The Oberfelder Effect: Bringing a World of Talent to Mid-Century Denver
Marian Anderson. Eleanor Roosevelt. Liberace.
What do these icons have in common? All came to Denver in the first half of the twentieth century at the invitation of Arthur M. Oberfelder, impresario. Long before Chuck Morris and Barry Fey promoted talent in Denver’s entertainment scene, Arthur Oberfelder brought the most famous, impressive, and important performers and lecturers of his day to the city’s audiences, who flocked to enjoy his offerings.
The list of talent goes on: Yul Brynner onstage in The King and I. Yehudi Menuhin, “sensational boy violinist.” Helen Hayes, esteemed actress and radio personality. Accomplished conductor Leopold Stokowski. The Broadway act Ziegfeld Follies. Ballerinas Anna Pavlova and Margot Fonteyn. John Philip Sousa and his band. Actress Katharine Hepburn. Lily Pons, the operatic soprano. Austria’s Archduke Felix. Basil Rathbone as Romeo.
Paul Robeson as Othello. Year after year, the brightest stars of theater, music , and dance came to Denver to perform, to the delight of packed houses — and to the delight of Arthur and Hazel Oberfelder.
Between 1913 and 1958, hundreds of the best of their day played, sang, danced, and spoke at the Denver Auditorium, the Broadway Theater, the Phipps Auditorium, and Red Rocks Amphitheater. Oberfelder and his wife, Hazel, booked the stars and filled the houses. After the performances, they entertained the entertainers — many of whom had never before been to Colorado — at their home on Ninth Avenue or their cabin in the mountains.
Born in 1890, Arthur Oberfelder was one of eight siblings. His parents, Joseph and Hannah Oberfelder, lived in Sidney, Nebraska. Joe and his brother Robert had migrated from New York to Sidney in the 1870s, just as the South Dakota gold fields were beginning to draw fortuneseekers. Since Sidney was an established railroad town, well-situated to serve the newly opening mines, for a period it boomed. Money flowed in, entrepreneurs established businesses, and the population doubled. At times, a million pounds of freight a day left Sidney, destined for the Black Hills or the military and Indian outposts that the town’s merchants also served.
Joe and Bob Oberfelder arrived in Sidney at this auspicious time. With assistance from their cousin Isaac, an already-prosperous Omaha merchant, the brothers quickly set up shop to equip the thousands of men who passed through Sidney on their way to South Dakota’s gold fields. Over the following decades, the brothers became rich and well respected. Joe was elected as Sidney’s mayor and later became a judge, while Robert went on to state office as a Fish and Game commissioner. (A record-setting catfish was named in his honor, but that’s another story for another day.) Robert never married, but he doted on the children of his brother, Joe.
Arthur Oberfelder was one of only five students in the graduating class of Sidney High School in 1907. He continued his education at the University of Nebraska. He found his direction in life during his third year in college, when William Jennings Bryan — leading populist Democrat, presidential candidate, pacifist, outspoken opponent of the gold standard and of Darwinism, riveting speaker, and fellow Nebraskan — came to town on a whistle-stop tour of the country. Arthur joined Bryan’s entourage, becoming his personal secretary and eventually managing his speaking engagements across the country.
Bryan was perhaps the most popular speaker on the Chautauqua circuit, the TED talks of the early twentieth century. As Bryan’s employee, Arthur Oberfelder became familiar with the speakers on the circuit. In 1913, he took a position as the manager of the Denver office of the Redpath Lyceum, a Chautauqua booking organization that brought lecturers to towns around the country. Oberfelder began producing his own shows in 1918, and by 1926 he’d bought out his main Denver competition, an Englishman named Robert Slack who’d been presenting performers to the not-quite-fifty-year-old city since 1904. Although Slack retired in the 1920s, Arthur’s business bore the name Oberfelder-Slack for many years.
