Left in the dark
Future of now-shuttered Henry Strater Theatre remains in limbo

Left in the dark

The Henry Strater Theatre awning over Main Avenue this week. The theater, which is actually in a different building from the Strater Hotel, was leased and managed by the hotel for decades. In March 2020, then-Strater Hotel owner Rod Barker terminated the lease because of financial concerns. The theater has been dark since./ Photo by Jonathan Romeo

Jonathan Romeo - 11/11/2021
Tucked away in the heart of downtown Durango is a beloved, historic theater that had its lights turned off during the COVID-19 pandemic. Now, as the world slowly reopens, it’s uncertain whether those lights will be turned back on.
“I hope the theater comes back,” said Nick Anesi, a local lawyer who serves as the representative for a group of mostly longtime Durango families – known as Main Avenue Properties LLC – that own the property. “But I don’t know that it will.”

The Henry Strater Theatre, known more affectionately as “The Hank,” had become one of Durango’s most prized event spaces, providing endless entertainment in its storied 60-year history.

Located adjacent to (and technically connected with) the Strater Hotel in the 600 block of Main Avenue, the theater itself is not a part of the hotel property – a common misconception. Instead, all those 58 years hosting concerts and festivals for the community, Main Avenue Properties was leasing the theater to the Strater Hotel, which managed the event space.

In March 2020, with COVID-19 causing shutdowns across the country, the situation for the Henry Strater Theatre started to unravel. For some time, Rod Barker, then-president and CEO of the Strater Hotel, had grappled with keeping the theater running, with each year becoming harder to remain profitable and meet its high rent: about $100,000 a year all told with utilities and maintenance.

Barker, in an interview with The Durango Telegraph, said over the years he had offered to purchase the property, which would have allowed him to make necessary building improvements. But the two sides couldn’t agree on a selling price. And with each year, the terms of the lease would increase, despite pleas for the rent to go down. So, even before the onset of the pandemic, Barker had made the decision to close the theatre.
“(The pandemic) just solidified the idea it was time for us to stop leading the charge in the theater,” Barker said. “It was a difficult decision.”
Main Avenue Properties, for its part, says it was caught off guard by Barker’s decision to abruptly close the theater. A rent abatement was requested for March 2020, which was granted, but then, shortly after, Barker removed all the equipment and seating from the event space, and closed the two points of access from the hotel to the theater with cinder blocks and mortar – all without notifying Main Avenue Properties.

“After that, communications ceased,” Anesi said. “It was a strange series of events. But then that was the end of it.”
Barker admits communications were difficult during that time. But he said years of failing to agree on a purchase price, coupled with rising rents and the uncertainty of the pandemic, drove home the reality there was no future in the Strater running the theater.

“I guess I didn’t make my position clear enough that the rent had to go down in order for us to stay there,” he said. “But I saw what was coming down the pike.”

In the months since, the Henry Strater Theatre has remained dark, with little movement on its future. Anesi said there’s constant interest in renting the Henry Strater Theatre from nonprofits or other organizations for one-time events. But, unfortunately, even though it had been listed with a broker, no one has expressed a desire to take on the task of managing the venue on a long-term basis (Anesi said the listed lease price is actually lower than the assessed value. He did not provide that number by press time). “We’re kind of in a state of limbo until someone wants to lease it,” he said.
At the same time, the entire theater property – a 20,000 sq. ft. lot, which includes additional space above the theater and to the south – was listed around $3.5 million. While the property did draw interest, most checked out after seeing what it would cost to either convert the space for another use or knock it down and rebuild something like a mixed-use development.
“The task of redeveloping that property is a very big one,” Anesi said.
As it stands, the property has been taken off the market. And important to note, Main Avenue Properties would prefer the property continue on as the Henry Strater Theatre. “They’d like to see the theater revitalized,” Anesi said. “But I don’t know how viable theaters are right now. Maybe it’s not currently as promising a business endeavor in today’s world.”
Indeed, life hasn’t been easy on theaters lately.
The Animas City Theatre, Durango’s go-to concert spot, was closed for 15 months during the pandemic, said co-owner Michele Redding. One of the main reasons the venue stayed afloat, she said, was because the landlord didn’t charge rent all those months.

