Boulder Theater – Boulder, CO

by Jim Harrington

When it’s showtime, follow the lights to the Boulder Theater! It is where the big acts play. The Boulder Theater has been an opera house, a silent-movie house, movie theater, nightclub, concert hall, squatter settlement and community center. The Boulder Theater is unique. Some call it the most beautiful theater in Colorado. Haunted and historical the Boulder Theater is an architectural gem that for over a century transformed itself from its 1900’s era opera house roots with vaudeville acts into a modern multi purpose theater. From downtown this pastel art deco landmark leaps out from the side of a rock facade. At night, its large marquee glows bright in neon red, white and blue. It’s where the party is. The red carpet entrance leads patrons into an art deco time machine while mysteriously being a state of the art live performance hall. Performances at the Boulder theater include rock, jazz, live theater acts, dance troupes and new release showings of independent movies. The artistic art deco above the marquee sign, promoting the latest event or group or E-town presentation, is truly beautiful. It uses colored tile to depict a lovely nature scene linking the actual natural beauty all around Boulder with its night time indoor entertainment. The yellow brickwork is fancy, and the dentils along the top are the upscale look of 1906!

The Boulder Theater, a State of Colorado Historic Landmark, is just a block away from the equally historic Pearl Street Mall. It was built with fortunes from the railroads. Its founding provided western frontiersmen a place to experience culture. Given the bawdiness in 1880’s local westen mountain mining towns this quest for a place for culture was embraced by the citizens of Boulder which sought to be the ‘Athens of the West’. The Boulder Theater colorful past lives on today as a thriving concert hall. And truth be told a little western bawdiness still lives on in the Boulder Theater too.

The downtown venue next to the older original St Julien Hotel was first opened in 1906. It was called then the Curran Opera House and was built by an ad man, the wealthy billboard sign owner James Curran. Mr Curran made his fortune placing billboards by train tracks and is the founder of Colorado outdoor advertising. He served for a time as the advertising agent for the Denver Rio Grande Railroad promoting excursions to the small towns near the scenic narrow gauge railway lines that criss crossed the mountain landscapes. Later he launched his advertising company, the Curran Company, with crews in Colorado, Wyoming, Utah, Arizona, and New Mexico doing the most innovative outdoor advertising in the West. With the right pitch advertising men could find their gold in the western frontier too. Curran was the first advertiser to publicize the big circus coming to town. From one circus he moved on to another. He was a pioneer using outdoor billboard signs for political candidates and sometimes radically even changed the signs on a daily basis. The signs worked. Candidates without newspaper endorsements like Robert Speer running for Denver mayor won. That really surprised folks. A lot of folks actually. It had never happened before and it helped to prove the powerful appeal of the billboard. Curran’s campaign strategy would spread across the country. People came out in large numbers to vote, or see the circus or buy products seen on the same billboards. Mr Curran got rich. A colleague who worked advertising the Tabor Opera house in Leadville and Denver encouraged Mr. Curran to become a financial supporter of the performing arts. Mr. Curran brought “legitimate” cultured theater companies to Colorado. Not the fringe, burlesque shows popular at the time. Culture was going to come to Boulder at last with a cost of $21,000 to build a 540 seat auditorium. Mr Curran’s philanthropy would grow to establish proper opera houses across the state.

The new Curran Opera House in Boulder featured operas, musical productions, political candidates and silent movies with live organ music. It opened in 1906 with the stage play “On the Quiet” it was “one of the biggest society events in Boulder’s history,” newspapers reported. Tickets were 25 cents each, The performance hall, originally intended for plays and operas, quickly became as Mr Curran envisioned, downtown Boulder’s cultural center. It hosted other live entertainment, including ballets, church programs musical concerts and children’s productions.

Within a few years, the theater saw its first disruptive innovation the “cameraphone,” a combination of a phonograph and moving pictures projector. 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. There were some reservations about films of the day. Frank Fairchild, one of the theater’s proprietors, was concerned about films that were “wrongly suggestive.” The theater was dependent on university students and he wanted to show films that “will not upset or injure these young minds.” College students needed to be protected from seeing the wrong sort of movies. One movie that met his approval was “Don Q, Son of Zorro,” shown in August 1925 and starring Denver native Douglas Fairbanks Sr. it “portrayed all of the action, adventure, comedy, and romance of this swashbuckling star of the silent screen.” At the time, matinees ranged from 15 cents to 40 cents, while evening shows cost from 25 cents to 50 cents.

