The Oldest Theater West of the Mississippi

Historic Park Theatre

Last week I was privy to an unexpected ghost story involving a shattered romantic who died behind the screen. That’s right, this is not an on-screen drama to view from the customer’s perspective in the theater chair, but rather a story that unfolds behind the scenes and reaches its mortal conclusion on the darker-side of the projected image.

Was Once a Slaughterhouse

I was with Tony, my projectionist, and we were driving to a seedy part of Denver to look at some 35mm projector components that a company was offering to donate to us. They were anxious to move out of their current location and into new digs because the building they occupied had been a slaughterhouse up until the 1960′s, and “the rats and cockroaches were the real owners of the joint.” It was an old building that you could only get to by driving through a series of back-alleys in an industrial area. It was also prone to flooding, which brought out the old slaughterhouse smells. The noxious fumes drifting in from the nearby pet food factory added further insult to injury. It was no place for a bag-lunch, although that’s exactly what the staff there was eating when we approached.

As I took pictures of the equipment and walked around pile after pile of other items salvaged from an endless stream of now defunct theaters, all dead and gone, I tried not to think about all the hanging slabs of meat that once occupied this space as they got cut apart into smaller chunks, the blood draining along the grooves in the cement floor to the various drainage points visible throughout.

Back in the car I tried to clear my mind of all the morbid thoughts that were dancing around in my mind. Seeing this parade of mechanical parts gutted from old theaters and heaped into small mountains only made me wonder how much longer my theater was going to last. Tony then handed me a flier for the theater where he is working during the summer months, located in Estes Park – not too far from the Stanley Hotel which inspired Stephen King to write The Shining.

I took solace from the fact that this venue where Tony also worked as a projectionist was still around and kicking. Not only that, but it had been constructed in 1913 and was one of the oldest theaters in the U.S. that was built as a motion picture theater and still operated as such.

The flier Tony gave me listed the films that were screening there for the month of June and was mostly dominated by a monthly grid. Film names fell in on the day they started their run with arrows extending out through the week to show their length of play. Angels & Demons, My Life in Ruins, Year One, Public Enemies. Nothing too crazy. On the upper left side was a picture of the theater, and that caught my attention.

“Historic Park Theatre.” Looking it up later, this is what Cinema Treasures says about it:

The Park Theatre was constructed by J.L. Jackson in 1913. It was completed by C.H. Bond in 1914/15. Bond sold the building to Fred Jackson, who operated the theatre untill 1922 when he sold it to Ralph Gwynn. Gwynn added the landmark tower. This tower is termed the “Tower of Love”, because Gwynn built it representing the beautiful love of his life. Gwynn operated the theatre until his death.

But Cinema Treasures isn’t telling you the whole story. And as I looked at the picture of the Tower of Love on the flier Tony had given to me I let out a whistle. It was a beautiful, ornate 80-foot-tall structure. Tony gave me a side-long glance (he was driving) and said: “There’s an interesting story behind that.”

1913 PARK THEATER BY CLATWORTHY

According to Tony, Gwynn had been a projectionist in the Boulder-Denver area back in the early 1900′s and then made some cash off an invention. He bought the theater in Estes and built the Tower of Love himself as a memorial to the love of his life. Just as I was about to say how that was the sweetest thing I’d heard all day, Tony added: “She left him stranded at the alter.”

“What?!” I was shocked. “I take it she wasn’t too impressed with the tower.”

Tony: “He built it after she left him.”

That made no sense to me as I thought about the scale of the project and its large size, so I then asked him what was inside of it. More rooms? A huge chandelier? A spiral staircase leading to an upper deck, perhaps?

Tony: “Nothing. It’s beautiful on the outside, hollow on the inside. Just like the woman he fell in love with.”

Now I’m thinking to myself that this is really going that extra mile, but Gwynn was clearly a unique character and, it turns out, a bit of a recluse. Still, this is Estes Park, real-estate prices are at a premium. So I ask Tony if anything was ever put inside of it in recent years, or if there were any pending plans to make use of that interior tower space somehow. “No way,” Tony tells me. “We’re all way too superstitious for that. Gwynn didn’t just own the theater, he worked it, and had a room built right behind the screen where he lived and slept. He was also discovered dead in that room, and we still feel his presence in the theater.”

It was 1963 when Ralph Gwynn died of a heart-attack in the room he had constructed behind the silver screen. His last words: “Oh, God, let it rain!”

