By John Moore
Dec. 30, 2012
The definition of the word germinal is “embryonic,” and even at age 39, Denver’s venerable Germinal Stage-Denver theater company is about to take on a whole new life form.
Ed Baierlein on Friday completed the sale of his theater property at 44th Avenue and Alcott Street to Denver real-estate developer Jack Pottle for approximately $675,000. While the sale will mark the end of the building as a theater after 25 years and more than 130 productions in northwest Denver, “I stress that this is not the end, but rather the beginning of an exciting new phase in the history of Germinal Stage-Denver,” said Baierlein. He plans to continue to stage up to three quintessentially Germinal plays a year, but as rental tenants in area locations yet to be determined.
Pottle is a fourth-generation Denverite known in the neighborhood for developing Tejon34, a 28-residence property at the corner of 34th Avenue and Tejon Street. Pottle’s grandfather was a shoe cobbler who operated out of the northeast corner of the original Germinal building when it was constructed in 1926. In a sentimental twist, Pottle plans to re-open his grandfather’s cobbler shop in its original location. As a whole, Baierlein expects Pottle to redevelop the property “into a really interesting neighborhood feature,” one made up of mixed-use retail businesses anchored by a restaurant.
Baierlein will complete previously scheduled reprisal productions of “Spoon River Anthology” and “Long Day’s Journey Into Night” before ending his 39th season — and the theater’s present era at 2450 W. 44th Avenue — with a large-cast production of a title Germinal has never staged before, so that he can bring back together as many company veterans as possible for the building’s swan song. The leader in the clubhouse: Chekhov’s “The Cherry Orchard.” Baierlein had previously scheduled “Marat/Sade” for that slot, “but I don’t want to go out that way now,” he said.
For sentimental reasons, Baierlein also plans to host a limited return engagement of one of his favorite Germinal stagings, “Offending the Audience,” from 1976. That’s a 45-minute polemical lecture about theater written by Australian Peter Handke. “I think it should be done every 10 years, frankly, to remind people what the theater experience is all about,” Baierlein said.
The sale of the Germinal property ends a four-year ordeal in which Baierlein sought buyers who might keep operating his space as a theater. But the only remotely credible inquiry came from Paragon Theatre, a company that has since folded.
“I think of this as a rebirth,” said longtime Germinal actor Erica Sarzin-Borrillo, who will star in “Long Day’s Journey into Night” in May as matriarch Mary Tyrone. “The theater itself is kind of magical … but what is going on behind the scenes is another story.”
That other story, Baierlein said, is that the building is falling apart. So his choice was simple: Keep up with ongoing maintenance issues — and go belly-up — or sell the building, be freed from those financial constraints, and live on elsewhere.
“The burden of continuing repairs on our aging structure has become an impossible task for us to contemplate,” Baierlein said. The building has groundwater contamination from a dry cleaner that operated on the premises long ago, as well as asbestos lodged in the ground tiles. No one has ever been at any risk, he emphasized, but the new owner will have to deal with those consequences once he guts the interior.
Baierlein, 69, has directed most of the Germinal’s 325 productions and has acted in more than 100. “I don’t think there is another actor or director who works more than I do, as far as overseeing 100 performances a year in so many varying capacities, including designing,” he said. “It gets to be a treadmill.”
At an age when Baierlein would be excused for retiring to his favorite place next to a theater — “playing golf at Willis Case Golf Course,” he said — “I still enjoy directing and performing. I just think it is important for me to do what I want to do now, when I want to do it.”
Baierlein, wife Sallie Diamond and Ginger Valone opened the original Germinal Stage-Denver at 1820 Market St. on Nov. 7, 1974. It was then an 82-seat theater in a rundown Lower Downtown warehouse district. Baierlein moved to his present 100-seat theater in 1987. Baierlein has always liked to call Germinal “the runt stepchild of small, nonprofit theaters — a corner grocery of Thespis holding its own against the supermarkets.”
Ironically, the Germinal building was originally built as a Safeway store in 1926. Just before Baierlein moved in, it was being used as a tropical-fish emporium.
“The move from downtown was a wrenching experience, but we soon found that our designated audience came with us and supported us as never before,” Baierlein said.
