Historic Elitch Garden Theater

Denver, Colorado | C.1890

Photo Credit: Accidentally Wes Anderson

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“I’m going to San Francisco for a job; will you marry me when I come for you?” Spoiler alert: She said yes! And so began the adventure of John and Mary Elitch, leading the pair down a path that began with young love on the edge of the San Francisco Bay, and ended with Mary making history, somehow winding her way to becoming the first woman in the world to own and operate a theater.

Since Mary was only 16 when John proposed, she defied her parents and eloped with her 22-year-old husband. After spending a decade in San Francisco, the couple moved to Denver, where they would prosper through their imagination and determination. In 1887, John and Mary purchased a 16-acre farm west of Denver. Only three years later, they transformed the land into a cultural resort with plants, flowers, musicians, a theater, and the first zoo between Chicago and California. 

They called it Elitch’s Zoological Gardens and Grand Pavilion Theatre, a sprawling grounds that matched the ostentatious ambitions of the time. Their venture was a smashing success, and the couple imagined a grand future with each other. But everything changed the next year when John contracted pneumonia and died, leaving Mary a 34-year-old widow.

Mary was crushed by her husband’s passing, but she didn’t let it keep her down. She knew the enormity of the tasks in front of her, and she approached them with warmth, wisdom, and wit. In the blink of an eye, Mary became the first female zookeeper, the first woman to run a botanic gardens, and one of the first women to own a theater in the United States. 

Throughout her incredible career, Mary befriended bears, kangaroos, and snakes. She carried on the success of the theater and launched a theater training program, creating a special place for children to fall in love with the arts. She wrote two children’s books and became lovingly known as the Lady of the Gardens. 

The Historic Elitch Theater delighted audiences for a century, becoming a staple in the Denver entertainment scene. Today, after a series of renovations, the theater hosts movie nights, tours, and community events, carrying on the legacy of its leading lady. So if you find yourself there, learning of the legendary nights when Grace Kelly or Douglas Fairbanks graced the stage, give a nod to Mary Elitch, the wondrous woman who, on a San Francisco night, took a leap of faith that paved the way for generations of women to come.

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