Peace and Love, Nineties Style
Chuck Morris is frantic--as usual. The veteran promoter and manager perpetually travels in fourth gear, his movements abrupt, his eyes intense, his words coming in short, speedy bursts that recall his New York origins even though he's spent most of his adult life in John Denver country. But on this late April day, he's got an excuse. In February, his company, Bill Graham Presents/Chuck Morris Presents, purchased the Mammoth Events Center, among the worst live-music sites in this or any other town. And he's got until May 19 to turn it into something that deserves to be called the Fillmore Auditorium--named for a San Francisco landmark that's as renowned a hall as any in rock-music history. Morris tries to sound encouraging about his odds for success: "Even though we'll be hammering up until the morning of the first show, we're going to make it," he says, "and it's going to be great." But as he shuttles across the cavernous space located at the intersection of East Colfax Avenue and Clarkson Street, a construction worker's boombox is blasting the Rolling Stones' "You Can't Always Get What You Want."
In this case, Mick Jagger may be wrong. Since wading into the Denver area in early 1998, BGP/CMP has gone from being a minor player to a major combatant in a music-industry death match with Los Angeles-based Universal Concerts--and the reason, quite simply, is money. BGP/CMP is owned by SFX Entertainment, a New York outfit that has hoovered up a slew of the country's long-established promotion firms over the past two years, spending around $1 billion in the process. By these standards, the Mammoth was a bargain: It cost an estimated $2.1 million to buy, and $1.6 million has gone into its renovation. But according to David Mayeri, BGP/CMP's senior vice president of facility management, SFX's assets made the project possible. "BGP had a limited amount of cash," he says, "so to develop a club like this in Denver is definitely related to the depth of finances of SFX. It wouldn't have happened without them."
If staffers at BGP/CMP feel odd about using memories of the original Fillmore--a psychedelic icon associated with the Grateful Dead and other relics of the idealistic, moolah-doesn't-matter Sixties--as tools in an all-out promotion war, they're not saying. The name may be the same, but the times are very different, and so, too, are the economic conditions that have spurred an explosion of new Denver venues. The Pepsi Center, which replaces McNichols Arena later this year, the Ritchie Center, a sprawling complex on the University of Denver campus that's set to debut in September, and the Gothic Theatre, an edifice on South Broadway in Englewood that's reopening late next month thanks to the efforts of newcomer Steve Schalk, have nothing to do with hippie-era peace and love. And neither are these venues rising in response to a shortage of places for performers to do their thing. There aren't enough good bands to keep the current venues busy.
So what's going on? Most observers see the Fillmore's arrival as a direct assault by SFX on Universal, the only national promotion company that can hold a candle to SFX. Universal, meanwhile, is countering with an exclusive agreement to book the Ritchie Center--a decision that's likely to hurt the Paramount Theatre and the Music Hall at Lodo, which Universal is now using. The Fillmore-Ritchie Center duel is also expected to bruise the 1,200-seat Ogden Theatre and the 450-seat Bluebird Theater, owned by nobody in particular presents (NIPP), an independent promotion outfit that Universal has been battering for ten years. But in this contest, Universal is not playing from a position of strength: The corporation is up for sale, and from all appearances, the most likely buyer is SFX.
For the typical fan, these power plays add up to a mixed bag. On the positive side of the ledger, concertgoers will have the opportunity to see shows in some auspicious new environments. It's too early to know for certain about sound quality, but the Fillmore looks far better than anyone has a right to expect, and no expense has been spared to make the Ritchie Center and the Gothic into equally superior structures. But with prices for the best seats in the house climbing faster than a cock rocker's voice at the end of an encore, many music lovers of limited means may find themselves restricted to the back rows--or their living rooms.
