Whether it’s art, theatre or cooking, Fran Arniotes takes great pleasure in sharing her passions – and talents – with others.
Fran co-founded Conifer’s StageDoor Theatre in 1990 and has since acted in and directed hundreds of plays. The most recent, in fall 2016, “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum,” attracted actors from as far away as Parker because of StageDoor’s reputation for quality community theatre.
“We didn’t want to take ourselves too seriously,” Fran says about StageDoor. “It’s about the actors, the kids and the audiences. We wanted a positive and nurturing environment in our theatre.”
She co-founded the theatre with Michael and Johanna Rowan and her husband, Dean, who designs most of the sets. The theatre grew out of an artists’ cooperative that started Shadow Mountain Gallery.
“We were intrigued by Evergreen Players but too lazy to drive to Evergreen,” Fran says. They decided instead to start a theatre in Conifer where she and Dean have lived for 35 years and found lots of other talented actors – and an eager local audience.
Yet StageDoor is only one part of Fran’s theatre contributions. She has brought her considerable theatre talent to middle and high school students in Evergreen and Conifer for over 20 years. She taught drama, English and Spanish for 3 years at West Jefferson Middle before moving to Evergreen High School where she remained for 17 years, teaching theatre and Spanish to more than 2,500 students.
Fran formally retired from Jeffco Schools in May 2015, but the retirement was short-lived. Last fall, Conifer High School urged her to revitalize its theatre program; and she and Bill Loper, retired Evergreen High music director, have been hard at work ever since. Conifer’s theatre program has grown from 6 students to 26, and next spring they will perform the musical “Once on This Island,” a Caribbean retelling of Hans Christian Anderson’s “The Little Mermaid.”
While raising her three children, Alexa, Nicholas and Damon, Fran had a stained glass studio and sold her work across the country. Currently her creative outlet is drawing, and most recently she used her artistic talents to illustrate “Nana Anna’s Dragon Soup,” a book of humorous children’s poems written by her stepmother, Anne Vitabile.
Fran’s next adventure is a cooking and travel show with Tom Becker, who owned the former Tanglewoods Restaurant in Evergreen. They are starting a website, blog and YouTube productions called “Castles and Kitchens” with a hope to be syndicated. They’d like to do their first season in Provence, France.
Cooking comes naturally to Fran, who began working in the family butcher shop at the age of nine. Her grandfather not only sold meat but also created gourmet meals like stuffed chicken breasts, that patrons could purchase and finish preparing at home. They also made their own wine.
Fran especially loves regional Italian cooking, and she and Dean annually rent an apartment in Rome where they can travel to new places and talk to the locals about their recipes. In Italy, everyone from the trash collector to a stranger on the grocery line is eager to share new ways to use fresh ingredients, Fran says.
Fran and Dean met at a kosher camp for underprivileged youth where Dean took an instant dislike to her because she was the director’s “princess” and got anything she wanted. Luckily, his feelings quickly changed, and they have been married for 41 years.
After growing up outside Philadelphia at the edge of Valley Forge Park – where she played in the woods and fields – and going to college in the Appalachian Mountains, Fran decided she wanted to spend her life surrounded by mountains and wide open spaces. So she and Dean decided to move to Colorado when they married. They moved first to Boulder where Fran taught for St. Vrain Schools, and Dean taught at Mount Saint Vincent.
Then some friends convinced them to become loggers, jointly owning the North Fork Timber Company in Meredith, Colorado, and selling building materials to the likes of John Denver and Jimmy Buffett. Fran and Dean lived on the land with pigs, goats, chickens and draft horses. With no electricity or running water, Fran spent her days cooking on a woodstove. They had to drive three miles to make a phone call, climbing on the hood of their Blazer to reach the jack on the telephone pole.
“I’d do it again in a heartbeat,” Fran says. “We were living off the land, on the river.” Unfortunately, the sawmill literally blew up one day and they were out of work. After working some odd jobs, they moved back to the Front Range, and Dean returned to teaching while Fran raised their three children and created art.
“I have indeed loved everything I’ve done, but I truly treasured the time I spent here on Conifer Mountain as a stay-at-home mom with my kids, kicking around in the woods and the garden in every season, watching “Sesame Street” and “Mister Rogers” and singing with Raffi. I guess that has been my most important work. But there’s nothing that I wouldn’t do over again, and that’s a pretty great thing to realize,” Fran says.