“Movies are special. There is something about movies- they are meant to be shared with the energy of other people and not from a screen in your living room”.                                                                                                  -Jenna MacGregor

Blog: Jules' Gems "The Historic Park Theatre" January 2020

Happy New Year everyone! Yeah, I know… my timing is a bit off, but since we are still in the first month of the new year, I felt this was a reasonable greeting. I hope your new year resolution includes some travel plans for the upcoming year.

Exploring new places is healthy for the brain, inspires creativity and nurtures the soul plus you might meet really cool people who have the same interests as you. And oftentimes you don’t have to go very far to find a new adventure. I bet there is some kind of tourist attraction practically in your backyard that you keep thinking you will visit one day but still haven’t found the time.… like my hubby who grew up in Brooklyn, saw the Statue of Liberty every day from his bedroom window, but never visited the monument until we returned to New York together many years later.

Gems and Pearls

This blog post is about the forgotten gems in our backyard, and the pearl I wish to convey to you today is the Historic Park Theatre in Estes Park, Colorado. I can’t tell you how many times I have been to Estes Park and passed by the big white tower as I rushed into Rocky Mountain National Park thinking to myself, “One day I will visit that building and find out what it is all about”. Finally, that day arrived. We had been hunting (for photography) the animals in the park pretty hard for a few days and decided we needed an afternoon off. Perusing the internet I discovered that Downton Abbey was playing at the old theatre. Excited to vary our usual routine in the charming, quaint town, we set out to experience a piece of living history.

Outside the Historic Park Theatre

The Story of Ralph Gwynn

The Original Projector and Phonograph

Built in 1913, the theatre has had several owners during its time starting with Fred Jackson who sold it to Ralph Gwynn in 1922. Gwynn was an inventor in addition to being a businessman. In 1922, films were still silent. According to Jenna MacGregor, one of the current owners of the theatre, music for the film was supplied by a playing piano operated by a young girl. The downside to this arrangement is that the music did not always follow the film. As time went along, movie producers began composing music for each film with the arrangements placed on sheet music. The sheet music was then sent along with the film to the theatre which required a resident piano player in each theatre to learn the music before the film was introduced to the public. Then during the film, the piano player had to not only play the music but watch the film at the same time to keep up with the correct timing of the scenes. A woman by the name of Hazel Baldwin was the pianist for the Historic Park Theatre during this era.

Gwynn began thinking there must be a better way to coordinate music to the movie. Thinking about how the jukeboxes of that time worked, the inventor decided that by recording the music to a record, then synchronizing the phonograph to the projector using a beam of light, he could coordinate the phonograph to play at the correct time during the movie. With his new and novel ingenuity, Gwynn demonstrated the technology to film producers throughout the United States which they promptly embraced, which created a nice income for him. Gwynn was so enthralled with his theatre business that he added the landmark tower and lobby addition in 1926. The tower became known as the Tower of Love because of his passion for the art of theatre. Also, one might notice that the front facade of the tower looks like a jukebox - an intentional architectural design by Gwynn as a reminder of his brilliant invention. When Gwynn died in 1963, the future of the theatre was in question. Local residents Ola and Mickey Stanger began leasing the business in 1968 and purchased the building in 1982 from businessman, Vic Walker. In 1984 the theatre qualified for the Register of Historic Places securing its future.

After the deaths of Mickey in 2003 and Ola in 2005, the historic venture remained in the family with their descendants at the helm operating the enterprise and caring for the old theatre. 

Inside the Historic Park Theatre

The experience began when we bought our tickets outside at the box office window. As we stepped inside, I felt like we were stepping back in time. The old, large, vintage hall is decorated with a deep red carpet, antique wall sconces and antique furniture. At the far end of the lobby is a very cool relic that fascinated me - the original projector and phonograph which were the crux of Gwynn’s game-changing technology for theatre.

After purchasing the traditional movie fare popcorn and soda, we noticed that they also offer additional snacks, sandwiches, soups and even beer from their cafe next door which will be delivered to your seat to be enjoyed during the movie. Speaking with Sharon Seeley, daughter of Mickey and Ola Stanger, while I waited for my popcorn, I learned that this is the oldest single house motion picture theatre in the United States which was originally built and still being used as a theatre today.

As we waited for the movie to start, the patrons began filing in. Truly, the locals value this historic monument and support it for good cause. The owners are friendly and easy to chat up. The seats are comfortable, the popcorn is popped to perfection, and the screen, which was replaced in 2015 is of excellent quality with the sound coming from a new digital projector and Dolby 3D surround sound system added in 2013.

The Park Theatre has withstood the ravages of time and nature including wind, lightening, and flood. After the Lawn Lake Flood in 1982, all businesses were prohibited from using neon signs with the exception of the theatre. A special permit allowed the neon lights to be replaced.

Inside the Historic Park Theatre

Events at the Theatre

During a phone interview with Jenna MacGregor, granddaughter of Mickey and Ola and daughter of Sharon Seeley, Jenna told me that the theatre remains a family-owned business run by Mickey and Ola’s children and grandchildren. The theatre is open every day April through December showing first-run movies. The venue can also be rented for special occasions such as weddings, concerts and other events from January through March. The theatre also hosts Fathom Events such as the live streaming of the Bolshoi Ballet and the Metropolitan Opera.

Watching Downton Abbey in this venue was an experience I’ll never forget. A movie set in the same era as the age of this building - it was all too perfect. So if you are ever in the area, look for the soft glow of the neon tower lights and take a little time out to appreciate this historical treasure. You won’t regret it.

For more information contact:

The Historic Park Theatre & Cafe

P.O. Box 3052 130 Moraine Avenue

Estes Park, Colorado 80517



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