On the Road, Again

When Josh Blue was named the last comic standing, he automatically became Denver's second-most-famous living celebrity -- after John Elway, of course, and before... Dealin' Doug? But Denver has no shortage of dead celebrities (Why else would Warren Zevon, now dead himself, pen the song "Things to Do in Denver When You're Dead"?) -- and the most notorious of all has just been resurrected.

Neal Cassady, the inspiration for Dean Moriarty in Jack Kerouac's On the Road -- not to mention untold numbers of merry pranksters -- gets the star treatment in Neal Cassady: The Fast Life of a Beat Hero, a new book by David Sandison and Graham Vickers. Meanwhile, one of Cassady's old stamping grounds is also seeing new life.

Cassady grew up in Denver, and when his parents finally ended their wildly dysfunctional marriage in 1932, six-year-old Neal went off with his alcoholic father to live in a cubicle at the Metropolitan Hotel that they shared with Shorty, a legless man who was "an inveterate masturbator," according to Sandison and Vickers. When Neal was seven, two half-brothers rescued him and took him to live with their mother at the Snowden Apartments, "the castle of my childhood," as Cassady called it -- and "a notorious hangout for ex-convicts, musicians, alcohol and drug addicts, the odd pervert and freelance prostitutes," according to the authors.


Neal Cassady

That building at 2563 Champa Street is long gone, and on its site now sit spanking-new $675,000 condos developed by the Curtis Park Investors Group, the same outfit that won the 2004 Governor's Awards for Downtown Excellence for the Champa Terrace Townhomes on the 2900 block of Champa. For that project, Cathy Bellem got more than two dozen of her Curtis Park neighbors to pitch in money so that they could buy the property where a developer had proposed putting a 22-unit apartment building and instead develop something much more in line with the Victorian-era neighborhood.

And when the 2500 block of Champa was threatened with another large development, the same group banded together to build Merchants Row, architecturally amazing modern "brownstones" that people in the neighborhood have been raving about -- even if they can't afford them. But because the cost of the land was so high, they had to build high-end. "I'd say 98 percent of the investors in this project couldn't afford them," Bellem admits, then laughs.

Cassady would appreciate the irony.

He might not appreciate how long it's taken for the Rossonian Hotel to make a comeback. Jazz greats like Billie Holiday, Charlie Parker and Duke Ellington used to play the club at 27th and Welton (it was also a set for the film Things to Do in Denver When You're Dead), and Cassady caught some of the best music there in the early '40s. In the summer of 1947, he was joined in the clubs by Kerouac, who featured the corner of 27th and Welton in the first chapter of On the Road.

Today the Rossonian is entering what must be its ninth life. After decades of uneven ownership, it was purchased last month from the city for $800,000 by Carl Bourgeois, who plans to transform it into a "mature entertainment facility, mostly jazz," he says. "The Rossonian is a community trust.... We need to recapture some of that entertainment, that kind of excitement." No details yet on exactly what the project will look like -- Bourgeois is just in the design phase -- but he'll be funding it with the help of a city loan, both for the purchase and the renovations.

The city's been down this path before, having sunk millions into the building in previous deals. Off Limits hopes that Bourgeois has more luck than developer Tom Yates, who bought the Rossonian in 1990 and took out more than $2 million in loans from the Mayor's Office of Economic Development to purchase and renovate the property, then got foreclosed on ("Hotel Reservations," July 6, 1994). Only time will tell, and there's talk that the construction clock will start ticking in November.

Coincidentally, that's right about the time Denverites are supposed to finish reading the third selection in the One Book, One Denver program. The choice won't be announced until October 17, according to program coordinator Julie Rodriguez, but we know that the author is not from Colorado and is alive. The latter rules out our choice -- again! -- so we're going to start lobbying right now to make On the Road the book for 2007.

Not only will that year mark the fiftieth anniversary of the publication of Kerouac's classic, but his original draft -- written on one 150-foot scroll of paper -- that's been touring the country will land at the Denver Public Library on January 1 of next year.

Sure, On the Road has some risqué sections -- but they're about our risqué sections. And we're betting that if Denver's septuagenarians who read the book five decades ago can handle it, so can today's twenty-somethings. Enough of the namby-pamby choices, Mayor Hickenlooper. Let the Beat go on.

Scene and herd: "Like George Clooney, it has no bad angles," Time magazine says of the Daniel Libeskind-designed Frederic C. Hamilton addition to the Denver Art Museum. So what does that make the original DAM building, Gio Ponti's craggy gray fortress constructed in 1971? John Wayne? City employees who've been parking in the Cultural Center Parking Garage by the DAM could use some of Clooney's cash; their monthly fees are in the process of doubling in anticipation of the rush of visitors heading the museum's way. ... And another landmark gets its due with Red Rocks Amphitheatre making the cut in the new Monopoly: Here & Now edition. Glad to see that Hasbro finally got the place right; when online voting for the lucky landmarks was launched in April, Off Limits had to point out that the name was not "Red Rock" and the location was not Aspen's Maroon Bells. But a $1.4 mil asking price on Denver's greatest natural treasure? No deal.


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