Historic Park Theatre interior

Footnotes:

Apparently, ghost investigators have already checked out the Historic Park Theater and run it for EVP’s (Electronic Voice Phenomena) and obtained various spooky audio clips.

The theater has a myspace page that lists it as a “Female, 96-years-old.” And, guys, don’t let her  phalic “Tower of Love” scare you off, she’s listed as “single” and a “Taurus.”

For more information about the Historic Park Theatre, you can click on the links below to see short documentaries by SDI Entertainment:

http://www.sdientertainment.com/parktheatrefamilyalbum.html

http://www.sdientertainment.com/toweroflove.html

0 Response The Oldest Theater West of the Mississippi
Posted By medusamorlock : June 15, 2009 1:01 pm

Fascinating introduction to this unique theatre and its incredible legacy! And thanks for the links to the vids!

Posted By medusamorlock : June 15, 2009 1:01 pm

Fascinating introduction to this unique theatre and its incredible legacy! And thanks for the links to the vids!

Posted By suzidoll : June 15, 2009 5:03 pm

Such a cool story. I just found out yesterday that the local movie palace in my neighborhood, the Music Box in Chicago, is haunted as well. It’s supposedly haunted by an employee who had worked there for decades. He laid down on a comfy couch and died there — and then never really left.

Posted By suzidoll : June 15, 2009 5:03 pm

Such a cool story. I just found out yesterday that the local movie palace in my neighborhood, the Music Box in Chicago, is haunted as well. It’s supposedly haunted by an employee who had worked there for decades. He laid down on a comfy couch and died there — and then never really left.

Posted By moirafinnie : June 15, 2009 5:51 pm

Oooh, this is chilling.

Is it my imagination or do theaters seem to have more ghostly lore attached to them than other spaces? Maybe it’s something about the emotions that are evoked so often there. Have you been inside this theater, Keelsetter? Planning a night out there soon? Bringing a ghost meter to detect the ether around?

I love old theaters, and, having lived in a house that may have been haunted, know exactly what Tony meant when he said “we still feel his presence in the theater.” Queue the Twilight Zone music…this was fun to read. Hope the 35mm equipment becomes of use to you.

Posted By moirafinnie : June 15, 2009 5:51 pm

Oooh, this is chilling.

Is it my imagination or do theaters seem to have more ghostly lore attached to them than other spaces? Maybe it’s something about the emotions that are evoked so often there. Have you been inside this theater, Keelsetter? Planning a night out there soon? Bringing a ghost meter to detect the ether around?

I love old theaters, and, having lived in a house that may have been haunted, know exactly what Tony meant when he said “we still feel his presence in the theater.” Queue the Twilight Zone music…this was fun to read. Hope the 35mm equipment becomes of use to you.

Posted By Keelsetter : June 16, 2009 1:35 pm

I’m planning on going there at the end of this month, and making a night of it by staying at the Stanley Hotel. I love haunted buildings. A few years ago I even staged a screening of THE CHANGELING (1980) at the Henry Treat Rogers mansion in Denver that inspired its story. We even broke out the Ouija board – but the spirits were in no mood to entertain us that night.

Posted By Keelsetter : June 16, 2009 1:35 pm

I’m planning on going there at the end of this month, and making a night of it by staying at the Stanley Hotel. I love haunted buildings. A few years ago I even staged a screening of THE CHANGELING (1980) at the Henry Treat Rogers mansion in Denver that inspired its story. We even broke out the Ouija board – but the spirits were in no mood to entertain us that night.

Posted By Andrew : June 16, 2009 4:21 pm

You have far more nerve than I, Keelsetter. If you go to this theater in the future, it would be fun to read your own inklings on the spiritual vibe there. What is the Henry Treat Rogers Mansion and why is it haunted.
Andrew

Posted By Andrew : June 16, 2009 4:21 pm

You have far more nerve than I, Keelsetter. If you go to this theater in the future, it would be fun to read your own inklings on the spiritual vibe there. What is the Henry Treat Rogers Mansion and why is it haunted.
Andrew

Posted By keelsetter : June 17, 2009 3:08 pm

Hi, Andrew -

Wikipedia has a pretty thorough entry for it that you can see here:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Changeling_(film)

The whole angle involving a crippled child with a penchant for a red, rubber ball gives the story an extra eerie appeal.

Posted By keelsetter : June 17, 2009 3:08 pm

Hi, Andrew -

Wikipedia has a pretty thorough entry for it that you can see here:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Changeling_(film)

The whole angle involving a crippled child with a penchant for a red, rubber ball gives the story an extra eerie appeal.

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