Argo has roots in Aurora's ill-fated Science Fiction Land

The movie Argo, which stars Ben Affleck as a mustached CIA agent named Tony Mendez, tells the little-known, mostly true story of how Mendez rescued six American embassy workers hiding in Iran; the workers had evaded capture by Islamist militants, who held 52 of their co-workers hostage for 444 days starting in November 1979. To do it, Mendez disguised the six as the Canadian film crew of a science-fiction movie called Argo. He gave them fake identities, fake passports and a fake purpose for their trip — scouting locations — and then ushered them home on a commercial flight.

But there's an even lesser-known story behind the tale, one that's left out of the Affleck version. The fake movie that the fake film crew was supposedly making was a real screenplay — and it was slated to be filmed at a massive theme park called Science Fiction Land, to be built in Aurora. A documentary, appropriately titled Science Fiction Land, hopes to tell that part of the story.

"I'm really elated," says New York-based documentary director Judd Ehrlich, who last week raised more than $54,000 on Kickstarter to finance the film. Launching the Kickstarter campaign at the same time Argo hit theaters "was a really effective way to get the word out there...that there is more to the story."

Much of Argo is accurate. It's true that Mendez enlisted the help of Oscar-winning makeup artist John Chambers, played by John Goodman in the movie, to build his ruse. The production had to look legit, so they set up a fake company with a real office and real business cards. They even made posters and bought ad space in the Hollywood trade magazines. In the Affleck telling, Mendez finds the script for Argo in a pile of cast-offs; it's described as a Star Wars rip-off full of aliens and spaceships.

In real life, the script was called Lord of Light, and it was based on Roger Zelazny's best-selling 1967 novel of the same name and written for the silver screen by an eccentric named Barry Ira Geller who "set out to raise the money to create what was supposed to be the largest budget science-fiction film ever," Ehrlich says. He also imagined building a futuristic amusement park three times the size of Disneyland, complete with a 38-story Ferris wheel, a holographic zoo, a 1,000-lane bowling alley attended by robots, security guards equipped with jetpacks, a heated dome and fourteen Las Vegas-style dinner theaters.

Despite his inexperience, Geller amassed a team of well-known collaborators. Comic-book artist Jack Kirby, co-creator of Captain America, drew renderings for the movie and theme park. Author Ray Bradbury and architect Buckminster Fuller served as consultants. A Vegas promoter and stuntman named Jerry Schafer agreed to serve as the spokesman, and Chambers was hired to do makeup for the film.

In November 1979 — the same month that Islamist militants were taking over the U.S. embassy in Tehran — Geller, Schafer and the rest of their group held a press conference in Aurora to announce their plans. Nearly every Denver newspaper and television station was there. But within weeks, the project came to a screeching halt. Schafer had lied about having $400 million in financing, while four Aurora officials, including former mayor Fred Hood, were indicted for trying to use inside information to buy land adjacent to the proposed park.

The story goes that Chambers suggested using the Lord of Light script as Mendez's fake movie; he didn't change a thing except the title.

"When you start delving into the specifics of what happened, there are all of these question marks," Ehrlich says. "Did the CIA want a clear cover, and did they have something to do with bringing down Science Fiction Land? And how exactly did that happen? You turn over one stone and there's just more and more."

KEEP WESTWORD FREE... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.