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A Four-Part History of CBMT from the Crested Butte News

Mountain Theatre Turns 40 by Eric Ross

Forty years of laughs and cheers began in 1972 when a wild and crazy band of Furries (Frozen Urban Refugees) got together to have some fun and make some plays.

To celebrate the hometown theatre, a huge happy birthday extravaganza and barbeque is going down on Saturday, August 11 in the Town Park.

Old friends, new friends, actors, directors, musicians, dancers, singers, set designers and builders, costumers, lighters, sounders, bartenders, cleaner-uppers, audiences and fans, members new and old, and generally everybody who loves the oldest continually running community theatre in Colorado's Western Slope is invited to attend.  And for those who are not CBMT members, this is a perfect time to join.

1972 was a groovy time in Crested Butte.  The town was tiny, rents were cheap, the streets were dirt, the air was coal-dusty, dogs ruled, a gold ski pass was $125, and love was everywhere.  Only one thing was missing: live theatre.  And so it began.

In the last 40 years, more than 240 plays have graced the theatre's stage.  The very first production was Dark of the Moon, a classic country song and dance show filled with mystery, myth and majesty.  It was presented outside with Crested Butte Mountain as the backdrop and a wild cast of local singers, dancers, musicians, actors and general crazies.  It was a huge hit.

CBMT’s second decade, 1982–1991 by Larry Tanning
The CBMT started its second decade with momentum, a strong artistic capability, and a large pool of unpaid local actors, directors and volunteers to count on. Most had been involved the previous decade, plus a constant stream of new participants added each year.

Through its first decade, money was never a problem because only a small handful of people got paid—a $100 fee to local directors that usually went for their cast parties, and about $300 a month for the lone business manager or artistic director. But as you’ll read below, soon the Mountain Theatre would have to grow up.

In 1982, the CBMT initiated the Golden Marmot Awards and some educational programs, and received two small grants to paint the Old Town Hall theatre space and improve the lobby. The Marmot Awards were loosely patterned after the Tony Awards to honor the plays in the previous season. The Golden Marmot awards continue to this day.

The CBMT also signed a 10-year lease with the town. As the CBMT president then wrote, “Without the strong and continued support from the town, we wouldn’t be here.” The first three years of the 1980s saw a U.S. economy downturn, so the ski industry struggled as well. But the Mountain Theatre never lost a beat because it produced six or seven plays in each of those years. Back then, the winter was the biggest play season and when the biggest tourism was found. The winters generated far more sales tax revenues than summers, with the CBMT, Dansummer, and the Arts Fair the main arts attractions around.

To help improve the community’s summer doldrums, the CBMT kicked off an ambitious Summer Shakespeare program in 1982. Its first Shakespeare production--A Midsummer’s Night Dream—took the entire community by storm. Held outside at the Depot, it would start a tradition of five more Summer Shakespeares that followed. They were big summer productions, often with music, and the final four Shakespeares were put on in a large circus tent the Chamber of Commerce had donated.

But from the costs with much bigger plays, and the unanticipated high operating costs in the Old Town Hall space, the Mountain Theatre was soon in a bind. Suddenly, it faced such high operating costs that its leadership was forced to become more administrative than creative, and its board much more organizational. That’s also when the town’s streets were finally paved.

1983 then saw some economic recovery. The first quarter of ‘83 had more real estate sales than all of 1982. Many were speculative. Bolstered by the opening of the new Skyland Golf Club, Crested Butte was finally becoming a summer resort area. That year also saw the first joint resolution between the town of Crested Butte and Mt. Crested Butte over some land use planning and Gothic Road corridor protections. In many ways, that marked the CBMT’s transition from a town focus to a broader community-wide focus. Things were looking up, and a season ski pass was just $275. Each year through the end of that decade had increased sales tax revenue growth for both towns in the valley. And the town’s population would soon reach 1,000 residents.

