New owner plans to restore historic Tabor Opera House to former glory

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(Photo: CPR/Chloe Veltman)
<p>Entertainers like Harry Houdini, Oscar Wilde and Buffalo Bill performed during the theater’s heyday in the late 1800s.</p>

Update 11/25/16: The city of Leadville will purchase the opera house and undergo major renovations .

After five years of searching, Leadville’s historic 135-year-old Tabor Opera House may have a new owner.

The venue's current owners, Sharon and Bill Bland, are in the process of closing a deal with Paul Noel Fiorino of the non-profit arts advocacy organization Colorado Arts Consortium.

“It’s a done deal in the fact that they realize that someone like myself has the heart for old theaters and a relationship with them,” Fiorino says.

Fiorino is a former professional ballet dancer, who began his career with the Denver Civic Ballet, the predecessor of the Colorado Ballet. He performed at the Tabor Opera House in the 1970s and, more recently, with Denver-based Ballet Ariel in May.

He plans to restore the theater to its former glory.

“It’s a theater, but it’s also a museum that represents the performers of the past.” Fiorino says. “We have a great opportunity to bring performers of the future -- an opportunity to bring in top acts to Leadville.”

This past weekend marked the final performance of the theater’s season under the ownership of the Bland family. Built in 1879, the opera house has been in the family for nearly 60 years. Sharon Bland's mother, Evelyn Furman, purchased the building in 1955 to save it from being demolished.

Now in their 70s, the Blands are ready to retire.

"If the sale goes through, we've been asked to be on the board or be honorary members," Bland says. "We would be very happy to help in any way we can that doesn't involve a lot of time."

Entertainers like Harry Houdini, Oscar Wilde and Buffalo Bill performed at the Tabor Opera House during the theater’s heyday in the late 1800s. In more recent history, contemporary artists, like folk singer Judy Collins and comedian Paula Poundstone, have appeared there.

The Tabor is filled with relics of its storied past, including a trapdoor cut into the stage specifically for Houdini and the theater’s original lighting board, which is still used for productions. Bland says these bits of history can really transport people back in time.

"As you smell odors of homemade bread, you think of memories of grandma making bread and so forth,” Bland says. “It's the same thing with the opera house. As you see these things, you can just picture yourself back in that day and what it might have been like."

Fiorino saved the Denver Civic Theater from foreclosure in 2009 and spearheaded its transition into the Su Teatro Cultural and Performing Arts Center.

Fiorino intends to turn the Tabor Opera House into a non-profit maintained by a board of directors.

The new buyer, who is currently in the process of fundraising, estimates it will cost $5 million to renovate the Tabor Opera House. This amount would cover repairs in the auditorium and the ballroom on the third floor. It would also help cover the expense of heating the building year-round.

Fiorino says the theater will retain its original charm and aesthetics after the restoration is complete.

“When you think of a restoration, you think of a regutting and redoing, but I think it needs to continue its character,” Fiorino says. “It’s about preserving the theater.”

The Tabor is one of the few opulent, 19th century opera houses still in use in small former mining towns across the state.

Colorado Preservation, Inc. -- a 30-year-old nonprofit that promotes historic conservation throughout the state -- reports that there were about 150 opera houses in Colorado in the early 1900s. Now, there are less than a dozen remaining.

Among the most active today are the Central City Opera House and the opera house in Creede, today the home of the Creede Repertory Theater Company.

While the theater is no longer in immediate danger of demolition, Fiorino fears the Tabor will simply become a monument if Coloradans don’t take a personal interest in it.

“This is really a cry out for our theaters,” Fiorino says. “Not only on a local basis, but a national basis.”

Initially, Fiorino will put his name on the building’s deed of trust. But he hopes the public will take ownership of the Tabor Opera House by contributing funds and vocalizing its support.

While a few investors have already come forward with undisclosed amounts, more money still needs to be raised to hit the $5 million mark.

The Colorado Arts Consortium is working with the Leadville Lake County Economic Development Corporation, an organization designed to help new businesses grow, to connect Fiorino with citizens interested in donating to the opera house.

By October, Fiorino plans to develop a fundraising campaign and take it national.

Chloe Veltman, CPR arts editor and host of The Colorado Art Report, toured the opera house in Leadville earlier this week with Sharon Bland.