Independent theaters have been shutting down across Denver for years now, and the historical Esquire Theater may be next on the chopping block.
Built in 1927, the Esquire Theater is considered one of Denver’s many historic buildings with plenty to offer to art and film communities across the city. The Esquire has stood at Sixth and Downing for decades and has consistently provided a sanctuary for movies that don’t appear in big theaters, bringing unique, independent films to Denver for anybody to watch in a classic movie theater setting. But now, Denver’s film community is being forced to rally to keep the theater afloat in the midst of redevelopment.
Nowadays, it’s become difficult for small theaters to stay open. In the past two years, Denver has lost both The Continental and Elvis cinemas, and many believe that the city is likely to lose more in the coming years. This can likely be attributed to many things, but one of the most significant factors is the epidemic of streaming services offering nearly all media as soon as it comes out. Many don’t see the point in paying for both a ticket and expensive concessions to watch a film that they can view from the comfort of their own homes. However, thanks to the July 2023 hit that was referred to as Barbenheimer, where blockbusters Barbie and Oppenheimer released on the same day, movie theaters saw a huge spike in popularity, and years after the start of the pandemic, people slowly returned to theaters to see new films. Movies like Across the Spiderverse, Hunger Games: A Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes, and Avatar: The Way of the Water, drew crowds back into big theaters. But smaller, more independent establishments continued to struggle, and now, Denver risks the loss of one of its most historic theaters yet.
In 1980, Landmark Theaters purchased the Esquire and then later sold it to new owners in 2021. However, the chain still operates the theater. At the end of October in 2023, plans were submitted by the new owners to the city to redevelop the theater. The plans aren’t finalized yet and several Denverites are anxiously awaiting the news on whether or not the city will give the go-ahead to convert the theater into a space for office buildings and retail spaces.
Several frequent visitors of the beloved theater have taken action to stop the cinema from being redeveloped into these spaces. One local, Jolee Harston, was devastated when she heard the news that The Esquire may be shutting down. Harston took action, reflecting on all of the memories that both her and her grandmother shared of the theater, and she began the Save The Esquire social media page, dedicated to shedding light on all of the joy that the theater brought to Denver art and film communities. Save The Esquire’s petition linked to the page garnered over 2,500 signatures. Harston pointed out to an interviewer for the Westword that she was “overwhelmed, but not surprised [by the response].” Hundreds of individuals who have memories from the theater were eager to share them in hopes that the development plans would be rejected in order to save such a historical landmark. Seniors Sam McPherson, Claire Mahoney, and Jesse Mishell, all recalled some of the wonderful things about the theater that drew them to it.
“I liked going with friends to just see random movies. It’s a vibe, and it’s cheap. They do a lot of old movies and historical films too. Silent movies, stuff like that,” Mahoney said. McPherson nodded, emphasizing the fun memories that he shared with other locals there. “When we walked in to [The Esquire] to see Stop Making Sense, there was this huge line of older women outside that were all doing a group screening of Miss Harris Goes to Paris all standing on a red carpet. They were so happy.” While thinking back, McPherson also pointed out that “there’s definitely a scene for the blockbusters in Denver, but there’s also a great scene for niche movies. People wanna go see them in old theaters and enjoy the experience.”
Mishell pitched in and stated that, “In general, just the ambiance there is great. It feels like you’re a part of a community there, like you found a sort of backwater just for you. I think that if it closes down, Denver will lose a valuable part of film culture.” The three of them agreed that their favorite movie they saw there was the 1991 psychological horror film, Silence of the Lambs.
The Esquire has even more backstory than just being an independent film establishment as well. After it opened originally in 1927, the theater was known as the Hiawatha Theater, and was considered a popular meeting place for Denver’s Jewish community in the 1930’s. Then, after it reopened its doors as the Esquire in 1942, the theater made history by hosting Denver’s first female manager and all-female staff. The theater is also famous for its frequent live showings of the Rocky Horror Picture Show, a staple in LGBTQ cinema history. The local shadow cast, Colorado’s Elusive Ingredient, offers plenty of showings at the Esquire, keeping the cult-classic alive as they perform in front of the screen every month at the theater.
Save The Esquire hopes to establish the theater as a historical landmark, and while that may stop the city from ever tearing it down, the label unfortunately will not prevent the space from simply being redeveloped while still keeping the structure itself standing. Local film-lovers and artistic souls alike stress that the loss of The Esquire would be more than just a building closing. It would result in a hole left in Denver’s historical culture and alternative film culture alike, and would also lead to a tragic loss of an incredibly diverse space.
For now, the theater remains open and continues to show plenty of interesting films every week. The Esquire is a great place to visit if one is looking for something inexpensive and fun to do in their free time. Ticket prices range anywhere from five to fifteen dollars, and the Save The Esquire page actively posts updates on which films are showing nearly every day. The page can be found on Instagram at @savetheesquire, and a change.org petition to stop the development can be found in the bio if one is interested in signing it to save one of Denver’s historical entertainment spaces from becoming just another retail space downtown.