After over twenty years of silent movies in 1927 the first talkie movie ,”The Jazz Singer”, was shown. “Talkies” were all the rage of the time and in 1929, after much debate Boulder voters approved the showing of movies on Sundays.The Curran Theatre became more invested in showing these sound films. The organ was removed. Live culture was going to have to wait. Stage concerts and shows didn’t return until 1978. For better or worse culture was going to be found in these new talking movies. By 1929 another theater opened next to the Curran Theater called the Isis Theatre. The Curran showed first rate movies and the Isis showed second rate movies. In one downtown location you had a choice of two movies. Truly innovative in its day they shared a common marquee. During the Great Depression in the early thirties, the theater kept the doors open by showing double features, and having special “Country Store Nights.” This was a promotional carrot to get people to come and buy tickets, hoping to win a free bag of groceries if they sat in the right seats. The people of Boulder loved their movie theater and brought in enough profit to interest their next owners the moguls of The Fox Theater Company. The Fox Theater Company purchased the building in 1935, did major renovations to expand the original Curran Opera House, adding colorful 25 foot murals and add a finish in the art deco aesthetic style of the day matching the style of the art deco Boulder County Courthouse across the street. There are rumors that there is a tunnel connecting the two buildings. The Boulder Theater as it stands today was was designed by Robert Boller of Kansas City and was intended to be solely a movie house. The front of the building was meant to be eye catching with almost every color of the rainbow.There was a naming contest which changed the name to “The Boulder” theater. Opening night on January 9, 1936 had snappy attired ushers showing patrons their seats to watch “The Bride Comes Home”. The 1936 redesign — with the colorful Art Deco exterior we see today and mysterious tunnels we do not see — was one of a many notable renovations for a theater that keeps coming back to life. It has been closed and reopened at least four times, and passed through the hands of at least 10 owners. Including one overly enthusiastic owner that was convicted of theft and nine felony fraud charges, in association with running the theater.

The neighboring Isis Theater was renamed the Fox Theater in the 1950’s. It was the Fox Theater Downtown not meant to be confused with the other Fox Theater on University Hill. The downtown Fox movie theater burnt to the ground in the early 1960’s. It was not rebuilt.

One of the Boulder Theaters most famous and snappiest dressed ushers with all the right stuff was Mercury astronaut Scott Carpenter, the second american in space. During his book tour in the late 1990s, he told the crowd at the Boulder Theater how he met his wife at the Boulder Theater when he was an usher taking her ticket. Even more, he said, films he saw there inspired him to become a pilot, astronaut and aquanaut adventurer. Thus is the power of story and dreams to inspire.

Until about the late 1970s, the Boulder Theater was exclusively a single screen movie house, but that changed as multiplex theaters moved to town. Multiplex theaters were market disruptors that offered in one location a number of different movies for families to enjoy. A big house theater showing only one movie at a time was not competitive with the changing times. The Boulder Theater could no longer pay all its bills and Mann Theatres, the then-owner, shut the theater’s doors in 1979. In 1980, with the theater’s future up in the air, the city designated the marquee sign a historic landmark, rendering it immune to future development. In other words, no one could tear down the sign. But what was going to happen behind the sign was uncertain and even as mysterious as the rumored tunnels. In an attempt to keep the theater alive, tax funding initiatives was twice brought to the voters — in 1980 and 1994 — and twice rejected.

In 1981, the theater was again renovated this time by Mountain Productions into a state-of-the-art concert hall able to host musical acts as well as screening films. The 1,000-person venue was big enough to actually attract national touring acts. It booked a variety of artists such as blues/folk singer; Bonnie Raitt, the controversial Punk Metal Band;The Plasmatics, keyboardist Jeff Lorber and the controversial stage performance of Timothy Leary, who some say didn’t have both oars in the water from over-use of psychedelic drugs. He was a very talented writer, and had many other talents; just perhaps a little odd for the normal patron. Some sources blame the movie house style of seating that limited a “diversity of activity”, probably dancing but perhaps what the owners were offering in entertainment didn’t float the boats of the Boulder public at the time. The Boulder Theater was still not financially viable so they closed again after being open only fifteen months, in 1983. Not really long enough to establish itself. In 1988, it underwent yet another renovation to incorporate a more concert-friendly seating and a acoustic makeover. There was new ownership with Livingston and Edwards while Dick MacLeod served as manager working diligently to book concerts, E-town Shows, and private events. Still not viable financially the building was sold to Dick MacLeod in 1992 who regrettably decided a year later the theater was financially better closed than open. MacLeod, still dedicated to the vision of the Boulder Theater lived in the closed theater as its care taker essentially land banking it while he looked for a way to save this treasure for future patrons to enjoy. He was not alone. 

