When Chuck Morris quit his grad-school program in political science at the University of Colorado Boulder in the late ’60s to book bands for and manage a tiny bar and restaurant called the Sink, he didn’t think his foray into the music industry would last more than six months.
Denver-based folk-rockers The Lumineers will play opening night, August 7, he says. Then Trey Anastasio of Phish will perform August 9 and 10, and Ben Harper & the Innocent Criminals and Trombone Shorty & Orleans Avenue will co-headline on August 12.
The Mission Ballroom is not all Morris has to talk about; he also confesses he’s mulling retirement.
The longtime promoter, who sits on the board of the Colorado Music Hall of Fame (and was also a CMHOF inductee in late 2018), works in a veritable museum of rock-and-roll mythology. Framed platinum records and black-and-white photos of him hamming it up with rock stars cover his office walls.
There are pictures of Morris in his pudgy, drug-crazed twenties with Barry Fey — his onetime hard-gambling, phone-chucking business partner, best man at two of his weddings, then boss and rival. In another frame, Morris gleefully hugs Tommy Bolin, his long-haired best friend, a guitar wizard who played with Zephyr, the James Gang and Deep Purple before dying of a drug overdose at 25 in 1978.
There’s Morris with the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, an act he managed for years, and mugging in Moscow just before the collapse of the Soviet Union with Republican billionaire Phil Anschutz, a close friend of Morris’s and the head of Anschutz Entertainment Group, which includes AEG Presents, one of the largest live-entertainment companies in the U.S.
And finally, there’s Morris grinning with former Colorado governor and now presidential hopeful John Hickenlooper, one of a number of Democratic candidates he has supported.
Over the years, many of Morris’s closest associates and favorite artists have died, some from drug overdoses, others from suicide. Most of his living friends are in their seventies and, like him, have survived hard rock-and-roll lives by sobering up in middle age.
In the past five years, Morris has attended many funerals. “It’s depressing,” he notes, adding that when he retires from the music business — he says he has no specific date in mind — he hopes to go on to teach students about the industry and ramp up his philanthropic work.
But before all that, there’s the Mission. With his team of close collaborators at AEG — in particular, two men he calls “his boys,” powerhouse promoters Don Strasburg and Brent Fedrizzi — Morris is opening up what they claim will be the greatest music venue in Colorado.
While the Mission won’t be the largest venue in town, it aims to be the nicest, offering a clean line of sight from any vantage point in the room, stunning sound and a mobile stage that will allow the space to expand and contract based on how many tickets are sold, giving smaller artists the chance to play the room without it seeming empty.
Since forming in 2006, AEG Presents Rocky Mountains, a branch of AEG Presents, now operates and books the Bluebird Theater, the Ogden Theatre, the Gothic Theatre, the 1STBANK Center and Fiddler’s Green Amphitheatre. The company also promotes more than 100 shows each year at Red Rocks Amphitheatre.
In addition, there are local venues run by AEG talent buyers: Scott Campbell heads up Lost Lake Lounge, Globe Hall and the Larimer Lounge; Adam Stroul and Scott Morrill run Cervantes’ and the Other Side; Strasburg built his reputation as owner of the Fox Theatre and later the Boulder Theater, which he still runs under the company Z2 Entertainment.
Morris’s career had modest beginnings. After the Sink, he managed long-running Boulder club Tulagi, then opened venues like the intimate Ebbets Field and Rainbow Music Hall in Denver before becoming second-in-command at Feyline, the promotion company started by Barry Fey that helped turn Red Rocks into a world-class destination.
After leaving Feyline in the late ’80s, Morris went on to manage artists such as Leo Kottke, Big Head Todd & the Monsters and the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band.
And when Fey retired in the late ’90s, Morris started Chuck Morris Presents with his former partner’s rival, Bill Graham Presents; that endeavor was eventually bought by a company that became AEG rival Live Nation.
Chuck Morris Presents turned the much-besmirched Mammoth Gardens skating rink and event hall into Denver’s Fillmore Auditorium, giving Live Nation a 3,900-capacity venue — one of the first mid-sized concert spaces in the United States.
When his old friend Anschutz invited him to join AEG around the mid-aughts, Morris agreed — and he took most of Colorado’s Live Nation staffers, including Strasburg and Fedrizzi, with him, leaving his former company stripped thin but with the Fillmore in its hands.
Despite all of the venues AEG has purchased or leased over the years, the company has not had one that can compete in size with the Fillmore. But in August, the Mission Ballroom will deliver a venue to rival Live Nation’s best asset in town.
It took the AEG team years to figure out exactly where it would build its ballroom; Strasburg even rode around in a helicopter over Denver looking for possible sites. Morris says they lucked out in landing in the trendy RiNo Art District.
The venue, at 4120 Brighton Boulevard, will be a few blocks from the 38th and Blake light-rail station, the National Western Complex, art galleries, restaurants and breweries. The name emerged in a meeting after Strasburg said the group was on a mission to build the greatest concert venue in the world. As Morris recalls, everyone said, “That’s it — the Mission! We’ll call it the Mission.”
The project is being developed by the Westfield Company as part of what it’s calling “North Wynkoop” — a fourteen-acre mixed-use neighborhood with shopping, entertainment, galleries and residential properties. Westfield is also billing the area as “Denver’s new front door.”
The Mission Ballroom won’t be genre-specific — it hopes to book rock bands, hip-hop artists and the EDM acts that have become a staple of AEG concerts in recent years.
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The Lumineers are one of Denver’s greatest success stories, and Morris notes that AEG was lucky to snag the group for opening night at the Mission. The next two concerts, headlined by Anastasio, are a tip of the hat to Strasburg’s legacy: He booked Phish in Colorado, at the Fox Theatre, early in the band's career. The final night will highlight bands that have packed AEG venues in the past: Ben Harper & the Innocent Criminals and Trombone Shorty & Orleans Avenue.
“This may be one of my last hurrahs,” Morris says with a smile.
All tickets for the Mission’s opening concerts will be part of a registration system; guests can request up to four tickets at axs.com from 8 a.m. Tuesday, March 19, to noon Sunday, March 24. Winners will be selected at random and notified by Thursday, March 28. Any un-requested tickets will be sold at axs.com starting Friday, March 29.