PARC DES ESTES • The tower steals the show.
In documentaries and newspaper clippings and stories transmitted about Historic Park Theater, the headline or photo or punchline goes to the tower. When people walk past the theater, their eyes turn to the tower.
It makes sense that the 80-foot structure attracts attention, with its colorful neon lights and an even more colorful story. It has gained so much attention that the theater is often referred to as the Tower of Love instead of its name.
It’s something great to see in this little mountain town.
But if you focus too much on the tower, you might miss the story of the centuries-old chairs inside the theater. They are covered in red cloth and uncomfortable enough that the owner willfully refuses to show longer movies in order to save customers from tooshie torture. Even for shorter movies, guests are encouraged to take a provided cushion or blanket. When it came to modernizing the chairs, theatergoers revolted as they do at the idea of changing any room in this historic venue.
Behind the box office you wouldn’t want to miss the story of a 5 year old girl who once sat on Roy Rogers’ lap and how she grew up owning this theater. You will see that she is still handing out tickets in her 70s. Elsewhere you will see posters of the greatest films in history and a vintage “No Smoking” sign. You’ll hear about ghost encounters and a labor of love that keeps the lights in this theater on.
On a good night, you will see the seats in the theater fill up. Even on a night with fewer people, the theater has that special feeling that visitors describe as “full of life”.
And the tower? It’s empty inside. Always has been.
On a tour of the Historic Park Theater, co-owner Jenna MacGregor recounts how famous this place is – it’s the oldest single-house theater in the country that was originally built as a movie theater and is still in use. activity.
Every word here is important, she said. There is an older theater in Kansas that opened in 1905, but it now has two screens. The older ones, like the Orpheum Theater in Denver, have been demolished in favor of something new.
Thus, the park has cemented its place in history, as evidenced by an entry in the National Register of Historic Places. This decision, in 1984, was a tactic to prevent the theater from being demolished.
MacGregor talks about a lot of things that could have brought down the theater. The 1982 Lawn Lake flood. Another 2013 flood. Lightning struck the tower directly. A new cinema in town. The most recent threat, COVID-19, is still looming.
It is a miracle that the theater has survived decades of obstacles. But it is not a mystery.
“It’s only still here because of my family,” said MacGregor, who owns the theater with his mother, Sharon Steely.
They are the last of a small line of people who have kept the theater alive. Each owner has their own stories, some of which are lost and others have evolved into their own kind of folklore.
The history of the theater begins in 1913, when the film industry was just beginning. At that time, there were more than 21,000 movie theaters in the country, according to Britannica.
The theater was born just a few years after the neighboring Stanley Hotel made its elegant debut in 1909. Both aimed to establish Estes Park’s reputation as “a very high class, upscale tourist town,” explains Sean Doherty, who made two documentaries on Park Theater.
“It had to be quite unique and modern to have a theater in a city like this at the time,” Doherty said. “It still amazes me that it was built in the first place.”
The theater was soon owned by a man named Ralph Gwynn. He was the one who added the tower and the lobby in 1926. He was the one who managed to get some of Hollywood’s greatest movies to star.
Gwynn is known as the man behind the theater’s early successes. He is also known as a mysterious man who lived behind the screen of the theater.
During his research, Doherty struggled to find a single photo of Gwynn. But he was told that Gwynn was still wearing a costume and that he died in a weird way: he went to a sandwich shop, went back to the theater and shouted, “Oh, my God, let it rain”. He then had a fatal heart attack.
At least that’s the story people tell. And people tell stories about the tower.
Some believe Gwynn constructed the monolith as a metaphor, but there are several metaphors at play.
Maybe Gwynn built the tower after the love of his life left him at the altar. The heartbroken man wanted the tower to look like his heart without it: empty.
Or maybe he wanted the tower to look like the woman: hollow on the inside and beautiful on the outside.
Another theory? The tower was designed to resemble a jukebox, a testament to Gwynn’s innovations in sound.
“I can’t say I have an opinion anyway,” Doherty says. “I guess we’ll never know for sure.”
After Gwynn’s death, a businessman who didn’t know much about the business bought the theater in 1963. Within a few years he changed hands again to a couple who knew all about the business. .
Mickey and Ola Stanger started running cinemas in Colorado in 1946 and passed their love of cinema on to their children, including their daughter Sharon Steely.
The cinema business had a magical childhood. She never wanted to leave him.
“I’m in my 70s and been in the acting business since I was 1 year old,” Steely said. “I grew up happy and that makes me happy.”
Ditto with his daughter. MacGregor, 46, learned how to sell tickets before he could speak. Now The Park feels like a family member and a home from home.
“If I’m feeling down, I just come here,” she said. “It changes my day.”
When you are here you see rugs hanging on the walls, an old fashioned aid for sound quality. When the movie is about to start, the light bulbs that look like candelabra go out. You sink into a cushion above the red chair and sink your feet against the parquet, where so many others have rested their feet. It’s time to look at the screen, but you’ll see people looking around, maybe towards the piano in the corner or maybe towards the wooden beams on the ceiling. Everywhere you watch it feels like you are seeing a movie as if it was meant to be seen.
That’s why whenever Park Theater risked closing, MacGregor’s family would step in.
Over the past year, as the pandemic shut down the theater for months, MacGregor made up for lost income by selling a house. She and her mother relied on their other businesses, including a beer garden in town.
“Our world revolves around the theater,” MacGregor said. “We will do everything for this. “
“We want the theater to have existed for generations,” adds his mother. “It’s a treasure.”
You’ll almost see them both at the theater, pouring butter over popcorn and smiling as they ask customers if they’ve been here before.
They know the regulars, like Doherty, who sees a movie here once or twice a month. As a filmmaker and history buff, he says seeing movies at the Park Theater doesn’t compare to streaming at home.
“It brings back that lost art when going to the theater was really a big deal,” he said. “Being here, you can feel the history. You can see it and feel it.
If you ask Seely, it doesn’t compare to theaters today, either.
“Those 24 plexes, forget them,” she said. “It’s the theater experience.”
They’ve seen countless movies here, but mom and daughter always like to squeeze in the back row. They can’t help but want to be a part of the magic, as the arms wrap around the shoulders and the shared laughs form a chorus. Together, they let their troubles go away while the movie is playing.
When the credits roll and people walk away, the Tower of Love will remain in sight above all of the city’s shorter buildings. And then the tower will disappear in the rearview mirror.
But the words of a 70-year-old woman might stay in your mind.
“Have you been to a theater that you like better than this?” Seely is known to ask customers, who always shake their heads.
“There it is. There is no such thing.