Opera House


1908 - 2005

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Auditorium 1908 postcardTo boost Denver as a convention city, Mayor Speer campaigned for a $500,000 Municipal Auditorium-- the largest in America except for Madison Square Garden in New York. Construction commenced in 1906 and was completed in time to host the Democratic National Convention in 1908. Speer and the Chamber of Commerce raised $100,000 to celebrate the July 7 grand opening of the Auditorium with Denver's first and only national political convention, when William Jennings Bryan was nominated the third time for President.

The original building was used as a multi-purpose structure that accommodated concerts, operas, theatrical shows, conventions, basketball, auto shows and even circuses, with flags flying from its domes and light bulbs outlining its pediments, cornice, and corners. The proscenium of the original building was designed to be portable so as to create different-sized spaces for different events. When the proscenium was in place, the building was a 3,326 seat theatre with an extraordinarily large back stage area. When the proscenium was raised, increasing the seating capacity to 12,000, the stage and backstage area became large enough to hold circuses and rodeos.

Auditorium 1923 postcardMusic Week was an annual event in Denver for several years in the 1920s and 30s during which assembled musical organizations from various communities of the state presented programs. Most of the performances were in the Auditorium. An opera or operetta was commonly included in the offerings. In 1921, a company of Denver musicians performed Flotow's Martha on May 19 and 20 at the Auditorium. Of special historical significance, the two performances were broadcast from the Auditorium by radio station 9ZAF-- the first time that a full-length opera was broadcast in the United States by a licensed Special Amateur radio station. Wireless amateurs heard the opera in Denver, Boulder, Colorado Springs, Pueblo and southern Wyoming.

Rather surprisingly and unexpectedly, the Auditorium became the de facto opera house for Denver, and the most enduring. For more than 75 years, until the 1980s and 90s when other halls opened in an adjoining complex, the Auditorium hosted almost all visiting opera companies and opera concerts, as well as local opera productions. The Tabor Grand Opera House, so royally inaugurated in 1881, held fewer and fewer operatic events as the years went by, the last being a musical comedy company in 1916. The Tabor became a movie theater in 1921, was renovated in 1928, but never regained its grandeur. It was demolished in 1964. The Broadway Theater, opened in 1890, at first a worthy competitor for the Tabor, eventually became the preferred venue for most operatic performances, until the more commodious Auditorium opened. The Broadway was torn down in 1955.

By the 1940s, Denver was outgrowing its Municipal Auditorium. Some people wanted to tear the Auditorium down and build a new one. Instead, the city remodeled it. In 1955 the Auditorium was closed and renovation was begun to make the grand old house a modern, plush intimate theatre. In September 1956, the project was completed and the seating capacity was decreased to 2,240.

In the 1980s other theater buildings were built next to the Auditorium, including the Boettcher Concert Hall, Bonfils Theatre Complex and the Seawell Ballroom. Together these buildings now make up the Denver Center for the Performing Arts, the largest performing arts center in the world under one roof in terms of the performing spaces and the variety of activities taking place. With 10,800 seats in nine theatres, it ranks second in seating capacity only to New York's Lincoln Center.

The Auditorium arena received another makeover in the early 1990s when the Temple Hoyne Buell Theater was built into it. This theater is a 2,834-seat reincarnation of the Municipal Auditorium's old theater and basketball and wrestling arena. In 1992, after the construction of the Buell Theatre, the facade of the Municipal Auditorium was renovated and the seating capacity became 2,065. The Auditorium was renamed Quigg Newton Denver Municipal Auditorium in 2002.

The historic shell of the old Auditorium Theatre was renovated and named the Ellie Caulkins Opera House, honoring 'Denver's First Lady of Opera' Ellie Caulkins and her family who helped make the opera house possible. It opened as Opera Colorado's new home September 10, 2005, with a gala benefit for the Opera Colorado Foundation, featuring some of the best and brightest performers from the world of opera. Inspired by the world's greatest opera houses, including the Metropolitan Opera and La Scala, architect Peter Lucking created a visually striking and acoustically sound performance space. Three shallow balconies, private box seats and a raked main floor provide an audience of 2,268 people an agreeable view of the stage. Opera Colorado's first season in the new opera house opens November 3, 2005 with a production of Carmen starring international superstar Denyce Graves in the title role.

Following is a photographic record of some of the features of the original Auditorium and the newly renovated historic building once again serving as Denver's principal opera house.

Auditorium 1908-19 

Auditorium about 1910

Auditorium interior 1910 

Auditorium Interior 1910

Schuann-Heink 1918

Ernestine Schumann-Heink Farewell Concert March 1918

Organ & Margaret Wilson

Margaret Wilson Singing at Organ Dedication  March 1918
(President Woodrow Wilson's daughter)
Sousa concert 1921

John Phillip Sousa Band Concert 1921

Chocolate Soldier cast 1920

Cast of The Chocolate Soldier in Front of the Auditorium April 1920

Auditorium 1929

Auditorium 1929

Auditorium interior about 1929

Auditorium Interior about 1929

Auditorium stage about 1930

Auditorium Proscenium Stage about 1930

Auditorium interior 1946

Auditorium Interior 1946

Ellie Opera House Lobby


Ellie Caulkins Opera House 2005
Ellie Opera House Auditorium


Ellie Caulkins Opera House 2005
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