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Skeletons in Boulder’s closet: ‘Meet the Spirits’ awakens the past with virtual tales, Q&As

The Historic Boulder fundraiser is taking on a new shape this year

Volunteer actress Brett Landis, a Boulder County Legal Services attorney, plays the role of Nannie Baird during a filming for Historic Boulder’s “Meet the Spirits,” as Mariah Diaz, of Front Porch Studios, films in September 2020. Nannie Baird, who is buried in Columbia Cemetery, was purportedly poisoned by her husband for life insurance money a few months after they were married in 1902. The pre-recorded segments, shot in Columbia Cemetery, will be available to stream on Friday, Oct. 16 starting at 6 p.m. through Nov. 25. (Jamie Boyle/ Courtesy photo)
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Since the 1980s, Historic Boulder has kept Halloween lovers and history buffs intrigued and entertained with its “Meet the Spirits” shows that fused detailed real-life backstories of deceased citizens with charming and chilling visits from costumed actors depicting individuals who have passed on — many of whom have mortal remains buried in Columbia Cemetery.

In September, Mariah Diaz, left, records volunteer actor Marc Weaver, center, as he portrays his ancestor Harry Weaver, the first sexton of Columbia Cemetery, as Leo Diaz assists. The filming is part of Historic Boulder’s “Meet the Spirits” that has gone virtual this year due to COVID. (Jamie Boyle/ Courtesy photo)

Due to COVID, the annual site-specific event has been reincarnated into a cyber offering, with pre-recorded segments, livestream Q&As with history experts, films and more. While folks cannot officially gather to see live productions among the headstones, organizers are hoping they are motivated to throw on a mask and walk through the 10 ½-acre graveyard throughout October.

“As much as we would all love to host a more traditional ‘Meet the Spirits’ event this year, the city’s current public health restrictions barred Parks and Recreation from allowing the event to take place in person,” said Jamie Boyle, executive director of Historic Boulder. “However, we’ve worked hard to make this event engaging and interactive. We’re all suffering from Zoom burnout at this point. It’s really not just a virtual tour.”

At 6 p.m. Friday, viewers can stream the productions whose varied lineup includes some familiar souls and ones who haven’t been featured before.

Patrons will get a glimpse into the forbidden teacher-student romance of University of Colorado Boulder professor Mary Rippon and Will Housel, a peek at murderess and frequent mental institution inhabitant Ellen Deardoff and a look at infamous gold mine discoverer Lew “Indian Jack” Wallace, among others.

While viewers can light some candles and perhaps enjoy a glass of mulled wine while tuning in, according to Boyle, the fun shouldn’t be limited to one’s living room.

“We’ll give ticket-holders everything they need to go on a self-guided tour of Columbia,” through Nov. 25, Boyle said.

The Boulder cemetery, at 1201 9th St., is the final resting place for many of the region’s influential founders and pioneers.

“Attendees will receive a PDF pamphlet with a map of the cemetery, along with access to the pre-recorded spirit reenactments,” Boyle said. “Our hope is that people will go in small household groups, phones in hand, to watch the videos and stroll through Columbia on their own schedules.”

While both organizers and attendees may miss the in-person component that came with the live theater experience, the decision to go digital has actually allowed the event to take on a new creative shape.

Mariah Diaz films a segment for “Meet the Spirits,” featuring volunteer actors Shelby Beer and Dennis Berry in Columbia Cemetery in Boulder in September. Berry plays William Casey and Beer plays his daughter Eleanore, who died of the Spanish Flu in 1918. (Jamie Boyle/ Courtesy photo)

“Columbia Cemetery is such a magical place on its own, it’s hard to think that we could possibly improve upon it,” Boyle said. “But, Mariah (Diaz) from Front Porch has been amazing. Historic Boulder needed professional videographer help in order to make this event happen. With very minimal direction, Mariah (Diaz) understood our vision and ran with it.”

The recorded segments will provide a slightly dark element, yet still remain appropriate for all viewers.

“You can expect a vibe that’s appropriately creepy, but still good fun for families,” Boyle said. “Mostly, we’re very excited to have these videos of local characters for posterity. Each volunteer will get a copy of their performance to keep. Someday, we would love to get all of our beloved spirits on video. Budget and circumstances were a bit prohibitive this year.”

