The sale of the property on which the BDT Stage sits almost certainly means that the venerable Boulder Dinner Theater — and a 46-year chapter in Colorado theater history — will come to an end soon after May 10, 2023.
Last week, Gene and Judy Bolles sold the 12,000 square foot lot and building at 5501 Arapahoe Ave. for $5.5 million to Quad Capital Partners, a real estate investment management subsidiary of First Martin Corporation of Ann Arbor, Mich. Quad Capital is led by Seth and Mike Martin, the sons of former longtime University of Michigan athletic director Bill Martin, whose name is third in the company’s list of names as Senior Advisor.
Gene Bolles said the deal comes with a free lease, allowing BDT Stage to continue operations “at least until next May 10th,” with the possibility of a short extension in the event of construction delays. This will allow Artistic Director Seamus McDonagh to carefully plan a meaningful farewell season. Until then, “operations don’t change from day to day,” McDonagh said.
But make no mistake, Bolles said: “This is the beginning of the end of the BDT phase as we know it,” he said.
Seth Martin confirmed to The Denver Gazette that “our plan is to follow the plan that the City of Boulder has been drafting for the past three years, which is to provide more housing to a community in East Boulder that desperately needs it to provide.”
The Bolles family retains ownership of the business, but Gene said, “I don’t have space to do this business after the lease expires on May 10.”
The sale was somewhat inevitable as Bolles, best known as a neurosurgeon who spent years treating American military casualties abroad, put the property up for sale in 2019 just before the pandemic hit. Bolles turns 86 this year and it is time to put his own affairs in order for his family’s future.
There hasn’t been a potential buyer to keep the theater going, he said, because there’s no economic model that would allow a for-profit dinner theater to break even. Not even close.
BDT has a seating capacity of 274. Bolles estimates that it would take 500 capacity and those seats to be occupied for BDT to have any chance in the future. One of the factors against it, he said, was that the playing field for commercial theaters that don’t qualify for public funding has never been level. Boulder’s taxes are also significantly higher than neighboring counties and have recently been raised. McDonough estimates that BDT Stage has to charge its visitors 15 percent more than Larimer County’s thriving Candlelight Dinner Playhouse just because of higher taxes. In addition, the 47-year-old building needs maintenance and repairs.
“If someone has a lot of money — and by that I mean more than what we were paid for it — or if the city of Boulder would subsidize the operation in some way, like they do in Arvada and Aurora, then maybe,” Bolles said. “But I don’t think a private, for-profit company of our size is any more sustainable.”
The final end of the BDT Stage would leave the metro area without a grand dinner theater for the first time in more than 50 years. The only other Subway offerings would be the Adams Mystery Playhouse and The Dinner Detective. Nationwide, the 330-seat Candlelight Dinner Playhouse is a gem in Johnstown that officially sold out at every performance in 2022, and the Iron Springs Chateau remains a home for melodrama in Manitou Springs.
Twenty years ago, the state’s seven largest dinner theaters reported 375,000 attendances in 2002. And besides BDT Stage… they’re all gone: The Country Dinner Playhouse, Heritage Square Music Hall in Golden, Midtown Arts Center in Fort Collins, Cabaret in Grand Junction, Union Colony in Greeley and last month Jesters in Longmont.
McDonough said BDT has struggled to regain its core audience since reopening after the pandemic shutdown 14 months ago. In 2002, BDT attracted 91,600 patrons. McDonough estimates the number has been closer to 25,000 since reopening, including special events and concerts. BDT was just getting some momentum (and decent viewership) with its White Christmas holiday offering, but COVID safety regulations limited capacity, which totaled an $84,000 drop in sales.
“There are so many people who just don’t realize that we’re actually open,” McDonough said. “We couldn’t really let people know we’re still here.”
McDonough emphasized that the best way for the community to show their support for the BDT Stage and their importance to the theatrical ecology in Colorado is to just come to a show while they can “and then really reach out to us.”
BDT is currently staging The SpongeBob Musical through September 3, with previously announced plans to then present long episodes of The Buddy Holly Story and Something Rotten that would last through May 13. But that was before the sale put the theater on the clock.
Opened in 1977 by the late Ross Haley as Boulder’s Dinner Theater, the BDT Stage has staged more than 160 musicals (and some plays) since then. The Bolles family purchased the land, property and business in 2003 and hired Michael J. Duran, who managed operations until last April, when he handed over the reins to McDonough and assumed an advisory role.
Bolles said it was unlikely another savior would show up to buy the business and open in a new location. If anyone does, it’s not him. “I’m not terribly interested in going back and doing it again at my age,” he said. “I have a large family and I look forward to helping them.”
But he said: “It was a hell of a run.”