Helen Gilmer Bonfils (1889–1972) was a well-known Colorado actress, businesswoman, and philanthropist. She is best known as manager of The Denver Post and for her contributions to the theater in Colorado through her time as an actress, producer, and later benefactress of the Helen G. Bonfils Foundation. Her other charitable works included endowing scholarships, creating the Belle Bonfils Blood Bank, and funding the Denver Zoo.
Helen Gilmer Bonfils was born in Peekskill, New York, on November 16, 1889, the second daughter of Frederick and Belle Bonfils. The Bonfils family moved to Kansas in 1894 and then to Denver in 1895, where Frederick and his business partner, H. H. Tammen, purchased a failing newspaper and rebranded it as The Denver Post.
The successful newspaper business provided for Helen Bonfils’s extravagant upbringing. She attended the Miss Wolcott School, an elite private girls’ school in Denver. She continued to finishing school at National Park Seminary in Maryland. The Bonfils girls were raised in the Catholic Church, as their mother was devout.
Helen was close with her mother. They attended shows together at the Tabor Grand Opera House and Elitch Gardens, which sparked Helen’s love for the performing arts. She began acting as a young adult and performed at the Elitch Theatre when she was starting out. She also helped organize the University of Denver’s Community Theater, then known as the Civic Theatre, where she later performed. At the time, many theaters in Denver operated seasonally, but Bonfils recognized the need for formal theater companies to keep talent engaged and shows running year-round, not just during summer months. Over the course of her life, she orchestrated the creation of five theaters and performance companies, including the Bonfils Memorial Theatre as a new home for the Denver Civic Theatre in 1953.
The success of The Denver Post amassed great wealth for the Bonfils family. Each daughter was to receive a large inheritance that would be paid out in installments. However, Helen Bonfils received most of the inheritance because her older sister, Mary “May” Bonfils, had married without her parents’ approval. Helen inherited majority shares of The Denver Post after her father’s death in 1933. When Belle Bonfils died in 1935, May received a small portion of her mother’s estate in the form of a trust but was offended that Helen had been appointed by her mother as the trust administrator. May sued Helen and won, gaining access to about $12,000 per year (roughly $225,000 today). Even with this concession, May remained bitter about her parents’ desertion and favoritism. Family strife and sibling jealousy were recurring themes in Helen Bonfils’s life. The sisters rarely spoke, and they publicly criticized each other throughout their adult lives.
The One-Woman Show
Helen Bonfils managed The Denver Post as secretary treasurer from 1933 until 1966, when she became the newspaper’s president. Women were not commonly recognized as business leaders in the 1930s, but it is clear from the company’s organization and decision-making that Bonfils was steering the Post during her long tenure. She made a point of hiring female editors and ensured that the paper featured more cultural and family-focused content than it had under her father. Under her leadership, the paper also gave back to the Denver community more than it had under her father’s management. The paper started sponsoring free community events, such as summer operettas in Cheesman Park. These events were a huge hit and allowed Bonfils to combine her work at the paper with her goals of promoting the performing arts in Denver.
Success did not come without a few bumps in the road. The Bonfils sisters’ discord negatively affected the newspaper. May publicly criticized the Post while Helen ensured that May’s charitable works and important news were never reported. In 1960 May escalated their fight by selling her 15 percent stake to Samuel I. Newhouse Sr., a publishing magnate who planned to take over the newspaper by edging out Helen Bonfils. He did not succeed, but the sale nevertheless caused the sisters’ rift to widen further.
Success at the Box Office
While managing her father’s newspaper, Helen Bonfils never lost her love for the arts. In 1936 she married producer George Somnes. The pair met at the Elitch Theatre, where the English producer had recently been hired. His connection to the Denver theater scene—and particularly to the first theater where she had performed as a young woman—relit the dramatic fire inside Bonfils, who set to work as a playwright, recruiter, and benefactress. The couple created the Bonfils and Somnes Producing Company in 1937. They produced shows in Denver and New York City, with their biggest hit being The Greatest Show on Earth (1938). Helen performed in the play in New York City during the height of its popularity. She continued to recruit talent and produce shows with Somnes for eighteen more years, until he passed away in 1956 from liver failure.
Following her husband’s death, Bonfils needed a change of scenery. She took some time off from The Denver Post to co-produce shows in New York and London with well-known producers Haila Stoddard and Donald Seawell. With Seawell, Bonfils produced Sail Away (1962), The Hollow Crown (1963), and Tony Award–winning Sleuth (1971). Bonfils appreciated Seawell’s work ethic so much that she asked him to move to Denver and become the chairman of The Denver Post when she was appointed president in 1966.
In the midst of her theatrical success, Bonfils tired of being alone. In 1959, at the age of sixty-eight, she married Edward Michael Davis, her twenty-eight-year-old chauffeur. To avoid appearing too scandalous, she set Davis up to manage an oil company, making him appear more respectable. Though their marriage seemed mutually beneficial, Bonfils filed for divorce in 1971, when her health was ailing. Some Denver historians believe she did not want Davis to inherit her estate after she passed away on June 6, 1972.
Bonfils had a large fortune and no heir, so she determined to leave her mark through charity. In 1943 she created the Belle Bonfils Blood Bank to benefit wounded soldiers during World War II. This center, named after her mother, still functions today as part of Vitalant, a nationwide network of donation centers. At the same time, she started the blood bank, Bonfils funded the completion of Holy Ghost Catholic Church in honor of her parents. She also organized sponsorship for specialized wings at Denver hospitals. Her passion for animals led her to be an active member of the Dumb Friends League and contribute to the creation of the Denver Zoo. These ventures marked the start of Bonfils’s long legacy of giving, which was spurred in part by competition with her sister’s charities.
Bonfils’s most substantial charitable legacy involved the performing arts. In 1953 she created the Helen G. Bonfils Foundation to support the performing arts in Colorado and endow arts scholarships. Through her foundation, Bonfils built the Bonfils Memorial Theatre, which was named in honor of her parents.
After her death in 1972, Donald Seawell, her successor at the Post and manager of the Bonfils Foundation, envisioned and oversaw construction of a new arts complex around the Municipal Auditorium downtown. Seawell’s plan was in many ways a continuation of Bonfils’s lifelong project of promoting the performing arts in Denver. He made the Bonfils Foundation a subsidiary of the Denver Center for the Performing Arts, as the campus was then known. (The campus is now the Denver Performing Arts Complex, while the Denver Center for the Performing Arts focuses on theatrical programming.) By 1979 construction was complete, including the Helen G. Bonfils Theatre Complex with four theaters of different sizes. When Seawell sold The Denver Post a year later, the profits went into the Bonfils Foundation to continue to fund the performing arts center. Meanwhile, the smaller Bonfils Memorial Theatre on East Colfax Avenue became a community theater for a few years before eventually becoming home to the Tattered Cover Book Store.
Helen Bonfils was posthumously inducted into the Colorado Women’s Hall of Fame in 1985. Today her legacy in Denver and her love for the theater continue through the Denver Center for the Performing Arts, which is now the largest nonprofit theater organization in the United States.