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The Little Theater That Could 

Westcliffe's Jones Theater a small-town marvel

It was a strange convergence of fate: a radio actress passed on and left her house to her daughter, a former leading lady at Elitch Gardens; the Silverado S&L crisis of the late 1980s had left buildings all over the state of Colorado in danger of demolition; and the Jones Theater in Westcliffe was about to be turned into a laundromat.

Enter Anne Kimbell Relph (of Elitch Gardens fame). Sometime in 1991, as Relph was browsing the local real-estate market in hopes of finding a little ranchette, she came across an item that announced the Jones Theater and its empty marquee were about to become wrecking ball fodder.

"Once a town loses a theater," Relph said, "it never gets it back."

With that in mind, Relph gave up the ranchette dream and bought the theater instead.

"It was part of the Silverado S&L crisis," she said, "and they were just trying to unload it."

With money from her radio actress mother's estate, Relph saved the Jones from the washers and dryers.

The Jones Theater is far from a laudromat now. A fully operational community theater, the Westcliffe Center for the Performing Arts boasts a full summer season of community and professional theater, a year-round close-to-first-run movie theater (they're showing The Matrix Reloaded beginning this week), a children's theater workshop, a bluegrass festival beginning this year, a summer creativity camp for young people, youth theater productions, and on and on.

All this activity is housed between the original Jones Theater (complete with its antique marquee, topped with a big smiley face) and "Studio Two," a brand-new building complete with rehearsal studios, scene and costume shops, and an apartment for visiting actors.

It turns out that Westcliffe is a near-perfect place for such an ambitious project. Although the entire Westcliffe valley has only about 1,000 residents, there were 250 individual donations, ranging from $5 to "too-large-to-tell-a-reporter" gifts for the project. Additional major support from Colorado Foundations helped build the $580,000 building. Clearly, people want a theater, movies, music and education for the kids.

But it isn't just money that is creating such vibrant productions as last weekend's Crimes of the Heart. It's also the diverse talent that seems to wash up in the valley.

In addition to Relph herself, there's the director of last weekend's play, Michael Percival, the vicar (yes, vicar) of St. Luke's Episcopal Church. Before taking to more solemn theatricals, Rev. Percival directed professionally for several U.S. and Canadian opera and theater organizations. Crimes of the Heart was acted entirely by amateur actors, and despite some small kinks in the overall fabric, showed the professionalism and dedication of good regional theater. A sophisticated board of semi-retired CEOs of various organizations doesn't hurt either.

Another sign of her recruiting talent: Relph has tapped Ken Hudson, a retired professional projectionist from New York City to run the Jones' 1936 carbon arc projector.

"Are you old enough to remember vacuum tubes? Well, this thing runs off of vacuum tubes," he said, showing off his giant baby. "The second projector wasn't running so well, so I had to rebuild it with more recent parts." How recent? "Oh, about 1945 or so. It's a matter of opinion of course, but it is the best possible light. Warmer, strong; a better experience of movies."

So far the Westcliffe Center for Performing Arts seems to be striking a good balance between service to the local community (including popular bluegrass concerts, benefits for kids without health insurance, etc.) and becoming a destination for the city slickers of Cañon City, Pueblo and even Colorado Springs.

Not yet too precious, no longer run down, Ann Relph has preserved the town's theater with a bang and made it a great destination for a summer's evening. And if you really need to do your laundry, you can try the washers at the mobile home park at the other end of the street. Clean clothes, good theater -- what else does a thriving town need?

Aug. 6, Playwriting seminar with Kevin Barbour of UC Denver

Aug. 15-17, 22-24 Youth Theater Oz (musical)

Sept. 13, Creede Repertory Theater performs Northanger Abbey

For more information call: 719/783-3004 or e-mail wcpa@ris.net

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