In 1951, a volunteer group of thespians incorporated in Boulder County for “the promotion and advancement of legitimate drama for enjoyment by the general public.” With the idea of traveling to other Colorado communities, they dubbed themselves “Nomads” and invested in a circus tent, which they set up on borrowed land “just a little off Broadway” in the northern part of town. In over 50 years of activity, the Nomads never actually performed at any other location. The first season, a critical and popular success, was hampered by rainfall, windstorms and excessive heat. A more permanent structure was clearly in order, and the people of Boulder rallied to provide the necessary means to build the Nomad Playhouse.
The Nomads’ exemplary community spirit was apparent in every aspect of the project: founding members William and Winnie Hutson (then owners of the Boulderado Hotel) offered a long-term lease and an interest-free loan that was later waived; Baudie Moschetti (then owner of the corner liquor store) offered free use of the land, which he later gave the Nomads; board member Ralph Peters contributed technical equipment and expertise and much more; and prominent local architect James Hunter (responsible for many civic buildings like the Boulder library and medical center and a pioneer in the use of solar energy) was commissioned. Due to the low cost and simplicity of construction, a design reminiscent of the Quonset Hut, the half-cylindrical, metal-sided structure developed by the Navy for quick deployment during WWII, was chosen. Groundbreaking took place in August 1952. Some lumber and sheeting was salvaged from an abandoned mine, and footlights, scenery, flats and curtains were constructed by members of the group. Seats for the audience were borrowed from a nearby mortuary.
Over the years, additions, repairs and changes to the building occurred (like repainting the original chartreuse exterior to brown).but the Nomads’ vision and passion for high-quality community theatre remained constant. Each season offered a range of beloved standards and avant-garde work. No actor or director was ever paid; in fact, members (a group that expanded from the original 30 to over 500) paid nominal dues and volunteered their time and talents on and off stage. Some Nomads went on to achieve broader recognition, such as Larry Linville (M*A*S*H’s Dr. Frank Burns) and Joan van Ark (Knots Landing’s Valene Ewing and Tony-award-nominated Broadway actress).
In 1994, the aging building, which did not meet current life/safety codes, was closed by the fire marshal. In order to meet the costs of updates, the Nomads sold two thirds of their 1.44 acre parcel for development as co-housing and launched an aggressive funding campaign in the hope to “keep the playhouse going for a couple more generations.” The following year, the site was granted individual designation as a landmark on the basis of the historical significance of its association with the Nomad Players, Boulder's longest running theatre group, as well as its architectural significance. A decade later, due to various reasons including financial difficulties and a decline in volunteerism, the Nomads disbanded and the playhouse went dark.
Tara Performing Arts High School’s students had always been “nomadic,” moving into borrowed and rented spaces (including the Nomad) for their rehearsals and productions. In 2006, Unicomm Productions, LLC (owned in part by John Kelly, faithful Tara supporter) bought the historic playhouse, intending both to hold the theatre until the school was in a position to buy it and to support the longstanding tradition of community theatre on the site. Now Tara has taken over management of the playhouse and is raising funds for its purchase and rehabilitation. Click here to learn more about the Nomad Purchase Project!
Photos courtesy of the Carnegie Branch Library for Local History, Boulder Historical Society Collection
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