearly twenty years. Local residents wanted to save the building, but it proved impossible to find a tenant. The building was occasionally used for filming and other short-term projects. When the 1950s television show Perry Mason was revived in the 1980s, for example, it briefly filmed at the theater and other Denver locations.
In May 2005, Charles Woolley of the St. Charles Town Company bought the theater and adjacent parking lot from the Bonfils Foundation for $1.9 million. He got it listed on the National Register of Historic Places the next year. Meanwhile, with the help of preservationists from the Colorado Historical Society (now History Colorado) and the National Park Service and financing from the Denver Urban Renewal Authority, the company embarked on a $14 million project to preserve the theater as part of a redevelopment that would include a bookstore, record store, and art cinema in one large complex called the Lowenstein Cultureplex.
In 2006 the St. Charles Town Company started to convert the theater into a new home for Denver’s Tattered Cover Book Store. The exterior was cleaned, repaired, and slightly reconfigured for retail use. The interior saw more significant changes—it was, after all, being converted from a theater to a book store—but many historic details and finishes were retained. It is still possible to see the building’s theatre heritage in the book store’s recessed reading area at the foot of the former stage. Offices, dressing rooms, and rehearsal space on the east and west sides of the theater were converted into a restaurant and a coffee shop, respectively. Historic Denver awarded the St. Charles Town Company a Community Preservation Award for its work on the theater.
On the site of the former parking lot just west of the theater, the company built a new structure that housed the Twist and Shout music store, Neighborhood Flix Cinema and Café, and a 230-space parking garage. Neighborhood Flix closed in 2008 but reopened two years later as the Sie FilmCenter, home of the Denver Film Society.