Music News

Entrepreneur Takes Over Syntax Space. How Many Roxys Can Denver Have?

The crew at Syntax Physic Opera poses for one last picture before saying goodbye.
The crew at Syntax Physic Opera poses for one last picture before saying goodbye. Syntax Physic Opera
The Roxy Theatre has operated in Denver on and off since 1913: as a movie theater, a club and now a music venue. On the night of June 5, staffers there were surprised to learn that 32-year-old California entrepreneur Paula Vrakas was bringing a new Roxy to town: Roxy Denver, which will take over the space that Syntax Physic Opera has rented at 554 South Broadway for the past five years.

"I'm not sure why a company from California would come to Denver and mirror their name after a company that's been established in this community since 1913," says the Roxy Theatre's general manager and talent buyer, Travis Ragan.

In response, the Roxy Theatre posted an official statement on Facebook that included a long history of the venue, which started as a black movie theater at 2549 Welton Street in Five Points. In 2011, the current owners took over the space and converted it into a hotbed of underground rap, horror-core, metal and punk. Post Malone played his first Colorado concert there in 2015; Snow Tha Product, Soulfly and Twiztid have also graced the stage.

In short, the Roxy name has been established for more than a hundred years, and the current brand is strong.

click to enlarge Outside the Twiztid concert at the Roxy Theatre on October 10, 2015. - BRANDON MARSHALL
Outside the Twiztid concert at the Roxy Theatre on October 10, 2015.
Brandon Marshall
Now many of the venue’s patrons are furious about the California import. Some are calling for lawsuits; others are just plain mad. "Our emails have been going crazy all day from disgruntled fans who have a lot of love for the venue and who have history with us since we reopened in 2011," Ragan says.

He and his team also posted some kind words wishing Vrakas and her investors well — while encouraging them to change the name. "I'm sure that this company is creative and will find something that suits their business that doesn't feed off of what has already been created,” they wrote.

When John Wenzel of the Denver Post broke the news on June 5 that Syntax Physic Opera had been sold to Vrakas, he didn’t mention Denver’s original Roxy. But locals noticed, and people took to social media to slam the transplant for ripping off the name of a Denver institution.

"If they don't rethink this name, it's going to be a typical case of rich white people coming in and thinking they're introducing new culture when they're just stepping on toes," Metro State sociology professor Reyna Ulibarrí wrote.

Ajay Ritual, of the goth collective Ritual Noize Denver, added:  "Well, it's kinda silly. The name isn't going to make people go to the new location. It's going to create confusion."

But Vrakas believes Denver is big enough for two Roxys. As she tells it, that name belongs to her, too.

She borrowed the moniker from California’s Roxy Encinitas, which opened in 1978. Not long after she moved from Wisconsin to San Diego a decade ago, the owners of that spot hired her on to transform the tourist-oriented beach-town vegan restaurant into a music venue with high-end food. She does the booking there and puts on around 650 concerts a year; the owners of Roxy Encinitas back Vrakas's Denver venture.

Vrakas is so committed to the name Roxy, it's tattooed on her arm. “I knew about the fact that there was a Roxy here when we came. Roxy, for me — it’s just as much a staple for me and our brand as I’m sure the Roxy Theatre feels,” she says.

Though she never reached out to the Roxy's owners before deciding to come here, she says she intends to shoot them a friendly email soon.

“We’re different. We’re not the same,” she says. “Our music styles will differ. We’re going to have dinner and food. We’re Roxy Denver. We’re not The Roxy. Our LLC, our website, our email addresses are just Roxy Denver.” And she has no plans to change that, she adds.

In buying Syntax Physic Opera, she's purchasing one of Denver’s few remaining independent music venues. Under the leadership of local music champion Jonathan Bitz and experimental musician and booker Madeline Johnston, Syntax has been a hub for outsider music, art and poetry — all of which have been endangered in Denver for the past few years.

At Syntax, Bitz put artists’ needs first, often to his own detriment. While most venues take a hefty cut from the door, Bitz always gave 100 percent of whatever the artists brought in back to them. He’d rush around all day long, cleaning the venue, scrubbing the toilets, prepping the bar and lugging kegs.

“This was worth every ounce of blood, sweat and tears,” he explains.

Bitz has been a longtime proponent of the underground music scene, first at Polyfinger, a DIY venue at Fourth Avenue and Santa Fe Drive, then as the brains behind the music publication Syntax, and as the talent buyer at the Meadowlark, where he booked shows of now-world-famous artists such as The Lumineers and Nathaniel Rateliff.

At Syntax, he offered his stage to big and small bands alike — some he believed in and others he knew would draw crowds that would keep the lights on. “These kids showed up, but they brought 200 people and drank our bar dry,” he recalls. “Sometimes I’d cry. Thank you. Holy cow. What a blessing.”

Bitz's wife and parents helped him along the way, and even as he had three children in just four years, he continued the juggling act for as long as he could. Last year, burned out and overtaxed, he realized he was reaching a breaking point, so he decided to sell.

Toward the beginning of 2019, he made an arrangement with Vrakas. After months of negotiations, he handed over the keys on June 2, mourning his loss but wanting to see her succeed.

When he told his staff he had sold the business, he cried. So did they. “It’s just heartbreaking to let that go,” Bitz says. “It’s definitely the right thing. Sometimes the hardest thing to do is the best thing to do.”

Now Bitz plans to work on a novel about the first years of Denver’s history, slow down and move to the mountains for his children.

click to enlarge The Bitz family at Syntax. - KEVIN JOHNSTON
The Bitz family at Syntax.
Kevin Johnston
While the Syntax crew had the chance to stay on, most decided to part ways after Bitz sold. One exception: singer-songwriter Anthony Ruptak, one of the founders of the Best of Denver award-winning Syntax Open Mic. When he first learned about the impending sale, he wasn't sure he'd stick around. He shopped his open-mic night to several venues and ultimately found himself committing to the new space, drawn back by the sound system.

For the sake of the music scene, continuity between Syntax and Roxy Denver is important to Ruptak, who  wants to see Vrakas succeed and plans to help her out any way he can. That’s a strong endorsement from a linchpin in Denver music. (Neither Bitz nor Ruptak chose to comment on the venue's name.)

"I’m glad I get to stay, and hopefully that works out with the new ownership,” Ruptak says. "It’s never going to be the vibe that it has been these past five years, but we’re all waiting to see what this shakes out to be."

Vrakas says she doesn’t plan to host as many of the experimental shows and arts-oriented events as Syntax held. Instead, Roxy Denver will house mellow Americana, folk, roots and jazz acts. The venue will include colosseum seating, she adds, so that anyone seated at a table has a clear sight line to the stage.

According to Vrakas, the space will evoke the 1920s: “It’s going to focus on what Denver was in the 1920s — lots of gold, brighten the space up, put some white on the walls.”

She intends to maintain the independence of the space, which will come as good news to local artists. When asked why she’s not handing off booking to the big talent buyers who have gobbled up independent venues in recent years, she balks: “I think it’s crazy that one company can dominate everything like they do here. Share the wealth, guys. Come on.”

While Vrakas says she’s been warned that longtime Denver residents have had a grudge against Californians moving to town and running roughshod over the culture since at least the 1970s, she wants locals to know that she’s Midwestern at heart and hopes they will be open to Roxy Denver.

“I’m a born-and-bred cheesehead. I feel lucky that I can live my dream in this town,” she says. “This is the second [Roxy] location. It’s very near and dear to me. It’s given me a chance to be myself and shine.”
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Kyle Harris has been Westword’s Culture Editor since 2016, writing about the arts, music and film.
Contact: Kyle Harris