Still, the game is not without its winners. When longtime Colorado kingpin Barry Fey went into semi-retirement after selling his singular creation, Fey Concerts, to Universal in 1997, Morris, a Fey friend and associate, was widely assumed to be a lock for the top spot at Universal's Denver office. But after months of negotiation, Morris was snubbed, and Mark Norman, who had overseen a significant portion of Universal's business in Canada, assumed the throne. At the time, Morris didn't offer any comments about this slight, but neither did he go out of his way to hide his anger and disappointment. Today, however, this bridesmaid is on the cusp of having all of his dreams come true--and as an added bonus, he's in ascendancy at the same time that the ground beneath Universal is starting to shake. Morris tries not to gloat: "I didn't like the way they handled my situation, but I don't want to knock anybody, either," he says. But, he adds, "not getting that job turned out to be the biggest blessing-in-disguise of my life."
"So far, everything that's ever been in Mammoth has failed," says Barry Fey--and he's not far off. The building began its life in 1907 as Mammoth Roller Skating Rink, but the fun and frolic stopped after just four years, and Fritchle Automobile and Battery Company, a manufacturer of electric cars, took over. Being ahead of its time didn't pay off for Fritchle; by 1917 it was forced to abandon Mammoth as well. Eighteen years later the building was reinvented as Mammoth Gardens, an all-purpose athletic arena. Mementos from this period dot the Fillmore's refurbished lobby, chief among them a poster for an ice carnival that took place on December 14, 1935, the date of the Gardens' grand opening. Admission for the fling was 10 cents.
For the next 27 years, the Gardens hosted boxing matches, hockey and basketball games and the occasional concert--James Brown tore the place up in 1960. But in 1962 the Gardens withered, and the Mammoth was reduced to serving as a warehouse for a mercantile company. That undertaking shut down five years later, but in 1969, Stuart Green, a local music fan whose well-heeled dad ran a New Jersey trucking firm, decided that he wanted to become a rock impresario and chose the Mammoth as the cornerstone of his dominion. He hired Fey, already the main rock-and-roll promoter in town, to book the building, and in April 1970 Fey provided an up-and-coming act, Jethro Tull. The show itself sold well, but a behind-the-scenes incident besmirched the bash.
"A guy killed himself the first night we opened," remembers Leslie Haseman, Fey's longtime secretary, who was there when it happened. "He was a mental patient who'd just gotten out of the hospital, and he just wandered in the kitchen door. Les Hershorn, one of our guys, was running the kitchen, and he said to him, 'How you doing?' And instead of answering, this guy just grabbed a knife, stood against a wall and started humping it against his chest. When I found out about that, I was like, 'Bad juju.'"
Indeed it was. Fey brought in more impressive shows, including Joe Cocker's Mad Dogs and Englishmen tour and the Who, whose June 9, 1970, turn he considers the finest concert he's ever witnessed. But soon thereafter, Green decided that he wanted to run everything himself--a disastrous move, in Haseman's view. "All he cared about was hanging around with the bands," she says. "He had no clue what was going on financially, so he lost money and lost more money. It was astounding." The end came that autumn following a three-day movie festival at which young customers were allowed to sleep at the Mammoth overnight. City officials branded the Gardens a de facto flophouse ("They said it was ruining the neighborhood--and there was a porn palace across the street," Fey recalls) and ordered it shut down immediately.
After the Market, a craft-and-produce bazaar, came and went from the space in 1976, the Mammoth stood empty until the early Eighties, when sibling restaurateurs Vic and Hal Weiss, along with two other investors, reimagined the structure as a combination concert hall and volleyball facility. Fey again was involved in booking the room, and he cheerfully credits his decision to ask for 25 percent of the gross per concert--an exorbitant amount--with helping to scuttle the venture. "They didn't last long," he notes, "but they did have some killer volleyball games."
Darkness hung over the Mammoth again until 1986, when Manuel and Magaly Fernandez purchased it. During the next dozen years or so, the venue became the home of large-scale Latin music events and occasional rock concerts, usually featuring alternative acts--during the Nineties, Jane's Addiction and Fugazi played there. But the Fernandezes did little to improve the quality of the Mammoth, which won a deserved reputation for absolute crumminess. The bathrooms seemed straight out of an especially gooey sequence in Trainspotting, the concession stands were far too few (simply getting a sip of water could take twenty minutes), and the basement dressing rooms were reminiscent of Hitler's bunker. Worse were the acoustics, which varied from spot to spot: A performance that sounded mediocre but acceptable in one place on the floor might seem utterly torturous ten feet away.
