Rebirth for a Century Old Denver Theatre
Forever Brandon deWilde's Final Stage
It was 40 years ago, on July 6th of 1972, that the life and career of actor, and then 30-year-old, Brandon deWilde came to an abrupt end in the Lakewood suburb of Denver, Colorado. Driving his Ford camper van in a light rain to Colorado General Hospital to reunite with his 2nd wife of 3 months, Janice Gero, deWilde was involved in a fatal motor vehicle accident.
A casual early rehearsal for Butterflies Are Free on the stage of the Elitch Theatre with Brandon deWilde, Maureen O'Sullivan and Karen Grassle on June 13, 1972.
From all indications it was a good run. Brandon's young son Jesse from his first marriage was there and surely enjoyed the amusement park setting. Mickey Rooney, an acquaintance of both Brandon and Janice, would soon be in town to prepare for his run at the Elitch after Brandon's was complete (As it was, Mickey Rooney's appearance in Denver would have a significant and much deeper involvement in the aftermath of Brandon's accident than most people know. Be sure and read Patrisha McLean's book All Fall Down, The Brandon deWilde Story for more regarding that story).
The play ended on July 1st, leaving Brandon in Denver for 5 days before his motor vehicle accident. He would not leave Denver alive. In a career that started at age 7 on the Broadway stage and held high promise from its very beginning, Brandon deWilde will forever be linked to this now 120 year-old historic shingle style theatre in northwest Denver.
The historic Elitch Theatre is located at the original Elitch Gardens site in northwest Denver, Colorado. Opened in 1890 it was centerpiece of the park that was the first zoo west of Chicago. The theatre was Denver's first professional theatre, hiring experienced union actors and stagehands.
The theatre was home to America's first, and oldest summer-stock theater from 1893 until the 1960s. The first films in the West were shown there in 1896. Cecil B. DeMille would send yearly telegrams wishing the theater another successful season, calling it "one of the cradles of American drama."
It closed in 1991. The amusement park moved to the current downtown location in 1994. The new $94-million dollar park was opened in 1995 with attendance reaching one-million. The original Elitch property was sold to Perry Rose in 1996 with the conditions that the theater and carousel shall never be demolished.
Exterior restoration on the historic auditorium was completed in 2007. Fund raising continues to reach 5 million dollars for interior renovations before opening to the public. The vision is to reopen as a year-round multimedia performing arts complex for the community offering education, film, live music, and theatre. It has seating for 800.
A signed Elitch program for the comedy play Butterflies Are Free from June of 1972. Courtesy of Patrisha McLean's new book, All Fall Down, The Brandon deWilde Story.
The story of Butterflies centers around a young blind man trying to make it on his own, burdened with an overprotective mother and finding a hippie girlfriend along the way. Butterflies Are Free was an opportunity for Brandon to play himself.
A great deal of the play paralleled his own life. It has been said that his performing in this play was a way for Brandon to vent his frustration with his real-life parents, as their micro-management of his life and career had stifled the development of his own persona.
In June of 1972, 30 year old Brandon deWilde (above) on the stage of the Elitch Theatre in Denver, Co., for the comedy play Butterflies Are Free. This would be one of the last press photographs taken of Brandon. He looks as good here as he ever did.
It would be interesting to know of Brandon's methodology for approaching this role. Brandon needed corrective lenses. He wore contact lenses when acting, but wouldn't it be reasonable to assume that he might have gone without them while playing the role of a blind man on stage?
If that were true, speculation into a theory that for some reason Brandon deWilde was driving without wearing corrective lenses on the day of his fatal accident would hold validity.
All indications are that Brandon, now a family man once again, was initiating an attempt to make up for lost time. Were his wild days now behind him for good? He had a new wife and a 4 year old son. He appeared thin, perhaps even a bit frail, but he was drug-free, sober and gaining weight, said wife Janice.
Revelations made in Patrisha McLean's new book All Fall Down, The Brandon deWilde Story, will verify to us that Brandon deWilde was indeed trying to "clean up his act" and become relevant again. But it would never happen.
The film version of Butterflies Are Free starred 21-year-old Edward Albert who was 9 years junior of Brandon deWilde. I do not know if deWilde was considered at any point for the film version of Butterflies, but in an ironic twist of fate the film debuted in Brandon's native New York City on the day of his death, July 6, 1972.
As the restoration of the Elitch continues, there are those that talk about its history, its past and its future. There is even talk about its ghosts.
I do not know if there are ghosts at the Elitch. But of the many notable souls that have stood on its stage in its more than one century of existence, I know of none with more reason to be there than that of Brandon deWilde.
His spirit is forever in Denver taking final curtain calls on the Elitch Theatre stage.
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