On October 15, Penny Parker, a former business writer for the Denver Post, took over as the gossip columnist for the Rocky Mountain News -- and her bow was a rocky one indeed.
Examples? A Parker-penned item about the Wynkoop Brewing Company's annual "Running of the Pigs" had the event taking place on the 15th when it actually got under way the following day, and her announcement of an upcoming Las Vegas appearance by notorious former Aspenite Claudine Longet claimed that Longet plugged her former lover, professional skier Spider Sabich, 33 years ago, when in fact the shooting took place 23 years back. (The second slip was an unintended homage to Parker's predecessor, the error-prone Norm Clarke, who likely gave her the tip; he also included a line or two about Longet's impending Vegas visit in his October 15 column for the Las Vegas Journal-Review, the publication for which he left the News. But Clarke avoided getting the date wrong -- by not including it at all.) In addition, Parker missed a fabulous opportunity when she reported that scruffy, neo-beatnik singer Tom Waits had been spotted shopping at Neiman Marcus without underlining the absolute incongruity of his presence there: Imagine Sixties-vintage Abbie Hoffman picking out china patterns at International Villa and you're on the right track. Moreover, she dedicated a full paragraph to thanking the hair-and-fashion support team that readied her for the sorta dorky Parker-on-a-penny photo/graphic that accompanies her column, and cited Dom and Jane, the morning duo at radio's Mix, for sending her a slew of welcome-to-the-new-job gifts -- a gesture that apparently paid off in two November columns, when Parker wrote chits about the Mix pair. Note to Denver publicists: flattery works.
Admittedly, Parker did manage to include a few pleasurable snippets in her debut, such as the revelation that Denver attorney Craig Silverman "was caught between television interviews on the Ramsey case" using a compact to powder his nose, and several subsequent columns featured factoids with more of an edge than Denverites might have expected. On October 17, Parker chided irresistible but previously off-limits target Annabel Bowlen, wife of Broncos owner Pat Bowlen, for wearing "skin-tight sequined jeans, a cut-down-to-there top, and a faux leopard jacket" at a Girl Scout charity bash with the line "What was she thinking?" and in her October 19 missive, she teased Broncos backup quarterback Bubby Brister for puffing a cigarette at the Palm by writing, "Note to Bubby: Quit smoking! You'll need your wind if [Mike] Shanahan ever decides to make you the starting QB again." To Parker, these observations demonstrate the prime difference she brings to the Denver gossip table: a woman's perspective.
"There's a fine line when you write that kind of thing, because if people think you're making fun of them, they'll cut off your source supply," Parker points out. "So when I wrote about Annabel Bowlen, I made sure to talk about all the philanthropic deeds she's done in town. But with that outfit, I had to wonder what was going on in her head -- and afterward, I got a couple of comments from women saying, 'No one else would have written about that, and I'm glad you did.' And with Bubby smoking, I had one woman saying, 'Write more about that, because they're role models.' But I also had a lot of people hating that item and saying that he deserved his privacy. But I didn't walk into his living room and catch him smoking; he was in a public place. Besides, writing about that kind of thing is my job."
And a difficult and pressure-packed job it is. For better or worse, gossip columns are among the most popular features in metropolitan dailies, which makes filling them an important priority. And yet, like all but a handful of major U.S. cities, Denver is celebrity-challenged. The main players on professional sports franchises qualify for extended spotlight time, with John Elway remaining the undisputed top attraction, and so do the more prominent politicians, even if the requisite fluffy gossip tone prevents anything but lighter-than-air jottings about the latter. But promoting local media personalities to headlining status is fraught with peril in today's luminary-savvy society (good luck convincing an Entertainment Tonight junkie to care about Adele Arakawa), and puffing up business leaders unfamiliar to the average Joe or Jane often takes more explaining than it's worth. As a result, local gossips must find alternate ways to cover their beat -- and the choices they make say as much or more about Denver than practically any other part of the paper.