In 1985, with the closing of the Lowenstein Theatre in Denver, the CBMT became the longest continuously running community theatre in Colorado. But the costs to operate in the Old Town Hall—the oldest building in town—had taken a toll. Earlier that year, the CBMT became responsible for paying the second floor electric meter. Before then, the theatre only paid about $500 for rent every year. It meant that the CBMT could no longer pay for an artistic director anymore, so the role was filled by a group of volunteers. The 100-year-old building was terribly inefficient—the theatre had a February electric bill of nearly $1,000 and a May bill of $250. The CBMT quickly hired an energy audit that said, “The building loses heat quicker than it can be put into it.” New fire and safety liability insurance mandates also forced $3,000 to be spent for new fire alarms, rewiring and fireproofing. Suddenly the CBMT board questioned whether it could even continue to operate there. So in the summer months that followed, the CBMT started floating ideas for some kind of new performance space in town.

Crested Butte was the second fastest growing ski resort in Colorado in 1986. Its 10.5 percent increase in skier days was more than twice the growth of any other ski area. CBMR’s first “ski free” day surely helped. It was only for the opening day, but its novelty took the ski industry by storm. That winter the ski area set a new single-day record of 6,309 skiers. And CBMT’s ski free promotions that followed put the ski industry on its heels. Crested Butte was found!

1986 also had an in-depth community-wide Arts Survey—3,468 surveys were sent out, with a quarter of them returned. It was a very high response rate, and 90 percent of the respondents said the arts were very important. Their responses also gave the Mountain Theatre the highest rating (90 percent).

With such a strong mandate for the arts, the community’s focus soon turned to trying to do something with the Town Depot. A proposal was made to move the Depot to another location in town so some kind of new arts facility could be built on the grounds. Immediately the entire community revolted, especially the old-timers. The controversy came at the same time that a developer offered to buy the old county shop site (and notorious Mt. Black) to build a 33-room motel. But until the Depot conflict was resolved, the county would not move on any relocation or sale.

It was a time in the community facing changing demographics. In 1973, 65 percent of the residents were in the 19-30 age group. In a 1983 survey, 63 percent of the residents were in the 30-45 age group. Residents were getting older, raising families and becoming much more money conscious. Many of the CBMT’s early participants, naturally thus had to leave community and theatre. But fortunately a core group remained.

That’s also when Amax entered the scene. The ski area’s marketing pitch was come experience the “great unknown.” And as for CBMT memberships, they had grown from about 50 to more than 150 people during that decade, but most were still in the $15 to $50 dollar range. There were few big benefactors yet in town.

In August 1986, the president of the Mountain Theatre went to the Town Council and asked it to join forces with the arts community to renovate the old county shop building. He made the request also on the behalf of the Mountain Theatre, Dansummer and the Crested Butte Society.

The request was given merit and a Town Council work session followed the next week. Before the work session, a newspaper editorial supported the CBMT’s vision, “Crested Butte needs a performing arts center, a function which the Depot can no longer handle.” It went on to urge “the removal of the dismal black cinder hill at the entrance to town.” In preparation for the work session, the theatre board laid down some old carpeting rolls to cover the dirty and greasy shop floor, and set up many tables and chairs. At the work session, the president presented a Martin Luther King-type, “We have a dream” speech.

The Town Council got it and agreed. It quickly appropriated some small seed money to draft some drawings for that dream. And as we know, through the efforts of Tom Cox, Eric Roemer, Bill Crank and Paul Piper, the first $350,000 was raised. As Tom Cox said at the time, “We’re going to create a new industry in this end of the valley!”

Thus, the 1988 season ushered in an exciting new chapter for the CBMT when it moved into the new Center for the Arts facility. The town still gave the CBMT access to the Old Town Hall space, but always with its weekly council meetings and special meetings having priority.

The move into the Center also coincided with the first outside paid professionals to direct some shows. While they came at a cost, they brought great artistic quality and excitement. But with the new Center for the Arts, many new arts organizations, offerings and competitors would follow. For the rest of its second decade, the CBMT produced its plays in the Center, and an “artistic renaissance” colored the town.

The CBMT’s move also then allowed the town to finally renovate the run-down Old Town Hall. In 1991, the building was moved off its crumbling foundation onto 2nd Street. The renovation involved a new foundation, new Coal Creek retaining walls, a bus waiting room, public bathrooms, and a new marshal’s office. Nothing was done to the building’s second floor.

