Arts and Culture / Magazine Feature

Historic mural hidden in Margery Reed Hall

historic theatre

The DU Little Theatre circa 1930. Photo courtesy of DU Archives.

Up behind the 16-foot-high proscenium arch in the Little Theatre in Margery Reed Hall, tucked amid lighting instruments and thick stage ropes, is a mysterious strip of painted plaster about 10 feet long and 2 feet high.

The ribbon of rich yellow sharply contrasts the thick, dark paint shrouding the theater interior and includes striking scenes of Elizabethan figures straight out of Shakespeare.

“It was that way when I was a graduate student here in 1982,” says theater Associate Professor Davy Davis. The figures are high up and not visible to the audience so no one ever paid attention to it, he says.

Well, they’re paying attention now.

DU art collection curator Dan Jacobs is eagerly “rediscovering” the 78-year-old painted figures and how they figure into the University of Denver’s art and theater heritage.

“It’s sleuthing,” Jacobs says. “This was lost in plain view.”

What Jacobs knows so far is that the unpainted strip is the tip of an elaborate mural of Shakespearean characters and themes that previously covered the theater’s 24-foot-wide proscenium arch. The proscenium, an arched wall that frames the stage for the audience, was painstakingly painted in 1929 by the “dean of Colorado painters,” John Edward Thompson, for $6,836 — about $80,000 in 2006 dollars.

Thompson, who called the mural one of his most important works, was instrumental in establishing the DU art school, where he taught painting and drawing until his death in 1945. 

He continues to be regarded as Colorado’s “most influential modern artist,” according to art biographer Elizabeth Schlosser, and works by the Paul Cezanne-like modern artist hang in the National Museum of American Art in Washington, D.C., and the Denver Art Museum.

The market for Thompson’s work is “active and substantial,” says art appraiser Jack Keunin, commanding prices in the tens of thousands.

Thompson’s popularity notwithstanding, when his mural was painted over, institutional memory of it faded into dusty archives only now being brought to light. From press clippings, Jacobs has determined that the richly colored, oriental-rug-like mural was painted over on order of then-theater Director Walter Sinclair barely two years after Thompson completed it for the dedication of the 240-seat DU theater.

According to a 1931 Denver Post account, Sinclair needed space for equipment and smugly regarded Shakespeare as “out of date.”

Thompson, the account reported, viewed it as an act as vandalism and a bitter feud erupted. “I know now why some men, otherwise law abiding and gentle and long suffering, sometimes commit murder,” he told the Post.

Associates of Thompson’s were only slightly less upset, organizing a boycott of Sinclair’s performances and threatening “a nose-tweaking and headbusting” as retribution, the Post reported.

Whether fisticuffs ever occurred is uncertain. Of greater importance to Jacobs is whether the covering paint can be removed without damaging the mural, how much it would cost, and how any restoration might figure into evolving University plans to convert the theater into a lecture hall for the Daniels College of Business.

The restoration piece of the sleuthing is the job of conservator Lisa Capano, who has determined that multiple coats of paint cover the mural and a variety of solvents are needed to remove the layers. She has successfully restored a sample area of about 45 square inches.

Jacobs says he believes it is “probable” that all the paint can be removed successfully.

“I am greatly encouraged about the quality of the original composition and our prospects for bringing it back to a condition we would be proud to show off,” he says.

The theater has seen a lot of use since 1929, with two six-foot holes punched into the walls for doors and cables and numerous chips and nicks marring what stagehands presumed was an arch, not a work of art.

Equally uncertain is the future of the theater itself, the only one in Colorado still operated “hemp style” — bars for hanging lights and curtains are moved manually by inch-thick, hemp-fiber ropes and pulleys.

Plans to convert the space to a lecture hall are still active, says University Architect Mark Rodgers, who notes that renovating the theater is not incompatible with preserving the mural.

And Jacobs points out that restoration help might be available.

“This is a very fundable project for the state,” he says. “We’d end up with a very historically significant work of art to adorn the building.”

But the primary value, Jacobs says, lies in the role the mural plays in the story of DU.

“Part of becoming a great university,” he says, “is that you preserve and retain your history.”

This article originally appeared in The Source, April 2007.

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