Although the Denver Post trails the News in a number of areas, including weekday circulation, the publication is clearly the gossip leader: Splitting the beat are longtimers Dick Kreck and Bill Husted, who was stolen away from the News in 1996. Of the two, Husted is the gushiest, forever going on about the famous, the near-famous or the not-famous briefly caught in fame's glow. This predilection leads to innumerable lines about where various Broncos or ex-Broncos recently ate dinner, as well as loads o' allusions to notables with long-ago Denver connections (e.g., a November 18 zinger lifted from Entertainment Weekly about diminutive ex-Different Strokes curio Gary Coleman, who lived in the "Busy Woman's Dream House" in Highlands Ranch during the late Eighties) and what-a-stretch items such as a November 16 report about the L.A. wedding of a Denver-based British Vogue correspondent that made the grade because actress Gwyneth Paltrow attended the ceremony. But Husted generally gets away with such silliness because of his infectious enthusiasm, his blind faith in the power of the exclamation point -- one day it's "Mon Dieu!" and the next it's "You go, girl!" -- and his willful embrace of Walter Winchell-like slanguage: Paltrow is identified as the bride's "childhood pally." As it turns out, Husted's sister was Winchell's secretary, giving young Billy a chance to see the godfather of gossip in social situations. Like Winchell, he says he tries to give readers "a certain intimacy with the city -- tell them what's fun, what's hot, who's been passing through town. I want my point of view to be affectionate to the city but a little world-weary and sophisticated -- but also funny."
Kreck, too, spills more than his fair share of ink about the Broncos and other similarly overexposed locals, but he usually anchors his columns with profiles of lesser-known types under the theory that while Colorado doesn't have an endless supply of world-renowned residents or visitors, it has plenty of interesting ones -- like mountaineer Jake Norton, sketched in a November 17 column, and Colorado Springs native Max Morath, a seventy-something ragtime pianist introduced in the November 8 edition. Kreck can be dishy at times, as when he needled the News's Parker on November 10 for printing the name of the downtown condo complex where Fox morning man Michael Floorwax keeps a place -- a decision Floorwax riffed about on the air. But Kreck's best stuff is generally warmer, and it sports a distinctively Denver flavor. "I don't consider what I do gossip," says Kreck, who's been at the Post since 1968 and has written his current column for fifteen years. "Gossip to me is, 'Who was that blonde you were having dinner with the other night?' -- and I don't do blind items. What I emphasize is more city kinds of things: oddball people and events in town with a bent toward history, because Denver has such a transient population, and I think a lot of newcomers don't grasp why things are the way they are." He adds, "Sometimes people refer to it as a city column, and I think that's about as close as anything to what it is."
In other words, Kreck doesn't try to turn the burg into something it's not. As for what Denver is, the gossip writings of Husted, especially, suggest a diagnosis of deep insecurity. Many of his columns seem intended to reassure readers who feel Denver can't compare to New York, Los Angeles, Chicago or other hip areas that their community isn't as far out of the loop as they think. There's a heavy focus on city and state references in national publications (see a November 11 column dominated by the discussion of Denver in Travel & Leisure magazine and the November 14 dissection of Ski magazine's list of the "100 Most Influential Skiers," with an emphasis on the Coloradans cited), as well as ephemera about locals making good in the big city (typical is a November 18 bit about a Boulder High grad now acting on the soap opera The Bold and the Beautiful). The underlying message in all of this seems to be "They noticed us!" Such neediness becomes even more obvious when it's juxtaposed with, for instance, who-cares hearsay such as a November 18 blurb about a paintball game starring Liberty Media mega-buckster Peter Barton that included David Koff (another Liberty Media bloke), Bruce Karpas (described as a "deluxe daycare boss") and former Channel 4 sports anchor Les Shapiro, who seems to believe that frequent appearances in gossip columns will inevitably lead to a new gig. At least there's a chance that the average Post subscriber is familiar with Barton and Shapiro, but Koff and Karpas got their monikers in bold largely because Husted needs stars -- and if there aren't enough real ones around here, he's damn well going to manufacture some himself. To write a gossip column in Denver, there's really no other choice -- but Husted hopes his attitude helps readers over any rough spots. "Sometimes there isn't a lot to write about, so I try to spin it a certain way to make it amusing to read. I sometimes compare this kind of column to a comic strip: They're not always funny, but they're always there."
