For McCarthy, movies a `reel’ pleasure
Robert McCarthy’s heart broke last week.
While driving up Grand Avenue in Glenwood Springs, McCarthy saw that the old Glen Theatre building was gone.
“It was heartbreaking,” he said, tears forming in his eyes as he recalled what it felt like to see an empty hole where the old theater once stood. “I just lost it.”
For McCarthy, t he demolition of the old Glen means much more than the removal of plaster, bricks and mortar. It means the end of the past.
McCarthy was 14 years old in the summer of 1957 when he began working for Dan and Della Cornwall, the Glen’s theater managers.
“Dan took me under his wing,” said McCarthy of his apprenticeship. “He taught me all about splicing and threading film on those Simplex 35-millimeter movie projectors. He worked with me for two weeks straight until I got it down pat.”
The Cornwalls managed the Glen for Gibraltar Theatres, a Denver company that owned theaters in Colorado, Wyoming and New Mexico. The Cornwalls also managed two other local Gibraltar theaters, the Canyon Drive-In, located where the Glenwood Springs Mall sits today, and the Springs Theatre, still functional on Grand Avenue, one block south of the Glen.
With three movie theaters running movies simultaneously, Dan Cornwall needed McCarthy’s help. So once he knew the teenager could project a movie from beginning to end, Cornwall asked McCarthy to take over projection operations at the Canyon Drive-In.
It wasn’t long before McCarthy was running from movie theater to movie theater, switching reels and projecting pictures at all three venues.
“I worked all three,” McCarthy said. “When an operator got sick, I’d have to cover. While Dan watched the machines at the drive-in, I’d run over to the Springs and do the changeovers there. Then I’d head back to the drive-in for the double feature.”
It was a good thing McCarthy has always loved movies, because during his career, he screened thousands of them.
“I’m working on a library of all the films I’ve shown at these theaters,” he said.
And his all-time favorite?
“`The Sons of Katie Elder,’ he said without hesitation. “It’s a John Wayne picture.”
The Glen Theatre’s history goes way back to the dawn of the commercial movie house.
“The building was always a movie theater,” said Willa Soncarty, registrar for the Frontier Historical Society. “The building went up in 1907 to house the Pastime Theatre.”
The Pastime came equipped with a raised stage for a piano and player to provide soundtrack music to silent film fare, and was also used for live entertainment.
In 1910, the Pastime became the Isis Theatre – no relation to Aspen’s Isis Theatre, but apparently a popular name for movie houses at the turn of the last century.
Somewhere along the way, the theatre’s side walls were lined with a series of gigantic murals, depicting whimsical Asian and Greek-inspired paintings of maidens and noblemen dancing in gardens and gazebos.
McCarthy was surprised to see these murals when he stopped to see if there was anything left of the old movie house. Although the building had been completely razed, the walls adjoining the neighboring storefronts were left standing. As workers peeled the walls away, they discovered the full-color paintings.
“I never saw these,” he said, looking around in awe. “By the time I started working at the Glen, these murals had been covered up by sound board. I never knew these were here.”
Back in 1914, the theatre took on yet another moniker when it became the Orpheum and got an updated deco facade. It changed names one more time in 1939 when E.J. Schulte, owner of Gibraltar Theatres, bought the theater and changed its name, once and for all, to the Glen.
Gibraltar Theatres weren’t the only movie houses in town. Soncarty said she has reports of the Colorado Theatre opening in the 1930s and operating in a portion of the space now occupied by the U.S. Bank building on Grand Avenue.
Along the way, the Colorado shut down, and the Springs Theatre started up while the Glen consistently screened movies. The Canyon Drive-In operated only in the summers, and closed for good in 1977. The Glen kept showing movies. But in the 1980s, the Glen’s run came to an end.
“The ceiling started collapsing,” McCarthy said. “Chunks of ceiling would fall on people when they’d be watching movies.”
After the fire department received calls from patrons complaining about the ceiling, the city closed the theater down for good in 1983. By that time, Dan Cornwall had died and Della was retired.
“It’s a good thing the Cornwalls weren’t around to see the Glen get closed down,” McCarthy said. “It would have broken their hearts.”
After its closure, the building was donated to Colorado Mountain College. Every so often, there was talk about refurbishing the movie house and returning it to its bygone glory days.
The trouble was, it wasn’t a complete building. It was built onto the Oddfellows Hall, to the south and lacked its own wall on that side. The costs of repairing the structure were prohibitive.
“I clipped every article about the Glen,” said McCarthy. “I followed all of stories about the possibilities of the college and the city fixing it up and running it as a movie theater again.”
In the meantime, the drive-in showed its last movie and made way for the mall. McCarthy continued working at the two remaining theaters – but it was never the same.
“Dan and Della were so great,” McCarthy said. “I was their right-hand shoulder. I went through a whole era with the Cornwalls.”
McCarthy’s memories of his movie days are plentiful.
He said once he was projecting a film at the Glen when Della Cornwall came to the projection room.
“`I smell smoke,’ she told me,” McCarthy said.
Della sent McCarthy to check out the generators the Cornwalls used to provide enough electricity to the movie house.
“The whole top part of the theater was filled with smoke,” McCarthy said. He shut down the generator that was smoking the most and called the fire department. McCarthy managed to finish showing the movie – all without having to evacuate one movie-goer from the theater.
McCarthy remembers another time, during the 1970s, when a woman called the theater saying she was John Denver’s secretary. The woman said Denver wanted to rent the theater for the day so he could go to the movies with his children.
“This was during the time he was really popular, and he couldn’t go anywhere without getting mobbed,” McCarthy said.
McCarthy told the woman that if John Denver really wanted to rent the theater, he’d need to call McCarthy personally.
“About five minutes later the phone rang,” McCarthy said. “It was John Denver.”
Denver brought his children down for the day and watched movies with them. He gave McCarthy a check for $1,000.
“He told me it was free admission day for anyone wanting to go to the movies,” he said. “That night, I told customers that they got to watch movies free compliments of John Denver.”
Now, McCarthy knows those days are all behind him. He and his wife, Joan, spent their lives working at some of Glenwood’s hottest entertainment spots. Now, those spots are disappearing, leaving lifetimes of movie memories to cherish.
“I can read movies,” McCarthy said matter-of-factly. “I’m into movies. I’ve seen so many movies I can tell false backgrounds, and I can tell when they’re using puppets for the actors. I see the cues when they come up on the screen, and I know how the reels used to work. Most of all, I love movies.”
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