Born in 1853 in Portland, Maine to Scottish immigrant parents, James F. “Jimmie” Burns came to Colorado Springs in early adulthood and found work as a plumber and pipe fitter. He and James Doyle staked out a claim for the Portland mine on a crest of Battle Mountain. As the Portland was surrounded by other claims, Burns and Doyle mined secretly in the dark of night. They stashed their ore until they built up a significant war chest to pay court fees and fight off the inevitable lawsuits that would come from surrounding claims. And they won!
James and his wife Olivia Belle Parker Burns enjoyed attending theatrical and musical productions. Witnessing a need for a world-class theater to attract leading acts to Colorado Springs, Jimmie Burns commissioned architects Hetherington and Douglas to build a theater at 21 – 23 East Pikes Peak Avenue. The stately 3 story structure with gleaming white façade of glazed terra cotta tiles was completed in 1912. The building held shops and offices as well as a 1,470 seat theater. The seats were olive green velvet trimmed with rich woods. The theater’s interior was done in Italian marble, imported at fantastic expense including staircases, walls, even restrooms.
Opening night was standing room only. As reported in the Gazette: “The occasion was a decided success, beyond even the most sanguine expectations… The magnificent Burns Theatre, ablaze with light and filled to capacity with music lovers and social leaders. Chester Alan Arthur II rose to speak, ‘Mr. Burns, I have been requested by a committee of the citizens of Colorado Springs to voice the general public sentiment of gratitude to you, which the opening of this beautiful theater inspires.’ Burns, rising in his own box, thanked Arthur and pledged his theater to be the mecca of Colorado Springs culture.”
The Burns was converted to a movie theater in 1927 for $80,000. Paramount-Publix leased the theatre from 1928 to 1933. Westland Theatre Corporation took over the lease in 1933, renaming it The Chief Theatre. Motion pictures became the primary entertainment, although some stage shows and vaudeville acts continued until the end of World War II. Generations of local residents fondly recall attending the Chief Theatre and were distraught when it was torn down in 1973 and replaced with a drive-up teller and parking lot for Exchange National Bank.
Submitted by Leah Davis Witherow, CSPM Curator of History