On West Evans Avenue, in a sparse, industrial area, one past-its-prime nightclub transformed itself into a psychedelic scene with the opening of The Family Dog in 1967. The concert venue, a satellite of San Francisco’s Family Dog, was a place where burgeoning hippie Denverites could hobnob with Jim Morrison and Janis Joplin. The music was loud; the visual spectacle, louder. Yet hardly anyone today knows what happened during The Dog’s 10 months in operation, or its legacy.
Denver native Dan Obarski and University of Denver Art History professor Scott Montgomery sought to change that.
The Tale of the Dog documentary, now streaming on various platforms, wrangled musicians, employees, concert-goers, light and poster artists to help bring the long-forgotten venue to life. (Barry Fey, who brought The Dog to Denver and became a major music promoter, had a heavy hand in making Red Rocks Amphitheatre a premiere stage.) Those top-billing musicians included Otis Redding, Jimi Hendrix, Captain Beefheart & His Magic Band … the list goes on. So, 5280 spoke with Montgomery and Obarski to elaborate on the lasting nostalgia of The Dog.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
5280: Corky Siegel, who performed at The Family Dog with the Siegel–Schwall Band, likened the place to Alice’s Wonderland. What made the place so fantastical to you that it must be revisited today?
Scott Montgomery: The whole environment; there was nothing like it. It was happening in San Francisco more than anywhere else, but Denver had its pocket. We both think it sparked Denver’s shift of identity. They were bringing in what we now call the “pantheon of classic rock and roll.” It was the new stuff that was in the process of changing popular music.
Dan Obarski: It was the best combination of the art components of that era with the light show and the posters and the music, and the positivity and optimism at that time.
The posters are apparently the clearest physical evidence of The Dog. How did knowing that shape the way you represented the place?
Scott: We knew that there wasn’t much record. The place to get [the story] was in interviews. It’s amazing how many people said, “It all started with The Dog,” whether it’s music or the coalescing around the drug scene.
Dan: In the interviews, they were coming out of themselves trying to tell the story. It was as revelatory for you as it was for us.
Scott, you’ve noted that the posters are valuable and famous, with showings at the Louvre and Denver Art Museum. Can you pick one out and explain why this art is significant?
Scott: The one that we don’t talk about that much is that Alfred E. Neuman one. It’s an interesting poster because it has Neuman between a mushroom and a mushroom cloud. It’s puckish but provocative. That is the choice that they saw themselves presented with: the psychedelic culture or the war culture.
Denver’s Family Dog requested a 500-person permit, but it held 1,200. The Grateful Dead’s love-in concert at City Park asked for a permit for 30-plus people, yet 5,000 attended. Was this expected? Who knew it would blow up like this?
Dan: Barry Fey was a known gambler, which made him good and made him bad. Booking shows at DU, he must have seen enough. And then to have the chutzpah to go out to Chet Helms of all people.
[Editor’s note: Helms is a famous music promoter and known as the father of San Francisco’s “Summer of Love” in 1967.]
I don’t know whether he expected it, but he gambled on it.
Scott: And then the other [folks involved] were not so much businessmen as they were hippies, for lack of a better way to put it. I think they were just looking for an experience and put it together as naively and the best they could. The glorious naivete. I think it’s the same thing that got this film made. If Dan and I had any clue what it would entail, the film wouldn’t have been made.
Dan talks about “family” in the name of the venue and how patrons learned their values there. What’s an example of the love, peace, and community at play?
Dan: On September 8 and 9, 2017, it was the 50th anniversary of the opening of The Dog to the day, and we’re right in the middle of this. We said, “Let’s reunite The Family Dog.” There were 90 people there; and these are 70-, maybe some 80-year-olds. People came from around the country to a music venue 50 years later, talking about how much The Family Dog meant to them and how it changed their lives.
But the context of Denver’s mainstream at the time viewed family values perhaps … differently, right?
Scott: The whole phenomenon was “freaks versus straights,” that’s how they called it back then; straight people were something different back then, they were non-turned-on people. All of the so-called freaks I think felt validated by not being the oddball out. It was a support network in a time of change.