A Young City Ripe for Music
By the time Oberfelder began presenting performers in Denver, the young city was eager for the cosmopolitan fare he offered. From the gold-rush days of 1859, when the Apollo Hall opened its doors at Fourteenth and Larimer (above a saloon, naturally), to the silver-fueled opulence of the Tabor Grand Opera House, Denver had never stopped creating more and better venues to hear music or see a play. The Apollo advertised “the best music the country affords,” which was, perhaps, not saying much, but audiences appreciated it nonetheless. In 1864 Denver hosted its first opera. The performance took place at the Apollo, not because of the town’s (nonexistent) reputation as an arts mecca, but rather because a snowstorm had stranded two singers, a Mr. and Mrs. Grunwald, on their way to other, more cultured, realms. In 1873, “Blind Tom” Wiggins — a piano prodigy who could play more than 7,000 pieces by ear and reproduce any song after hearing it only once — was possibly the first African American performer to grace a Denver stage. He played to an enthusiastic crowd, again at the Apollo.
In 1881, not quite twenty-five years after the discovery of mineral riches drew adventurers to the banks of the South Platte, and only five years after Colorado became a state, the Tabor Grand Opera House opened at Sixteenth and Curtis. Its hallways lined with silver dollars and its boxes rich with gilt and velvet, the Tabor was Denver’s showplace for more than eighty years, even after H.A.W. Tabor went bankrupt and had to sell it, and even after it was eclipsed by other venues. (The wrecking ball finally got it in 1964.)
The Broadway Theater opened at Seventeenth and Broadway in 1890, shortly before the 1893 silver panic. Unaware of the looming economic crash, the theater’s developers spared no expense. Decorated in marble with East Indian influences, in a palette of amber, gold, and blue, the Broadway hosted audiences until 1955, when it was leveled in the name of progress to make way for a parking garage.
Arthur and Hazel Oberfelder booked shows into both of these great halls, but the majority of Oberfelder productions took place in the Denver Auditorium . This landmark still stands — reinvigorated and beautifully restored — at the corner of Fourteenth and Curtis. For years, Oberfelder was the most frequent renter of the venue. Built by Mayor Speer in 1908 to host that year’s Democratic National Convention, the Denver Auditorium represented a much larger vision on the mayor’s part. Speer saw the Auditorium as a municipal gathering place and he filled it with music, including a free Sunday concert series. Just a few months before Speer’s death in 1918, the Auditorium acquired its crowning jewel — a pipe organ said to be the largest in the United States at the time. The Auditorium hosted Speer’s funeral; thousands attended to honor him for turning his vision of a beautiful, cultured, and charitable Denver into reality.
In 1912, a year before Arthur Oberfelder made his way to Denver, a free Sunday performance by the famed contralto Madame Schumann-Heink had seen 20,000 people turned away from a house already packed with an audience of 14,000. Denver craved music.
A Well-Matched Pair
At the time of her wedding in 1915, Hazel Marx — soon to be Hazel Oberfelder — was declared by the local press to be “one of the prettiest and most fascinating young women in Denver society. She is an unusually smart dresser, and possesses a sweet and gracious manner that has made her a great favorite.” All of these qualities, plus a shrewd business sense, made her a well-suited partner to Arthur for the next forty years. While Arthur managed the details of bookings and business, Hazel enchanted performers with her hospitality, her vivacious personality, and her famed cooking. Signing her guest book over the years, visitors to the Oberfelder cabin at Troutdale, near Evergreen, clearly fell in love with Hazel and begged to be invited back to her “Cabana las Estrellas” — her Cabin in the Stars.
Hazel was an inexhaustible hostess. She and Arthur entertained hundreds, if not thousands, of guests through the years — many famous, but many more without a well-known name. Comments in their guest books mention beautiful views, pancake breakfasts, champagne and Cold Duck, marvelous meals, laughter and hilarity. During World War II, Hazel and Arthur gave numerous servicemen, stationed at Lowry and Fitzsimons, a welcome break and a taste of Oberfelder hospitality. One wrote, in 1944, “To two of the finest people a lonely soldier had the extreme pleasure of meeting — my stay in Colorado has been wonderful — but only thru the generous hospitality of Mr & Mrs Oberfelder. May I return someday to this virtual Utopia? In the clouds . . .” And from another: “Outside the snow is falling and inside I’m falling for the well-known Oberfelder hospitality!”