During her first six weeks or so on board the gossip train, Parker has occasionally leaned Husted's way, especially when it comes to starmaking: Those given the bold treatment just for being them have included "financial consultant" Mary Kelley, "Zaidy's Deli owner" Gerard Rudofsky, "Junior Leaguer" Debbie Hoellen and "PR divas" Wendy Aiello and Nancy Gallinghouse, who may be very nice people but are a very long way from being household names -- unless it's at the Parker household. There have also been enough Elway items to choke the Broncos' mascot, including an oversized photo of Big John posing with his Alaskan malamute and an accompanying item about the "Purina Incredible Dogs Calendar" on November 18 and a November 23 followup about how fans can get a copy of the calendar for their very own, plus more about the dining and nightlife habits of Bronco Brian Griese, various Colorado Avalanche skaters and Denver TV types like Channel 9 weather guy Ed Greene than anyone really needs to know. Parker has also resorted to some ridiculous padding; she detailed her family's trip to Disney World in her November 2 column (as if no one's ever been there before) and offered a blow-by-blow about her appearance at the "Denver Taste Celebrity Grape Stomp Off" on November 5. But she's shown promise when she's drawn on her reporting background, which may turn out to be her secret weapon.
"Reporting is a big part of this," Parker confirms. "To get a little three- or four-inch item, the reporting is no different from what you have to do for a fifteen- or twenty-inch business story. I'm still making as many phone calls as I ever did."
Finding the right voice and tone is even harder, as Kreck acknowledges. "Penny was a crackerjack reporter here, but there's a rhythm and a style to doing what she's doing now, and very few people can jump in and start doing it right off the bat. She's very different from Norm Clarke, who was kind of wacky and not always accurate but put an interesting spin on things -- and that's what she's got to do. It's just a matter of finding herself."
Parker's not there yet, but there are some good signs. Her November 18 account of a move to bring Chicago's popular "CowParade" sculpture concept to Denver and a November 23 item about a Colorado Ski Country USA press release that Utah ski-industry types viewed as a snub were both enjoyable and, by gossip standards, almost substantial. Substance, however, has never been a key requirement of gossip, and there's a good chance that if Parker moves too far in that direction, her supervisors might start wondering where the hell all the John Elway items went. And you readers who don't give a damn about ol' number 7? You can leave our town and never come back -- or at least stop reading Denver gossip columns. Because they're not meant for you, anyway.
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Another rifle shot from the newspaper war: On November 28, the News ran a full-page ad headlined "Follow the News. The Post Certainly Does." The copy, which appears beneath a banner of the Post from November 3, claims that a quote attributed to recent Westword cover boy Douglas Bruce in a story by Post reporter Ricky Young was culled from a chat "hosted on our web site, RockyMountainNews.com." The ad continues, "Now, we're glad we could be of service -- especially since the Post obviously needs the help. But next time we hope they'll remember a quaint yet essential newspaper tradition. It's called crediting your sources."
Predictably, the truth is a little more complicated than this. Young says that when Bruce told him about the chat, he didn't mention the News's involvement -- and by using the address Bruce gave him, he was able to reach the cyber-room in question without using the News's site as a portal. For that reason, he knew nothing about any Rocky connection until well after his article was in print. Does that make the News's latest salvo less fair? Maybe -- but it doesn't make it any less funny. Keep the comedy coming, guys.
Have comments, tips or complaints about the media? E-mail "The Message" at Michael_Roberts@westword.com.