A cultural renaissance is fully under way in Trinidad, and the Southwest Chief Bicycle and Comedy Festival is riding the town's prosperity straight toward the junction of jokes and joy.
Created by former Sexpot Comedy curator and newly minted Trinidadian Wally Wallace and Bigtop Studios, a Los Angeles-based independent film production company run by former Denver comedian Jim Hickox, the festival represents a bold step forward for the historic mining town.
Thanks to Trinidad's approximately equidistant location between the entertainment hubs Los Angeles and Chicago on Amtrak's Southwest Chief line, the city provides an ideal meeting ground for travelers, comedy fans and cyclists alike. "We found an outstanding opportunity to link those two places in an emerging market in a really creative, fun, whimsical way," explains Hickox, whose company funded the festival.
In addition to a rogues' gallery of national standups booked by Bigtop Studios and Colorado talent booked by Wallace (including yours truly), the festival is presenting top-billed headliners such as Billy Wayne Davis, Ron Lynch and David Gborie — who recently became the official voice of Comedy Central — along with novel formats.
Westword caught up with festival co-organizer Wallace to discuss his most anticipated festival moments and high hopes for his new home town.
Westword: Can you describe the genesis of your idea for the festival?
Wally Wallace: In September 2018, I was traveling across the state working with Sexpot Comedy and Birdy magazine, looking to increase their distribution to several of the mountain towns throughout the state. While driving through the San Luis Valley, I noticed that the area had no art publications, very few radio stations, and that every other house seemed abandoned. Considering the incredible rate of growth towns throughout the Front Range have been experiencing, I thought it was crazy that some portions of the state were seemingly being left behind. While in Denver you can see four comedy shows a night, in Walsenburg you might be lucky to see four all year. I also took note of how cheap the real estate was.
I knew I couldn't pull off such an ambitious event without some support, so I called up local legend of Colorado's comedy scene, Jim Hickox of Bigtop Studios, to see if they would back the festival. Bigtop is the company behind some of Denver's greatest comedy events, like Lucha Libre and Laughs, Cartoons and Comedy and Boulder Comedy Show, so I thought they might be interested in "hopping aboard" this concept and bringing it to life. When I spoke to Jim on the phone, he sounded intrigued, so I drove down to Trinidad and caught the first train to L.A. and pitched the idea. Having his own interest in trains, he said he would be happy to sponsor the fest, and the rest is history. This event could not have happened without the support of Jim Hickox and Bigtop Studios.
As the festival approaches, which shows are you the most excited about?
As the festival approaches, I am most excited to see many of the shows produced by comedians coming in by train from Chicago and Los Angeles. Late Late Breakfast is probably the show I'm looking forward to the most. Created in Chicago and now based out of Los Angeles, Late Late Breakfast is one of the most unique comedy shows I have ever been to. Where most comedy showcases consist of a single comedian going up and telling jokes, Late Late Breakfast forces those comedians to do other tasks as they attempt to tell those jokes. At one performance, members of the audience lined up to arm-wrestle the comedian one after another as he attempted to get through his set. Another time an audience member was called on stage and the comedian was told that whatever they do, they could not let that audience member leave the stage. It was only a minute or two before the comedian was on the floor with their arms wrapped around the ankles of that participant while still trying to sling their best material. It's a really wild show.
I'm also very excited to see David Gborie's set. He's been a favorite of mine for years, but I haven't seen him do a set in about a year. Just last week he got named the new voice of Comedy Central, so needless to say, he's been doing some big things. I feel very fortunate that we were able to get him on the festival before that announcement was made. Ron Lynch is another comedian coming in from Los Angeles that I'm stoked to see. He's an amazing voice actor who has performed the voices of characters in shows like Home Movies and Bob's Burgers that I have known and loved for years. I had the good fortune to see him do several shows a few years ago, and he's really got a unique style of comedy that I've never seen from anyone else before. I'm also just really excited to see so many comedians down here running around town for a weekend. Trinidad is a beautiful place, but it's got less than half the population of what it once had, and it will be a treat to see the streets filled with funny folks who have never had the opportunity to explore the town before.
