The Denver Actors Fund is an amazing organization started ten years ago by arts writer and reviewer John Moore. It has now disbursed over a million dollars to members of the theater community with medical needs. I have admired John for his work for years–I really can’t think of another city with a similar fund–but this year the importance of the DAF came home to me in spades when a fractured hip required replacement in January. After the surgery I needed bi-weekly physical therapy for six weeks, but there were a couple of snags: my vision is too poor for me to drive and in winter the longish pathway from our house to the drive was so icy I had to cancel a few sessions. But then John called. As a reviewer I’d never considered myself fully a part of the Denver theater community, but only someone living in a strangely liminal space neither completely here nor there. The fund doesn’t cover finances for folks like me–and being on Medicare, I didn’t require financial help. But then there were the volunteers that John talks about so enthusiastically in this interview. Seriously, you haven’t experienced real recovery until you’ve been driven and/or helped along a snowy sidewalk by theater people like Amanda Berg Wilson, Billie McBride, Esther Varney and Laurie Lynn Cullum. Who’d have thought that a hip replacement could end up being so revelatory and so joyful?
This article originally appeared in Westword.
A decade ago, arts reporter John Moore suffered a dangerous health crisis. He was enjoying a leisurely jog, according to a blog post, when he felt an unusual stomach pain. And in the next moment, he writes, “I was in the intensive care unit looking down on my severed colon, now sewn to a surgically created opening on the left side of my belly.” Months of recovery followed.
The emergency gave Moore, who had just left his job as theater reviewer for the Denver Post (he is now arts reporter for the Denver Gazette), time to think, and his awareness of the way a physical crisis changes lives became acute. “I was looking around,” he recalls, “and realizing there were an awful lot of dramatic medical emergencies in the theater community.”
Returning to health, Moore learned of the plight of a local playwright who had been in the military and had just returned from combat. “He had diverticulitis, and he reached out to me, knowing I had a colostomy bag,” Moore says. It’s necessary to wait four months after a first surgery to give the colon time to heal before undergoing a second.
“This guy had gone through his waiting period. He had gone to the hospital. And somebody from administration runs into the operating room saying, ‘We can’t do this. He hasn’t paid off his bill yet,’” says Moore. “He owed a couple thousand bucks, and his benefits had run out. I didn’t know him, but I knew that right now he didn’t have enough money even to buy disposable bags, and bags are supposed to be changed once a week at minimum. He hadn’t changed his in a month. I had extra bags, so I got in the car and drove to his house.
“They resolved the financial thing, and eventually he had the second surgery. But there was the unnecessary delay,” he continues. “And I started thinking, ‘Why don’t we find a way to raise the money for these things first and have it ready to go when needed, rather than just stage a benefit concert now and then?’ If we’d had an ongoing fund, I would have been able to order bags and have them overnighted to him. We could have paid off his balance so he could have had that surgery when he needed to.”
Moore contacted Chris Boeckx, an actor, director and attorney, about the idea of a fund. “We met in the parking lot of the Whole Foods in Cherry Creek. Hot car. Hot parking lot. By the time we were through, we had a nonprofit,” Moore recalls. “I wouldn’t have had the smarts to start the fund by myself.”
Boeckx did all the necessary paperwork and set up regulations for the new organization, which they called the Denver Actors Fund. He was the first president of the board. It was all “very grassroots,” says Moore. “We started with an evening of karaoke.”
Now, ten years later, the fund has collected and distributed over a million dollars to local theater folks with medical needs. And on Monday, August 15, Beth Malone will give a celebratory benefit concert titled “Thanks a Million” at the Candlelight Dinner Playhouse to mark this extraordinary milestone. The Candlelight Dinner Playhouse has raised $40,000 over the years to support the Denver Actors Fund. In return, the fund has helped some 41 Candlelight employees.
Born and trained in Colorado, Malone has risen to stardom in New York City. She is a series regular on Apple TV’s, City on Fire. Her Broadway and Off-Broadway credits include Fun Home (Tony Nominee), Angels in America (Revival), Ring of Fire, The Unsinkable Molly Brown (Drama Desk and Lucille Lortel Award nominee, Out Critics Circle Honoree). Television credits include Gaslit (Hulu), All Rise, BrainDead, Bull (all for CBS), Bluff City Law (NBC), and The Baker and the Beauty (ABC). Her film credits are Tick, Tick, Boom, The Comedian, and Brittany Runs a Marathon.
