There’s a huge piece of art hanging behind a bar at Denver’s Ellie Caulkins Opera House. This is the story behind it

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4min 46sec
Eden Lane/CPR News
Rudi Cerri, right, Denver’s public art program manager, and artist Stephen Batura stand and look at Batura’s “The Rehearsal,” which hangs at the Ellie Caulkins Opera House in Denver.

Like many of Denver’s public spaces and buildings, the Ellie Caulkins Opera House in the Denver Performing Arts Complex has a large art collection on display. One large piece behind the main lobby bar prompts many to ask questions. Like who are all those people depicted? 

Aurora resident Sara Wood began attending the opera to support her sister, who enjoys opera, and a good friend who was singing in the chorus.

During one recent visit, something caught Wood’s eye: a large, multi-story piece hung behind the main lobby bar. 

“We had to get there pretty early, and so there was plenty of time and it's just enormous and it really caught my eye and it's fun to look at,” Wood said. “I wonder if that's a particular scene from a specific play or musical or opera. It just really captured my imagination and I would love to know more about it.” 

Wood also wondered if the individual people shown are part of Denver's performing arts history and if it's available as a poster or a puzzle.

Meeting Rudi Cerri the public art program manager for the city of Denver and the piece’s artist, Stephen Batura, in the lobby, the pair revealed some of the secrets of the huge piece. For starters, Batura said it isn't a tapestry at all. 

“It's a cotton fabric that is used for backdrops. So we got it from a company that does theatrical backdrops. And so it's one piece, and then it is coated with an acrylic medium that makes it sturdier and also changes the way the paint goes into it,” Batura said. “It pulls it in like a watercolor painting a little bit.”

This painting has been mistaken for a tapestry before. Batura said he thinks his style of painting is broken into segments, which may look like fabric or woven, but it is all brushstrokes on canvas. 

Eden Lane/CPR News
A detail of Stephen Batura's "The Rehearsal," which hangs at the Ellie Caulkins Opera House in Denver. The numbers next to some figures correspond to cataloguing numbers of the subjects from photographs that can be found at the Denver Public Library. President John F. Kennedy is seen in the center, juggling.

Cerri says this piece was commissioned under a decades-old program that sets aside 1 percent of the cost of every big capital project in the city for original site-specific artworks. 

“We have commissioned almost around 400 pieces, from mostly local artists, and we have 'em all over the city,” Cerri said. 

When a call for submissions for the space went out, Batura knew exactly what he wanted to create. 

“I heard that they had a great big wall that was gonna be available. And so I aimed at that,” Batura said. “It was a big challenge to have a giant painting like that. And I originally wanted to do it on the wall. And we got to a certain stage and they said the insurance wouldn't allow me to be working above other people working below, so I would've been on a scaffold painting on the walls. So I did the painting on a piece of fabric at another theater in town called the Elitch Theater.”

Batura’s proposal was to represent a theater space that would show all kinds of performances that would take place in the newly renovated theater. The 30-foot piece is titled “The Rehearsal.” 

“I found pictures of the original curtain in 1908 when they opened the building for the Denver Auditorium, [as] it was called at that time. So that is the original curtain, the way it looked when the building opened,” Batura said.

The painting includes more than 200 people, some of whom are inspired by Charles Lillybridge's photos. The artist included an easter egg for viewers next to those people Lillybridge depicted in the form of numbers.

“They start with an L for Lillybridge, and then there'll be a three- or four-digit number that you can look up at the Denver Public Library Western History photographs.” Batura said.

Among the people depicted, Batura included his daughter at 9 years old next to himself at the same age. Ellie Caulkins and her husband, George Caulkins, are also depicted. There is also a young John F. Kennedy in the painting. 

Eden Lane/CPR News
A detail of Stephen Batura's "The Rehearsal," which hangs at the Ellie Caulkins Opera House in Denver. Rudi Cerri, Denver's public art program manager, is depicted in the bottom left of this image, taking off a sweater.

Batura even included his long-time friend Rudi Cerri.

“I'm friends with Rudy. I've known him a long time,” Batura said.  “And I wanted somebody right dead center at the bottom taking their shirt or sweater off. And Rudy's a very good dresser. So I had Rudy pose, take the thing off. He didn't know about it until I finished that he was gonna be in, right at the bottom of the painting.”

Cerri said he feels honored to be in the painting. When he attends performances he often points himself out. 

“I told people, ‘That's me.’ Like, of course they don't believe me because they can't see my face, but, I brought my jacket today just to prove I was actually in the same jacket. It's in a painting,” Cerri said.

For now, there are no puzzles or posters of “The Rehearsal” available to buy, but you can try to pick out some of the people and stories the next time you visit the Ellie Caulkins Opera House. Tours are available.

This story is part of our series Colorado Wonders, where we answer listener questions about our state. Ask your own here.

Eden Lane/CPR News
Rudi Cerri, left, Denver's public art program manager, and artist Stephen Batura stand in front of Batura's "The Rehearsal," which hangs at the Ellie Caulkins Opera House in Denver.