Good to be the Chief: From the ’20s to the 21st century, this landmark venue unites the community with entertainment | SteamboatToday.com

Good to be the Chief: From the ’20s to the 21st century, this landmark venue unites the community with entertainment

A cultural center from the beginning, the Chief Theater is one of the few local establishments that stands as a tribute to Steamboat Springs’ cultural diversity.





A cultural center from the beginning, the Chief Theater is one of the few local establishments that stands as a tribute to Steamboat Springs' cultural diversity.

Built for the community, the historic Chief Theater stands as a connecting thread for downtown Steamboat Springs, anchoring the 800 block of Lincoln Avenue.

Running the Chief

■ Friends of the Chief board members

Alice Klauzer — President

Jeff LaRoche — VP, finanace committee member

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Chantil Finklea — Treasurer Chair of Finance Committee

Val Stafford — Secretary and Chair of Facilities committee

Kim Haggarty — Chair of Program Committee

Mike Lang — Program and Marketing committee chair

Paulie Anderson — Marketing Committee member

Melanie McDaniel — Finance committee member

Brian Smith — Marketing and Program committee member

Mary McClurg — Ex Officio

Tracy Barnett — Ex Officio

Bill Rangitsch — Ad Hoc

Erica Hewitt — Ad Hoc

■ Fulltime employees

Scott Parker — Executive director

Heather Shore — Associate director

Ashley Waters — Event director

■ About four volunteers are needed for each show. The Chief has a database of about 30 to 40 volunteers

An effort to revive the 88-year-old Chief was launched in 2013, and now in 2015, a dedicated troupe of volunteers and employees work behind the scenes to do whatever it takes to book events and keep the venue busy and running smoothly.

Forging its way through multiple setbacks and marking its share of triumphs, the theater has arrived at where it is today by collaborating with local businesses and organizations and earning their backing.

"Without the community supporting us and us supporting the community, we wouldn't be here if those people hadn't said we want to save this," said Heather Shore, the Chief Theater's associate director. "They put it into our hands to support us. That's a lot of trust they put into this staff and our board to see that vision through. We really knocked it out of the park in 2014."

It may not be the Bluebird or the Gothic Theater in Denver but the Chief captivates audiences in a surprising way.

"No matter where you sit, it feels like someone is performing for you in your living room," Shore said.

"When we watch from the back, we can't help but think, wow, we helped make this happen, and the people who come are having an experience they wouldn't be able to have anywhere else in town," said Ashley Waters, who was recently hired as the Chief's full-time, paid event director. "It's such a unique facility to have that feeling; there's nothing like it."

"Everyone brings something to the table when it comes to the Chief," Shore added. "Whether it's those who sit at the front door selling tickets, our volunteers, bartenders, audience members, to whoever we have or whatever we have on the stage, one cannot function without the other."

Looking back

A community landmark since the early 1920s, the Chief has undergone renovations, changes in leadership and programming and a shift in purpose.

The venue was built in 1926 by Mark Schafermeyer, who owned the property and deeded it to local visionary "Chief" Harry Gordon, a descendant of the Miami tribe, for $25,000, according to Paul Van Horn, whose father managed the Village and Time Square Cinemas.

Gordon, whose primary interests when he first settled in Steamboat were recreation and modern transportation, hired Arthur E. Gumprecht, a well-known local builder to oversee the theater's construction. The original single-story building had a seating capacity of 500 and was acclaimed as the largest theater in Northwest Colorado.

When it opened in early 1927, the Chief Theater was Steamboat Springs' second motion picture house — the first was the Alden Theater where Allen's Clothing store is now — and the first to feature "talkies." Said by Van Horn to be a cultural center from the beginning, the Chief Theater stands as a tribute to the town's cultural diversity.

Van Horn interviewed Verna Myer, a longtime employee at the Chief, who remembered the American Indian art that used to cover all of the theater's walls. It was created by local artist Bob Smith.

"The concession stand was called the 'Kiva,' in Indian it meant the meeting place," Myer said in a transcribed interview. "In that area there, the murals pictured an Indian maiden with a herd of sheep and an Indian brave on a spotted paint in a desert scene. It was the full length of the lobby."

According to Van Horn's research, the murals in the auditorium measured 12 feet by 13 feet. The four scenes included a Native American woman doing beadwork, two Native Americans engaged in a snake ritual, Native Americans hunting in vast open plains and two masked Native Americans engaged in a tribal dance.

Those murals now are hidden following four remodels of the building.

