After the music died at Stargazers Theatre on March 16, 2020, co-owner Cindy Hooton picked up her paint brush.
During COVID-19’s year of up and down lockdowns and ever-changing tiny-audience restrictions, she and husband John first “painted, patched and repaired” throughout the large dome event center and concert hall they have owned for 12 years. During those years, an estimated half-million people had been in and out of that now-empty building, three or four nights of every week.
The couple also had stay-at-home time to do creative work at the charming log Timber Lodge cabins in Manitou Springs they’ve owned since 1988.
And Cindy set up an easel.
“I had never even thought I could do art,” she remembers, but that changed years earlier because of one of her twin sons, Chase, who suffered a stroke when he was born 30 years ago. There were “lots of different therapies” as he was growing up. When she saw an art book on “drawing on the right side of the brain,” she wondered if that might help her see how Chase sees the world. A class at Bemis School of Art at the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center fine-tuned that skill and showed her how.
Her art continued. Cindy started with pencils and moved to pastels and watercolors and now to bright, “cheerful” acrylic colors. This has been an ideal time to bring her love of flowers, succulents and gardening to canvas, her pastorals and mountain scenes. And the ardent animal lover has plenty of dog and cat models to paint at home or the pets of staff and friends.
Being surrounded by walls of bright art has rubbed off on John, who had studied commercial art. Cindy encouraged him to set up an easel beside hers for his project, the sights and sounds of Stargazer’s music world: the musicians, the people, the music, “the feel.” John, who has played guitar and been a songwriter since he was a teen, has plenty to work from with his “hundreds of photos” from the Stargazer years.
Maybe, the couple wonders, they’ll even have a Hooton art show as Stargazers opens up to larger audiences in its 500-seat theater. At recent pandemic levels, that was just 10 people and eventually 50 people allowed; in mid-February it finally became 50% capacity unless the number of coronavirus cases climbs again. They’re receiving letters and messages of support.
This couple’s partnership has been going strong since they married 37 years ago in June. They shake their heads and laugh, remembering they were part of the major corporate world back then. “We were living the life,” says John. “The big house, the big hair, the big car, the big cities.” They worked for the same big company and were transferred from California to places like Flagstaff, Ariz., and then Dallas.
A 1988 visit with John’s mother, who owned a motel in Colorado Springs, turned their lives upside down in the best of ways. Why not buy a little motel, The Timber Lodge, for sale in Manitou? she asked. They left big house, big city and big-corporate mindsets to make beds, rake yards, do laundry and greet tourists. They never looked back, loving the mountains, small-town life and Cindy happily walking her dogs in Garden of the Gods.
“We took what we learned in the corporate world and used it for a mom-and-pop business,” John said. And, yes, they both were “working more hours than we ever thought possible” when they became the subjects of a Gazette-Telegraph business story about “yuppies moving into the slow lane.”
In 2008, son Evan, who even as a teen had been fascinated by music production and lighting and today is co-owner of The Gold Room and a new bar in Pueblo, had the perfect plan for his parents. That empty, big round theater on Pikes Peak Avenue was for sale. It had started in 1969 as a movie theater, UA Cinema 150; became the country music Colorado Opry Hall; changed to heavy metal Colorado Music Hall; and then was World Outreach Church.
Evan’s musician dad wanted it, mom not so much. Until Cindy saw stars high up in the domed ceiling and said, “Stargazers.” That was that and their second mom-and-pop business, an event center and concert hall, was born. Famous musicians could perform here and popular tribute bands but it would especially feature local talent, they knew. “So much talent quietly lives here and there can’t be an honest-to-goodness music scene without local live music,” said John.
Their hospitality experience from the lodge would serve them well here, too, they reasoned. And it has. Cindy makes home-cooked meals for appreciative musicians. The Hootons support nonprofits, offering a site for fundraising events. John’s songwriting skill is the impetus for “Songwriters’ Circle Under the Dome.”
For now, however, Stargazers isn’t yet full speed, after some virtual events and the popular livestreaming, which could be a permanent part of concerts. The small staff, considered family, was retained with help from business grants and loans. “Now we’re ready to be all together, the more the merrier. We miss our life as we knew it,” said John. And it will be filled with a lot of new Hooton art.