Off Limits

The last time this town saw

Charlton Heston

-- the living, breathing movie star, or what passes for him these days -- was less than two weeks after the shootings at Columbine High School, when the National Rifle Association held its annual convention in Denver.

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Moses came down from the mountain a half-hour late, after the crowd -- an overflow, even though the NRA had cut back its program in deference to the still-fresh tragedy -- was finally accommodated in the Adam's Mark ballroom. "I applaud your courage in coming here today," rumbled NRA president Heston, who was wearing a Columbine ribbon. "Wellington Webb, the mayor of Denver, sent me a message: 'Don't come here. We don't want you here.' They say we'll create a political distraction. But it has not been the NRA pressing for political advantage, calling press conferences to propose vast packages of new legislation.... 'Don't come here?' We are already here. This community is our home. Every community is our home. We are a 128-year-old fixture of mainstream America."

By the time Heston hits town October 24 to urge NRA members to "Vote Freedom First," that fixture will be 131 years old, only a few years older than the Hollywood star himself.

Many of Heston's years were no doubt added by his painful encounter with director (and former alternative-newspaper man) Michael Moore, who paid an impromptu call on the star while making his own movie, Bowling for Columbine. That film -- which, along with Moore, will be at the Denver International Film Festival Saturday night -- shows the icon clearly befuddled by Moore's line of questioning.

Heston, who thought he was granting an interview to a sympathetic gun lover (Moore is a card-carrying NRA member), stumbles over tough questions about the overload of gun violence in America; the NRA's mouthpiece proves to be helpless without a script. When Moore asks him to apologize to the folks in Flint, Michigan, for rallying the troops after a juvenile gun tragedy there -- a bit of campaigning remarkably similar to his post-Columbine visit to Denver -- Heston flees the interview.

Some critics have jumped on Moore for grilling a legend who is, by his own account, in the first stages of an Alzeheimer's-type illness, but while he may move slower without his chariot these days, Heston's return to Denver suggests that nobody's going to be prying steel from his cold fingers anytime soon.

Where's our cut? On Monday, CBS tapped former Denverite Harry Smith to once again anchor the sinking ship that has been The Early Show. And he owes it all to...Westword?

That's right. "I owe it all to you," repeats Smith, who by the early '80s was a popular radio DJ, occasional Westword contributor and co-host of a public-affairs program on KRMA/Channel 6 with Reynelda Muse (the bossy female voice that warns "You're delaying the departure of this train" at DIA, for those too young to remember her stint anchoring on Channel 4).

"I still had my job in radio," Smith remembers, "and there was a lot of corporate pressure, because they didn't understand radio without a format -- which is what we were doing at KHOW in the old days -- so I quit. And I couldn't get a job in commercial television to save my life. Everybody would see me; I could get appointments. I just couldn't get a job. Finally, at Channel 7, I pointed to a fistful of Westword articles and said, 'I'm not just a radio guy, I'm a writer guy,' and they said, 'You're driving us nuts. We'll pay you minimum wage for two weeks, and then you'll have to go away.'"

Four days later, KMGH-TV offered Smith a contract. Within a few years, he'd moved on to CBS's Dallas bureau and a gig as a national correspondent; then, in 1987, he joined Paula Zahn at CBS This Morning, where he lasted almost nine years. Since 1999, he's been the host of A&E's Biography (replacing Peter Graves) and also produced occasional Travels With Harry shows, a series that originated on the CBS Evening News With Dan Rather. (One episode featuring the late Gene Amole and other Colorado landmarks is scheduled to air on A&E October 26.) Although Smith will continue hosting Biography for a time, as of October 28, he'll be back at CBS in the wee hours.

"Now that the adrenaline is wearing off, I remember that call comes awfully early -- especially when you're starting a new show, with new people," says Smith. "Maybe this was a bad idea, now that it's all coming into focus." That focus includes CBS's concerns with bumping up the ratings on The Early Show, a distant third in the lucrative early-morning market. "That's the thing that's changed the most," Smith adds. "Morning television makes so much money now."

Another difference: He's not even trying to keep the bow ties that were a trademark during his days at Channel 7. The bow ties were "a very big issue" back in 1987, he says. Charles Osgood was already established as the bow-tie-wearing CBS personality, and a network bigwig told Smith that he couldn't wear them, too. "What do you mean?" Smith remembers asking. "I've been wearing them my entire adult life."

"We can't have two guys wearing bow ties," Mr. Bigwig responded.

"I was ready to quit," Smith recalls. "I went back to see my wife in Dallas. 'This is the way it starts,' I said. 'This is the way they take control of your life.'" Smith stayed with the job. "I wear them off the air," he says. "I've made an adjustment to life without bow ties."