Throughout the 1980s until 2010, the Chief was not a multi-use theater like it is today but housed a four-plex movie theater operated by Mike Barry, who bought the building in 1970. It wasn't until summer 2013 that the venue was revived by the nonprofit Friends of the Chief.

"I love that this theater has brought back that history," said Scott Parker, executive director of the Chief Theater, who took the job in August 2013. "It's such a vital part of downtown. The arts scene is thriving now, and the fact (the theater) turned back into what it was in the 1920s sends chills down my spine sometimes. It's such a dream come true."

However, time and money were not the only factors that contributed to the Chief becoming a multi-use theater again; it took unwavering support from community members who were willing to put their time and energy toward renovations, new programming and a fresh vision.

It wasn't an easy task.

In October 2012, the theater was purchased for $1.45 million by the Friends of the Chief with help from private investors. The Chief opened its doors as a cultural and performing arts center in summer 2013.

For the first 12 months, efforts to achieve the board's mission to create a vibrant and dynamic venue were gradual.

"We've all kind of gone through emotional ups and downs," Smith said. "It's a lot of hard work but it's going to make it. A lot of that has to do with the community showing up here."

In December, Friends of the Chief Foundation sold the building to longtime supporters Mary and Jack McClurg for $1.45 mil­lion. The sale has allowed the Chief to remain in operation without worries of mortgage payments, which means the staff can focus more on marketing efforts, talent and fundraising. Friends of the Chief has a 10-year lease agreement with the McClurgs as well as three five-year renewals.

"The Chief has such strong historical meaning to the Steamboat community, and we want to see it restored from a movie theater back into a performance and arts center," Mary McClurg said about the sale.

The building's sale didn't change the direction of the Chief, Parker said, rather it helped lift the morale of the theater's three full-time employees, nine board members and its loyal group of volunteers.

"Before the sale, financially, it was tough," Friends of the Chief board President Alice Klauzer said. "Now, we don't have to worry about a huge mortgage. We can do what we need to do. We were in a tough place before but everyone was really working together because we didn't want to give up on it. Everyone's talents pulled together, and it happened."

A theater revived

In 2013, the mission of Friends of the Chief was to revitalize the venue. Now, the group is focused on preserving, programing and managing the historic theater, Parker said.

The board has developed a focus on three core values: collaboration, diversification and credibility.

Collaboration is a major component that helped the Chief get to where it is today with diverse programming and a reputation for showcasing high quality performances.

Since becoming a nonprofit, Friends of the Chief has partnered with the Tread of Pioneers Museum, the Steamboat Springs Winter Sports Club, Yampatika, Steamboat Springs Arts Council, Perry-Mansfield Performing Arts School and Camp, Inspired Life Network, Colorado Mountain College, Mainstreet Steamboat and other local groups and artists to host a wide range of events.

To incorporate programming for all ages, there has been the introduction of the Friends and Family Series highlighting modern and classical music, the Singer-Songwriter Series, a free foreign film series, a comedy series, and coming soon, a magic series. Programming also has included theater camps and educational activities for kids and teens.

Businesses like Colorado Group Realty, BAP!, Big Agnes and Honey Stinger also have used the venue for business meetings and holiday parties, renting the Chief for only $200 to $300 for more than 80 people.

"We try to think what does the community need at different times of the year, and if we can provide it, we will do the best we can," Shore said.

Within the last year, the programming committee has begun to see changes.

"Agents are starting to realize we are here, and musicians have begun to reach out to us when they are coming through or just going to Denver," Smith said.

Many acts, according to Smith, prefer the Chief's smaller stage and proximity to the audience.

"The common theme is that the people we've had perform here say they love playing in an old theater like this because it's not a bar and people are here to see the musicians play; they are here for them," Smith said.

When Paperbird came to Steamboat for a show at the Chief in December, the five band members, spoke about the distinct intimacy they felt with the space and their closeness to the audience. Smith said the smaller venue gives musicians the ability to break down the fourth wall between audience and musician to create a unique show.

"We are getting to a point where people come to see a show here, and they know it's not going to be just any show. It's one that is special from the moment they walk in, when the artist walks out and everything that happens on stage," Smith said.

The tipping point

"We've hit that tipping point, that moment when an idea or trend crosses a threshold, tips, then spreads like wildfire," Parker said as he looked around the theater in admiration. "Locals, concierges and people who visit this town know the Chief Theater is here and that it will be a good show. People have begun to trust us."

