by Brian Cooke, History Colorado blogger
One of the many advantages of living in Colorado is the easy access to Rocky Mountain National Park and its eastern “gateway” town, Estes Park. While Estes Park’s proximity to the National Park is certainly a major draw, there are many sights worth seeing in the downtown area, especially if you’re interested in a bit of history.
Right in downtown Estes Park, for example, is a building that holds an impressive distinction: the Historic Park Theatre is one of the oldest movie houses in the country that still shows movies. The theatre was built in 1913—two years before Rocky Mountain National Park was established—and it’s been in the National Register of Historic Places since 1984.
I’d always wondered about the place—with its eighty-foot, neon-outlined tower, you can’t really miss it—but the idea of seeing a movie in a very old theater appealed to me. And so, to ensure cooperation from my young daughter, I set off with my family to see the live-action version of Disney’s Beauty and the Beast.
Despite some recent equipment upgrades, the Historic Park Theatre is an anachronism. You realize it as soon as you step into the lobby, with its historic (and long-retired) movie projector on respectful display, a stack of Girl Scout Cookies for sale, and local beer on tap in the corner.
The theatre space itself was not what I expected—it’s more rustic than ornate—but it’s old and charming, and it turned out to be the perfect place to see a musical. The theatre also features a working antique player piano and has seats from the now-demolished Denver Theatre. And, of course, the building is believed to be haunted by a few (friendly) ghosts.
Owned by the Stanger family since 1968, the Historic Park Theatre is still very much family-operated, with three generations participating in the experience. A member of the family’s middle generation sold us our tickets, her father escorted us to the venerable, maroon-colored seats, and her daughter, decked out as Belle from the movie, danced with my star-struck daughter in the lobby after the showing.
In an era of multiplexes and electric reclining seats, the Historic Park Theatre offers something unique, or at least highly unusual: a community experience in one of the oldest operating cinemas in the western United States. Whether you’re a movie buff, an armchair historian, or just a casual visitor, the theatre is a great place to immerse yourself in the past while enjoying a movie or a concert.
A volunteer blogger for Visit Fort Collins and History Colorado, Brian Cooke has worked as a writer and editor for more than twenty years. His past volunteer work has included leading night tours on Alcatraz and answering questions about Northern California at the San Francisco National Maritime Historical Park in Fisherman’s Wharf. Brian currently writes for a market research firm and for the US Forest Service. Brian’s LinkedIn page is www.linkedin.com/in/bcooke1.