Avalon Theatre: Cornerstone of downtown Grand Junction for 90 years
Free Press Staff Intern
What does a cornerstone do?
For a building, the cornerstone is the first brick laid. It is the stone in which all others are laid in reference to. For a community and its local culture, a cornerstone also exists. In Grand Junction, the Avalon Theatre has been a cornerstone of arts and entertainment for 90 years. The theater celebrates a culturally diverse legacy as plans for substantial renovations and improvements solidify.
“It’s time to bring the theater into the 21st century,” said Robin Brown, development director of the aptly titled Avalon Cornerstone Project, which is overseeing the upcoming renovation, expansion and related fundraising for the theater’s facilities.
And though the historic theater’s doors will soon close for much-needed upgrades, it’s hoped that upon reopening it will be a not-to-be-missed destination for locals and visitors alike.
A LITTLE HISTORY
What was originally a vaudeville and orchestral theater on the corner of Seventh and Main streets has seen shows across all theatric mediums. The theater has indeed been a cornerstone of arts and culture for the Grand Valley since opera singer Lucy Gates played on opening night Jan. 5, 1923.
Just as it is now, Grand Junction was a midpoint and pit stop between Denver and Salt Lake City. A goal of the Avalon continues to be a place for performers to play on Colorado’s Western Slope between the two metropolises.
“Walter Walker wanted a theater that the Western Slope could be proud of,” Brown said.
Walker was publisher of the Grand Junction Daily Sentinel from 1917 to 1956, a Colorado State senator, prominent community member of Grand Junction and general manager of the original Avalon Theatre. He was also the initial vice president of the Grand Junction Theatre Company alongside other community leaders.
In the theater’s early days, a mix of large and small performances graced its stage. Local vaudeville and variety shows and films were seen on the stage and screen daily. Local dance instructor Jeanne Harper held yearly recitals at the theater in the late 1930s. The theater also hosted a fashion show, sponsored by local business, the Fair Store. An advertisement for the house band, the Avalon Orchestra, attached an early slogan to the theater: “Where you can always hear a good orchestra.”
Immortalized as a statue in front of the theater sits late Grand Junction native Dalton Trumbo, writing in his bathtub. Trumbo, before gaining fame, was a student at Grand Junction High School and once sang on stage at the Avalon.
Walker funded around 200 shows himself, according to Diann Admire, historian of the Avalon at the Museum of Western Colorado. Admire presides over a wealth of binders and boxes at the Loyd Files Room on the second floor of the museum in downtown Grand Junction. They are filled with newspaper clippings and promotional posters.
A testament to times past, Admire also mentioned the days of 10-cent admission to shows. During wartime, she recalls when scrap metal for the war effort, even balls of aluminum foil, would be accepted in lieu of cash to gain entrance to daily shows.
Al Jolson’s Broadway hit “Bombo” stopped at the Avalon with a 150-member cast on a national tour in 1924, at a time when Jolson was considered “the world’s most famous comedian,” Admire said.
And after a change in ownership in the late 1940s, the Avalon became the Cooper, with the front of the building redone with a flat, brick façade and traditional-styled marquee. Aside from the occasional local performance or dance recital from Jeanne Harper, the venue was primarily a movie theater.
Then in 1992, private donations along with “buy-a-brick” and “buy-a-seat” fundraisers restored the original façade of the building. Donors’ names and short personal messages were embossed on bricks outside the theater and on seats in the auditorium, helping to raise more than $120,000 for renovations to the theater’s lobby.
Since its first revitalization, touring artists have utilized the between-two-cities location of the theater, much as Walker and company intended. Renowned country singer Lyle Lovett played a sold out show in 2001, predicating well-attended performances by artists like Three Dog Night, Arlo Guthrie, the Smothers Brothers, comedian Pauly Shore and most recently folk-rockers, America.
One of the most recent and successful projects that has kept the Avalon, “in the black,” as Admire put it, has been the weekly Dinner and a Movie. The Avalon partnered with the rest of downtown Grand Junction, offering two free tickets on Tuesday nights to anyone with a receipt from a downtown eatery. Perhaps one of the most recession-proof date ideas, films featured are classics both new and old. From “Attack of the 50-foot Woman” to a special, Halloween-week showing of “The Shining” and even newer hits like “Inception.”
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