Fey, for one, grew to despise the Mammoth and handed down an edict against using it unless a group refused to go anywhere else. In his opinion, slapping a new moniker on it was wise, "because anything would be an improvement. You could call it 'hell' and it would have better connotations than 'Mammoth.'"
These days, Chuck Morris is telling everyone in sight that he's been a Mammoth booster since the early Seventies. But when Fey hears this statement, he breaks into out-of-control laughter. After he finally catches his breath, he tries to be politic for the sake of his buddy of thirty years. He can't help cackling, though, as he says, "I think Chuck is just a little guilty of revisionist history."
Maybe so, but Morris is sticking to his story. "I remember sitting up there with Chuck E. Weiss at a Ricki Lee Jones show and us talking about how beautiful this place could be with some money and some work," he says. "And that's what we've given it. When we're done, I think this is going to be the most beautiful room of its size in the country."
Getting there hasn't been easy. Tim Reid, who's overseeing the project for BGP, says, "The layout was poor, the stage was in a bad location, there was sound trouble, the ventilation was in bad shape, and the appearance was terrible." Reid's crew ripped out many of the building's architectural anomalies, including a concession area that jutted toward the floor; moved the stage to the far end of the building to permit the so-called long throw preferred by acoustic engineers; completely remodeled the dressing rooms and offices; installed an elaborate lighting setup; established more than twenty concession points; and covered all of the hard surfaces on the walls and ceilings with curtains, valences, carpeting, acoustic tiles or sound-dampening spray. In addition, Reid's crew designed a grid supporting giant curtains that will cut the Fillmore's 3,600-person capacity in half for acts with smaller draws. This concept has met with skepticism in some quarters ("You don't spend $2 million to put up curtains unless you're in the curtain business," Fey says), but it allows the Fillmore to go directly after shows that would previously have wound up at the Paramount, the Music Hall at Lodo or the Ogden and simultaneously compete with the larger venues in the Ritchie Center. "The best thing about the building is its flexibility," Reid declares. "We can do general admission, rowed seats, tables and chairs--whatever we want."
The main room is done in basic black, but splashes of color come courtesy of twelve crystal chandeliers imported from Austria and an impressive gallery of photographs and posters, many from San Francisco's Fillmore. Local concerts are also represented via the photos of Denver's Dan Fong, whose shots stand as proof that acts as disparate as Van Morrison and Grand Funk Railroad actually performed at the Mammoth and lived to tell the tale. As for the sound system, it comes courtesy of Bret Dowlen, who's designed the rigs for many of the venues in the area, including Boulder's Fox Theatre and the soon-to-reopen Gothic. Dowlen denies that Mammoth had the poorest acoustics of any auditorium in America--he gives this prize to an oval-shaped American Legion hall in Milwaukee--and goes so far as to argue that the Ogden Theatre presently sounds worse than the Mammoth ever did. (Dowlen installed the Ogden's system, too, but he gripes that its lousy sonics are due to improper maintenance and a lack of acoustic treatments planned at the time of the hall's 1993 debut.) Nonetheless, he doesn't predict miracles at the Fillmore. "A bad sound man can make any room sound bad," he grumbles, "and there's nothing anyone can do about that. But even if that happens here, it'll sound better than it did before."
Predictably, Gregg Perloff, BGP's president and onetime right-hand man of company founder Bill Graham (who died in a helicopter crash in 1991), is considerably more positive about the space. But he initially resisted Morris's suggestion that the Mammoth be rechristened in honor of the Fillmore, which reopened in the Bay Area in 1994 after a long dormant spell. "We never wanted anyone to get the idea that we were franchising something, like the House of Blues or the Hard Rock Cafe," Perloff says. "Those are manufactured businesses, but the Fillmore is the real deal."