Can you give us an update on any developments that have come along since you first announced?
When we first announced the festival, I barely knew Trinidad. I had driven through a few dozen times in my life, but hadn't taken much time to stop and look around. Then when we thought of the festival, I went down several times to scope it out and see if it had the potential to be a good host city for a comedy festival. Since then I bought a house, moved to town, and have tried to connect with as many folks as possible. In addition to the original venues we planned on throwing shows in, we've decided to host some shows in some pretty unique places. After spending a couple of weeks down here, I discovered that the local TV studio is actually located inside the local funeral home. Curious to check it out, I introduced myself to Tom Murphy, the funeral director, who made the request that we host shows in his establishment. The place seats 150 people, and the building is one of the most interesting-looking places in town. Thinking that the funeral home should be a pretty quiet spot, we decided to record all of the festival podcasts there.
Another development since our first announcement is the inclusion of two giant model trains. Ken Cook, the owner of Caboose Hobbies and manager of the traveling Slick-X Line Model Train set, read about the festival in the Denver Post and gave me a call asking if they could bring their trains to [it]. It took a bit of searching to find a space in town large enough to hold the train, but eventually we connected them with the A.R. Mitchell Museum of Western Art, and they will be displaying the train there all weekend long.
The other major development is the inclusion of a 72-mile gravel-grinder bike ride the Saturday of the festival. When we first decided to throw a combination comedy and bicycle festival, our main goal was just to get people to bring bikes down with them and explore the town, because I was shocked by the lack of bikes when I first got here. It's a really beautiful place with a lot of potential for recreational activity, but there were no bikes and very few bike racks. Since we arrived, there has been the addition of a new bike-share company called Giddyup that will offer rental opportunities for festival attendees. With their help and the support of the city, there are now eight new bicycle racks installed around town. There is still A LOT of work to be done to establish Trinidad as a bicycling city, but we have been using this festival as a means to get people motivated to look at the town as a potential bicycling hub. So we encourage people to BYOB (Bring Your Own Bicycle) and ride around town while you're here.
Talk more about the venues you're working with.
Most of our comedy showcases will be taking place in restaurants and bars on Commercial and Main Street [Trinidad's two main throughways], and on Saturday we will be hosting some larger shows at SCRT, the local repertory theater, but the town's biggest and most impressive venue, the Fox-West Theatre, is actually currently out of commission, as Dana Crawford and her team work on restoring it to its former glory. So most of the venues are pretty small and intimate.
We were looking for options to throw some of our larger shows in places that had a little more space, and eventually we were approached by Tom Murphy at the funeral home about using his space. It's one of the most interesting buildings I have ever been in. The first floor is the funeral home, with a large living room/parlor area and a reception room that fits over 150. The basement holds a television studio, a jiu jitsu studio and a sauna, and the upstairs is the home of the funeral director and his family. Lately, he's been looking into getting float tanks and also offering float services. The place is a trip, and we thought the comedians would get a kick out of performing there.
Because the funeral home does not have a liquor license, we decided we were still better off using the local bars for the comedy showcases, but that the funeral home would make an excellent space to record podcasts. I think we just thought it might sound interesting to folks listening at home that these comedians had traveled to this little town and were recording their podcasts in such a unique venue. It's our hopes that it might inspire some intrigue and get some more folks to come down next year. Additionally, because the building doubles as a TV studio, they have lots of gear to help us record — and in some cases live-stream — the podcasts we are recording there.
The prison was something that came along last minute. I actually was called by Denver comedy crusher Nancy Norton, who told me she had been approached by the correctional facility about performing there and thought that I might be able to send come comics over following the festival, since so many of them will already be in the area. She told the Trinidad Correctional Facility to contact me, they did, and I reached out to the comedians to see if any were interested. I think the shows there will be amazing. I've spoken with several people who work at the Trinidad Correctional Facility, and they have expressed how much they appreciate us providing some entertainment for their residents. They don't have a lot of entertainment out there, and I hear they love anything that breaks them out of the everyday routines that go along with being locked up.
