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Where: Peekskill, N.Y.
Why Important: Co-owner of the Denver Post, Philanthropist, Established the Denver Center of the Performing Arts
Helen Bonfils was born on November 26, 1889 in Peekskill, New York. Her father, Frederick Bonfils, bought the struggling Denver Post newspaper with H.H. Tammen in 1895 and moved his family to Denver, Colorado. Mr. Bonfils turned the Denver Post into a very successful newspaper, allowing Helen and her sister May to grow up wealthy. Helen’s mother, Belle, was a devout Catholic and passed along her beliefs to her daughters.
At an early age, Helen began accompanying her mother and grandmother to the theater. This created a lifelong love of acting and the performing arts. She participated in many University of Denver productions. While the performing arts were definitely Helen’s passion, when her father passed away in 1933, she and her sister May inherited the Denver Post, and Helen took control of the operations of the newspaper.1 While there were male editors hired during her lifetime, it was widely known that Helen was the one in charge behind the scenes.2
Due to Helen’s passion for the performing arts, she wanted to establish quality theater shows in Denver. She first began by staging operas in Cheesman Park around 1933. Three years later, she married Broadway director George Sommes and together they produced many Broadway plays, including ones that Helen would act in under the pseudonym “Gertrude Barton.”3 She even won a Tony for her role in “Sleuth.” By 1953, Helen decided that Denver needed its own community theater to showcase Broadway plays,4 and built the Bonfils Memorial Theater on East Colfax and Elizabeth. This was only the beginning, as she had even bigger plans for a much larger professional venue. With her partner, Donald Seawell, they began the process of planning for the construction of the new theater. Unfortunately, Helen’s health deteriorated and she died on June 6, 1972, not realizing her dream of a professional performing arts center in Denver. The Denver Center of the Performing Arts (DCPA) was completed in 1978 and is the only non-profit performing arts center in the country.
During Helen’s lifetime, she was an avid philanthropist and established the Helen Bonfils Foundation in 1953. It was designed specifically for the support of the performing arts in Colorado, as it does today through the financing of the DCPA. She also created the Belle Bonfils Blood Bank (named after her mother) during World War II to aid wounded troops.5 This also still exists today. Helen also helped finance the completion of The Holy Ghost Catholic Church in Denver. Without the generosity of Helen Bonfils, we would not have the Denver Center of the Performing Arts, nor the Belle Blood Bank here in Denver. Her legacy is priceless.