“Otherwise, we wouldn’t have survived,” she said.
And although COVID capacity restrictions have largely lifted, its still been difficult to return to somewhat normal. For one, shows have been canceled due to bands coming down with COVID. While crowds are coming back, it hasn’t returned to pre-pandemic levels, Redding said, signaling people may still have some hesitancy to be packed in an indoor space. And, like every other business these days, staffing is a major challenge. In sum, hosting live music is filled with constant uncertainty and turbulence week to week.
But Redding remains optimistic. “It’s coming back slowly,” she said, adding the ACT had its first sold-out show last week. “We’re just doing the best we can.”
All these issues likely make the prospect of running yet another venue full time at the Henry Strater Theatre a daunting one, Anesi said. That’s why it made sense all these years for the Strater Hotel to run it with its staff on an as-needed basis. Part of the lease even included additional hotel rooms that were part of the theater property that the hotel was allowed to use.
Complicating matters, Barker (whose family had owned the hotel for 95 years) sold the Strater this spring to Texas businessman Ross Garrett. Speaking to the Telegraph, Garrett said he would have a definite interest in purchasing the property and continuing on with the theater, at the right price. With all the remodels and upgrades to the that would be required, the asking price of $3.5 million is far too high, he said.
“That’s over the top,” Garrett said. “But I would be interested if the price was right.”
And historic it is.
Around the 1950s, the space was an old automobile workshop. Some Durangoans, however, had the idea that the town needed an event space, opening what was called the “Diamond Circle Theatre” in 1962. An old mining town, this was considered the Durango’s first foray into family entertainment.
The Diamond Circle Theatre built a reputation on its melodramas. But as Durango grew as a tourist town, so did the theater. In 2008, the space officially became the Henry Strater Theatre, hosting acts like Judy Collins, as well as countless festivals like the Bluegrass Meltdown and Cowboy Poetry Gathering.
One of its largest events – the infamous Snowdown Follies –relied on the theater since the winter celebration started in 1987. Ever since the Hank closed in March 2020, Snowdown organizers have been preparing for the inevitable (there was no Snowdown in 2021 because of the pandemic).
“We’re struggling and we’re really missing it,” Peg Ochsenreiter, who serves on the Snowdown Board of Directors, said.
To adapt, the Follies will be held at the smaller Durango Arts Center, with more shows booked, even the weekend before Snowdown, because of the event’s financial significance, accounting for two-thirds of Snowdown’s budget. (The Animas City Theatre doesn’t have a backroom to accommodate the Follies cast, but for years, has hosted a simulcast). “We’re just trying to get in as many shows as we can,” Ochsenreiter said.
For now, it seems we will have to sit and wait to see the ultimate fate of the beloved Henry Strater Theatre, which for the time being is just another empty space. It needs equipment, sure, but more than anything, it needs someone to take the historic theater into its next chapter.
“(Main Avenue Properties) can’t lease something no one wants to rent,” Anesi said. “And if there’s no one that wants to lease or buy it, there’s nothing we can do but wait.”
Barker, too, believes there is a way for the Hank to live on. For years, he tried to get a group of nonprofits that use the theater, as well as the City of Durango, to go in on a joint partnership to keep the theater running. Those efforts ultimately fizzled out, he said, but some sort of similar structure could work, if the community wants it to. And it sounds like they do.
“A lot of people didn’t realize how much that theater meant to downtown,” Barker said. “Now that it’s gone, every day I hear from someone how they miss it. Maybe sitting there empty highlights the reality of the situation, and maybe something will happen.”

Left in the dark

A scene from the Henry Strater Melodrama, which was the theater's summer mainstay for decades./ Courtesy photo