Walking into Sprouts Farmers Market, a young woman, obviously a recent immigrant to our North Denver neighborhood, asked me if I knew what the old green frame building on the lot with the liquor store was. Yes, I told her. That’s the old Elitch Theatre and when I was in high school, I worked as a stagehand for the summer theater seasons. The Elitch theatre was like the library. I have always thought of Elitch Theatre and the library as a kind of paradise. Imagine being paid to watch all the plays at Elitch’s, the oldest summer stock theater in the USA. Many of my colleagues from the International Association of Theatrical and Stage Employees (IATSE) local 7, would sneak out for a beer at the Tracadero across from the theater after setting up the stage sets. But I would always stay and watch the play as I had a long-time dream of being a writer of plays. Still do. May the Lord preserve me.
The Gurtler family who inherited the park and the theater from their grandmother Mulvihill’s side of the family, sought out neighbors near the park to rent rooms for the yearly troop of actors who trod the boards of the historic theater. And the ever-abstemious Gurtlers saved money as the North Denver home room rents were much cheaper than downtown hotels. Many famous actors played at Elitch’s. Douglas Fairbanks, Edward G. Robinson and Spring Byington from the neighborhood to mention a few.
I attended Holy Family High School which used to be ensconced at 44th and Utica, now replaced by Arrupe Jesuit High. The Sisters of Loretto who ran Holy Family actually talked the Gurtlers into allowing the school’s spring musical to be presented at the old theater. No harm since the Holy Family musicals were always before the summer stock season rehearsals. I played the butler to the student prince in “The Student Prince”. Again great fun in paradise right here in North Denver.
I recall as though yesterday May of 1951. Friday mornings were reserved for the high school students to attend Mass at Holy Family. The nuns did their best to teach us to love Latin and a good English sentence. This one particular Friday, I sat about four pews back on the right side. Ahead of me in the end seat of the first pew knelt a radiant and beautiful young woman with her light blond hair enveloped in an apple colored kerchief. I will always remember that beautiful dappled kerchief. My fellow students told me later that instead of kneeling as customary before Mass, I stood transfixed as though I was experiencing a vision from on high.
In those days the nuns had little clickers which they clicked. One click meant you kneel. Two clicks, stand up. Three clicks, sit down. I did not hear a single click. I stood in my pew transfixed beholding the radiance of the young ingénue in front of me. Finally Sister Martha Ann, our seventh grade teacher, came up behind me and grabbed me by the elbow. Sister said in a stage whisper, “Kneel down, Dennis Gallagher, perhaps you can say hello to Miss Kelly after Mass.” Miss Kelly turned back to see who was making a fuss about her being in the church with the students. I knelt down amidst the aroma of beeswax candles burning. Incense hung like ghosts in the cloudy air of the church. Grace actually smiled at me from under her apple colored scarf. I was in church, but here I was in heaven. Grace Kelly actually smiled at me. “Good bye, Miss Kelly wherever you are,” I thought. Years later Sr. Martha Ann kidded me about being distracted by Miss Kelly at Mass. She said she planned to introduce me to her after the service, but she left early.
Miss Kelly left right after communion, swiftly she left through the old iron side door, probably back to an early rehearsal in the side garden south of the theater near the Tracadero ballroom.
Grace, acting as ingénue for the stock company in the summer of 1951 helped spark her swift career rise in show business. She started that season appearing in “For Love or Money.” Helen Bonfils whose father Fred owned The Denver Post also had a part in that first season play. She and Grace became friends. Grace appeared in six more plays that season including “The Man Who Came to Dinner, O Mistress Mine and the Detective Story.” She later went on the play opposite Gary Cooper in “High Noon,” a movie that became the crowning success of her career.
Grace stayed with Mrs. Rose Sudmeier in her bungalow on 40th and Raleigh Street, a few blocks from the theater. Rose said Grace had not forgotten her working class Irish labor roots. She always did her own laundry and didn’t talk about herself as much as some of the other Elitch actresses who stayed with her. Rose and her family treasured the memory of Grace staying with her. Grace later became Princess Grace of Monaco, marrying Prince Ranier of Monaco.
The old Elitch Theatre is still closed up now and a foundation is working to finish rehabbing the magnificent structure. Until it reopens we can enjoy the dark green exterior mirroring Shakespeare’s Globe in London. We will let the ghosts of all the actors and stage hands who trod across the boards of Denver’s most unique architectural entertainment treasure whisper to each other in the darkness at the old place. I spoke with several ushers at the theater. They always believed that they saw Mary Elitch in the balcony after evening plays haunting the balcony section on the second story of the theater. We’ll have to wait until the pandemic is over and we don’t have to keep safe distances to see if that story is fact or fiction.