If you don’t recall the old balcony level mural at Denver’s Oriental Theater, you can’t really blame yourself. Thought to have been painted in the 1960s and depicting a landscape filled with palm trees and onion domes, it was faded and dark and deeply damaged by decades of leaking, the plaster peeling and swelling. But as General Manager Scott Happel put it, “it was never within our power to do anything about it, since the owner of the building needed to repair the roof.” Last summer’s big hailstorm was a game-changer however, and after overhauling all of the deteriorating plaster, “… the old mural was pretty much gone.”
Originally built in 1927, The Oriental Theater occupies a spot on the National Register of Historic Places and has been a mainstay for local music and events since 2005. Co-owner Scott LaBarbera was the first on the scene to rescue it, but soon added co-owners Lara Moore, Andy Bercaw and Happel to create a sorely needed community venue in the Berkeley neighborhood near Tennyson after it was shuttered and abandoned for 45 years.
But before the roof was fixed mayoral candidate and local musician Kalyn Heffernan of Wheelchair Sports Camp recommended to Vince Kadlubek, CEO of Meow Wolf, to connect with the venue to help repair the old mural. “With fingers crossed,” Happel reached out once the plaster-work was done in August 2018, a full year later, and reminded him of the conversation. By October they were reviewing sketches for the proposed new artwork to enliven the space.
RUMTUM brought a bold vision to life around the ceiling of the old theater — a lush, psychedelic landscape inspired by Southeast Asia but containing imagined plant life in vibrant hues with misty Indonesian temples in the background. Bringing in Pat Milbery to paint the gradient hues on the flowers and working with a couple of assistants, he and his team started work the day after Thanksgiving which stretched to January 30th. Each paint session was dependent on the theater’s blackout days and as a result, the laborious process of building and dismantling the scaffolding required to reach near the ceiling had to be repeated every time.
Though RUMTUM had reached out to Meow Wolf before, this assignment came out of the blue, and when he went to feel out the space and create sketches it was his first visit to the Oriental Theater. Growing up in Cleveland, Ohio, he wound up getting a degree at the Columbus College of Art & Design before finally landing in Denver which now serves as a home base as he travels to many mural festivals, most recently POW! WOW! in Honolulu, Hawaii where his verdant plant life seems a natural fit.
The vibrant landscape is typical of RUMTUM’s work, which usually features exuberant, riotous color and invented plant life in prints and murals. “I use a lot of interior storytelling in my work,” he explains, “inventing plants that don’t exist, and making up things in the moment.”
The mural has brought new life to the old theater, and now, you couldn’t miss it if you tried, with color that still vibrates enough to be visible when all the house lights are dimmed. If you want to see it in person and celebrate the unveiling, you don’t need to wait for your next favorite band to play, and look up.