Perloff insists that he hasn't flip-flopped on the franchise question: "Fillmores won't be popping up all over the country," he says. "I can promise you that." But he came around in Denver because of Morris's persistence and the potential of the building, which he was able to see in spite of years of neglect. "We had to take ten truckloads of material out of there. The only things that have really stayed the same were the outer walls--but we've made them work for us. It's amazing what a few million dollars can do."
Seven-digit sums represent chump change for BGP/CMP owner SFX Entertainment. The company has officially been in existence for just over a year; it was spun off from its corporate parent, SFX Broadcasting, on April 27, 1998. Over the years, the broadcasting concern, overseen by executive chairman Robert F.X. Sillerman, spread its tentacles far and wide, and after the mid-Nineties deregulation of the radio industry--which Sillerman helped spur--it grew even more quickly. Along the way, Sillerman became interested in the live-exhibition business, purchasing the assets of Delsener/Slater and Sunshine Promotions, headquartered in New York City and Indianapolis respectively, in 1997. But these buys were only the beginning. That same year, Sillerman sold SFX Broadcasting for a staggering $2.1 billion and immediately used this windfall to go on a spending spree.
Not everything Sillerman has procured is geared to live music; an exception is Falk Associates Management Enterprises, whose chieftain, super-agent David Falk, oversees the careers of Michael Jordan and many current NBA stars. But Sillerman's transactions have been dominated by long-entrenched regional promotions outfits--and the theaters, amphitheaters and arenas they owned. Before many observers knew what was happening, he'd added Bill Graham Presents, Houston's Pace Entertainment, Boston's Don Law, Southern California's Avalon and Atlanta's Concert Southern to his portfolio, and other major transactions are in the offing. Sillerman made these acquisitions at a surprising rate: Between November 16, 1998, and March 31, 1999, the number of buildings owned by or under lease or exclusive arrangement to SFX Entertainment ballooned from 68 to 82. Today SFX boasts of being a player in all of the ten largest U.S. markets and in 31 of the top fifty. Anyone buying a ticket at St. Louis's Riverport Amphitheatre, Pittsburgh's Star Lake, New Jersey's PNC Bank Arts Center--or Denver's Fillmore Auditorium--is putting some of his dime into Sillerman's pocket.
Such profligacy has made Sillerman an extremely controversial figure among music pros, and his approach to ticketing hasn't made him many friends among the public, either. The reason is "tiered seating," an SFX innovation dictating that reserved seats nearest the stage (sometimes referred to as the "golden circle") are priced at sky-high rates, while those further away allegedly go for more reasonable fees. Sillerman is not currently granting interviews, but in a rambling keynote address delivered to attendees of a convention sponsored by the industry magazine Pollstar earlier this year, he attempted to justify his approach by referring to an internal survey of golden-circle ticket holders at nine SFX amphitheaters last year. "The average individual paid $141 more than the face value," he went on. "Now, who got that? Your artist didn't get it. We didn't get it. You didn't get it. But the fact is that the demand is obviously there. And the supply-and-demand curves absolutely have to come together. You know, the Rolling Stones on this tour just went up with tickets, depending on the market, from between $250 and $300, with a $20 surcharge. They put 45,000 of those premium tickets on sale across the country and...they had a real lot of trouble selling them. It took them eleven minutes. So there is a huge, pent-up demand. And it's just foolish for all of us not to take advantage of it."
Also driving up prices, Sillerman's critics assert, are unjustifiably high artist guarantees--like a reported $525,000 per show split between touring cohorts Bob Dylan and Paul Simon. By offering such unprecedented bonanzas (and by picking up the rights to entire tours, including jaunts starring 'N Sync, George Strait, Tom Petty, Cher, Neil Young and Dylan/ Simon), SFX forces other companies to try to keep up, undermining them in the process. But everyday Joes and Janes ultimately pay the price. "Everyone thinks that more competition is great for consumers, and it is, if you're a shoe store," says Universal's Mark Norman. "But when there's only one Rod Stewart, for example, and the bidding goes up, the price of tickets goes up, and there's nothing you can do about it. I've seen it happen in other markets, and until the consumer stops buying tickets, that's the way it's going to be."