On August 11 from 2 to 6 p.m. in the Town Park, the CBMT will host a special barbecue with special musical offerings to celebrate its 40 years in this community. Through some special donations, it will be the Mountain Theatre’s way of thanking the community for its amazing support over 40 years. Next week’s article will share more about this barbecue. Just know that it is for all past participants, current members and soon-to-be members who can attend. Many past participants are expected back, and it will bring back many great memories you can expect. Next week’s article will highlight the CBMT’s third decade when big community changes started to set in.

CBMT’s third decade 1992-2001 by Larry Tanning
The Mountain Theatre’s third decade saw big changes in our community and towns. Most of the changes were economic—a higher cost of living—and were driven by Gunnison County’s 36 percent population growth in the 1990s. Years of ski free promotions and a strong national economy propelled that growth. The town would grow from 900 to more than 1,500 people.

The economic changes had a strong impact on the Mountain Theatre. Not as much in its funding and ability to attract actors, but in its ability to find volunteers and production help. By the early ‘90s, most of the theatre’s long-time founders and volunteers were in their 40s and had families to support. Many had to leave Crested Butte for real careers, and for those who remained, work had to take priority over plays. So in the early ‘90s, the collaborative unpaid leadership-style at the Mountain Theatre was having to change. It started to rely more on its sole paid theatre manager or artistic director, and on professional guest directors it brought to town.

To appreciate these impacts, it helps to know what it takes to put on a play. They typically require a five- to six-week production cycle, followed by two weeks of performances. First-time actors need more time, seasoned actors less. For the director, stage manager and actors, it’s six rehearsals a week. For the production crew, it’s just a huge commitment of time, to design and build sets, collect props, design posters, create costumes, and design, install and cue lighting and sound. And the production work can’t be done during rehearsals. Indeed, community theatre is one of the hardest managerial challenges to be found. It requires the commitment of many people, positive energy and the ability to work under pressure.

As the cost of living in this community became more expensive, theatre volunteers dropped off. Cheap rents became a thing of the past, and prices for nearly everything rose. Soon, the young folks moving to town had to focus on making money more than anything else. It often meant holding multiple jobs. Also there were the distractions from the Internet and all the new media outlets around. The net effect was Crested Butte becoming a different kind of community, with the CBMT facing volunteer falloffs that it still faces today. But fortunately for the CBMT, there has always been a handful of core original founders who return to help “rescue” plays even to this day.

1992 featured a gala 20th Anniversary Revue at the Center for the Arts. Just one night, the Revue had 27 scenes from the best of the previous 110 plays. More than 90 former and current participants were directly involved in that production, with many returning actors just to be in that show. As the program for the Revue proclaimed, “starring the people of Crested Butte—yesterday and today!” All the publicity and hoopla of that anniversary celebration helped propel the CBMT’s 1992 membership to 160 people and merchants.

The early ‘90s typically had three winter plays and two summer plays. All were put on at the Center for the Arts. But soon after that 20th Anniversary show, the CBMT’s theatre manager resigned to take over the Center’s paid managerial role. For the next five years, the Mountain Theatre would suffer many changes in its paid leaders (or staff of one). The ‘90s would go on to see eight people in either the paid theatre manager or artistic director role. It was a period with many ups and downs, but always with plays going on. Noteworthy were the plays directed by the paid guest directors. While those directors improved the artistic quality, not everyone agreed that it was the right for the Theatre’s community identity. Some felt it was a disservice to local directors and left the CBMT to produce plays under different company names at the Center for the Arts. Make no mistake, theatre folks are dramatic, and not just only on a stage. Without strong leadership, personality conflicts and cliques can easily fester, with people dropping away.

By the mid-’90s the many difficulties of producing plays in the Center for the Arts became intolerable. From the beginning, the Center for the Arts operated as its own profit center, and it treated the CBMT like a renter. The rents charged to use the Center facility were something never paid for before. They upset the CBMT’s historical cost structures. Plus, with so many new local and touring artistic groups also using the Center for the Arts, including plays by former and current CBMT participants, the long-cherished CBMT brand became diluted.

