Elliott had a long history in the Denver bar scene, having owned several establishments over the past decade, including Southside and Scruffy Murphy’s. Most recently, he established himself with venues catering to some of Denver’s most prominent subcultures, creating bars around the tiki and craft-cocktail scenes with Hidden Idol, and the punk-rock underground with Streets Denver.
"He was very supportive of our Tiki Tribe group and the scene. He often let us take over his bar for events and was willing to listen to us on how to improve his bar," says Patrick Melvin Jenkins of the Denver Tiki Tribe.
But then COVID-19 hit. Elliott struggled to keep his bars going and pay his staff amid shutdowns and capacity restrictions. We spoke with him this summer about the tough decision to close Hidden Idol, which he'd moved to a larger location just a year before.
Streets remains open, serving food and drinks. It’s a venue that Elliott worked hard to reposition in the community after taking it over two years ago, when it was known as the Streets of London Pub. After renaming it Streets Denver, he said his goal was to make it an inclusive venue and change its reputation from being a neo-Nazi hangout to an explicitly anti-racist space.
At the time, he posted the following on Facebook:
Had some questions and comments about some shit at Streets of London Pub, so thought we'd set it all straight.
Streets, as a bar and as a venue, welcomes EVERYBODY...everybody who isn't about hate, racism or bigotry, that is.
We fucking hate racists, bigots, misogynists or apologists for that kind of shit. Period. Bring that shit here - get kicked out and 86ed. Start that shit here - get kicked out and 86ed. Support that shit here - get kicked out and 86ed.
So yeah, we're ABSOLUTELY intolerant. Intolerant of Proud Boy fuckwits. Intolerant of racist shitheads. Intolerant of bonehead douchebags. Intolerant of asshole racist 'skins. Intolerant of misogynistic bullshit.
Intolerant of anyone who makes excuses for that kind of fucked up un-American shit. Streets isn't a home - or even a stopover - for ANY of that ignorant fuckery.
None of that shit is punk...it's just fucking lame and we don't want it here.
Don't like it? Too fucking bad.
That stance gave a much-needed boost to Streets Denver's reputation, and in his time as owner, it became a must-play spot for both local and touring bands.
"John was passionate in life and business," says friend Kimber Depsey. "He took Streets of London and created a home once again for punks and music on Colfax. He was passionate about making his opinion in politics, building codes, rules and regulations heard."
"He was a good friend," says DJ Miggy Camacho. "I had the great honor of deejaying in his bars, but most of all, he was great to all of us. John was just a down-to-earth brother. I will miss just talking about music, having beers with him and talking about our Denver ska, punk, soul scene. He took over Streets and made a great home for our music scene. I will miss him. Sending love to his family and the Denver Streets fam."
Elliott wasn’t always in the nightlife business. He grew up in Pennsylvania and earned a BA in history and political science from Pennsylvania State University. He then joined Teach for America and went on to teach kindergarten and sixth grade. In Napoleonville, Louisiana, he met his life partner, Mary Therese Anstey, a fellow TFA teacher. During the course of their 28-year relationship, they traveled extensively and lived in Glasgow, Scotland, and Melbourne, Australia, before settling in Denver in 2004.
Elliott developed a reputation in the Denver bar and restaurant scene for his venues and also his big personality. “I think John will be remembered most by his generosity, his compassion and undying desire for justice for the underdog,” says Ben Krajenke, bartender for Elliott’s venues since 2015. “He always fought for that person who had one hand tied behind their back. He was always in their corner.”
Krajenke describes how Elliott would “give the shirt off his back,” even as he himself was struggling, “Even when times were tough, he would take money out of his own pocket on a slow night and throw $200 in the tip jar so we could pay our bills. He was that kind of guy,” Krajenke says.
"John was a confidant, a shoulder to lean on, a friend and a man I admired and looked up to," recalls Jim Norris, co-owner of Mutiny Information Cafe. "He was a ride-or-die buddy that stood up for what's right and would never back down. Our scene, our city and our hearts will suffer this loss forever. He will be missed dearly."
Elliott’s big heart was famous among those who knew him well. “I met John when I was homeless with my pet wolf, Aspen, and sleeping under a bush," says Dan Wistrand, who worked security at Elliott's bars. "John drove by and saw us, and put us up in a hotel. He was one of those guys that cared more about others than himself."
“John could go from very tough to very tender,” says business partner Karthik Reddy. “Occasionally, there was a patron who had to be escorted out. John would shoulder that burden and work with security. And even though he was throwing the person out, he would always go out with them and make sure they were okay and had a way to get home. I don’t know many bar owners who do that.”
"I can only say he was the greatest mentor I've ever had in my lifetime," adds Micah Depner, another business partner. "His knowledge of the Denver bar business was incredible. His kindness and willingness to give himself to his friends was unsurpassed. I really miss him already."
With his sense of generosity, it’s no surprise that Elliott worked with charities. He dedicated himself to many organizations, including Denver Gaels, Rocky Mountain Feline Rescue and Punk Rock Saves Lives. “He would help anybody he could,” says Rob Rushing, founder of the nonprofit Punk Rock Saves Lives, “If a charity needed a venue, he was quick to offer it up. He would eat the fees for the ticketing so the charity made every penny.”
Friends remember that while Elliott was kind and giving, he was also opinionated. “He and I were on complete opposite sides of the political spectrum, and we’d argue like cats and dogs, but always respectfully," says Wistrand. "It was always a discussion. But he’d never back down."
“John was wonderfully stubborn," says Reddy. "He was unwavering in his respect for people, his opinions and what he stood for. I still can’t believe he’s gone, because he was such a force of nature.”
According to his partner, Anstey, Elliott passed away on November 11, at the age of 51, from COVID-19. He is survived by her, mother Barbara Elliott, and a house full of rescue cats. Services will be held at a later date.
Streets Denver remains open. Beth Hardin, the venue's general manager, started a fundraiser to help Elliott's family with medical bills and expenses. Donate at GoFundMe.