Timothy Klahs, SFX's director of corporate communications, feels that Norman's theory is based on a false premise. "I don't think that ticket prices have risen at all," he claims. "By using tiered seating, we're capturing the money that used to go to unauthorized, unlicensed agents for the benefit of the artists, and we're also subsidizing the less expensive seats at the concerts. People may think they're paying higher prices, but they're doing it at the window, not in the parking lot." Klahs doesn't go so far as to say that SFX has ended scalping as we know it--"but I think we've mitigated the situation."
If that's true, no one bothered to inform the folks at Center Stage Tickets, one of the city's largest ticket agencies. On May 12, employees there were willing to sell two $95, fourth-row tickets for the June 7 Dylan/Simon show at McNichols Arena for a mere $750. Hurry, because they're going fast.
Prior to SFX's expansion into Denver, Universal was the big promotions kahuna in Colorado. The company, previously known as MCA, challenged Fey Concerts' hegemony during the Eighties, touching off a scrap that didn't end until 1991, when the bloodied brawlers realized it was better to become partners than destroy each other. But after Universal rejected Chuck Morris in early 1998, he immediately proposed to BGP, which had previously steered clear of Denver because of Fey. ("That was absolutely a factor," says BGP's Perloff. "Barry was a friend of the company for many years, and I wasn't going to do anything while he was working full-time.") Suddenly, Universal didn't have the playing field to itself anymore, and when BGP/CMP began sniffing around the Mammoth, the company looked for a way to reply. The answer turned out to be DU's Daniel L. Ritchie Sports & Wellness Center.
When DU announced the plan for the Ritchie Center (named for the institution's chancellor) in 1994, the cost was estimated at $40 million. The university has missed that target by a mile. John Coombe, DU's vice chancellor for intellectual properties and events, says, "If you put the total at around $70 million, you wouldn't be too far off." But DU is blessed with a great many affluent benefactors, and the largesse of two of them--the late cable magnate Bob Magness and DU trustee Jane Hamilton--has been memorialized via the center's two heftiest spaces: the 7,200-seat Magness Arena and 3,200-seat Hamilton Gymnasium. In early May, these portions of the Ritchie complex, which houses seven sports facilities under one enormous roof, are as busy as the mousetrap at rush hour, with heavy equipment roaring amid roiling clouds of concrete dust. But in an adjacent concourse traveled primarily by hard-hatted crew members in tattered, sweat-soaked T-shirts and jeans, tuxedo-clad waiters are readying a four-star luncheon as a way of showing their gratitude to donors whose overflowing bank accounts are paying for much of the brick and mortar. Students whose fees will undoubtedly rise to help defray the costs of the soon-to-be palatial surroundings are not among the invitees.
Allan Wilson, DU's associate athletics director for facilities and operations, is dressed for the occasion--he wears a white dress shirt and conservative tie along with his yellow helmet--and even though he's been poring over Ritchie Center blueprints since 1993, his enthusiasm for the project appears undimmed. He eagerly touts the state-of-the-art features slated for Magness, including massive Diamondvision screens, twenty-inch-wide chairs, two posh club sections and television equipment that will be hard-wired to a forthcoming cable museum named for another DU champion, Bill Daniels. The Hamilton Gymnasium is even closer to completion than is Magness (its new wooden floor has just been put in place), and because of its heavy-duty lighting system, it's as bright as the Mojave Desert at high noon. "We'll be able to do some of the highest-quality TV broadcasts of any gym in the country," Wilson says.
