The Garde’s original Moorish decor and palatial design of the theatre and lobby was typical of “exotic” movie palaces of the 1920’s that attempted to create a far-off land of mystery, romance and glamour. The Egyptian, Oriental, and Aztec themes of many movie palaces reflect the fascination of that time with archaeological discoveries and lost worlds. The overall affect was to treat ordinary citizens of the depression era like royalty providing them a true Hollywood escape from their daily lives. Audiences of that era came to see the theatre as much as the movie.
The Garde auditorium is a classic atmospheric theatre. The architecture and decorative elements have a feeling of a distant place, specifically that of Northern Africa. These elements are reminiscent of Islamic art and architecture in its simpler period when Bedouin Arab influences prevailed, and lead to later stages when the influences of Persia and greater opulence began to dominate.
When the audience sat down in their seats, they are transported to a palace in Morocco or a temple in Marrakech. Exotic bas-reliefs murals adorn the auditorium sidewalls depicting caravans traveling along the desert to ports of call, dancers in their colorful attire, and ladies browsing in the market place for the unusual. The stencil work on the ceiling and balcony are reminiscent of palace and temple ceilings and the design is similar to Bedouin carpet patterns.
The murals on the side walls of the lower auditorium and balcony levels are unique to the Garde Theatre. Unlike other theatres where the murals are located primarily on the sounding boards as a picture, the murals in the Garde play a much more intricate part of the theater’s decoration. They are distinctive in that they are not a flat one-dimensional picture, but a combination of traditional painting method and bas-relief. Even though two methods are being used the style remains quite loose and spontaneous overall. The bas-relief has been used primarily for the figures of people and animals while the other details (mountains, sand dunes, and sky) have been painted.
The artist who originally created the murals was Vera Leeper. This theater is the only left that has her work. Extensive research has failed to come up with any more than a single photo of one auditorium wall with her mural. She devoted her later years to teaching Native American children in the Southwest.
The following is an extract from an article written about her work from The New London Day, September 1, 1926:
Something new is found in the interior decoration of the Garde theatre in that the cement walls and ceilings are finished without artificial filling. The color scheme is devoid of bright gilt but is of pleasing quiet tone, giving a cool effect, with designs and scenes from the Orient. The ceiling background is of a dull orange color with the beam work standing cut with quiet Oriental designs in figures. On either side wall are depicted desert scenes with a beautiful perspective on a mountainous background brought out in harmonious contrast to the foreground desert effect. In panels on either side of the interior are portraits separate in themselves but in harmony with the general decoration plans.
The interior decorating was done by Miss Vera Leeper of Denver, Colorado. Clad in knickers and painter’s frock she could be seen day after day adeptly crawling along and through the mass of stage work that completely filled the interior of the theatre during the decorating work.
Through the work of Miss Leeper the Garde theatre is the first in the country to be decorated by means of a commercial product known as morene and applied with a knife instead of a brush. The new substance is mixed with colors to obtain the desired color effect and plastered on the rough cement walls with a knife, giving the effect of a bas relief, a distinct advantage over the flat paint scheme. Patrons of the new theatre will be astonished when they see for themselves the magnitude of Miss Leeper’s art.