The following was excerpted primarily from a show program from Elitch Theatre; the content has been edited and additions made to it.
When Mary and John Elitch arrived in Denver in 1882 looking for a site for their dream house, little did they know that the place they were seeking would eventually become the most distinctive amusement park in America and its theatre would attain a world wide reputation. John Elitch was an actor prior to his marriage and knew everyone of note connected with the theatre world. Unfortunately, he did not live to see the first dramatic performance in the (then called) Gardens Theatre in May of 1891. Mary Elitch carried on and continued to present the best vaudeville and followed it with light opera for several seasons. Then she decided to organize her own summer stock theatre company with the first performance held on May 30, 1897.
Mary brought many well known actors and actresses to Denver, some of whom were just starting out and went on to become some of the most famous names in the theatre, including: Sarah Bernhardt, Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., and Tyrone Power. In 1916, a group of prominent businessmen bought Elitch’s from Mary Elitch. She kept her residence at the park and lived there until her passing in 1936.
Starting in 1916, John Mulvihill managed the park and several years later bought out his partners, becoming the sole owner of both the park and the theatre until his death in 1930. He loved the arts and the Elitch Theatre flourished with him at the helm. The park benefited as well during Mr. Mulvihill’s years at Elitch’s. The famed Trocadero Ballroom was constructed in 1917. The Wildcat roller coaster was created and installed by the Philadelphia Toboggan Company in 1922. The same company installed the carousel in 1928. Mr. Mulvihill’s son-in-law, Arnold B. Gurtler, Sr. succeeded him as president of the park and the theatre.
In 1941 the Elitch Theatre celebrated its Golden Jubilee – 50 years as the oldest summer stock theatre in the country. Helen Bonfils, owner of the Denver Post at that time, was one of the great ladies of the Elitch Theatre, playing her roles with great gusto and talent there. Later, she became administrator and producer of Elitch Theatre.
In 1991 the theatre celebrated its 100th birthday with the musical, “The Robber Bridegroom” starring Patrick Cassidy. Though Elitch Gardens Amusement Park has been relocated to downtown Denver, the theatre building has remained at its original site and is now a designated historic landmark. Reconstruction is under way in 2023 with a planned re-opening for plays in summer 2024.
There is so much more to the long, rich history of Elitch Theatre, be sure to check it out. Mary Elitch in particular is a fascinating figure – she housed many wild animals at the park and was even known to dance with the bears! Click here to read more about Mary Elitch.