Qualities like these also translate to concert settings, as Wilson understands well; he says that the Ritchie Center was engineered with the intention of renting it out for non-university functions. While the DU Fieldhouse (which Magness Arena is replacing) was used frequently for musical events during the Sixties and Seventies, it failed to meet many Eighties fire codes, which forced DU officials to forgo lucrative contracts with promoters. But there are no such woes at either Magness or Hamilton, both of which have been sprayed with acoustic material to dampen the echo and bounce that can make shows at arenas ear-wrecking experiences. "I don't know how we'll compare to the Pepsi Center," Wilson says, "but right out of the box, we'll be a lot better than either McNichols or the World Arena in Colorado Springs [a venue booked by BGP/CMP]."
The first musical show at the Ritchie Center won't be at either Magness or Hamilton: On September 12, a concert featuring a carillon (a set of tuned bells) will ring out from the majestic tower over the complex. After that, Wilson says, the building will get busy. At this point, more than 160 activities are slated for the year 2000, with more sure to follow. This would seem to make booking difficult for Universal, which has a five-year pact to bring between twenty and forty events to the complex each year. But Universal's Norman pooh-poohs suggestions that he's walking into a logistical nightmare. "After their hockey and basketball teams, we are the priority," he says, "and there are a lot of other facilities on campus where things like practices can take place. Plus, everything is very versatile. We can do 3,000-seat shows in either Magness or Hamilton--and we can even do two at the same time, which is not something that can happen at Mammoth. We really evaluated whether to put in a bid on Mammoth, but we eventually elected not to do it, because the Ritchie Center is better suited to what we project to do in the future."
What that future will hold is a matter of considerable speculation. Universal recently went on the block, and while neither the company itself nor Goldman Sachs & Company, the Wall Street enterprise that's overseeing the sale, will comment on specifics, inside sources confirm that initial bids from a handful of sources are already in, with SFX an especially ardent suitor. (When he's informed of this news, Chuck Morris smiles as he says, "I know. Believe me, I know.") But even if SFX offers the rosiest package--as it's done in practically every similar situation for more than a year--the purchase probably won't be put on a fast track. As DU's Wilson notes, "I'm pretty sure the Justice Department will have something to say about it."
That's a safe bet. In September 1998 the federal agency started looking into SFX's acquisition frenzy. Two months later it gave SFX a tentative clean bill of health. But according to SFX's own documents, Justice subsequently instigated another inquiry to determine if its purchases "might give SFX undue market power in producing, promoting or exhibiting live-entertainment events." As a result, picking up Universal-- pretty much the only other promotion firm aside from SFX with coast-to-coast muscle--would likely raise a bright-red flag. But that doesn't mean rejection is assured: Lately the Justice Department has let stand a lot of sales that raise monopoly questions. And even if the buy was initially voided, the divestiture of some SFX properties might overturn the ruling.
Without referring directly to a possible Universal purchase, SFX's Klahs brushes off anti-trust questions even as he makes it clear that the company hasn't put away its checkbook. "It is certainly our intent to improve the economics of this whole industry, and the additional properties that we acquire benefit from the scale of the operation," he says. "In that sense, we're certainly interested in obtaining other properties. But we believe the alternatives for artists and audiences to go to other environments, including stadiums and smaller clubs, is quite extensive, even when you consider our size. So we don't believe that we hold any unfair advantage when it comes to the concert industry as a whole."
Most music-bizzers interpret such declarations as meaning that the SFX's shock troops will keep marching ahead until someone with a court order forces them to halt--which leaves Universal's Norman in an awkward position. The Ritchie Center covenant is an arrow aimed at BGP/CMP: "We feel that the competition for venues will be between Mammoth and the Ritchie Center," he acknowledges. But if Universal and SFX wind up joined at the hip, this battle tactic may leave the resulting mega-company with more venues than it could ever possibly use. Until that day comes, however, Norman isn't backing down. "We're running our business and ignoring the sale," he says. "We have no control over who it gets sold to, so we're just going to keep competing and keep our sleeves rolled up."