The autographs of the Oberfelders’ more recognizable guests read like a who’s who of the performing arts world. In 1944, conductor Arthur Rubenstein wrote, “I shall always dream of this cabin, Hazel dear! I wish I could be born again and be able to spend my life with you here! Your devoted friend.” Jan Peerce, the American tenor, agreed in 1949: “To my dear friends Hazel and Arthur The beauty of this place combined with your usual wonderful hospitality as always — makes each visit a memorable one — so with my love & affection . . . .”
In 1941, ventriloquist Edgar Bergen noted, “We all say thanks for a swell time,” presumably referring to his family of dummies. Liberace , one of the Oberfelders’ leading draws, had this to say in 1956: “Dear Hazel, Playing at Centennial Race Track was a thrilling experience! No wind (like at Red Rocks) and even the bugs were considerate and stayed at a safe distance. Thanks and God Bless.”
In addition to their guest registers, the Oberfelders maintained a collection of autographed photos of the stars they booked. From Italian soprano Licia Albanese to Russian violinist Efrem Zimbalist, hundreds of photos lined the walls of Arthur’s office and home , signed with messages of respect and fondness. “We had everyone,” Arthur liked to say. “The only one we missed was Caruso.”
Oberfelder dabbled in other enterprises as well. In the 1920s, he partnered with several businessmen to build Merchants Park, where the beloved Denver Bears baseball team played for some twenty-five years. In the 1930s he managed the national tours of several Broadway productions. But for the most part, he stuck with what he knew and loved — bringing the world of classical music, dance, and theater to Denver.
Long Lines and Close Calls
The Broadway company of South Pacific provided Oberfelder with one of his biggest hits. Lines to buy tickets in Denver for the 1950 run stretched around the block, four months before the show opened. Unfortunately, according to The Denver Post, a train wreck caused the cast to arrive bruised, scraped, and worse. Oberfelder had to cancel the show’s first, sold-out performance. As reparation to Denver’s eager theater-goers, Oberfelder convinced the cast — troupers that they were — to add an additional performance to their scheduled run.
One of the Oberfelders’ great loves was the opera. The couple especially appreciated the Metropolitan Opera Company of New York. Hazel and Arthur, who for many years had an apartment on Fifth Avenue in New York City, knew the Met performers personally and invited them to sing in Denver on many occasions, over many years. According to Arthur’s New York Times obituary, in 1948 and ’49 he single-handedly arranged the first transcontinental tours that the Met had undertaken in forty-two years. The tours were huge operations — “hundreds of lights, music desks, instruments, costumes, 3000 wigs . . . [and] a company of 350, including a chorus of 80 singers and 40 dancers, to house.”
Time magazine chronicled the first tour in its issue of May 17, 1948: “In Denver, the Met’s caravan (20-odd baggage cars, two 15-car sleeper trains) was greeted by grown-up fans as enthusiastic as kids welcoming the circus.” The article continued, “On opening night, Denver’s huge, drafty Municipal Auditorium was lit up like a Hollywood premiere. While flashbulbs popped, socialites in boiled shirts or mink coats and plainer citizens in their Sunday best swarmed in to take over every one of the 3,300 seats and then some, even at $15 a box seat, $4.80 for gallery seats, and $3.00 for standing room.”
All of fashionable Denver was aflutter over the event. Apparently, Time wrote, “none of the intrigue and skullduggery on stage was half as exciting as the byplay between society matrons afterwards. Denver blue-bloods almost got to pulling hair over who would entertain [the stars.] . . . . Hazel Oberfelder . . . cleared all invitations. Guests were taken from one party and deposited at another; persons not in favor got no stars or not very shiny ones. By the time the Opera Company left town, half of Denver society was not speaking to the other half.”