CBMT’s new president wrote in 1996, “Some people believe that the Center for the Arts is our home—that it’s CBMT’s own space—but it’s not. The CBMT is only a renter.” He pointed out that with so many other events booked in the Center, the CBMT only had a few days to install sets, design and hang lights, and run two or three dress rehearsals in the performance space before opening nights. He went on to say that for a professional theatre company that wasn’t a problem, but for a volunteer community theatre, it was a huge problem. The high rents for the Center’s stage, lack of concession profits, and logistical problems with plays only exacerbated the theatre’s problems. Slowly but surely the CBMT’s financial viability ebbed away, and the community enjoyed fewer plays (four or five) each year.

In 1995 Vinotok turned 10 years old and its founder was finally burned out. That year’s fall celebration was nearly called off, but then the Mountain Theatre jumped in with all its cylinders firing. A crew of theatre folks helped to take it to a new level. That’s when many of Vinotok’s theatrical elements were added to the celebration, and many are key parts of it to this day.

Once again, 1996 saw the first rumblings about finding a new CBMT home—for it was homeless! This time, the CBMT hoped to move into the old elementary school building that was soon to be vacated. That winter saw more than 400,000 skier days, and it also saw more competing live theatre shows in the Center. By early 1997, the identity issue had caused annual memberships to drop to the 80 to 100 range. This prompted its new board to proclaim some new goals. The first was to get the town to let it have a large part of the old elementary school, another was to increase members, and a third to offer a series of late-night “avant garde” plays. Shortly after, a community controversy evolved over whether the town offices or the arts community should have the school space.

After several months of debate, the town made its decision, “the town offices would stay put, the Marshal’s Office and KBUT would take over the middle school building, and elementary building would be split between non-profit arts groups and the town’s recreation department.” The CBMT would be the biggest beneficiary! But just weeks later, the town flip-flopped on its decision. Due to the $75,000 cost for annual property management and capital improvement costs for that building, everything fell apart. The town had proposed CBMT’s rent at $741 a month, a rate that the CBMT could not possibly afford.

The CBMT board then turned its focus back to the Old Town Hall. And again, like always in the past, the town of Crested Butte came through. It offered to subsidize its “residency” in the Old Town Hall, make the old school gym available for use in the summer, and offered a town barn for the storage of theatre stuff. It set the rental rate at $500 a year. So as the theatre manager said at the time, “It will be our third residency in this venerable old hall and I hope our theatre ghosts have waited there for us.”

Back in its home, and with the guidance of some key artistic leaders, the CBMT’s image and brand took off. Soon seven plays were produced again each year, and they were put on in the old school gym, the Center for the Arts, and in the Old Town Hall’s newly titled “Cabaret Theatre” space. Tickets were $10. That period also saw a five-year plan to put the CBMT on a more solid financial footing, and the emergence of a new group of donors—the “angels.” The angels were mainly the new group of second homeowners who’d moved to the community in the ‘90s, and they’d give $500, $1,000, $2,500 or more, for their CBMT memberships. They are very knowledgeable theater-goers who expect quality, and they’d become key to the CBMT’s overall stability.

Indeed, the Mountain Theatre is a living organization—as the community goes, so goes the Theatre. Next week’s article will highlight the CBMT’s relationship with the community right up to this day.

The Dark of the Moon reprise has four performances starting this Thursday, and three more starting next Thursday. It is an amazing play with nearly 35 participants, including 7 from the original 1972 production. It is a blend of Crested Butte’s old and new, and oh what talent they bring to the stage. This play is what community theatre is all about. Reserve your tickets now before the seven performances sell out.

The CBMT’s 40th celebration barbecue is in the Town Park from 2 to 6 p.m. on August 11. It’s free. Both barbecue and vegetarian food will be served, plus sodas and beer, and four different musical groups will perform. It’s the Mountain Theatre’s way of saying “thanks” to the community, so either call the theatre office (349-0366) or go to its web site ( to respond that you’ll attend. All past participants, current members, and ‘soon-to-be’ members are invited. It’s going to be a very special community event.

