When many music lovers think about the City of Denver renovating Red Rocks Amphitheater, the image that fills their minds isn't far removed from the shower scene in Psycho -- something indescribably beautiful being slashed and gutted until its life slowly trickles down the drain.
It's not hard to figure out why. In March, members of the Wellington Webb administration floated the notion of upping revenues at the Rocks by installing box seats and projecting corporate logos on the venue's pristine red sandstone. Locals responded with expressions of outrage, and the Landmark Preservation Commission, which must approve any changes at the amphitheater because of its status as a national landmark, subsequently swatted aside the box-seats component like a particularly annoying insect.
Since then, the city has altered its public stance in regard to the renovation of Red Rocks, emphasizing that its $22 million plan for the amphitheater is focused on fixing what's broken, not breaking what's fixed. "We inadvertently created this little firestorm," says Fabby Hillyard, the newly appointed Deputy Manager of General Services for Theaters and Arenas in Denver, "and we really had no idea that it would cause such a reaction. Sometimes you get so close to a thing -- and you know that you're doing things for the right reasons -- that you maybe don't communicate as clearly as you should that Red Rocks is a special place and you just want to make that specialness better. So now we're learning how to describe it better and realize what the fears are based on. And I don't blame people for doubting, because there have been occasions where the sanctity of the place hasn't been protected."
Soothing words like these don't reassure Tom Rutter of the Friends of Red Rocks, a citizens' group dedicated to guaranteeing that the amphitheater doesn't wind up looking like a mall with really nice natural siding. At a July meeting of the nine-member Landmark Preservation Commission, the city began promoting another idea that FORR finds objectionable -- specifically, the building of what's been dubbed "the southern terraces," a massive extension intended to shore up the amphitheater even as it provides a platform for extra restrooms and half a dozen concession stands. Rutter believes that this is only the beginning. "The lack of sensitivity to Red Rocks that the box seats and logos embodied seems to be driving a lot of this," he says. "And damn it, the city has got to get the message that this place is special and that there's magic there that hundreds and thousands of people know about and love and don't want to see gone.
"Back in 1983, Joni Mitchell was there, and she stood on that stage and sang, 'They paved paradise and put up a parking lot.' And that's what this is really all about. We don't want people to find out what they've lost only after it's gone."
Hillyard and other people working for the city on the Red Rocks upgrade dismiss such comments as hysteria. But on August 30, the Denver City Council quietly earmarked $5.8 million for use at the amphitheater, with part of the money set aside for work on the southern slope in the event of what Hillyard describes as "an emergency." For his part, Rutter sees the funds as an indication that the city's next push for "improvements" is about to begin -- and he may be right. The Landmark Preservation Commission has not yet approved the terraces, tabling discussion of them in July pending the presentation of more information pro and con. However, Don Dethlefs of Sink Combs Dethlefs, an architectural firm that's been working with Denver on Red Rocks for the better part of a decade, says that the issue may be brought back to the commission as early as mid-October, and he feels that the data he's assembled supports what the city's been saying all along.
Meanwhile, the twenty or so Friends of Red Rocks, whose previous protests were marked by a somewhat disconcerting politeness, have finally decided to stop making nice and start sounding alarms about the potential violation of one of Colorado's most precious gems. "We've gone out of our way to work with the city because we've been so afraid of looking negative," Rutter says. "But they're not inviting us to voice our opinions, so we're changing the way we're doing things. Our feeling is, Red Rocks comes first."
Geologists estimate that the rock formations around Red Rocks have been in place for roughly sixty million years, standing up remarkably well to season after season of environmental wear and tear. Likewise, the uncounted thousands of people who've trekked to the site this century to hear performances by musical greats from Igor Stravinsky and Ella Fitzgerald to the Beatles and the Sex Pistols have yet to cause the place to crumble into dust.
Yet time is beginning to take its toll. Some indicators were visible to the throng that flocked to Red Rocks on September 14 to watch Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers bring the 1999 concert season to a boisterous conclusion -- a dozen or so new planks were recently installed in rows of seats where the original wood had deteriorated. But according to architect Dethlefs, the greater dangers are hidden from view. The soil that supports a set of stairs on the south side of the amphitheater is pretty much gone, he says, and erosion beneath the seating area has created gaps that have destabilized its southern end, leaving the whole shebang in danger of winding up in a heap at the bottom of the foothills. "It's deteriorating," he says. "When it goes, it goes all at once -- and since it's hard to predict when that might happen, we need to get to work as soon as possible on preventing that."
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."
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.
Likewise, Ron Bernstein, who directed Theaters and Arenas until this summer (when he was named to head up the Mayor's Office of Economic Development and International Trade), says, "We share a commonality: our love for Red Rocks. Their perspective and mission are very similar to ours." But, he concedes, "we do have some areas where we look at things differently."