One quality that seems to make this festival unique is its relationship with the City of Trinidad. Can you describe some of the more fruitful municipal partnerships you've formed with city officials and businesses, and how they came to pass?
It took me a few months to really establish a relationship with the city. I think they're pretty used to people coming to them with wild ideas and not following through on them, and when we approached them with this train-bicycle-comedy concept, they automatically filed it as one of those instances. However, after I bought a house in the area and started dropping in on them every couple of days, they began to take us seriously. After that they have been extremely helpful. They had been discussing the addition of more bike racks since long before I came to town, but after we announced the festival, it become much higher on the priority list, and they made a point to install eight new racks before the festival. They've offered the services of the city trolley to transport our comedians from the train station to their hotels. Most recently the Tourism Board approved us for a grant to help market and promote the festival. The folks here in town definitely see the potential of Trinidad as a festival destination; they just need more people to take the initiative to make it happen. I think they're happy to see that we've come here and are trying to show others from outside the community the potential of this beautiful little town.
What are some of the qualities that make Trinidad an ideal destination for this kind of festival?
Location, location, location! In addition to the natural beauty and awesome architecture in Trinidad, it's located in a very unique part of the country. If you travel 190 miles north on I-25, you hit Denver, and if you travel 190 miles south on I-25, you hit Santa Fe. Additionally, Trinidad serves as the halfway point between Chicago and Los Angeles on Amtrak's Southwest Chief Train. I think it will take us a few more years to get the word out, but I think with the right marketing we can really develop Trinidad as a major junction for art lovers from throughout the Southwest to get away from the cities and participate in some fun activities. Another unique aspect of Trinidad is the number of dispensaries they have for a town of its size. Because it is the closest town to the New Mexico-Colorado border on I-25, it's the place where everyone from New Mexico, Texas, Oklahoma and Kansas come to buy marijuana. It's been a great boon for the local economy, but everyone here acknowledges that as more states legalize, that probably won't last forever. So the town is looking for events and recreational activities that will encourage people to continue coming back even after more states legalize cannabis.
What prompted your move to Trinidad, and what do you think the city has to offer to the creatives being priced out of Denver?
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The main reason I moved to Trinidad is because I think it has amazing potential and real estate is cheap. I lived in Denver for eight years, and it seemed like every year the prospect of owning a house there got more and more distant. Then I drove down to Trinidad and realized I could purchase a home if I wanted to. I began doing some research on the area and discovered there are a lot of big things on the horizon for this town. The weekend of the festival, they're breaking ground on a new Hilton Garden House Hotel down town. The city was just granted $18 million to turn an entire city block into a Space to Create that will provide affordable housing, retail and studio space for forty artists to live and work on Main Street.
I think the biggest game changer for the local economy is the purchase of Fisher's Peak. One thing that has always held Trinidad back is its lack of local open spaces, but just this past February, the city and the state purchased the iconic mountain that serves as a backdrop for the town and will be developing it for recreational activity. Once that mountain opens up and more creatives are down here living and working, I think many of the folks who moved to Denver to live "the Colorado lifestyle" might find themselves moving to Trinidad to have access to bicycling, fishing and hiking without dealing with the traffic and overpopulation that Denver residents are dealing with right now.
What do you hope to accomplish with the festival, both this year and as you move forward with it?
This year I want to bring people to town and show them how much potential Trinidad has as an arts and festival community, and I'm hoping eventually that will inspire more people to come up with creative ideas to help diversify and strengthen the economy down here. It's a beautiful place that I think a lot of people overlook. Right now a lot of people think of Trinidad as a rest stop, and I'm hoping with some creative thinking and some hard work, we can really develop this town as a destination.
The Southwest Chief Comedy and Bicycle Festival runs from Thursday, May 2, to Sunday, May 5. For individual show tickets, $10 to $30, or VIP passes, $120 to $150, and more information, visit the festival website.
Update: This story has been updated to clarify the large role Bigtop Studios and Jim Hickox has played in the festival.