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The Ellie Caulkins Opera House + TEDxMileHigh

TEDxMileHigh would not exist without its partners, supporters, volunteers, and speakers. It could, however, exist without a physical space. Big ideas and deep communities do not require grand places to build, grow, transform, and accelerate. After all, there are thriving TEDx communities started in slums which produce big ideas and thoughtful conversation. That said, our event home, the Ellie Caulkins Opera House in the Denver Performing Arts Complex, is just that: our home. And we are proud to call it so. It is truly a world-class venue — both in its aesthetic characteristics and in its utility. The Ellie, as it’s colloquially known to Denverites, provides an exceptional and unique platform for both attendees and speakers to experience the ideating, creating, connecting, and sharing that takes place at TEDxMileHigh.

Originally called “The Municipal Auditorium,” the space was once the largest auditorium in America apart from Madison Square Garden in New York, completed in 1908 to host the Democratic National Convention.  Since, it has been steadily used for everything from basketball games to rodeos to concerts and even circuses.

Auditorium interior, 1929

After an extensive overhaul in the 1950s, the Municipal Auditorium was made to be a modern theatre. Since, it’s gone through a few renovations, the most extensive being the modern re-design in the early 2000s. Re-opened in 2005 after two years, the “Ellie,” as it’s more familiarly known by Denverites, was designed by Semple Brown Design PC of Denver and seats 2,225 people.  Semple Brown Design has been the driving force behind a number of iconic area buildings, including the Kitchen Denver, Denver Pavilions, Redline, Pura Vida, The Corner Office, Steubens, and the decade-long master plan overhaul of Denver’s Larimer Square.

Photo: Ron Pollard
On the Ellie, the team at Semple Brown Design and contractors PCL Construction gutted the interior and completely transformed the auditorium space. The acoustic performance of the main hall was the primary design factor in the choice of construction materials for PCL, as advised by acoustic expert Bob Mahoney of Boulder. The Ellie’s classic lyric design was inspired by famous opera houses around the world, including La Scala and the Royal Opera House at Covent Garden. Such a style places the focus on fantastic acoustics and visuals; in other words, every seat is the best seat in the house for each audience member. From architecture site Arch Daily:

Arriving in the lobby, one senses the volume of the space. The eye is drawn from the central entrances to the sides and the majestic sweep of the grand staircase. For practical reasons, this helps direct patrons to circulation points and services such as the main lobby bars and the restrooms. The curves of the space also create a sense of drama in the lobby. The architecture is designed to be timeless – there are no trendy colors. The finishes are really very simple and honest. The design team intended for the patron to be the person on show in the lobby.

The Ellie Caulkins Opera House features the Figaro System, individual screens at each seat that have the ability to translate the dialogue on stage in up to seven languages. The slope of the balconies toward the stage, the ziggurat walls on each side, the curves on the front of the side balconies and the vertical volume of the space are all designed to enhance the natural sound of the hall. Moveable walls within the orchestra pit adjust to the size of the orchestra and serve as sound reflectors, a design advance unique to this facility. All lines in the theatre direct one’s attention to the stage. The designers wanted to create a relationship between the performer and audience. The farthest seat in the hall is only 113 feet from the stage, twenty-four feet closer to the stage than in the old theatre.

There are, without a doubt, many people and influences that helped us get to where we are today, including our venue. The Ellie has been integral to our history and development. When TEDxMileHigh had its first flagship event in 2011, the Ellie opened its doors and has continued to welcome us every year for our events.

Photo: Semple Brown Design

The “D” in TED and TEDx stands for “design.” By housing our events in the Ellie, the design focus of our events becomes immediately apparent. Beyond the majesty and grandeur of the venue, the Ellie lends itself to an extremely pleasing aesthetic, and each of our speakers has the unique opportunity to stand before the audience on the same stage utilized by exceptional performers and organizations, including Opera Colorado. While TEDxMileHigh would exist simply with its powerful community, the venue is a magnificent testimony to what Colorado can produce for the greater good of its citizens (it was mostly publicly funded), and we are thankful to have the opportunity to enjoy its space, thoughtful design, and inspiration.

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All photos below courtesy Semple Brown Design and Ron Pollard:

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