We all can agree the pandemic has been an equal opportunity destroyer, wreaking havoc in every corner of society. A year of COVID has been especially devastating for cultural and artistic venues, most prominently the Denver Center for Performing Arts, the heartbeat and soul of the city.
Throughout a normal year, festive crowds would gather beneath the DCPA’s sprawling pavilion, sipping cocktails and peppermint mochas, clutching tickets, and rushing through the beckoning doors of the Buell, Elle Caulkins, Boetcher, and Bonfils theatres. For every major holiday, birthday, anniversary, milestone celebration, or that first or special date, if you planned an epic night on the town, all roads led to the DCPA.
Like many Coloradans, I miss the theatre, I miss the pomp and pizzazz, the thrill of being wowed and enthralled. There’s another reason why I miss the DCPA: for thirteen years I operated Hot Ticket Cafe, a pre-theatre restaurant tucked inside the Bonfils Theatre lobby (home of the Denver Center Theatre Company.) Night after night patrons lined up at my counter before performances for a quick bite to eat, fresh-baked cookie, or last-minute jolt of espresso to jumpstart their frontal lobes. (It’s an open secret that dramatic productions featured in the Bonfils were more cerebral and thought-provoking than the Buell’s Broadway musicals known more for producing feelings of euphoria, glee, and gut laughter.)
Thirteen years feels like a lifetime, and I spent a lot of Christmas Eves’, my children's birthdays, Valentine's Days’, and countless weekends behind the counter serving theatre patrons. When my father passed away, I learned the news while working a shift at the theatre. On the flip side, our four children grew up with a profound appreciation for the performing arts having attended countless productions (and also working the cash register throughout high school), and for over ten years my wife and I had a ‘go-to’ date night: tickets to a play.
However, what I miss most about the DCPA is what occurred before the curtains went up and the lights dimmed, out of range of the spotlight and stage. I miss seeing Bob and his wife from Keystone, loyal patrons who drove to Denver almost every Saturday for the matinees. Well into their eighties, Bob wore hearing aids and his wife used a walker to get around, so they’d arrive early before the crowd and grab a table near the window. Bob ordered for his wife, carried the food and drinks to her, and helped her gingerly make her way to the stage. Observing from my perch, I came to appreciate the love they had for the theater was second only to the love they had for each other.
I miss Alan from the Bronx — he pegged me early on as a fellow New Yorker. While I served him a large coffee (“is that your large cup?”), we bonded over our mutual love for Colorado and the joy of raising a family here, but still kinda missed the ocean, Ray’s Original Pizza, New York bagels, sports radio, and being around fast-talkers. For years he assumed I was from Brooklyn or Queens. I never had the heart to tell him I was really a small-town kid from upstate New York and didn’t know the difference between the Bronx Zoo and the Bronx cheer.
I miss the well-dressed, well-coiffeured women who religiously arrived early, and filled the dining room with genuine hugs, mirth, and smiles. Many had been subscribers for decades, well-versed and fiercely loyal to the arts, live theater, the symphony, opera, musicals, in short — the heart and soul of the DCPA. Their gregariousness and zest for life were infectious, and they would tell you in a heartbeat what they thought of your soup, or the last play they saw, or whether your large coffee was really a medium, not a large. (Apparently, the size of the coffee was controversial.)
Occasionally an elderly patron would appear at the counter, and from the bruises on their arms I knew immediately how much effort it took to get to the theatre and what a big deal it was. They reminded me of how my mother’s arms looked after she underwent treatment and the nurse had a hard time finding her veins. Those patrons inevitably got pampered as best we could, sending out a complimentary cookie or coffee —a small gesture.
Believe it or not, I actually miss the grumpy patrons who grimaced and complained about the price of a cookie or acted as if they’d been dragged to the show by their spouse. “You sound just like my father,” I’d say, leaving them to wonder whether that was a compliment or insult. Either way, the patron’s angst often dissipated, and truth be known, it was a nice memory to conjure up.
My personal lamentations pale in comparison to the emotional, financial, and psychic toll inflicted by the pandemic upon the artists who bring the words and music to life on the stage — actors, directors, stage managers, musicians, set designers, and playwrights. The ripple of disappointment also engulfed those behind the scenes responsible for filling seats, getting people to the right seats, and cleaning the seats — the box office, house managers, ushers, marketing professionals, fundraisers, custodians. The pandemic upended numerous careers, dreams, and retirement plans. Livelihoods were disrupted, some might even say ruined.
To be completely transparent, the Bonfils lobby where my cafe was located was undergoing extensive renovations before the pandemic, and my cafe, like the long-running CATS musical, was coming to the end of its life cycle. Additionally, a few years ago I started a dinner delivery business, bringing fully prepared, easy-to-reheat meals to customer’s homes. This was supposed to be a side gig to bridge the gap during the times when the theater closed between shows. When the pandemic hit our shores like a toxic tsunami and devastated not only the arts and culture worlds but the entire restaurant industry, the dinner delivery business boomed, and I was fortunate to land on my feet (with a heavy heart).
While I miss the indomitable spirit of the theatre —radiating from the stage, behind the scenes, and in the seats — one day soon, the DCPA will be back. When it does, I’ll get in line with everyone else, clutching my ticket, giddy with anticipation, and excited to join in thunderous applause as the lights go down and the curtains rise up again.
Jay Solomon is the owner of Jay's Gourmet 2 Go, a Denver-based dinner delivery service. He owned and operated Jay’s Hot Ticket Cafe from 2006 to 2019.