Who Stole Denver Burglar Alarm?

Stew Jackson let one of Denver's oldest family-owned businesses slip away, but his bands play on.

Stew Jackson's big band is at a rehearsal hall at 20th and Lincoln. Two hours from now, they're scheduled to go on stage behind the Supremes at Red Rocks, but they can't decipher the music. The arrangements are a train wreck, Jackson thinks--no one has gone to the expense of writing the shit down.

The day gets worse. Ten minutes after Jackson's band takes the stage as the Supremes' opening act, it starts to snow. Then it hails. People in the audience pull out their plastic rain slickers. The players try using clothespins to keep their music on the stands, but the wind blows the sheets away anyway. After twenty minutes, Jackson pulls his band off stage.

And then a small miracle. The sun sets, the moon comes out, and the fickle Colorado weather changes its tune. The storm breaks, and the Supremes take the stage.

Jackson exchanges a quick hello with Diana Ross. Another man working backstage, who fancies himself a bigwig, tries to get close to her. She turns on him. "Nobody walks beside me," she says. "Please walk in back."

The audience loves Ross and her group's hit-filled performance. "It was one hell of a night," Jackson says.

Actually, it was one hell of a decade for J. Stewart Jackson IV. His big bands and small combos played around Denver hundreds of times in the Sixties and Seventies. When pop-music stars of the day came through town, Jackson got the call. He backed Tony Bennett, the Four Tops, Vic Damone and Sammy Davis Jr. George Benson. Barry Manilow.

And that was Jackson's side gig. For the better part of the twentieth century, his family-owned business, Denver Burglar Alarm, dominated the local industry and set technological standards nationwide. As heir to one of Denver's oldest private businesses, Jackson was a wealthy man before he turned thirty.

The symbol of the company's dominance was a four-story fortress at 1955 Sherman Street. There armed guards patrolled the entrance behind a metal detector. The windows were wire-meshed. Some interior doors wouldn't open until others had closed. Visitors were photographed at the door. You couldn't get to the second floor--the central nervous system for tens of thousands of Denver's burglar-alarm systems--unless you pressed the right code on the security keypads.

"They are synonymous with the alarm business in Denver," says Mel Opel, who worked for DBA briefly but has spent more time as a competitor working with United Security Systems. "If you mention alarm systems in this town, the next question is, 'Are you DBA?'"

But not anymore. In 1996, Jackson sold his family's company to a national conglomerate; a year later, that company sold DBA to a rival security firm. Now Jackson wants his old company back. But just like that night at Red Rocks, it might take a miracle.

Denver Burglar Alarm has its roots in Denver Fire Dispatch, a company that started in 1892 and later became Denver Fire Reporter. In 1915 the fifteen-year-old John Stewart Jackson III joined Denver Fire Reporter, riding shotgun as the trucks barreled to various emergencies and recording water consumption for later billing.

One day in 1917, the company's owner told John that if something ever happened to him, John would get the company. A few days later the owner's clothes were found on the banks of Cherry Creek. He was never seen again.

John Jackson kept the company running while he finished high school and then studied dentistry. Denver Fire Reporter had only three clients: the Daniels & Fisher store, which for years was Denver's major department store; the McPhee and McGinnity Company, a lumber business; and the McMurtry Manufacturing Company, an old paint- and glass-making company. Each paid a dollar a month for protection. The buck didn't buy much: John locked up after business owners who left their doors open and attached red flags to let owners know they could pick up their keys at the police station; Denver Fire Reporter employees watched stores after hours, and when a burglary occurred, Stew Jackson says, "they were pretty good at finding out what had happened before the police did."

In 1929 John Jackson married one of his patients, Sara Robinson, who'd been working at Denver Fire Reporter as a bookkeeper and typist. It was Sara who began to recruit new clients while John ran his dental business. In three years Sara acquired more than 500 accounts, mostly going door-to-door. "I told people you better get [an alarm] soon because you might get knocked off tonight," she told the Rocky Mountain Business Journal in a 1982 interview. "I don't know where I learned such language, but I did real well and was the only salesperson for 25 years."

There was plenty of competition, but Stew Jackson says his folks gained the advantage with their attention to customer service. Old news clippings relate tales of derring-do from the Jacksons, who often hugged the nighttime shadows to case suspected prowlers. Sara once traveled alone to a warehouse the company was protecting and apprehended one of her own employees, a night guard, as he tried to loot the place. She told the guard never to show his face in Denver again.

Next Page »
My Voice Nation Help