The rock formations that make up Red Rocks Amphitheatre are estimated to be between 290 and 296 million years old. By comparison, the mere 79 years of the venue's history since it opened on June 14, 1941, are just a blip in geologic time.
On that scale, a couple of months of COVID-19 closures are but a drop in the bucket. Nevertheless, while the park is closed and concerts are indefinitely postponed, Denver Arts & Venues is assuaging fans' aching hearts with a special project: a deep dive into the history of Red Rocks.
For example, the first post in the series, launched on April 6, starts at the very beginning, with Colorado's gold rush.
Once considered a Natural Wonder of the World, our open-air amphitheater took 200 million years to naturally formulate. Since then, a pageantry of human life has passed beneath the jagged cliffs of Ship Rock & Creation Rock. From primitive human beings to Native Americans, Spanish Conquistadors and French trappers, many have witnessed our natural beauty, but our history "begins" with American gold-seekers.
The first recorded visit to our park was in 1870 by a group of pioneer settlers on a "Champagne March" (a.k.a. a picnic) from Bear Creek Canyon led by Jefferson County Judge Martin Van Buren Luther. He christened the rocks as "the Garden of the Angels" and cursed anyone who dared change the name. His pronouncement was short-lived, as from that day forward, settlers referred to the area as "the Park of the Red Rocks." Marion Burts was the first owner of this newly discovered land. Ownership then turned over to Leonard H. Eicholtz in 1900, before Eicholtz sold the 4,000 acres of land to John Brisben Walker. Walker, an editor of Cosmopolitan Magazine, envisioned a great outdoor theater beneath the red rock formations when he purchased the land. He believed Colorado's future of tourism resided in his new purchase, but the Denver Chamber of Commerce did not agree with his testament. Walker persevered with his vision for the Park of the Red Rocks, and his next decisions were critical in laying the groundwork for what was soon to become one of the greatest national attractions in American history.
To learn more about the series and what fans have to look forward to, we spoke with Denver Arts & Venues program manager Ben Heinemann.
Westword: Where did the inspiration for this series come from? Was it in the works before the pandemic, or was it a response to the changing world?
The idea was born from the current situation we’re in. However, we’ve always tried to feature historical photos for #tbt and social-media themes that make sense. A place like Red Rocks has millions of stories to tell, so while the venue is quiet at the moment, now felt like the right time to go deep.
Who has been instrumental in bringing these stories to life?
The photos, obviously, are a huge part. We’re lucky that Red Rocks has drawn interest from photographers from the beginning, even before there was an amphitheater built, so to have this vast resource of historical photos and architectural plans and things like that is truly remarkable. And while we don’t have an official historian on hand, there’s been plenty documented both officially and unofficially about the goings-on of the place since before the beginning of regular performances at the venue. Our social-media coordinator, Trevor Kinzie, who is a journalism major, has also been doing his research and really fleshed out the entire idea, breaking the features down by decade, bringing the stories to life, etc.
What is one of the most interesting things you've learned about Red Rocks history while working on this project?
Pop culture is pop culture, but Red Rocks is unique in that the history of pop culture and Red Rocks go hand in hand. It makes sense in that what was popular at whatever time in history would be a genre or performer that could fill a 9,000-plus capacity outdoor venue in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains. You can’t talk about the history of popular music in this country without mentioning Red Rocks.
How can people best express their love for –– and show their support for –– Red Rocks at this time?
Red Rocks is owned by the City and County of Denver, while also being a mountain park. And while the park and amphitheater are closed to the public right now, I think it’s important for people to appreciate and recognize that this is an amazing asset that Denver gets to call its own. It’s an incredible legacy, and there are lots of people working hard to preserve that legacy for years to come, especially with all the uncertainty going on right now. While shows are on pause for the moment, Red Rocks isn’t going anywhere.
Is there anything in particular people can do to support local artists who were set to play the venue this season?
There and lots of great things happening in the local music scene right now with artists supporting artists, live streams with tipping and donation options, and so forth. Underground Music Showcase is doing a great job with this, and of course publications like Westword, [and] Facebook events are a great way to find out how to show artists support on a local level. Additionally, our agency, Denver Arts & Venues, put together the Colorado Artist Relief Fund along with the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Colorado Creative Industries and RedLine Contemporary Art Center.
Why is now a great time to revisit music history? What can it tell us about the future of the industry, especially in these uncertain times?
I think, more than anything, it just shows how important music was and will continue to be no matter what age we live in. To experience music at a place like Red Rocks is special in so many ways, and the photos and anecdotes gathered for a hundred-plus years centered around that experience in that particular place means to me that there will be another hundred-plus years of stories and fond memories centered around Red Rocks.
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