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View from the Summit
by Catherine Cunningham : Editor, Terrain.org

Perfect Sights, Perfect Sounds: Redrock in Review

  
Night concert at Red Rocks Amphitheater. Photo courtesy City and County of Denver.It was a night hardly suited to an outdoor concert. The sky was the color of jagged slate and the air sluggish with a bone-chilling coldness. Rain came down in alternating protests of rain and spit. I swore under my breath, attempting over and over to zip my rain jacket with numbed hands. I’d been to this place once before, not a concert night but just to check it out, having just moved to the area. Red Rocks Amphitheatre is a musical legend and a geologic wonder.

The area now known as Red Rocks Park & Amphitheatre is thought to have begun forming some 70 to 80 million years ago, well before Creation, through a phenomenon called “orogeny” or “mountain building.” Apparently, when Mother Earth built mountains in the olden days, one technique she used was to push giant slabs of dirt and rock (or entire continents) together. Since both slabs couldn’t occupy the same space, something had to give, which meant one slab had to buckle up or slip over top of the other. This makes perfect sense when one considers the physical effects of pushing the edges of a completed puzzle or two stacks of playing cards together hard enough to see them buckle.

The result in most locations is remarkable, often awe-inspiring. At Red Rocks, the deep red-brown sandstone monoliths jut from the earth at magnificent angles. These formations rise 300 feet, making the perfect goalposts for a Superbowl of giants.

Concert-goers in front of Red Rock's Creation Rock. Photo courtesy City and County of Denver.The vision for an amphitheater was borne of the entrepreneurial spirit of John Brisben Walker. Among an extensive list of pursuits, successes, and failures, Walker served in the military, ran for Congress, made and lost fortunes in real estate, entertainment, media, and automobile manufacturing. In 1905, he reportedly sold Cosmopolitan magazine to the Hearst Corporation for $1 million.

In the early 1900s, he developed the Red Rocks area and produced a number of concerts on a platform stage. The Town of Morrison historic website notes that he built roads to Red Rocks, as well as a teahouse, trails, and even a cog railway to the top of Morrison Mountain, the longest in the world for its day. To get it started, “the famed opera diva Mary Garden, accompanied by Ethel on the violin, sang in the Red Rocks natural amphitheater and pronounced it ‘acoustically perfect.’” Many other concerts by the day's famous musicians and performers have since followed.

According to Colorado Mountain City and Mountain Views, Walker joined forces with other prominent leaders in the Denver area to promote tourism through the proposed “Denver Mountain Parks” system in Jefferson and Clear Creek Counties. Their plan included a well-organized, state-of-the-art campaign to approve a one-half mil levy to finance the parks. Denver voters approved the tax in May 1912. The City and County acquired Red Rocks Park under the Denver Mountain Parks system in 1927 for $54,133.

Denver architect Burnham Hoyt designed a new amphitheater. After his plans were completed, Denver Mountain Parks built the venue with the labors of the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) and the Work Progress Administration (WPA). Both programs were part of the “New Deal” under President Franklin D. Roosevelt to provide economic support and reform to the United States during the Great Depression. The WPA workers were primarily heads of households, including women whose average age was 40 years. The CCC tapped into young, unemployed men to work on conservation projects in mostly rural areas. The amphitheater took about 12 years to complete. Since then, some of the world’s most noteworthy performers and performances have taken the stage.

Rock Rock's Shiprock and foothills in the distance. Photo courtesy City and County of Denver.One of the recommendations for attending concerts at Red Rocks is to come prepared for all types of weather, as the show must go on. My dark and stormy night fit well into this guideline; despite my own aversion to the cold and rain. At the same time, however, I was excited to see the artist, Neil Young.

It was the late 1980s and I’d only been to a handful of concerts. At the time I had little money for such big-ticket performers, and even littler respect for the up-and-coming Ticketmaster. But for Neil Young, I would sacrifice. It was worth it.

One feature of the evening’s rain was that it deterred some from attending the show, giving a more intimate feel. The audience was giddy with anticipation. Young’s acoustic sets were flawless, beautiful—even with their pauses for him to warm his fingers at the heater. It was one of the most inspired concerts I’ve seen, perhaps due to the enchantment of the location. The setting and the artist made magic together.

It has now been years since enjoying a concert at such a large venue. If I were not a curmudgeon about crowds and Ticketmaster, I would surely spend more of my time and money at the amphitheater. In the meantime, I happily support my local, unknown artists at my local, unknown venues. I figure I’m grooming them for bigger and better days—and perhaps a performance at the amazing Red Rocks Park & Amphitheatre.

  

Catherine Cunningham is an environmental specialist with the U.S. Department of Energy's Western Area Power Administration, a federal agency responsible for marketing hydroelectricity produced at large dams throughout the West. She is also a planning commissioner for her mountain town.
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All photos courtesy City and County of Denver.

 
     
    
  
 
     
    
  
 
   

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