Malone has known Moore for years, and she has a personal interest in the fund. Her cousin, Bryanna Scott, who worked as stage manager at Miners Alley Playhouse for a decade, was diagnosed with Stage 3C ovarian cancer last year. The Denver Actors Fund has so far picked up all ofher out-of-pocket medical expenses.
“I just want people to have a joyful evening,” Malone says. “Ear candy and fun, nothing too heavy. I want to delight the ear and the eye, make people smile and laugh and feel things. Make the hair on people’s necks rise with a beautiful sound.”
The DAF’s mission goes beyond providing money for medical needs. “The money has had a huge and helpful effect,” says Moore. “But to me, the most wonderful surprise has been creating this network of volunteers to help people through — people who have had shoulder surgery and can’t shovel their walks or need help cooking or light housekeeping.”
He remembers another military veteran who’d had major surgery for lung cancer and was living in subsidized housing. During the six weeks he was in the hospital, his landlord threatened to evict him because of the messy state of his apartment. “I talked to the landlord and asked. ‘If we make this apartment clean, can he come back when he gets out?’” Moore remembers, and the landlord agreed. Angela Astle of the Athena Project organized a team of volunteers who spent weekends cleaning over the next several weeks. Moore particularly remembers theater reviewer Beki Pineda scrubbing away at the kitchen floor on her hands and knees.
Then there was wondrous comic actor Shelly Bordas, who learned she had Stage 4 breast cancer when she was pregnant, and died in 2015 when her son was five years old.
“I will never forget the early days with Shelly,” says Moore. “She had bills, but what she needed was companion care 24 hours a day. Her son was staying with his grandmother, and Medicaid wanted her to go into hospice. But she wanted to stay at home. Family and friends helped, but she needed more, and paid care was costing over $200 a day.”
The Actors Fund couldn’t cover all the needed care, but, “if our volunteers replaced any one of those shifts, it would save money,” Moore says. “Dozens of people signed up, some for one shift, some for regular shifts.” He remembers that one of these volunteers, Sue Leiser, called him while she was on Bordas’s doorstep, saying, “I don’t think I can do this. I don’t think I have the strength.”
“I said, ‘All you have to do is listen to her stories, hold her hand, help her to the bathroom,'” Moore remembers. “Twelve hours later, Sue called in tears and said, ‘This was one of most special experiences of my life.’
“Volunteering is as important for the giver as [for] the receiver, and with DAF, those kinds of things happen all the time,” he adds. “People step up over and over again.”
In addition to this, the DAF makes affordable mental health care available, along with free teledoctoring. And Dr. Brian Kelly, DDS, accepts a limited number of emergency cases at his practice each year as an in-kind donation.
Although Moore has been urged several times — and most vehemently during a period when he found himself between jobs and unsure of his future — to accept a salary for his work, he has staunchly refused. “No one, from the actors on stage to the volunteers to the board of directors, has ever done this for any remuneration,” he insists. “This is our act of service to the community.”
He adds that very little of the money the DAF raises goes into administration. “As long as we can hang on to our grassroots and stay all-volunteer, I feel it stays special,” he says.
“We’ve done all of this without a plan. We always depended on the organic nature and goodness of this idea. You want slow and steady growth, and ours has been pretty quick. Every year, more theater companies step up and do fundraisers for us,” Moore says. “There are more donations every year from Colorado Gives. We just had to have faith, and people responded.”
“The Denver Actors Fund gives you hope,” says Beth Malone. “It’s amazing what one person with a generous heart and energy can accomplish. John got up out of his chair and took action and infused other people with hope. There is reason for hope. We can fix things. We can solve problems. We have to believe that we can. He’s heroic, and he doesn’t want any credit, and he just loves actors.
“I want to sing something for John,” she says. “This is a night where we can say, ‘Hey, we see you.’”
Thanks a Million, with Beth Malone, Monday, August 15, Candlelight Dinner Playhouse, 4747 Marketplace Drive, Johnstown. Doors open at 5:30 p.m., and the show begins at 7:45. Tickets are $35-$75.