To say the least. Rutter says that Bernstein has always been polite to him, but "he believes we're going to oppose him every step of the way, which was not our intention. But when it comes to the southern terraces, we will."
In 1995, the city's "master plan" for Red Rocks, a 103-page tome encompassing a variety of ideas for renovation, was passed with precious little public notice -- no protests, no uproar -- and the first press coverage in advance of the city's scheduled March 2, 1999, presentation before the Landmark Preservation Commission contained little hint of the controversy to come. In the piece, a 150-word blurb blandly headlined "Mayor Announces Renovation of Red Rocks" that ran on the Associated Press wire, Webb was quoted as saying, "This restoration project will help to historically rehabilitate Red Rocks to its original design. The deteriorated features of the park will be restored and preserved and several new features will help to improve the park."
But the quiet didn't last long. The following day, items in the Rocky Mountain News and the Denver Post specified some of the "new features" in the $22 million outline, including box seats and advertisements to be projected on the rocks. "Gasp!" wrote Post staffer Julia C. Martinez. "It's going corporate."
This last word went off in Red Rocks lovers' heads like a grenade, prompting a large and vocal group opposed to such changes (including Carolyn Etter, who had served under Mayor Federico Peña as co-director of the city's Parks and Recreation Department) to attend the March Landmark Preservation Commission meeting. FORR's Randy Fordice was particularly incensed by the logo lights. "Red Rocks is such a beautiful place," he says, "and putting a Pepsi logo or a Ticketmaster logo on the rocks is going to literally ruin the atmosphere, regardless of whether it's only there before the show or during the set break."
When the city next brought up Red Rocks before the commission at a June 15 meeting, officials kept quiet about the lights proposal and were rewarded when the commissioners gave the nod to the broad strokes of the mayor's plan. Emboldened, they came to a July 6 hearing armed with reasons why the commission should approve the southern terraces -- among them, historical data about structural difficulties that have existed since the amphitheater was built.
"They had to blast a lot of rock out on the Creation Rock side, which is the north side of the amphitheater, to create a nice bowl," says David Mashburn, another Sink Combs Dethlefs architect working on Red Rocks. "And then they brought in soil to put on the south side to even it up. But it was bad soil -- our studies are showing it was mostly clay -- and the soil engineers are worried about the mass of it starting to slowly slide, because it's so steep and because there's water between the sandstone and the clay. And sixty years of rain and precipitation have opened up gaps beneath the seats. The geologists tell us there's almost no soil down low by the stage on the south side, and that's causing sinking that's got to be repaired."
To do so, the city has a couple of options. Crews could tear out some of the amphitheater, stabilize the ground beneath it, and then rebuild the section using materials of the same color and texture -- "but it would never be the same," Mashburn says. "No matter how hard we would try, it wouldn't be historically quite right. Which leaves us, literally, between a rock and a hard place." Preferable, then, is what's known as mud-jacking, which Mashburn describes as "getting at it somehow from underneath, probably by core drilling, to create temporary access and then placing in more shoring that way."
Of course, the new earth might start slipping just like the old stuff. As a way of preventing that, the architects want to build up a barrier on the amphitheater's southern slope, which is currently covered with natural plant growth. The simplest way to do so, Dethlefs says, "is to put up a large concrete wall. But if we didn't cover that back up, all you'd be left with is the concrete, which would be very unattractive. But even if we built the wall and then reinforced the soil on the slope, it would be basically bare ground until the vegetation came back in. That wouldn't be very attractive, either. It would be expensive and time-consuming, and it wouldn't address any of the other issues at the amphitheater."
Among those matters is the desire for more restrooms. Right now, the main bladder-relief sites are at either end of the amphitheater, necessitating long hikes for folks in mid-level seats. Worse, the permanent facilities up top are supplemented by disgusting portable toilets that are not always treated with respect by concertgoers. "There are forty of them up there," Mashburn says, "and after almost every show, city employees have to retrieve one or two of them from the valley below, because someone's shoved them down there -- and you can only imagine what an awful mess an upside-down Porta Potti is. On top of that, it smells like a zoo up there. Men who don't want to use the portables just pee off the south side, and women who don't want to use them just have to hold it. Everyone wants to 'preserve the magic,' but there's not much magic in that."