He's also made an adjustment to life 2,000 miles from Denver. Although he frequently comes to Colorado to ski, "I miss my pals," says Smith. "And playing softball at Lawson Field." Told that the downtown ballpark is now kept locked when not in use by teams, Smith responds: "That's wrong, that's wrong.... There were lots of homeless folks and people of dubious reputation. So I would bring packs of Redman chewing tobacco, and they wouldn't throw bottles at us."

Another change in that neighborhood: The Punch Bowl is no more. "That's wrong," says Smith. "My going-away party in 1985 was held at the Punch Bowl -- a great, amazing event. The place was packed, and we were having a really good time. It was a bit of a who's who. Norm Early said that it was late and he had to go."

But a few minutes later, Denver's then-district attorney was back in the bar. "Someone had broken into his car," says Smith.

See you in the morning, Harry.

Off the island: Sadly, Harry Smith's path won't cross with that of legal secretary Ghandia Johnson. The "Denver Diva" was featured on The Early Show last Friday -- the morning after she became the fourth person to be kicked off Survivor: Thailand.

Earlier in the week, a whopping 30.1 percent of the people responding to a CBS poll had picked Johnson as the Survivor most deserving of the boot -- despite the peaceful ways of her namesake, Mahatma Gandhi. "You can play the game or the game can play you," Johnson told Julie Chen. (Chen is the sole member of The Early Show's current cast to survive the shakeup.) "I got played. And I played myself, too."

She's now playing herself all over town, where she's the mother of two.

Rocky Mountain guy: The fifth anniversary of John Denver's death passed almost unnoticed in the city whose name he adopted rather than hang on to his bland, original moniker, Henry Deutschendorf.

But the day got plenty of attention in Aspen, Denver's longtime residence and home of the Windstar Foundation, the environmental-education organization that he co-founded 25 years ago with aikido master Tom Crum. On Sunday, the foundation unveiled a more-than-life-sized bronze statue of the singer, guitar dangling down his back and eagle perched on his left forearm.

"When approached with the idea of this remembrance to John Denver for the Windstar land," writes sculptress Sue DiCicco in her artist's statement, "I began to think of all he meant to all of us and incorporate that into a single idea and image. I went to a quiet place. I popped Windsong into the CD player. I knew where to start looking. I walked a quiet road. The vision came. This was the beginning stage of the 'Spirit'...

"First and foremost, when thinking of John's role at Windstar, his love of nature and the world around us was paramount. To express this, I placed an eagle in the forefront, a symbol John used often in the imagery he created with his music, to represent his love of nature and care for our planet. His music, ever present, creates the backbone, in the form of his favorite Taylor guitar, strapped to his back. Reaching for the skies. Ready to take flight."

Of course, Denver had already achieved liftoff when the experimental plane he'd just purchased crashed off the California coast on October 12, 1997.

To pay for the sculpture's Snowmass installation, the foundation is accepting donations (DiCicco gave her time) and selling off 200 Spirit bronzes, each 24 inches and a paltry $6,000.

Post-Columbus Day fireworks: Given the potential for disruption during last Saturday's dueling demonstrations -- the Columbus Day parade and the Four Directions/All Nations march -- Denver officials made certain that the boys (and girls) in blue were out in force, with over 600 on hand in downtown Denver.

By the time the sun set that day, the Denver Police Department had arrested a grand total of seven people (not including Chuck Green; see page 24), with no reports of violence.

The war of words didn't end there, however. On Monday, the DPD released photographs of potentially dangerous objects discovered by authorities along the parade routes of both the Four Directions march and the Italian-backed stroll, objects ranging from what appeared to be Baggies of paint to what were described by police as mustard-gas bombs. DPD officials later backed off the B-word, downgrading the devices from bombs to mere firecrackers -- "nothing to do with commercial or government type" mustard gas, according to one police spokesman.

Still, parade organizer George Vendegnia says that while he felt "very safe," there was the specter of violence -- including a death threat to U.S. Representative Tom Tancredo. But Tancredo marched anyway, right alongside Vendegnia, and there weren't any problems aside from "hearing insults and people giving us the finger," Vendegnia says.

That shouldn't have been a surprise, responds Mark Cohen, an organizer of the Four Directions/All Nations march, which preceded the Columbus Day parade and ended up with about 1,500 participants converging on the Capitol.

"There never has been any violence. That's a media misconception," Cohen says. "Two years ago, we blocked the parade, but that was done peacefully."

As for any contraband that may have been discovered along the parade routes, Cohen doubts it came from protesters. "It may have been planted by organizers from the Columbus Day parade, for all I know," he says. The seven people arrested are all out on bail, he notes, adding that any attempts to prosecute them "would be a major waste of time and money."

Both sides agree on one thing, however: They're prepared to do it all over again next Columbus Day.

Cohen's group held a postmortem on the event this week, and "we're already planning for next year," he says.

As for the Italian-Americans: "We'll march for the next 200 years," Vendegnia promises.

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