DIY spaces don’t last forever, but sometimes it’s hard to tell whether they’re dead or simply dormant. That’s been the case with Deer Pile, the venue above City, O’ City, at 206 East 13th Avenue, which hosted music, comedy and storytelling shows from 2011 to 2018, when it closed with tentative plans to open in a new space.
Weeks, then months went by without more news. Now, a little more than a year after Deer Pile closed its doors, founder Jonny DeStefano says that the venue is RIP.
“But does that stand for ‘Rest in Peace,’ or is that ‘Rip Van Winkle’?” he asks coyly.
The idea that Deer Pile will one day awaken from slumber, Rip Van Winkle-style, and re-emerge as a vital arts space is enticing, but increasingly hard to imagine.
Deer Pile got its start after Dan Landes, the underground arts philanthropist, remodeled City, O’ City, his vegetarian gastropub and community gathering place for Capitol Hill artists, activists, politicos and punks. With the restaurant soon appearing to cater more to the bougie transplants descending on Denver than its loyal customer base, which bemoaned its ruination, Landes hired his old high school buddy DeStefano, who’d made a name for himself as an artist and musician, as the spot’s promoter.
At the reopening party, people crowded in for a tender set by singer-songwriter Nathaniel Rateliff, a few years from gaining worldwide acclaim for his soul-infused Americana band, the Night Sweats. That event set the tone: City O’ City would remain integral to the city’s cultural scene.
Soon after, DeStefano called his friend Nathan Lund, part of the Fine Gentleman’s Club comedy troupe, who agreed to participate in a series called Laughs and Beats; DeStefano would deejay on one side of the restaurant, while comedians would perform on the other. The first event was a hit.
“We had our second Laughs and Beats planned,” DeStefano recalls. “Dan called me up, and he was like, ‘You know, I don’t have a cabaret license, and I don’t want to get in trouble with the city. We’ve got to call off the show.’ I was like, ‘We’ve been planning this for months.’”
Panicked he would both be out of a job and disappoint his community, DeStefano started scrambling for a new venue. He remembered a space above the restaurant, up a harrowing staircase, where Landes had stored furniture during the remodel. The room was filled with trash, cigarette butts, beer cans and McDonald’s wrappers; DeStefano recruited a friend to help clear the litter and set up for the gig. “It was a survival thing for me,” he explains. “We had the show upstairs. It was a success.”
Comedians, musicians and other performers began setting up regular nights there. DeStefano brought on artist and filmmaker Johnny Morehouse to help with daily operations of the space, paying him out of his own City, O’City paycheck. He also recruited another friend, artist Derek Keenan, to come up with a cool idea for a name and a mural for the space. For inspiration, Keenan brought in a photograph of three deer having sex.
The crew had visions of painting it on a black wall, but worried that Landes would balk. Deciding to ask for forgiveness rather than permission, they went on a late-night mission to Home Depot for supplies, projected the photo onto the wall, and painted the outlines of the deer ménage à trois. “The next morning, there were these three deer fucking on the wall, and Dan was like, ‘I love it!’” DeStefano recalls. “It’s a fucking deer pile,” someone jested, and the venue’s name was born.
“There’s something humane about it,” DeStefano says of the image. “There’s something humane about looking at animals beyond human judgment. We looked at it as a very liberating image.”
Looking at the world without judgment became a mandate of Deer Pile, which aimed to cultivate a shame-free environment, allowing creatives of all stripes and experience levels on stage. By 2012, acts were blowing up Deer Pile’s phone, looking to book dates.
By then, Christy Thacker had taken a job as a barista at City, O’City. There she met DeStefano, who recruited her to join the Deer Pile team.
“I basically came on board to be like, ‘Okay, boys, we need to get our shit together,’” she recalls. “Seriously, there was no website. Bands from Japan and Germany and Australia and France and Spain were like, ‘Hey, can I play your venue?’ and I’d be like, ‘How the fuck did you find out about this?’”
While Thacker brought some order to the space, the entire operation remained a labor of love. “My salary was City, O’ City gift cards, if you know what I mean,” Thacker explains. Eventually, DeStefano split his paycheck three ways.