City officials also bemoan a shortage of concession stands. Concertgoers can get food and drink without making the same ascents or descents as those with full bladders, but the few stands at Red Rocks are usually so overwhelmed with customers that ticket-buyers are better off trying to sneak consumables past security. But if terraces are built on the southern slope, they could be larded with eateries that would make it easy for attendees to leave more of their dough at the show. As a result, Bernstein says, the people using Red Rocks would enjoy the time they spend there more even as they helped pay for the renovation. "We're looking at additional parking revenue and higher revenues from concessions as monetary sources. If we were able to raise, say, a million dollars in annual revenue that way, we could dedicate it towards a revenue bond and borrow against it for approximately $10 million to $12 million" -- roughly half the mayor's projected total for the project. And the other half? "We're working on that," Bernstein says.
Dollars and cents aren't motivating factors for Rutter, a property manager, Good, an art dealer, and the other Friends of Red Rocks. Rather, they're acting out of love for a place to which they pay tribute every other sentence or so. "I was out there recently," Good says, "and it was wonderful to watch people seeing it for the first time. They are just overwhelmed by the presence of the place." The Friends regularly organize nature hikes at Red Rocks and dream of buying land near the park, thereby preventing the demon encroachment of commercial development. "We could help the city in so many ways, including raising money, to do that," Rutter says, "if they'd offer us a seat at the table." (Hillyard responds that the city is already in the process of purchasing an eleven-acre parcel near the Red Rocks park entrance that will "be dedicated to open space.")
In a very real sense, FORR was the city's idea. The 1995 master plan called for the formation of a group of concerned citizens to be dubbed the Friends of Red Rocks, and after this year's meeting in March, more than a dozen of the attendees decided that was a fine idea. Since then, FORR's biggest successes have involved stopping what its members think are wrongheaded schemes, such as box seats, and slowing down others -- most recently, the southern terraces. The Friends favor new restrooms and concession stands, but they say that the top and bottom of the amphitheater can accommodate more than enough of them without negatively affecting Red Rocks from an aesthetic and historical standpoint -- and they believe that wiping out the grassy slope would do just that. "There's a lot of evidence that Burnham Hoyt wanted the slope to have natural vegetation on it," Good says. "And putting architecture in there will block views of the rocks from various points. It will create shifts in perspective that can't help but change the experience of going there. And if stabilization really is needed, a terrace isn't the only way to do it. From everything we understand, it can be stabilized and put back just the way it is without one."
Predictably, this argument hasn't cooled the city's enthusiasm for the terrace, just as the Friends' dislike of the lights-on-the-rocks notion hasn't put an end to it. Indeed, Theaters and Arenas' Hillyard seems to believe that the only thing wrong with illuminated advertisements is that the concept hasn't been adequately explained -- and she does her best to correct this oversight.
"We thought projecting the corporate logos was great, because we thought the technology matched the sereneness of the place," she says. "Those projections would only be visible to people who'd already read the name of the company on the ticket, and otherwise there'd be no banners or anything. We have to be realistic, and from the amphitheater point of view, money has to drive the facility in terms of maintaining it. So we thought that the lights were a creative and non-invasive way of generating revenues in order to keep Red Rocks the way it is."
Hillyard understands that such words may cause certain Red Rocks aficionados to react the same way an angry bull might to the sight of a Santa Claus suit, but she doesn't regret speaking them. Neither does she repudiate her comments in "City Hopes Renovations Will Dazzle Concertgoers," a July 23 Rocky Mountain News article that some critics saw as an attempt to seduce them with visions of "gourmet pizza and fine wine." In her words, "These kinds of things are important to a lot of people. And we'd like them to come to Red Rocks, too."
An earlier attempt to milk more cash from Red Rocks took place at the dawn of the Nineties, resulting in one of the best examples of near-amphitheater abuse.
Back then, Fey Concerts, headed by longtime Denver promotions impresario Barry Fey, was locked in a duel to the death with MCA, a corporation that had invaded Fey's turf. In 1988, MCA had built Fiddler's Green, an amphitheater that seats approximately 18,000, and allowed Fey to book concerts there for the next two years. But in 1990, MCA locked Fey Concerts out of its building and the fight was on, with MCA execs waving huge wads of cash at any act that would play Fiddler's for them, not Red Rocks (capacity: 9,000) for Fey. "I remember we offered Fleetwood Mac $150,000 to play two nights at Red Rocks, and Fiddler's countered with $250,000 for one night there," Fey says. "Because I knew them, they went with us, but I had to pay $200,000 for the two nights. Both shows sold out, but our profit, which should have been about $30,000, was only $6,300. And that was typical. We were winning most of the battles, but there was bloodletting on both sides."
