Bellows and bellows of laughter roared from the old Imperial Hotel. It was from the basement, of course. It’s a Friday night for the Imperial Players, and the crowd is roaring. The hero has just conquered the villain.
The Imperial Players were the “Old Vic of Modern Melodrama,” Time magazine reported. Cripple Creek was the place to be.
Wayne Mackin had just come home from World War II after fighting in the 10th Mountain Division when he met Dorothy, the love of his life, 72 years ago.
“It was an instant romance, and they got married shortly after meeting,” said daughter-in-law Bonnie Mackin. “They both had a little money to invest, so they drove around Colorado looking for a place to buy. And when they came to the top of the hill at the top of Cripple Creek looking down, they said, ‘This is where we want to be.’”
They invested in the small, run-down hotel they scouted atop the hill, and the inspiration began. When the hotel opened in 1946, people stopped by for food and drinks and a quick rest before finishing the road trip to their vacation destination. Cripple Creek was dying, and it was time to bring back the visitors. Dorothy heard the “Pipers Players,” a melodrama company, were coming to town, and she snagged them for a gig in 1948.
“She figured she could do it herself after seeing it,” Bonnie Mackin said. “And she did it. Very well.”
Thus began 42 summers of pure theater madness — 12 weeks of 12 shows per week. “It was magic,” said Stacey, granddaughter to Wayne and Dorothy Mackin. Two weeks of rehearsal, and then it was opening day. That’s the soonest the “kids” could come up.
“Cripple Creek was a summer town. That’s when it was alive. Hiring college students, it was the time that they needed a job,” Stacey Mackin said. “They hired 75 college students. And whether you were setting up the restaurant or bar tending or down in the theater, you were a part of the staff. It was a production from start to finish.”
No one had seen anything like it since the late 19th century. Performing classical Victorian melodramas, the players reenacted the exact script during Queen Victoria’s era while often setting the scene in the Old West.
Anyone walking by the Imperial would hear a cheer for the hero or a booming boo for the villain. Music graced each scene, distinguishing the melodrama from a typical stage play. After all, “melodrama,” is simply a drama set to a melody.
“The musical part of it often came in between acts in order to hide the set changes,” said Cynthia Rossome, wife to late Imperial Player and theater director Richard Rossome. “Sometimes there would be a song during the dramatic action that would enhance a scene. It is a drama, a play, that has music in it and music afterwards.”
About 30,000 people showed up for the melodramas in summer, revitalizing the dead mining town.
“The gold prices were so low that the mines weren’t operating, and most of the mines had shut down,” Bonnie Mackin said.
The theater suddenly had lines out the door and sold-out shows. Cripple Creek came alive again.
“All of a sudden you start seeing people on the streets. Business people took advantage of the hustle, and they were building up shops,” said past Imperial Player Mel Moser. “There was some beautiful gift shops and antique stores, and that was all due to this beautiful melodrama that the Mackins had started.”
The staff only had one day off, and in the words of Bonnie Mackin, “We worked hard, and we played hard.” The players welcomed folks from all over the nation, even hosting some stars, she said. When Walt Disney came for a visit, he received one of the acclaimed hats in the GoldBar Room. All special guests left with a hat.
“Walt Disney came to the Imperial and was touring to do research with hopes of building Frontierland of Disneyland,” Bonnie Mackin said. “He came to the melodrama, and they gave him one of the hats that hung in the Gold Bar Room for special guests. My husband got to meet him and visit with him and everything.”
These days were the best days for the Imperial Player staff. The late night talks, the hiking through the Rockies, or even “kicking back next to a lake,” it’s this comradery that’s not forgotten.
“We were having a kegger in the back alley behind the Imperial Hotel,” said Moser. "The local policeman pulled up, got out of his beat up Ford Bronco police car and said, ‘what’s a cop got to do to geta cold beer around here.’ I knew I was in the right place here at the Imperial Hotel as an Imperial Player. The pay was terrible but the friendships were priceless.”
In 1991, the hotel was sold. Cripple Creek slowly transformed into the gambling town it is now. The Mackins had known things would change.
“We knew that carrying it on there probably wasn’t going to work as well,” Bonnie Mackin said. “When gambling came, we were really fortunate that someone made us an offer, and we were able to sell it at that time.”
Though the hotel sold, Richard Rossome, an Imperial Player since 1960 and director of the shows since ‘82, continued to direct the dramas.
“When the new owners asked him to take over the theater, I went with him,” Cynthia Rossome said. “They asked him to stay on board and direct, and they asked me to be in public relations.”
Rossome left in ‘96, but the Butte Theater held onto the melodrama tradition, and shows still are performed there today. Theater manager Mel Moser says the melodramas are a “dying genre” but will live on.
“I still have actor friends that are in New York and they go, ‘You’re still doing that in Cripple Creek?’ Once you learn it and understand it and are trying to carry it out to young actors, you just realize, ‘I want to teach them, I want to pass on this genre that’s dying.’ It’s a tradition to continue this handful of melodrama in Cripple Creek.”
For old times’ sake, stop into the Imperial this summer. The now “Christmas Casino and Inn” will host the “First Company” to perform the first melodrama in nearly 20 years. Artistic director Marty Fennewald invites the audience to “come and have fun.”
“You go to a melodrama to have fun ... This show is a belly laugh. Have fun.”