With so much attention being paid to the Ritchie Center, the Paramount Theatre, which has been Universal's primary small hall in Denver (its capacity is 1,850), is everyone's favorite candidate to take it in the shorts. The venue has had a tough decade. When it went into receivership in 1994, many feared it was about to get up close and personal with a wrecking ball, and in the years since then, finances have frequently been tight. But Jim Sprinkle, executive director of the Historic Paramount Foundation, isn't panicking. "There are some concerns," he says, "but the DU place is very different from the Paramount, as is Mammoth--and I think after Mammoth has its initial flash, things will settle down. Besides, with everything the Paramount has been through over the past few years, we don't do sirens anymore."
Also trying not to hit the panic button is Doug Kauffman of nobody in particular presents. He's already had to alter his go-it-alone strategy based on the BGP/CMP-Universal skirmish, joining forces with Jesse Morreale of Gess Presents and fellow promoter Chris Swank to bring East Colfax's Ogden Theatre and Bluebird Theater together under the NIPP tent in 1998. (Another East Colfax club, the Lion's Lair, is also a Kauffman possession.) But the Fillmore, and its announced intention to inaugurate a "club series" featuring the very sorts of acts that usually appear at the Ogden, seems sure to test the mettle of this fellowship. "It's bound to have an effect, and it'll definitely impact the Paramount as well as everything else," Kauffman concedes. "With everything that's happening, it makes it more meaningful to be an independent, now that they're all disappearing. It's so nice to get up in the morning and be your own boss--and if you're mining a market that's hip and young, it's a lot harder to stamp you out of existence."
Kauffman, who was given the 1996 Independent Promoter of the Year prize by Pollstar, isn't sitting still waiting for the hammer to come down; NIPP expects to announce booking arrangements with two new halls--one in state, one out of state--by June 1. But locally, he feels that reasonable ticket charges and an underground cachet are his best defense. "Count on what's going on with the Fillmore and DU to drive up prices for consumers who go there," he says. "But we should be able to hold the line, because our price structure is the same as it's been, while their expenses will go way up. I'm just glad we own our buildings. That's what's kept us competitive."
The first venue Kauffman purchased, back in 1991, was a horrible dive called the Gothic Theatre. Built in 1929, the place was a shambles, with crumbling walls, spine-twisting chairs and practically no air flow--it was so hot and stuffy that if Kauffman had marketed it as a weight-loss business, he could have become the next Jenny Craig. But because Fey Concerts essentially ignored the then-burgeoning alternative movement, Kauffman was able to book some outstanding acts, including Ministry, Ice Cube and Nirvana (which opened for, believe it or not, Dinosaur Jr). A year later, Kauffman was eager to pour some of the money he was making into a renovation of the theater, but when he approached Englewood's city fathers for a liquor license, which he needed to make his expenditure viable, he ran into aggressive opposition. Simply put, the Gothic's neighbors, including the parishioners of the First Baptist Church, considered Kauffman to be Satan in a baseball cap for attracting so many disreputable sorts to the city; patrons who thought the lawns near the Gothic were perfect for urination earned special condemnation. As such, Kauffman's petition was duly rejected--and when he realized that appeals were useless, he lined up loans and grants to purchase and fix up the Ogden, sold the Gothic and left Englewood for good.
Since then, several ploys to revive the Gothic have been floated, but they all sank like stones. Enter Steve Schalk, a property master for film and television productions including The Arrival, starring Charlie Sheen, and the NBC miniseries Asteroid. Schalk has had a house in Evergreen since the mid-Nineties, and while driving down South Broadway one day, he glanced at the Gothic and liked what he saw. So last year he used some of his savings and contributions from investors to purchase the joint from then-owner Acts on Broadway. But when he went to Englewood officials with his concept for bringing the Gothic up to snuff, he received the coldest of shoulders. He doesn't know if his physical resemblance to Kauffman contributed to this reaction, but he has his suspicions. "I could just feel it," he says. "When they were looking at me, they were seeing him."