“I was trying to be as fair as possible,” he recalls. “It felt really good. It was a lot of fun.”
Part of that fun was shining light on up-and-coming talent and watching the city’s music and comedy scenes thrive. Deer Pile hosted open mics, DIY concerts and even a secret show by comedy legend Dave Chappelle; socialists and anarchists used the space to plot revolutions; queer, trans and gender non-conforming people held workshops.
“Shit got weird up there,” recalls Landes. “It got crazy. It was wild. Don’t fall down the stairs! Oh, my God, the liability. I always had one eye on that and was like, ‘Oh, God!’” But the risk was part of what drew the crowds. “What people responded to is that it was dangerous,” he recalls. “There was danger there. It wasn’t conceived and contrived and conceptualized to death. It was fucking raw and illegal, and what is more sexy than that? Can you duplicate that? Can you pay a marketing firm to develop you that?”
But Kindness Yoga, which rented space in the building, began to complain about noise from Deer Pile. The clashes created a headache for Landes, who encouraged the venue to tighten up its operation.
“In our second year, 2013, we were told Deer Pile had a shelf life, from management,” DeStefano recalls. “Any given day, we didn’t know if we’d get the ax or not.”
Instead of waiting to be kicked out, DeStefano joined forces with Thacker, who had a background as an arts magazine editor, and their friend, illustrator Mike King, who had worked for The Onion, to launch a full-color print magazine. It would be another way to shine light on creatives who had found a home at Deer Pile, they thought, whether the venue survived or not.
The magazine received $2,500 in initial funding from pizza-pot mogul Kayvan Khalatbari and Landes, and the three friends started planning a publication. By early 2014, they realized that if they didn’t put out an edition then, they never would, so they took a leap of faith and released the first issue of Birdy — highlighting the voices of artists and creatives across the Front Range and beyond.
Over the next few years, as Thacker and DeStefano put increasing energy into the publication, Morehouse’s role at Deer Pile grew.
In 2018, though, Landes decided to sell City, O’ City. While he retained ownership of the building, without the restaurant to cover costs, he told his friends that they would need to start paying around $2,000 a month in rent, as well as secure proper permitting and register as a proper business...or move in thirty days. Moving seemed like the best option, and the Deer Pile team started scrambling for a backup plan. They talked about setting up occasional shows at the Bug Theatre or Syntax Physic Opera while looking for a permanent venue. But those were hard to come by in the wake of the DIY crackdown following the 2016 Ghost Ship fire in Oakland.
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The most promising location was a small space in the Mariposa development, an affordable mixed-use project near the 10th and Osage light-rail stop where Youth on Record is located. With wide-open windows, low rent and a community vibe, the spot seemed perfect — until questions arose about the Deer Pile logo. Mariposa’s owners were concerned about how the image of a deer orgy might come off in the #MeToo era, Thacker recalls. They also worried about noise from events in the venue impacting people living in apartments above.
While Morehouse still has ideas of resurrecting Deer Pile, DeStefano is focusing on Birdy, working with Thacker, now his life partner, to turn it into full-time employment. They view Birdy as the phoenix that rose from the ashes of Deer Pile. While they’re still not making a living wage, they say they’re headed in the right direction, working with a business counselor who has helped them overcome their starving-artist martyrdom complex and set realistic business goals. Support from Meow Wolf, the Santa Fe-based arts conglomeration that’s opening a Denver outlet, is helping with that.
“With Birdy, we created our own publication so we weren’t beholden to somebody who could be ruthless to us,” DeStefano explains. “In doing that, we created a lot of freedom in how we operate, so we don’t have to apply shark tactics. It’s just like the Deer Pile.”
DeStefano and Thacker plan to devote their lives to supporting Denver’s creative economy, whether or not Deer Pile ever returns. “I believe in the rebel,” DeStefano says. “As long as there are human beings and there are people trying to express themselves, there will always be people trying to make things happen. We’re doing our part to keep culture and art alive in town, to preserve it, not just people coming in who have a shitload of money. We’re Denver creatives, and we’re trying to keep Denver art and the Denver community alive.”