Kathleen Fox Collins arrived in Colorado Springs from New York City in 1975, drawn to the Pikes Peak region by family connections and memories. She had been active in prison theater but Colorado Springs seemed like a good fit for a single mother with a small son. She arrived here as so many of us have, with meager savings, no job prospects and the sunny optimism of youth.
"I talked to Dana [Crawford] and she hired me to oversee the re-imagining of the old Pearl Laundry building, on the southeast corner of Boulder and Tejon," Collins recalls. We created the Agora Mall, with a Greek restaurant and lots of little shops. Charles [Colorado Springs Symphony conductor Charles Ansbacher] and Bee [Symphony manager Bee Vradenburg] came in almost every noon for lunch."
Kathleen and Charles soon became close friends, and Bee offered her a job as the symphony's director of special projects.
"My first project lost money," Collins says. "I had persuaded all the downtown businesses to donate a portion of their Thanksgiving weekend profits to the symphony, and we organized a children's parade, so of course there was a gigantic blizzard, and no one made a nickel."
Later, the three nonprofit entrepreneurs focused on an extraordinarily ambitious project: to build a symphony hall in the heart of downtown. Such a hall had long been the object of wistful dreams among the city's arts community, but one that seemed impossible to realize.
"It was Charles' vision," says Collins. "Bee, Charles, Phil Kendall and I would sit around our dining room tables and the plans began to take shape. It was amazing to watch and participate."
In 1982, the $14 million Pikes Peak Center opened to national acclaim. It was then and remains now a stunning achievement, one made possible by an innovative funding partnership between private donors and El Paso County voters. The Ansbacher/Collins/Vradenburg team led the symphony until 1986, when Charles stepped down to pursue other ventures.
"There were so many great performances, such great crowds, and when Charles left we hired Chris Wilkins and created another troika," Collins says. "It was another fabulous decade. Do you remember Flash Cadillac and the symphony? That went nationwide. And then we collaborated with TheatreWorks and took Midsummer Night's Dream to Vail, and so much more."
Those were special times, but they came to an end. "The staff, the board and the orchestra started to fight — there were a lot of issues," Collins remembers. "I wrote my letter of resignation on Pearl Harbor Day. Scott O'Malley [at Western Jubilee Recording] had offered me a desk and a phone, so I showed up, and stayed there for 15 years."
Downtown Partnership CEO Susan Edmondson, who has worked with Collins for 20 years, says, "I've never known someone so enthralled with the actual process of producing a show: auditions, rehearsals, fundraising, promotion, working with artists, with cowboys, with patrons and community leaders. Kathleen is hardly ever in the spotlight, and that's the way she wants it. But she is always there somewhere — backstage, or in the board meeting, or tucked into the back row at a rehearsal. She is a champion for artists and artistic excellence; she's done more for our community than anyone realizes, because she always ensures the artists take center stage while she is in the background."
Working with O'Malley, Collins really spread her wings. In 1998, she helped Martile Rowland start Opera Theatre of the Rockies. With cowboy poet Waddie Mitchell she launched Ride for the Brand rodeo, featuring working cowboys from western ranches. Collins' flair for promotion was evident during her seven-year run, as she led a herd of longhorn cattle down Tejon Street every July to kick off the event. During that decade and a half, she also launched the Cuchara Music Festival, helped start MeadowGrass, and served on the founding board of the Bee Vradenburg Foundation.
"Colorado Springs has allowed me to raise my hand. I think I've been kind of useful," she says. "It somehow worked."
TheatreWorks agrees. On June 25 they'll present Collins with the Community Arts Award, honoring "significant impact on the cultural community."
But true to form, Collins is far from done. She remains the president of the Opera Board, secretary of the Bee Vradenburg Foundation Board, and the chatelaine of a historic house near Palmer Park. "I've had such a life, and I've never been bored for one day," she says.