He calls those early days in northwest Denver the Halcyon Days for his theater. Germinal has consistently offered audiences organic, disturbing and, above all, challenging works. The repertoire has included postmodern reinterpretations of classic writers Molière and Shakespeare, recent masters George Bernard Shaw and Luigi Pirandello, modernists Samuel Beckett and Harold Pinter, and cutting-edge contemporaries such as David Rabe and David Mamet. Mix in Henrik Ibsen, Arthur Kopit, A.R Gurney and Alan Ayckbourn, and Germinal has been nothing if not theater with chops.
“The plays I like all depend a great deal on language, and the playwrights value language in very different ways,” Baierlein said. “I think they are all kind of soft-edged, also, in that they leave a lot of room for interpretation. The plays that we have done are all actor’s pieces. None of them are directors’ pieces. And that’s because I value performance over all else.”
Pottle, the new property owner, developed his fortune over more than 25 years in the cable TV and telecommunications industries, most recently as the CEO of a telephone company he based out of West Virginia and sold in 2005. He graduated with a degree in political economy from Colorado College and received his masters degree in economics from the University of Colorado. He’s now a partner with Viridian Investment and has taken a special interest in what he calls the “careful redevelopment” of the Sunnyside neighborhood where his grandparents long lived.
Baierlein was named The Denver Post Theater Person of the Year in 2007, but Germinal has not been doing well at the box office the past three years, he said. “It was typical for us to draw 120 a night in the mid-1980s, but now we’re drawing 40.”
Baierlein has been running the theater these past few years with his wife and son, Tad. All three have taken halved salaries — or deeper — to keep the building afloat in recent years, he said.
“It’s not that people don’t love what we are doing,” Baierlein said. “It’s that the people who do love what we are doing are dying off.”
What happened? The stories that Baierlein most wants to tell, he said, the ones that felt fresh and new when he first started, are now largely 40 to 100 years old — or more.
“The stuff we were doing in the 1960s was never followed up upon,” said Baierlein, citing iconic Theatre of Cruelty writers Jerzy Grotowski, Peter Brook and Antonin Artaud. “Nobody wrote plays based on the things that we were learning about theater production and the value of performance in the 1960s, with the exception of people like David Rabe and, later on, Tony Kushner. All of our best writers now are either writing for the screen or writing novels. Now people only want to see the latest thing from New York — even when it’s a terrible play.”
Baierlein also points to rising ticket prices. Germinal’s have gone from $3.75 in 1974 to $23.75 today. That’s still modest by live theater standards, but still, Baierlein said, “Doing theater has become much more expensive than it ever should have. Here I am, almost 70 years old, and I have to consider whether I want to go out and spend $25 to go see the theater. That’s a lot of money. It buys me a lot of tobacco.”
He refers to his pipe smoking, and while faithful Germinal theatergoers surely will adjust to seeing Baierlein and his cast of regulars such as Terry Burnsed, Lori Hansen, Leroy Leonard, Sarzin-Borrillo and others on area stages, it will never be the same for future patrons as now walking into the back door of the Germinal and being overcome by that waft of Baierlein pipe smoke that is now seemingly leeched into the walls.
“That’s one of the hardest parts about moving again,” Baierlein said. “Wherever I go next … they won’t let me smoke!”
FIVE SEMINAL PRODUCTIONS IN GERMINAL STAGE-DENVER HISTORY:
“Spoon River Anthology,” by Edgar Lee Masters (returning Feb. 8-March 17)
“Don Juan in Hell,” by George Bernard Shaw
“Long Day’s Journey into Night,” by Eugene O’Neill (returning May 3-June 9)
“The Glass Menagerie,” by Tennessee Williams
“The Homecoming,” by Harold Pinter
GERMINAL STAGE-DENVER: SCHEDULE AND INFORMATION:
2450 W. 44th Ave., 303-455-7108 or germinal’s home page
Through Jan. 6, 2013: “The Long Christmas Dinner”
Feb. 8-March 17, 2013: “Spoon River Anthology”
May 3-June 9, 2013: “Long Day’s Journey Into Night”
July 19-Aug. 25, 2013: Title to be determined.