Fifty years ago, Gary Watkins was just a college kid looking for a summer job.
Little did he know, 50 years later, he would be putting together a show to celebrate his past employment at the Grand Imperial Hotel’s melodrama in Silverton.
“I was just an innocent kid, I didn’t even know where Silverton was,” Watkins said. “I’m an Air Force brat. My family was always based out of Denver. In 1969, I was going to college in California. My dad was a pilot in Vietnam, and my mom had the other kids – I’m the oldest – in Denver. For summer vacation, I thought, ‘I’m going to get a summer job in Colorado and be close to Mom and everything.’”
So he picked up a summer employment guide and saw an ad looking for musicians and actors at the Grand Imperial in Silverton, a place he had never heard of.
“I thought it was maybe just outside of Denver someplace, so I made a tape and sent a picture and got the job – 75 cents and hour and room and board,” he said. “I took the job and looked at a map, and it was, ‘Whoa! It’s clear down over here in the corner of Colorado!’ So I came down here and fell in love with the place, and ended up spending the rest of my life here.”
Watkins transfered to Fort Lewis College and is a land surveyor. He’s married, has a couple of grown kids and still plays in bands around Durango.
“Silverton opened my eyes to a lot of things: The miners were rough and tough. It was different back then,” he said. “And the theater people – the guys and the girls, that was a big change for me, too. It was a lot of fun.”
Watkins worked at the Grand Imperial for two summers, the first with the melodrama and the second as a solo musician.
“We did two plays that summer: One was ‘Curse you, Jack Dalton,’ and it’s just a typical bad guy/damsel in distress kind of thing. The second one was “True Blue and Trusted,” that was an even cornier one,” he said, adding that there were actually two melodramas running in Silverton at the same time – the Grand Imperial and one at the San Juan Bar. Part of the job was to meet the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge train as it pulled into town and hand out flyers advertising the shows to passengers.
“There was kind of a rivalry between our melodrama and the one at the San Juan,” Watkins said. “They would have their cast go meet the train on one side of the train, our group would go on the other side of the train.”
Back in the 1960s, Watkins said, melodrama in Colorado was a pretty big draw: The Strater’s was nationally recognized, there were the two in Silverton, and Cripple Creek and Steamboat Springs had some as well. “It was just kind of an art form that has kind of passed away,” he said.
Plus, in small mountain communities like Silverton, there wasn’t a whole lot else going on at night to keep people entertained – there wasn’t even television, except for the moon landing, when the Grand Imperial had a television on in the lobby for the broadcast, Watkins said. The melodrama would attract both tourists and locals, who would come to the show almost nightly and give the actors feedback on their performances.
Watkins said he began planning for August’s show in March. The performance will consist of stories, videos, and Watkins playing music that was performed in the original melodrama. There’s also a small cast that will re-enact scenes from the original show. Original cast member Delia Clark Bell will be on hand as well.
Watkins said only 75 seats will be available, so don’t wait to get your tickets.
“I just kind of want to do it to celebrate Silverton, to celebrate the Grand Imperial, the lost history,” he said.