The Denver Center for the Performing Arts (DCPA) is a theatrical organization that puts on professional productions, brings Broadway shows to Denver, and offers educational programming. Established in 1979, DCPA grew out of a Denver theatrical legacy that included the University Civic Theatre and Denver Civic Theatre. Under its founder, Donald Seawell, DCPA originally managed what is now known as the Denver Performing Arts Complex (DPAC), but in the 1980s, the city took over the venues, and DCPA narrowed its focus to theater.
Today DCPA still operates out of its Arts Complex home, which includes the Helen Bonfils Theatre Complex and Temple Hoyne Buell Theatre. Together the group’s performances attract nearly a million patrons a year. Currently, under the leadership of president and CEO Janice Sinden, DCPA has an operating budget of around $65 million, with 300 employees.
DCPA owes its existence to Helen Bonfils, the millionaire owner of The Denver Post from 1933 until her death in 1972. Her greatest love, however, was not the newspaper but the theatre (she insisted upon the English spelling). As a little girl, she turned her dollhouse into a stage set. As a young woman, she acted in Denver’s famous, long-lived summer theater, Elitch’s, for which she came to be a major financial angel. Next, she moved to New York and Broadway, where she acted in and produced big-league plays.
In Denver, Bonfils also supported the University Civic Theatre, an amateur company established in 1929 at the University of Denver. After World War II, Bonfils built the Civic Theatre, a new theater on East Colfax Avenue at Elizabeth Street. The building was named the Bonfils Memorial Theatre, and the organization changed its name to Denver Civic Theatre.
Bonfils long dreamed of starting a professional theater company in Denver. When she died in 1972, her attorney/confidante Donald Seawell worked to make that happen. Then chairman and publisher of the Post as well as head of the Helen G. Bonfils Foundation, he sold the newspaper, put the proceeds into the foundation, and pumped the funding into his vision for a downtown performing arts complex anchored by a professional theater company. After the professional Denver Center Theatre Company started in 1979, the old Bonfils Memorial Theatre on Colfax was used for the community theater and renamed for Henry Lowenstein, long a local champion of a wide variety of community productions. The Lowenstein Theatre closed in the mid-1980s and has been home since 2006 to Tattered Cover Book Store.
The Denver Center Theatre Company (DCTC) fulfilled Helen Bonfils’s dream of a professional theater company. Its headquarters is in the back of the former Tramway Building (now Hotel Teatro), located just across Arapahoe Street from the Arts Complex. The basement; car barn; streetcar service shops; and lower floors have been converted into administrative offices; six large rehearsal rooms; production studios’ staging areas; and paint, set making, costume, and wig shops, as well as the Tramway Theatre. The DCTC sponsors the New Play Summit, which attracts actors, actresses, and theater people from across the country.
DCPA is heavily involved in the general community. The Denver Center Theatre Academy annually serves some 70,000 students, from three-year-olds to aspiring actors, with programs for students, teachers, professionals, and other interested parties. DCPA also puts on regular student matinees and provides study guides to help teachers incorporate the performance into the classroom.
DCPA’s other arms include DCPA Broadway, which brings Broadway tours to Denver; DCPA Cabaret, which has put on comedies and musicals at the Garner Galleria since 1992; and DCPA Off-Center, which has offered experimental and immersive theatrical experiences since 2010.
Helen Bonfils Theatre Complex
DCPA has developed several venues to serve its multiple roles, beginning with the
Helen Bonfils Theatre Complex. The Bonfils Theatres were the first DCPA venues to open in 1979. The building features raw concrete walls, banded windows, and a sixty-six-foot-high glazed canopy soaring over the entry and lobby. On the south side of the complex, a broad pedestrian ramp called the Crescent curves inside and outside under a canopy with a sweeping view of the city and its Rocky Mountain setting. The Crescent ends in the Directors Room, with entry portraits of Bonfils and her father, The Denver Post cofounder Frederick G. Bonfils.
The Bonfils Complex houses four theaters where Denver Center Theatre Company presents its work. The largest, the 600-seat Stage, is a proscenium-style theater that invites audiences to sit in a fan shape in front of the stage. It is now heavily remodeled and known as the Marvin and Judi Wolf Theatre after two major benefactors. The Space Theatre is a smaller, more flexible, 380-seat pentagonal venue. It is now known as the Dorota [SM2] & Kevin Kilstrom Theatre after two principal donors. The Lab Theatre opened as a 200-seat “black box” that was renamed the Source after a thrust stage was added in the 1980s. It is now known as the Glenn R. Jones Theatre after the former DCPA board member and cable television magnate. The fourth theatre in the complex, a 200-seat venue, was initially named for Denver movie theater magnate Frank H. Ricketson and focused on cinema. It has been renamed the William Dean Singleton Theatre after the former Denver Post publisher, who has been a longtime board member and major donor.
The most notable addition to the Bonfils Complex came in 1998, when the Donald R. Seawell Ballroom was built on top of it. Designed by Kevin Roche, this $10 million glass-and-steel structure provides a 10,000-square-foot space with city and mountain views. As a premier venue in downtown Denver, the ballroom annually hosts more than 100 events and performances of all kinds.
Temple Hoyne Buell Theatre
The 2,884-seat Temple Hoyne Buell Theatre, named for a prominent Denver architect, developer, and philanthropist whose foundation helped fund it, is the largest venue at the Arts Complex. As the city’s old Auditorium Arena became less and less capable of showcasing big-time Broadway productions in the 1980s, Denver mayor Federico Peña and Colorado governor Roy Romer spearheaded a campaign for a state-of-the-art theater. To build the $35 million theater, the old Auditorium Arena was gutted for a modern showplace that includes the Marvin and Judi Wolf Room for receptions, parties, and special events. Actors’ Alley connects the Buell to the adjacent Ellie Caulkins Opera House and is a popular stop on public tours because of the large hand-painted replicas of show posters signed by touring casts that adorn the walls.
The Buell opened in 1991 with a sold-out ten-week run of The Phantom of the Opera and has since hosted many big-time Broadway hits. Besides launching the national tour of Disney’s The Lion King, the Buell has launched other tours, including The Book of Mormon, Sunset Boulevard, and the revival of Hello Dolly! starring Carol Channing. The theater also hosts concerts and comedy acts.
Donald Seawell retired as chairman of the DCPA board in 2006, at age ninety-four. He was replaced by his handpicked successor, Daniel Lee Ritchie, another noted philanthropist, business executive, and civic leader. Ritchie had just stepped down as chancellor at the University of Denver, where his prodigious fundraising took the school out of bankruptcy and paid for many stone and copper buildings that distinguished what had been a hodgepodge campus. At DCPA, Ritchie continued to bring in blockbuster shows and encouraged the company to stage Colorado-centric productions about figures such as Aunt Clara Brown, an early Black immigrant, and Baby Doe Tabor.
In 2016 Janice Sinden followed Ritchie as president and CEO. Previously she held various executive positions, including chief of staff for Denver mayor Michael B. Hancock. “Politics is public theater,” she reflected in 2021, “with its large cast of clashing characters.” At the DCPA helm, Sinden oversaw a $54 million renovation of the Bonfils venues to enhance theaters, upgrade accessibility, and improve audience experience, as well as a major face lift and updating of the Buell Theatre.
When the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March 2020, the DCPA shut down for seventeen months. All performances were postponed until fall 2021, when The Lion King reopened the Buell, followed by A Christmas Carol and Hamilton. A full range of other productions reawakened the DCPA’s many venues with hopes to return to an average year, when the DCPA stages around forty different shows with about 2,500 performances that draw more than 950,000 visitors.