Red Alert

Red Rocks may or may not be sliding down the hill, but Friends of Red Rocks’ trust in the city is slipping away.

The Friends of Red Rocks believe that this concern is overstated, arguing in a document presented to the Landmark Preservation Commission in July that there's "no evidence whatsoever to support the claim that the south slope is 'very unstable' and 'sliding down the hill.'" Nevertheless, the Webb administration is using Dethlefs's worst-case-scenario as a pretext to improve the amphitheater's fairly primitive amenities with an eye toward increasing attendance and, yes, cash flow. "We need to let people of all ages feel that they can walk to their seat, they can get something to eat and not stand in line for an entire set, and they can go to the bathroom in some kind of style and grace," says Hillyard. "We're behind the curve on customer service, and we have an obligation to treat consumers in a more dignified manner. It'd be nice to sit down and not get a splinter in your behind."

If the prospect of this alternative piercing method is making promoters take their shows elsewhere, it's not showing up in Red Rocks bookings: Theaters and Arenas' Erik Dyce points out that there were 37 concerts at the amphitheater in 1999 -- at least as many as there have been for most of the summers this decade. Yet Hillyard says that competition from new venues such as the Pepsi Center and the Ritchie Center at the University of Denver might change this situation for the worse. "It'll become more difficult for us to keep the facility programmed because of the expectations from the performers and the audience as to what they're entitled to. And in order to maintain the park the way we should, we need to keep those revenues coming in."

Rock and rollin': Architects says the soil that supports these stairs on the south side of the amphitheater is slipping away.
David Rehor
Rock and rollin': Architects says the soil that supports these stairs on the south side of the amphitheater is slipping away.

Making money off of Red Rocks isn't exactly a new idea. John Brisben Walker, who founded Cosmopolitan magazine, is considered to be the father of modern Red Rocks. In 1906, he purchased a 4,000-acre parcel of land, including the 700 acres that is now Red Rocks Park; soon after, he built a railway intended to take visitors to what he referred to as "the Garden of the Angels," in apparent homage to the Garden of the Gods in Colorado Springs. In 1910, a combo called Furrolo's Band became the first musical act to gig at a place that Pollstar, a national music-industry trade magazine, now names best outdoor concert venue almost annually.

In 1927, after some of Walker's business enterprises hit the skids, he sold the park to the City of Denver, then led by Mayor Ben Stapleton, for the not-quite-round sum of $54,133. Two years later, dynamite-wielding crews began building access roads into the park, and although work on the amphitheater site was slow and laborious, the project was far enough along by 1932 to host Yesterday's Women, a historical pageant presented by the American Association of University Women.

The amphitheater itself was designed by famed Denver architect Burnham Hoyt under the supervision of George Cranmer, the manager of Denver parks, and its construction continued through the Depression years, thanks to workers provided by New Deal agencies such as the Civilian Conservation Corps. The venue was dedicated in 1941, but people are still arguing about whether Hoyt considered it finished. The architect left behind numerous drawings for Red Rocks additions, spotlighting terraces not unlike the one the city is proposing for the grassy slope on the structure's south end and an agora (a Greek term for a gathering place) at its top that could accommodate a restaurant, additional restrooms and so on. City officials declare these sketches to be proof that Hoyt would have pushed for such elements if funding and the government-supported workforce hadn't vanished with the beginning of World War II. By contrast, the Friends of Red Rocks maintain that many of Hoyt's documents should be thought of not as "recommendations" but as "additional suggestions" that he and others eventually rejected. In addition, they believe that the involvement of the CCC at the amphitheater provides a compelling argument against box seats. "Red Rocks was built in an egalitarian time," says Steve Good, another Friends of Red Rocks member, "and it's kept that egalitarian spirit ever since. It's always been a special place for all of the people, not just some of them."

Still, Red Rocks has not remained static. "The amphitheater has evolved over time," architect Dethlefs notes. "Before it was built in the Thirties, there were huge boulders that were blasted out of the way. Since then, there have been light towers added, and the big wings on the side were not part of the original design; they were done in the Fifties. Some of the concession buildings were added, too, and the same is true of the handicapped ramps. And in the Eighties they added the stage cover." Nearly everyone agrees that this last accoutrement, intended to prevent artists from being electrocuted during the summer storms that frequently strike the foothills, is a blight on the amphitheater. The Friends of Red Rocks enthusiastically support a city proposal to replace it with one that could be retracted when no concerts are scheduled.

This is not the only area where the Friends and the city are in harmony. The Friends would like to check out the design for the agora before signing off on it, but they have no gripes with the basic concept, and they haven't raised a stink about sprucing up dressing rooms, easing access for crews loading in equipment for performances, improving antiquated sewage and plumbing systems, and many other items.

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