In an effort to stitch up the wounds, Fey began pushing to expand seating at Red Rocks "to 12,000 or 13,000," he says, and tack on a gaudy banquet/club facility. Because Fey contributed so much revenue to Denver via Red Rocks, which he'd helped turn into a must-play venue for rockers, the city listened seriously to his requests -- and that set into motion the renovation plans that are moving forward to this day. Yet the expansion plan soon fell by the wayside: When Fey Concerts and MCA (now Universal Concerts) forged a partnership in 1992, the impetus behind it petered out. Fey's decision to back away from the Red Rocks expansion, coupled with widespread public outrage over the thought of it, kept the amphitheater from growing in ways Burnham Hoyt likely never imagined. "I don't know if it would have been better or worse," Fey admits now. "But my house would probably have been picketed by the historic preservation people had it gone on."
Fey is no longer an active Denver promoter, but the city's master plan is in many ways a love letter to promotions firms in general. Most of the shows staged at Red Rocks fall into the rock or pop categories because, in Hillyard's opinion, "Red Rocks is viewed as a young venue -- that it's only kids who go there. And that's certainly not what it was built for exclusively. It was built for people of all ages." She hopes that improving restrooms and concession facilities will make promoters feel comfortable in bringing more -- and more varied -- events to Red Rocks.
Whether this theory holds water is a matter of some dispute. Aging music lovers may appreciate using a toilet that's in a stall rather than a plastic booth that can be tossed on the back of a truck, but since no one's suggesting the installation of escalators, they'll still have to walk up lengthy, winding paths. "It's somewhat of an athletic experience," Rutter says.
But even if the changes won't necessarily make Red Rocks as accessible to octogenarians as the Denver Center for the Performing Arts, both Chuck Morris of Chuck Morris Presents/Bill Graham Presents and Universal Concerts' Mark Norman say that they would consider booking a greater variety of concerts at Red Rocks if its comfort level was improved. Doug Kauffman of nobody in particular presents is also supportive of some improvements, as long as they don't go overboard. "There's very little wrong with the place," Kauffman says. "And there are a lot of shows I do that do better at Red Rocks just because they're there. I put Primus in there when they were good for a couple thousand tickets in this market, maybe 3,000 -- and they did 7,100. It was the most successful engagement of the band's career up until then, and that was just because it was up at Red Rocks."
Other concerts have suffered the opposite fate. Fey recalls telling Celine Dion's management that the singer should play at Fiddler's Green instead of Red Rocks because her crowd wasn't into roughing it. "But they didn't listen to me," he goes on, "and she did just a little over 6,000 seats even though she was selling out all over the country. Of course, she blamed me."
Experiences like these tell Fey that no matter how nice the restrooms are at Red Rocks, some people won't go there. "I've never heard anyone say they went to Fiddler's because of the great bathrooms," he says, "but I have heard people say they don't like Red Rocks because of the shlep. That's why the city can't expect every dollar they spend up there to come back to them in dollars and cents. If they want to improve things for the people who already go up there, that's a good reason. But if they're doing it to draw more people, they should keep their dollars in their pockets."
Although Fey's point of view might seem reasonable, such plain talk is unlikely to slow down the renovate-Red Rocks juggernaut. Sink Combs Dethlefs is in the midst of assembling soil reports intended to prove that the amphitheater could take a toboggan ride to hell unless something is done to prevent it. To Hillyard, such a disaster isn't beyond the realm of possibility -- hence the necessity for setting aside part of the city council's $5.8 million allotment just in case. "The majority of that money is for the upgrade of water and sewage and some other safety issues related to railings," she says. "But the soil reports we've been getting indicate that there's been even more motion on the south side of the amphitheater than we thought, and if we get a wet fall, the whole thing could go -- and if that's the case, we've got to be ready to go quickly."
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As for the Friends of Red Rocks, Hillyard says she doesn't want to stifle their opinions. But at the same time, the city rejected a Friends proposal to formalize its role in the process, and Hillyard is currently putting together a fifteen- to eighteen-person renovation advisory committee that only one FORR member will be invited to join -- something that will provide the city with public-relations cover even as it effectively minimizes FORR's power. "We'll have representatives from all of the affected entities, including the town of Morrison, the conservation community, the entertainment community and even the American Indian community," she notes. "We think that will give us more balanced views than we're hearing right now."
At this point, the Friends of Red Rocks, who handed out informational pamphlets to those attending a Red Rocks show featuring Bonnie Raitt and Jackson Browne last weekend, have not expressed interest in joining Hillyard's little band. Instead, they're planning a public meeting sometime in October to try to publicize their objections to the southern terraces, among other things. "We want to give the people who know and love Red Rocks a chance to look over the plans and voice their opinion to the city," says Rutter. "And we're pretty convinced that they'll feel the same way that we do -- that putting a major new construction piece right in the heart of the amphitheater just so we can get a few more bathrooms and some extra food carts is a bad idea.
"We're not opposed to some changes, but they need to be made with a great deal of careful thought and consideration," he continues. "But the city is trying to make the amphitheater glitzy. And glitz is not what Red Rocks is all about."