The Oberfelders’ contribution to the party scene also included a festive, invitation-only Bon Voyage party at Union Station. Attendees accompanied the performers to the station after the final show, toasted them onto their train, then enjoyed a midnight breakfast celebration in the towering station lobby. Amid all the hoopla, Arthur Oberfelder was, above all, proud to be the only manager in the country who personally underwrote the company’s visits; most other cities lined up guarantors to help cut any losses, but Oberfelder was so confident that Denver audiences would fill his shows that he took full financial responsibility for the Met performances. He wasn’t disappointed.
The End of an Era
Arthur Oberfelder died of a heart attack in his New York apartment in January 1954. Hazel was by his side. The tireless couple had been wrapping up bookings for the 1954–55 season. “Seldom absent from his customary place in the city auditorium when an Oberfelder attraction was playing there,” his Denver Post obituary noted, “Mr. Oberfelder was anxious to complete his business in New York in time to be in Denver to welcome his patrons to the next event on his concert series.” Another obituary, published in the newsletter of the National Association of Concert Managers — an organization Oberfelder had helped to found — declared that “no attraction of any importance — music, dance, or theater — traveled from coast to coast without appearing under his auspices at the Denver Auditorium.”
After her husband’s death, Hazel ran the business on her own for several years, but by the late 1950s, she’d called it a day. Just a few years later, Robert Garner arrived in Denver, bringing Broadway productions with him. In the 1960s — a time of changing tastes in live entertainment — Hazel sold her beloved Cabana las Estrellas near Evergreen.
For Further Reading
For more about Denver’s concerts and concert spaces, see Henry Miles, Orpheus in the Wilderness: A History of Music in Denver, 1860–1925 (Denver: Colorado Historical Society [History Colorado], 2006); Thomas J. Noel and Amy Zimmer, Showtime: Denver’s Performing Arts, Convention Centers & Theatre District (Denver’s Division of Theatres and Arenas, 2008); and (Debi Lee Greenfield, We Have Music: A History of Classical Music in Denver from 1850–1945 (Unpublished manuscript, 1996). See also Ann L. Jones, “Battles, Bricks, and Bunting: A History of the Denver City Auditorium,” in Colorado Heritage (1985, no. 4), 2–15.
Time profiled Arthur Oberfelder on May 17, 1948. His obituaries appeared in The Denver Post on January 30, 1954, and in the National Association of Concert Managers Bulletin, February 15, 1954. Robert Oberfelder’s obituary appeared in the Omaha World-Herald (Published as MORNING WORLD-HERALD) on January 21, 1941. In addition to History Colorado’s Stephen H. Library & Research Center, Oberfelder photographs and ephemera can be found at the Beck Archive of the Center for Judaic Studies, University of Denver.
ELLEN HERTZMAN is a volunteer tour guide at the History Colorado Center, Byers-Evans House Museum, Governor’s Residence. A fourth-generation Coloradan, she shares her interest in history with anyone who’ll listen. Her journey with Arthur Oberfelder began many years ago, when she was sorting through file folders inherited from her mother. She came across an old postcard with a line drawing of the interior of a busy mercantile store. The hand-written caption read: “Oberfelders Store in Sidney Nebraska 1876.” Interest in her family’s history led her to History Colorado and the Denver Public Library, where she learned that her great, great grandmother, Rose, was the sister of Isaac Oberfelder, Joseph and Robert’s cousin from Omaha. To her astonishment, she then discovered the Oberfelder name in connection with a large collection donated in 2015 to the Beck Archive of the Center for Judaic Studies at the University of Denver. Arthur Oberfelder’s granddaughter (Hertzman’s previously unknown fourth cousin) had donated photos, scrapbooks, programs, and other mementos. The collection opened a door, not just to a part of Hertzman’s past, but to a Colorado story that had all but faded from sight.