Two maintenance workers push brooms over the tiered floor of the Ogden Theatre, piling ear plugs, weed capsules, a temporary tattoo and other detritus left over from rapper Playboi Carti’s concert there the night before. It’s an off day for the theater. On stage, a crew sets up backline equipment for a band to rehearse ahead of its show at Red Rocks later in the week.
Owner Doug Kauffman has seen this behind-the-scenes dance many times before. But today, he’s hung up on the scenes themselves: A safe emblazoned with the first owner’s name won’t open; the organ lofts that flank the stage are chipped; four corbels have dilapidated under the tiled terracotta roof outside. One hundred years of vaudeville performances, lectures, film screenings and, of course, concerts have exacted a price on the Ogden Theatre, which marked a century of shows on Sept. 6.
In that time, the venue has not merely witnessed Denver entertainment history — the space has hosted Sherlock Holmes author Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Prince’s final performance in Colorado in 2013 — but become it. One of the oldest still-operational theaters of its ilk in Denver, the Ogden Theatre was designated a National Historical Place shortly after Kauffman re-opened it in 1993.
Wesley Schultz, frontman of The Lumineers, used to live down the street from the Ogden when the band was still struggling at open mic nights around Denver.
“When we finally played it and I saw our name on the marquee, it definitely felt like something new was happening with the band,” Schultz said. “It’s an iconic venue … the design of the room is special because the crowd really does feel like it’s right on top of you when you’re on stage. Of the theaters to play in Denver, the Bluebird and Ogden are my favorites as far as vibe and sound.”
The Ogden was founded by John Thompson, who built the Bluebird Theater in 1914, and Henry Goodridge, a theater veteran Thompson had hired to manage the Bluebird. Thompson and Goodridge founded the Ogden under the trademark of the International Amusement Company, Goodridge’s own brand and one of Denver’s original entertainment promoters. It was designed by Harry W.J. Edbrooke, a venerable architect whose Mediterranean-style approach can also be seen several blocks east of the Ogden at 2260 East Colfax — the current location of the Abend Gallery — which features the same distinctive terracotta roof.
As a concert venue, the Ogden has become an essential component of Denver’s live music ecosystem, serving as a crucial stepping-stone from smaller, sub-1,000-person houses to venues several times larger than its 1,600 capacity, including the iconic Red Rocks Amphitheatre. Kauffman decided to purchase the Ogden, which was lying dormant, in 1993. After driving past it to size up its parking options, Kauffman wondered if it could make for a prime music venue. With help from then-mayor Wellington Webb’s Office of Economic Development, which kicked in a $200,000 small business loan toward the $550,000 needed to convert the space, the Ogden re-opened as a music venue Sept. 2.
Under the auspices of his promotion company Nobody In Particular Presents, Kauffman booked the same variety of then-cutting-edge acts that he put in Englewood’s Gothic Theater, which he’d purchased two years prior. Artists like War, who played the venue’s first concert after it re-opened, and Parliament Funkadelic, who played a handful of marathon shows there that chugged past curfew, were regulars.
In 2006, Kauffman renovated the Ogden, with the goal of expanding its capacity of 1,003 to 1,600. That meant installing a wrap-around balcony, refining the tiered floors and turning his office on the second floor into a women’s bathroom. (According to building codes, a venue’s maximum capacity is limited by its number of restrooms.)
Having helped lay the foundation for the venue, Kauffman signed a triple-net lease agreement with AEG Presents for the venue in 2006. Then a fledgling operation, the promoter has grown to become Denver’s dominant promoter in the decade since, a feat AEG Presents Rocky Mountains co-president and C.O.O. Brent Fedrizzi attributed in part to its acquisition of the Ogden.
“It’s such an iconic venue in Denver,” Fedrizzi said. “It’s a big part of a band’s trajectory in Denver. And the fans love going there.”
From about 70 when it first took over the venue, AEG now books roughly 125 shows a year at the Ogden. On the night of its anniversary, Los Angeles’ Foster the People packed the house, one example of how the promoter has proved a worthy minder of the Ogden, in Kauffman’s estimation. The promoter also made minor renovations, raising the stage and installing a greenroom with showers below the venue.
Though most know it as a rock club, the venue has been a film house for most of its century existence. The theater opened on Sept. 6, 1917 as a silent-film theater. The only mention of the theater’s premiere in that day’s edition of The Denver Post was an unassuming ad in the paper’s “Amusements” section, announcing a 7:15 p.m. screening of the Douglas Fairbanks comedy “Wild and Woolly.”
Kauffman remembered speaking with famed rock frontman Iggy Pop backstage before a show at the theater about the distinction. First Houdini, and now you, he told him.
The news left him crestfallen. “Well, at least Iggy played there.”
From the 1920s until it re-opened as a music venue, the Ogden was a motion picture theater. The handful of news clippings about the theater in this period track its controversies and changes. In 1949, a “dapper gunman” robbed the theater of $700. In 1986 an archbishop beseeched the theater to cancel a screening of Jean-Luc Godard’s controversial film “Hail Mary.” (The theater showed it anyway.) Landmark Theatres operated it from 1977 until its final screening in 1990, instituting a beloved tradition of midnight “Rocky Horror Picture Show” screenings and serving as host to early editions of the Denver Film Festival. At the time, it was considered Denver’s oldest film house.
The Ogden isn’t as young as she used to be, but Kauffman says he has no plans to sell it. Though Kauffman isn’t restricted by local or national historic societies from altering the venue, he takes pains to keep it looking like it first did.
At the moment, he’s miffed by a lighting console that’s obscuring the ornate proscenium arch above the stage, which peaks in the middle with two gold cherubs hoisting a monogram bearing the initials of its first owner, the International Amusement Company. The lighting console is literally in the way of the venue’s past. That past is the future of its aesthetic, he said, pointing to an enlarged photo on a wall that shows the venue as it appeared circa 1917.
His goal: “Keeping it looking like that picture.”
Source: The Know Reverb Features