Monday marked a milestone for the historic Midwest Theater as the venue celebrated its 75th anniversary as a community space.
The Midwest Theater has been through renovations, hosted various artists and welcomed the community into its doors for educational programs and community events.
While the pandemic has hindered the theater’s ability to host artists and welcome large crowds, executive director Billy Estes said the theater will celebrate this anniversary throughout the week. He also said the milestone marks a phased reopening of the theater.
“To celebrate our 75th anniversary, we’ve stretched out events all week,” he said. “We’re going to be open and gradually have more and more events as we re-staff up with volunteers and put some staff back in place, who have been gone the past nine to 10 months.”
Estes also looked back at the theater’s connection with the community, especially within the past year. Even though the pandemic affected the ability to welcome the community into the theater, Estes said it allowed them to creatively bring the arts to the community.
“The drive-in for us and the pop-up movies outdoors has been another example of how the Midwest Theater is really more than the building itself,” he said. “Today we’re celebrating William Ostenberg‘s beautiful theater he built, but in that 75 years, especially the last 22 years, the theater has really evolved to what it means to support the community.”
The theater showed the 1946 film "Gilda" starring Rita Hayworth Monday evening, which was the first film shown at the Midwest Theater when it reopened after a fire in the 1940s.
“There’s been a theater on that site since 1925,” Estes said. “It burned in 1945 as the Egyptian Theater and the last movie on screen per the photos of the marquee during the fire was also another Rita Hayworth film called ‘Tonight and Every Night.’”
Estes still has souvenir tickets from the grand gala opening night. Tickets cost 60 cents for seats on the main floor. There is also a souvenir program in the theater’s archives.
Charles Strong, a prominent Denver architect, was hired to draw the new design plans for the new theater after the Egyptian Theater was destroyed. The new theater opened on May 3, 1946, designed in the modernistic style.
The May 1, 1946, Star-Herald Midwest Theater edition described the theater’s most striking feature as “the marquee with a stainless steel and aluminum tower extending 60 feet above the entrance.”
While Strong was designing the Midwest Theater, he was also designing two similar theaters in Golden and Lamar, Colorado. The Golden theater building has since been remodeled into apartments, but the Lamar Theater is still in operation and will celebrate its 75th anniversary in November.
Since the Midwest Theater opened, it has gone through numerous renovations. In the mid-1950s, the seats on the main floor were replaced and the screen was redone to allow for cinemascope widescreen films. The lobby has also been repainted and the carpet has been replaced with the current carpet as a replica of the original.
The Friends of the Midwest Theater, which was organized in 1998, has invested $2.3 million into the theater. Additional community outreach functions have also been added over the years, including children’s theater and a community concert series in the early 2000s. The first event Friends of Midwest Theater promoted was a concert with the Glenn Miller Orchestra.
“One thing I’m seeing now from our performing arts outreach is we’re starting to see children we saw 10 years ago, who attended shows as a middle schooler now attending with their children,” Estes said.
Estes hopes the theater has allowed the community to consume the arts in support of their emotional and spiritual needs.
The Midwest’s celebration will continue Friday, May 7 when April Verch and Cody Walters perform live.
“Friday, we’re going to be back in the space with the first live performance since COVID,” Estes said. “That in itself is exciting.”
“Nomadland” will also return to the Midwest Theater for an encore screening Saturday, May 8 at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday, May 9 at 1:30 p.m.
“It’s won Golden Globes and SAGG awards and British film awards and now with the Oscars best picture, best director and best actress, it was only fitting for us to bring back ‘Nomadland’ as part of our anniversary because the Midwest also has a role in the movie,” he said.
Estes said he sees this week’s events as a celebration of the community. As the Midwest celebrates 75 years as the community’s living room, Estes hopes it continues to be a place where people can make memories for years to come.