David Bowie was mourned Monday not only as a musician, but an artist.
The British pop star, who died at 69 from cancer, is known for hits like “Changes” and “Fame” but it may be a little-known Denver secret that Bowie's live-stage acting career started here.
BowieGoldenYears.com writes he first watched The Elephant Man in San Francisco with actor “Phillip Anglim in the role he was soon to take over. Bowie had seen the play a couple of times and studied the script for a few months then rehearsals for the role began in early July.”
He starred as John Merrick. Bowie reportedly used his training as a mime to fully convey Merrick’s physical disabilities, by contorting his body to show deformities.
He practiced for two weeks in The Jones Theater on the DCPA campus until the show debuted on July 29, 1980, at the old Auditorium Theater. The Denver show ran for a week.
The Elephant Man was a sellout and at that point, with $186,466, it was the biggest box office hit at the Centre of Performing Arts up to that point.
The show continued onto Chicago, and then the Broadway stage. In an interview, Bowie said he was flabbergasted when asked to act in this play and he readily agreed because he tried “never to feel self-satisfied” with what he had already accomplished.
“It certainly was an incredible fulfillment for me,” he said of the part, as well as, “It is undoubtedly the biggest single challenge of my career.”
Variety wrote that the Denver audience rose to their feet for Bowie:
"The acting debut on the American stage of rock singer David Bowie was greeted by a standing ovation in Denver when the singer, noted for his flamboyant musical style, took on the role of physically misshapen John Merrick, the human monster with a liking for culture. Drawing on an early mime background and the resourceful staging of his rock shows, Bowie displays the ability to project a complex character.
Playing a man too ugly to draw a freak audience, and too human to survive within a distorted body, Bowie shows a mastery of movement and of vocal projection. Bowie takes the stage with authority to create a stirring performance. Vocally, he is both quick and sensitive. In scene after scene he builds poignantly, crying for the chance to become civilised, though he knows he will always be a freak; pleading for a home; though he knows his presence disturbs; and questioning the rules of society; though his well being depends on their acceptance. Judging from his sensitive projection of this part, Bowie has the chance to achieve legit stardom … "
An archive review from 1980 shows The Denver Post raved about the play, as well:
If theater ads had to carry synopses of their plays, Bernard Pomerance's "The Elephant Man," would be box-office poison: Young Man, Horribly Deformed, Adopted by Well-Meaning Doctor Adored by Public Lives Happily (briefly) Dies Young.
Yet "The Elephant Man," which opened Tuesday night at the Auditorium Theater, overcomes the banality and sentimentality implicit in that description, becoming one of the most intriguing morality plays the 20th century has as yet fobbed off onto characters of the 19th.
According to DavidBowie.com, national reviewers praised his run as Merrick.
“David… won the respect of both the critics and the audience” – Record Mirror
“shockingly good” – New York Post
“piercing and haunted” – New York Daily News
“preternaturally wise” – New York Times
“wordless and unmoving, he is nevertheless an electric presence.” – Rolling Stone
“Bowie.. had the audience.. in the palm of his hand.” – BBC
“Exquisite stillness and physical precision” – Theatre Magazine
“commands the stage” – Village Voice