Tracing Avalon’s rich collection of history
“The preservation of our heritage and this historic building is a responsibility and privilege supporters of the Avalon Theatre are proud to accept.”
— The Avalon Theatre Foundation
On the day the Avalon Theatre’s curtains parted for the first time in 1923, a Daily Sentinel story said, “The traditions and memories that will be important possessions of the house in years to come are all to be formulated.”
That nearly-a-century’s worth collection of tradition and memories is not just a part of the theater’s history — it is the cultural footprint of western Colorado.
And its preservation is a big driver in the effort to continue the Avalon’s legacy long into the future.
“If we do this right, it will continue for generations to make memories,” Avalon Foundation Development Director Robin Brown said.
The history of the Avalon Theatre begins with Walter Walker, the former publisher of the Sentinel. It was his dream to draw top-shelf entertainers to the area, a key whistle stop along the train line between the burgeoning cities of Denver and Salt Lake City.
In February 1922, Walker and other civic leaders created the Grand Junction Theatre Company. At the outset, there were 121 stockholders, who were sold shares at $100 apiece.
William Moyer was named president of the group, and a board of directors included Moyer, Walker and three others: James Rankin, Ollie Bannister and Clyde Biggs.
According to history compiled by Avalon Foundation board member Diann Admire, the theater featured blue velvet curtains, 1,466 gold chairs with brown leather upholstery and deep ivory walls with walnut woodwork when it opened for its first performance on Jan. 5, 1923.
The first performer was internationally known soprano and St. George, Utah, native Lucy Gates. History says that Gates interrupted her performance to praise the “wonderful acoustics” of the auditorium. Tickets cost $2.20, $1.65 and $1.10.
The Avalon had its own house orchestra back then, and it was conducted by Glen Schrader. He also played the violin; the instrument Schrader played that night can be found in the music department at Colorado Mesa University. When Schrader’s widow, Peggy, died in 2000, a $250,000 gift was given to the Avalon on behalf of the Schraders.
The world’s most popular performer of the time, Al Jolson, brought a cast of 150 to the Avalon in 1924 for a production of “Bombo.”
The famous John Philip Sousa, and his renowned band, played the Avalon on Dec. 12, 1923, as part of a trans-continental tour.
Actress Ethel Barrymore; famous baritone Arthur Middleton; the father of the U.S. Air Force, General Billy Mitchell; and famed evangelical preacher Billy Sunday all graced the Avalon’s stage in its early heyday.
The renowned Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra performed twice — once in the 1920s and again in the 1940s.
Three-time presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan and the iconic Carl Sandburg are among the Avalon’s most notable speakers.
Through the years, community and school groups often used the Avalon, including for high school graduations.
In 1923, Grand Junction High School put on the musical “The Bells of Beaujolais.”
Admire, who recently turned 80, recalled that her mother was in that production’s cast, along with chorus member Dalton Trumbo.
Admire herself first danced in a recital on the Avalon stage at age 5. She had her first date with her husband of more than 62 years, Gene, at the theater.
“The Avalon was just a part of growing up here — a part of our lives,” Admire said.
She especially remembers all the movies she’s seen at the Avalon through the years. Her father had to fetch her from the theater on the day she watched “The Wizard of Oz” multiple times. Tickets were 9 cents back then for a movie ticket.
Admire also recalled during World War II when she and others got into the Avalon for free by bringing scrap metal or aluminum.
“For a quarter we could get into the movie, have a little bit of popcorn, and go to the Mesa Drug for a milkshake,” she remembered. The restaurant Il Bistro Italiano now occupies the former Mesa Drug building on Main Street.
Movies played a critical role in the Avalon’s history beyond the 1930s; it was sold to the Cooper Foundation in 1946, and it officially became the Cooper Theatre movie house in 1947.
The Avalon’s original facade was bricked over, which was considered a modern look at the time. As the yellowing bricks faded over time, so did the theater itself. Cooper operated a 650-seat movie theater there until 1989, but by the mid-1990s “what was once the crown jewel of Grand Junction had fallen into shambles,” according to the foundation.
The Avalon Foundation formed in 1991 with the hope of taking over the dilapidated theater and renovating it. But in 1994, the city of Grand Junction was forced to take over the building and its operation, in lieu of taxes that were owed. The price tag was $200,000.
The city’s purchase set in motion a revitalized effort by the community to bring the Avalon back from the dead. Major fundraising campaigns led to the restoration of the original facade and other basic renovations in 1996, and the bricks sold in a successful capital campaign still line the entrance to the theater today.
But it’s been a series of stops and starts — actually, more like stop-study-and-start — since then.
“It’s just the cornerstone of the downtown, and the crown jewel — at least it can be again,” Admire said.
“We need that light on the corner.”