Slowly, Schalk overcame these doubts, and with the belated blessing of Englewood's civic brain trust, he set out to remake the Gothic from the ground up. After putting in new plumbing, ventilation and electrical systems, he removed the cinema-style chairs in favor of cabaret seating on multiple levels. He also extended the balcony by building elaborate wings along either side of the building, jazzed up the interior with a curved railing, lighting from the Plaza Hotel in New York, art-deco graphics and a ceiling that looks like a starry, starry night.
Standing on the balcony in early May as laborers try to stretch out their lunch hour, Schalk admits that his design is not without its eccentricities. "It's a little bit kooky in places, but that's what's fun about it," he says, beaming. "I was able to use my film background in a lot of ways, and when I'd come up with something, a lot of times people would go, 'Are you nuts?' But when they saw it, they realized that it worked. Now everyone's excited--even the people on the Englewood town council. One of them came up to me the other day and told me, 'We can't wait for it to open up, because we want to see a show here.'"
Because Schalk has no direct affiliation with either Universal or SFX, the timing of his grand scheme seems terrible, but it may actually be quite good. BGP/CMP is allergic to staging concerts in any facility controlled by other promoters--hence the decision to put on fair-weather shows by Dylan/Simon and 'N Sync in McNichols Arena, not Fiddler's Green, an amphitheater Universal owns. Rather than booking an act with too small a draw for the Fillmore into the Ogden or the Bluebird, then, BGP/CMP may try to bring it to the Gothic, a 700-seater whose capacity falls squarely between those of NIPP's two main spaces. It doesn't seem entirely coincidental that Morris has already toured the Gothic. "A gorgeous place," he declares.
Schalk, an energetic novice who doesn't seem to realize what a shark tank he's entered, appreciates this vote of confidence, but with negotiations for future agreements still ongoing, he's trying not to alienate anyone. "I'd like to work with all of the promoters in town," he says. "That may seem strange these days, but I do."
Back at the Fillmore, the scent of nostalgia hangs heavy in the air. The act scheduled for the May 19 opening is Phish's Trey Anastasio, a performer as close to the Grateful Dead's Jerry Garcia as BGP/CMP could get without hiring a spiritualist. Moreover, the lobby will include a barrel of apples just like the ones habitues of the San Francisco auditorium used to pass on their way to watch projections of multi-hued gelatin on the wall as the sounds of Jefferson Airplane flew past them. "Take one or two," the sign says, just as it did a long time ago, in a land far, far away. But now it's across from a coat-check room.
The folks at BGP/CMP do everything they can to quash the notion that they're parts of a huge, impersonal corporation mindlessly bent on world conquest. They point out that unlike Universal, which shed most of Fey's loyal employees soon after his departure, BGP/CMP has embraced them--and true enough, Morris's staff includes booker Brent Fedrizzi and production manager Tommy Hauser, a pair of Fey vets who abandoned Universal in order to work with people they'd toiled alongside for years. Even though Universal has been in the region far longer than has Bill Graham Presents, Don Strasburg, the driving force behind Boulder's Fox Theatre, and another eager BGP/CMP recruit, believes that he's part of the home team.
"When Universal came in here, we thought that it was going to bring all the best people from around the market together--Chuck and Brent and everyone," Strasburg says. "And instead they fired everyone and brought people in from the outside. Now, SFX and Bill Graham are great competitors, but they've reached out to the people who have invested the time in the market, and who know this market, and that makes all the difference. They've taken advantage of all these years of experience instead of just going 'Fuck you,' like Universal did."
For his part, Morris clearly loves being in the spotlight that has always fallen on Fey. As the manager of bands like Big Head Todd and the Monsters and Leftover Salmon, he's accomplished plenty on his own, but if SFX swallows up Universal (and who'd bet against it?), he could well become the unquestioned ruler of the Denver concert scene just like his mentor was. But he's been around long enough to know that the crown won't be his simply for the asking. "The war will never be over," he says. "It'll change, but it'll never be over."
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