In 2014, weekends and week nights were consistently booked with a variety of events.

The last four shows in 2014, which included Paper Bird, New Year's Eve stand-up comedy with Sam Tallent and two nights of Music Thief with renowned cellist Sara Sant'Ambrogio, were sold out as was Uncle Shiny, the first booking in 2015. Regular seating at the Chief can accommodate 135 audience members. When shows are sold out, the staff expands the seating to accommodate 170 seats, and if the show is standing room only, the flexible space allows them to seat 199 people.

Daily ticket sales also have continued to increase, and many of the 2015 shows are already booked.

"I can't go out and change the marquee without someone saying, 'Great job, keep up the good work and fantastic programming,'" Parker said. "People have begun to accept the fact that we are here and we are not going away."

The past year and a half was spent working to increase door and concession/bar sales. Now the Chief has begun to move into the phase of sustaining itself by generating 50 percent of its operating funds from ticket sales and concessions and 50 percent from fundraising.

Parker said the 2015 budget projects the theater will make money by the end of the year.

In the near future, the board will focus on two projects — one will involve moving the middle post in the large theater and the other will renovate the small theater room into a green room for musicians or a rehearsal space with rental availability. Klauzer said the cost for the post removal would be about $75,000 to $80,000.

The Friends of the Chief's long-term goals include renovating the theater by adding seats, a balcony, an improved bar area and uncovering the murals that have been hidden throughout the years by paint and curtains. Parker estimates that phase would cost about $8 million and is a project that is still five years away.

"I don't know that we would want to" do that, Parker said. "We've just come into our own and the last thing we would want to do after gaining all that momentum is shut down for a year."

"The possibilities are endless as cliche as that sounds," Waters said. "It's an open conversation with the community, and we want to do what's good for them."

Top grossing films of 1926

The year the Chief was born

#1. "Aloma of the South Seas," starring Gilda Gray

#2. "What Price Is Glory?" a silent film that was remade in 1952 starring James Cagney

#3. "The Great K & A Train Robbery," starring Tom Mix and Dorothy Dwan

#4. "Beau Geste," based on the novel by P.C. Wren

#5. "Flesh and the Devil," romantic film starring Greta Garbo

#6. "Sparrows," produced by and starring Mary Pickford

#7. "For Heaven's Sake," a comedy starring Harold Lloyd

#8. "My Yankee Senor," a silent western starring Tom Mix, Olive Borden and Tom Kennedy

#9. "Don Juan," the first feature-length film with synchronized Vitaphone sound effects and musical soundtrack, but no spoken words. Starring John Barrymore

#10. "The Sea Beast," an adaption of the novel "Moby Dick," starring John Barrymore and Dolores Costello

Running the Chief

■ Friends of the Chief board members

Alice Klauzer — President

Jeff LaRoche — VP, finanace committee member

Chantil Finklea — Treasurer Chair of Finance Committee

Val Stafford — Secretary and Chair of Facilities committee

Kim Haggarty — Chair of Program Committee

Mike Lang — Program and Marketing committee chair

Paulie Anderson — Marketing Committee member

Melanie McDaniel — Finance committee member

Brian Smith — Marketing and Program committee member

Mary McClurg — Ex Officio

Tracy Barnett — Ex Officio

Bill Rangitsch — Ad Hoc

Erica Hewitt — Ad Hoc

■ Fulltime employees

Scott Parker — Executive director

Heather Shore — Associate director

Ashley Waters — Event director

■ About four volunteers are needed for each show. The Chief has a database of about 30 to 40 volunteers

Top grossing films of 1926

The year the Chief was born

#1. “Aloma of the South Seas,” starring Gilda Gray

#2. “What Price Is Glory?” a silent film that was remade in 1952 starring James Cagney

#3. “The Great K & A Train Robbery,” starring Tom Mix and Dorothy Dwan

#4. “Beau Geste,” based on the novel by P.C. Wren

#5. “Flesh and the Devil,” romantic film starring Greta Garbo

#6. “Sparrows,” produced by and starring Mary Pickford

#7. “For Heaven’s Sake,” a comedy starring Harold Lloyd

#8. “My Yankee Senor,” a silent western starring Tom Mix, Olive Borden and Tom Kennedy

#9. “Don Juan,” the first feature-length film with synchronized Vitaphone sound effects and musical soundtrack, but no spoken words. Starring John Barrymore

#10. “The Sea Beast,” an adaption of the novel “Moby Dick,” starring John Barrymore and Dolores Costello