CBMT's 4th Decade  2002-2011  The CBMT's fourth decade started with much sadness over the untimely death of Tom Mallardi in May 2002. Tom had moved to Crested Butte in 1973 and began acting in 1980. For the next 22 years, as a valued longtime director said, "no one was in more plays or acted more brilliantly on the CBMT's stage than Tom... he had a talent for bringing Shakespeare brilliantly to life... and he'd just rehearsed his Baptista role in The Taming of the Shrew the night before he died." Tom was a stalwart of the theatre and greatly volunteered his time, including installing the handicap lift chair up the Theatre's staircase. In recognition of Tom's contributions to the CBMT, the Town officially renamed the Old Town Hall space the 'Mallardi Cabaret Theatre' later that year.

The early half of the decade saw many new faces in the Theatre's leadership and participation. Their time and energy resulted in many great plays, educational programs, and the formation of the Mt. Theatre's Writers Group. This group would later help the CBMT produce some locally written plays. That period also saw new owners of the ski area, and the first community discussions for a bigger 400-500 seat performing arts center in Town. Those discussions would later bifurcate into the two competing visions today. During those years, most CBMT plays were held at the Mallardi, with bigger plays at the Center for the Arts.

The fourth decade also saw big changes in Crested Butte. Many were the result of all the new real estate offices and construction projects around. Real estate transfer taxes and sales taxes exploded, and the cost of living too. Many of those costs were driven by real estate speculation that would later hit the community hard. The higher costs, along with all the new electronic media distractions, made it even more difficult to attract volunteers to help on plays. Working on plays or on the CBMT board is often a thankless job. Both take huge commitments of time. While there's usually willing actors to be found, production support folks are always difficult to be found.

Besides losing Tom Mallardi, the CBMT would also face high turnovers in its paid leadership and board of directors in the decade. All in all, it would have 5 different paid theatre managers and/or artistic directors, and about a 15-person turnover on its board. The turnovers were from people leaving the community, taking on new jobs, from burning out after working on too many plays, and from personality disputes. But in spite of all the turnovers, always there were great CBMT plays.

2007 saw new faces join the CBMT board and a new theatre manager. Their energy would soon raise the CBMT's capabilities and image greatly. In capabilities, after 35 years of plays, the Mallardi was in dismal shape. It was inefficient, dated, and worn out. Its lighting and sound systems were a joke. Facing this, that board held a first-ever capital fundraiser to upgrade the Mallardi into a more flexible space. Of the 275 or so capital donor request letters mailed out, 5% accounted for over 90% of the $65,000 raised. The bulk of donations came from the community's newer second homeowner group. The $65,000 paid for all the materials and technical equipment, and hundreds of volunteered labor hours did all the construction and everything else.

The 2008 summer season ushered in a new level of awareness for the CBMT. The higher awareness came from a big summer musical using Music Festival musicians, and from the newly renovated Mallardi space. The big musical - Into the Woods - was a huge community success, and would prelude even bigger summer musicals that followed. The big musicals brought a new way of producing plays, but with significantly higher costs. Prior to 2007, the CBMT's annual operating budget was usually under about $80,000 to produce 6 or more plays, with revenues equally split between ticket sales and donations. But within a few years, the budget for just the big summer musical ballooned to over $40,000 - a level that greatly unbalanced the CBMT season, resources and finances. 

The heightened awareness helped increase CBMT's donor support from about $33,000 in 2007 to nearly $70,000 in 2011. Ticket revenues trended up, from around $41,000 in 2007 to over $60,000 in 2011. But as the revenues grew, the costs grew faster. It meant the CBMT faced negative results in 4 of the last 5 years. Prior to 2007, the CBMT rarely had more than a handful of people who were paid. But with the big summer musicals, more and more people were getting paid. It meant facing loses on the big productions, while its regular budget plays stayed revenue positive. This often put the CBMT in a hole, and forced many small fundraisers to cover cash needs. It would ultimately cause the annual operating budget to double from the levels of just five years before.

Recent years have had many great musicals, plays and educational programs. What a tribute to the resiliency of this community theatre. Now, with a better understanding of what it takes to successfully operate this community theatre, the CBMT now has a very strong board. It is made up less of artistic-types, and more of governance-types, with 'sustainability' and keeping the 'community' in the CBMT as the key goals. It has set a more realistic budget - scaled back in 2012 - with a strong focus to controlling costs. It is also committed to solving the longtime production support issue. With its new board, a new theatre manager/artistic director, and continued community support, the CBMT is well positioned as it starts its fifth decade.

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