A portal to the past

“Much information about cemetery occupants and early life in Boulder can be discovered by learning how to read Columbia Cemetery’s grave markers, their carvings, epitaphs and symbolism,” said Mary Reilly-McNellan, author, green burial expert and former Columbia Cemetery preservationist. “The stones also offer insights into how different cultures have interpreted and dealt with death and burial throughout history. My hope is that participants will leave with the realization that cemeteries are not scary, but rather are marvelous teaching tools that provide insight into history, geology, art and many other subjects.”

While in prior years, Reilly-McNellan has stepped into the role of a spirit, this year she will be offering her knowledge about this Boulder landmark with a livestream session at 2 p.m. Sunday.

“It is always a pleasure to chat with those special souls who love to haunt old graveyards as much as I do,” Reilly-McNellan said.

Each livestream session will have an interactive talkback element so audiences can converse with participating history experts.

Reilly-McNellan said the presentation will “primarily share and expand upon Columbia Cemetery historical information and photos that were uncovered” while working on the 2012 book  “If These Stones Could Talk: Tales from Columbia Cemetery,” by Reilly-McNellan, Lise Cook Cordsen, Judy Gould Dayhoff and Barbara Walsh Myers.

This first cemetery in Boulder dates back to 1870.

“Like most old graveyards, Columbia has a few skeletons in its closet that are dying to be let out,” Reilly-McNellan said. “You’ll learn about Jane Doe, a young murder victim whose identity was finally uncovered 50 years after her death, why ‘anatomical parts’ were buried in the cemetery by the University of Colorado Medical School and why a deep, dark secret was taken to the grave by a beloved Boulder professor. Of course, there are a few funny bones as well.”

At 5 p.m. Saturday, Michael Dombrowski, researcher with University of Colorado Collections Management will cover the Spanish Flu epidemic in Boulder and examine how it relates to today.

Volunteer actor Drew Ayling portrays “Rocky Mountain Joe” Sturtevant as part of Historic Boulder’s “Meet the Spirits” 2020. (Jamie Boyle/ Courtesy photo)

At 5 p.m. Sunday, the Interim Dean of the School of Visual and Communication Arts at Avila University, Nicole Esquibel — also a filmmaker who created the documentary “Neva Romero: Jamas Olvidados” — will discuss Los Seis de Boulder and Neva Romero, a Chicano activist, Ignacio High School homecoming queen and CU junior who was killed in a May 1974 car bombing at Chautauqua Park.

Romero is also portrayed by a spirit actor in the recorded segments.

“Our programming this year reflects our increased attention to telling Boulder’s underrepresented stories,” Boyle said “The content addresses complex topics like: The Sand Creek Massacre told from both David Nichols’ and Chief Niwot’s perspectives, mental illness and suicide, domestic violence, race relations, Chicano activism and unsolved murders in Boulder. Our little town has a more complex and diverse history than many might expect. I think we all still have a lot to learn by looking at Boulder history from new perspectives.”

Those who opt to purchase the bonus experiences will have access to Esquibel’s documentary, which dives into the unresolved investigations surrounding the car bombings that killed six Chicano activists, later known as Los Seis de Boulder, in the ’70s.

Also available to stream will be Motus Theater’s multimedia contemporary theater piece “Rocks Karma Arrows” that poignantly explores the history of Boulder through the lens of race and class. In the film, Chief Niwot comes alive to tell the story of the early founding of Boulder and the final massacre at Sand Creek.

The films will be available for viewing during the weekend, beginning at 8 a.m. Saturday and ending at midnight Sunday. The main pre-recorded segments of spirits in the cemetery will be available to watch through Nov. 25.

“Everyone has a cemetery story and I always learn something new during program Q&As,” Reilly-McNellan said. “Like other historic burial grounds, Columbia Cemetery is a multi-hued tapestry of interwoven stories and the grave markers themselves often provide provocative clues about how the occupants viewed life, death, themselves and each other.”

Tickets to the standard pre-recorded segments are $10-$14. Access to the Q&As with historians and films can be purchased as a package with the pre-recorded segments for $16-$22.

Historic Boulder is currently planning its “Homes for the Holidays” tour and organizers are hoping to be able to put on an outdoor version of the event in December, but for now staff and volunteers are bringing new life to an October tradition.

“Our hope is that this event will be educational, even for those who have attended ‘Meet the Spirits’ many times in the past, but also interactive in a variety of formats that can appeal to everyone,” Boyle said. “Also, I think that our spirits’ stories are wonderful snippets of Boulder’s history, but local historians can provide more context to help viewers better understand our past and how it relates to today.”

 

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