New Kids in Town

My association with what is today the Creede Repertory Theatre—the building, that is—goes right back to the beginning. I was probably conceived in it. My parents, OK and Barbara, lived in the upstairs apartment of the building after they got married in 1951.

They moved to Denver before I was born in 1953, so I did not become an ambulatory resident of Creede till later, in 1960, and that’s when my memories of the building begin. It functioned as a cinema in the early 1960s and it was the best entertainment deal in town on Friday and Saturday night, the only nights it was open. 25¢ got you a cartoon and the feature presentation. “Jason and the Argonauts” (1963) filled me with wanderlust; “Strait-jacket,” with Joan Crawford (1964) may have scarred me for life. Ask any of my contemporaries from that time to explain the phrase “Uh-oh; blue lights!” It is seared into the memory of all of us, because the illumination of the small blue bulbs in the sconces that lined the walls of the auditorium signaled that the show was about to begin. It was a community ritual for the entire audience to say the phrase in unison when someone noticed that the lights had been turned on.

If I remember correctly, film showings in the building stopped around 1965. After that the owner of the building, Carl Helfin, developed and a presented a stock entertainment for tourists that drew on the town’s Wild West history. It was a camp melodrama that featured arch-villains, damsels in distress, gunfights, and other predictable elements. My mother, by then a single mom, acted in it briefly, as “Pinkie.” Her cousins Kay and Gea Wyley were one of the line of cancan girls, who danced a homegrown version of the cancan to the tune—if I remember right—of “The Darktown Strutters’ Ball,” pounded out skillfully on a honky-tonk piano by Larry Belt. The climax of the show, to my young mind anyway, was when the can-can girls removed the garters from their legs (beautiful, decorative elastic bands made by Creede resident Mary Thom) and tossed them into the audience. I always aspired to catch one; I never did.

Rumors began in the spring of 1966 that the theater would be different that summer; the melodrama was finished, and now a group of a college students from Kansas were coming to put on some plays. This was something completely new under the sun for Creede. Our experience of plays at that point was limited to school plays, and the idea of college students seemed exotic. I had personally never met one, even though I aspired to be one eventually. So everyone was curious. My brothers and I had a ringside seat because we were living in a house behind the theater on Cliff Street, right across the flume.

12-year-olds have a special talent for getting in the way and I’m sure that’s mostly what I did that summer. I wanted to do everything that a boy could do with the theater people because they seemed really cool, they were doing something new and interesting, and they needed help, even if not from the likes of me. You couldn’t walk into the theater building during the day (stage door, back door, or front door, all of them always open) without stumbling across a dozen different things going on amid good-natured chaos. My brothers and I were on a first-name basis with the whole company in the first week. I think now how tolerant they were of us! We probably all had an air of entitlement since our grandmother Lillian owned the hotel next door and our Uncle Ed owned the building the male actors were staying in. But we certainly tried to be helpful and I hope that we were from time to time.

As the summer unfolded, Creedites got a slow-motion revelation of what all this work and activity were bringing about. I saw every show that summer and each opening night was more exciting than the last. Mr. Roberts, The Bat, Our Town, The Rainmaker, and Born Yesterday. Whenever any of these plays has come to my attention since then—and that happens regularly, since they’re mostly classics of American theater—I am reminded of that summer in Creede and the fairly extraordinary fact that I saw all of these plays performed professionally and very impressively when I was 12 years old.

Many scenes remain in my mind today from that season—scenes from the plays themselves, and scenes from the whirlwind that made them possible and that always miraculously stopped just before curtain time. I remember near collisions of men walking about in all directions with two-by-fours on their shoulders, actors sitting in a row in a cramped area under the stage, trying to get their makeup on in poor light. But the scene that I remember the most is one I saw from my bedroom window.

The sound of the creek in the flume was a constant then as it is now and when you live next to the creek, as we did, you tune it out after a while. But one afternoon I kept hearing a sound rising above the roar of the creek that I couldn’t identify, and I went to the window to see what it was. There, on the other side of the creek and behind the theater, with his back to the building, facing our house and the cliffs, was one of the actors, shouting and gesticulating. At first I looked for the person he was talking to but then I got it: he was rehearsing his part. That was something really exciting to see and I didn’t really understand why at the time, but I couldn’t turn away till he stopped some time later, perhaps satisfied that he’d conquered the thing.

Today I think what left such an impression on me was that I was a secret witness to his dedication and effort. Here was this guy, alone and unobserved for all he knew, trying his best to get something right because he knew that he had to make it work later, with no makeover. There are lots of times in life when you have to do that and I was lucky to get this enduring example of a way to approach it when I was a boy.