Boulder hoteliers at the time like Boulder Inn’s current General Manager Steven Wallace remembered the theater originally opened next to a hotel and looked at options to open a new hotel and convention center at the Boulder Theater location but the times were not right for such an investment. Doug Greene an ad man of New Hope Communications with advertising money from the emerging local natural foods scene saved the Boulder Theater by purchasing the building for $1.7 million in the mid 1990’s and reopening its doors with the right combination of what to offer, with enough financial support that has made this venue a success.

Doug Greene had seen the legendary BB King play in the Boulder Theater and knew it had a special kind vibe, there was something there that he loved. When he bought the building he says it was on the edge of being turned into a restaurant or brewpub. He didn’t look into the building too closely, “I was afraid I would back out if I saw what disrepair it was in,” he says.

Doug Greene had a mentor. Sir Laurens van der Post, a spellbinding storyteller, a figure of mesmerizing charm author of numerous books and TV specials including ”The Lost World of the Kalahari”. Sir Lauren van der Post was also a Jungian mystic and a spiritual adviser to Prince Charles. In 1982 Charles made him godfather to his heir, Prince William. Van der Post was also a close friend of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. Mr Greene invited Sir Lauren van der Post to Boulder to dedicate the grand opening of the theater with a Sir Lauren van der Post festival. For four nights he had the theater packed with over 1,000 people each night to hear his life stories. Sir Lauren van der Post died a few weeks later, at the 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 dustbin of history.”

Mostly what the Boulder Theater needed was enough upfront financing to give it time to prove itself. Opening night still honored its movie house history with a showing of “Some Like It Hot” and today the Boulder Theater is considered one of the finest concert and live entertainment venues in the Rocky Mountain region hosting the most respected national, international and local artists performing today.

The movie house continues with shows from the Boulder International Film Festival, Warren Miller Films, Boulder Adventure Film Festival and Banff Film Festival all call Boulder Theater home. In June 2010, the ownership of the Boulder Theater near the downtown Pearl Street Mall and Fox Theatre on The Hill merged to form Z2 Entertainment, which now operates both venues. Once together as movie houses the Boulder Theater and the Fox Theater are together again as live performance halls. Over the past decades, so many people have contributed to the transformation and growth of the Boulder Theater. In many ways their spirit still inhabits this concert hall. 

Rich Newman’s Ghost Hunter’s Field Guide by Rich Newman identifies a George Paper as a ghost living at the Boulder Theater. Urban legend says George Paper the theater manager loved his job so much that once he died in the 1940’s the only lights his spirit would go toward is the stage lights at the Boulder Theater. The Mr Paper ghost is fascinated with light bulbs. Neon, LED all kind of numinous lights spark his transcendent interest. Alive he used to be in charge of the lights but bulbs have changed a lot since the 1940s. He appears as a tall man, wearing a 1920s business suit and hat. For many years staff and patrons reported seeing a tall man wearing a hat disappearing around corners as they approached. He seems to be roaming the halls on his inspection tour making sure lighting everywhere is in good working order before the doors open. The Boulder Theater Lounge was once called George in his tribute. But it’s not the ghosts of the Boulder Theater people want to take a picture of.

The Boulder Theater is renowned for its neon marquee. People love snapping selfies with its glowing lights in the background. It has been voted the best indoor venue and best jazz venue in the state of Colorado. Over more than a century the Boulder Theater has seen national name musicians, B.B. King, Lucinda Williams, Gregg Allman, Blues Traveler, Johnny Cash, Bonnie Raitt, Camper van Beethoven, Herbie Hancock and Leftover Salmon, as well as all kinds of performances — pole dancing, exotica erotica balls, tribute shows, stand-up comedy, film festivals, and more fill its hall with smiles, laughter and glee. It is an appealing destination for patrons and performers who want a stage with quick access to the Colorado mountains and right next to one of the most vacation-y walking malls in the world. The Boulder Theatre is a prime venue for concerts and is true to its art deco past. A visit to the Boulder Theater is a great way to experience world-class entertainment at one of the most celebrated venues in the country. Folks step right up to the glowing effervescent neon lights and come on in, it’s showtime!