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Denver, Colorado, USA. The name itself evokes images of rugged gold miners and rough-hewn saloons and a Wild West history replete with pioneers and rogues and heroes. All of which is accurate, of course.
But peel back the layers of cliché and you’ll find the true Denver, a city that in a brief 150 years has written its own rich, varied—and often paradoxical—historical narrative. It’s a city in which gilded economic booms gave way to crushing busts, with each ensuing upturn inviting brilliant entrepreneurs and conniving hustlers to come to the shadow of the Rockies seeking newfound riches. It’s a city that has served as a cradle of equal-rights efforts for Latinos and African-Americans yet once was run by a friend of the Ku Klux Klan. It’s a city that, in 1993, hosted a once-in-a-lifetime, peace-themed papal visit, yet it’s also been known for settling its disputes—racial, territorial, economic—with whatever weapon the era favored, from fists to pipe bombs. And it’s a city of contradictory tastes: In equal measure and with unquenchable gusto, Denverites have always loved their saloons and churches, cowboy boots and business suits, cultural icons and sports gods.
To celebrate this history, 5280 asked several esteemed writers—some with deep roots in Colorado, others who are more recent transplants—to weigh in on how the city’s past and present have influenced their own lives.
Mountain Passage By Janis Hallowell
Going “Native” With A Kayak By Maximillian Potter
An Urban Perspective By Laura Pritchett
Birth of the Cool By Eli Gottlieb
Close Encounters By Andrew Corsello
Yesterday’s News By J.R. Moehringer
Read the full 150th anniversary package in the November 2008 issue of 5280 magazine.
By Janis Hallowell
My grandfather worked on the railroad crew that built the Moffat Tunnel 30 years before I was born. I have a picture of him there, in 1927, standing at the west portal in the snow with five other guys and a boxcar. My grandfather is a young man, but his wrinkles are already deep from squinting into the bright sun. In that world of white the only dark objects are the train and the men. Their task was to fulfill David H. Moffat’s dream of punching a tunnel through six miles of rock, allowing the railroad to pass under, rather than hauling itself over, the Continental Divide.
Moffat was a visionary in a time when trains were synonymous with civilization. He knew that Denver, landlocked, with its back to 14,000-foot mountains, needed a tunnel to connect the city to the world. He didn’t live to see his tunnel completed. My grandfather did.
Consider the nature of tunnels. A tunnel connects here to there. It provides passage through or under a geological impediment, often a mountain. It becomes a conduit through which natural resources, people, trade, and information pass. In the case of the Moffat Tunnel, a lot of money was made and the city grew, but progress has had its price. Prosperity came, but small towns, farms, ecosystems, and species were lost. The connectedness brought a paradoxical disconnect, too.
Denver, always a city of boom or bust, boomed loud and long starting in the late 1950s, around the time I was born. My parents moved us to Littleton in the first wave of houses that ate up the farms and grasslands. They believed that in the suburbs we would be safe and have access to nature without giving up any of the city’s benefits, but I remember walking to school and watching with dread as the brown cloud over the city crept closer to us. By the time I was in high school, we were inside of it.
Still, the new prosperity allowed us to buy a cabin in the mountains near Dillon. Up there, my sister and I rode, fished, camped, and skied in country that was wild, at least by comparison to Littleton.
At that time there weren’t any tunnels for cars under the Continental Divide. So, going to the cabin meant crossing Loveland Pass, about 25 miles south of the Moffat Tunnel as the crow flies. We loved each crossing because we left Littleton, made the trek up into the airless otherworld of 12,000 feet, and drove down the other side into our mountain world. Sometimes the weather at the top closed the pass and we’d have to turn around and go home. Even when it was open there was no guarantee. It could be snowing in Denver and sunny on the pass, or T-shirt-and-shorts weather on the east side and a blizzard on top.
As we transformed from girls into young women, my sister and I spent more time at the cabin, often without parents. One time, coming home on a Sunday night in a snowstorm, my sister driving, the headlights cut out as we reached the summit. In her sixteen-and-a-half-year-old wisdom she decided I should sit on the hood of the Jeep and hold the flashlight. So, out I went in my powder-blue Gerry jacket and straddled the hood ornament to hold the light. It was darker and quieter than I could have imagined. Snow swirled around me as we climbed. I floated past the high peaks, holding my light like some phantom rodeo queen. It was foolish, but glorious. I was 14 and immortal, and that night I was one with my mountains.
Two years later my sister moved away from home, and a second tunnel, the Eisenhower Tunnel, went through, making Loveland Pass a novelty. Everybody stopped taking the winding road over the Divide in favor of the efficient tunnel. Within weeks our mountains changed. Fat new highways brought hordes of tourist skiers and condos. The meadows where we rode and fished? Sold for hotels and gas stations.
Partly because of the changes the tunnel brought, I started staying home alone while my parents went to the cabin on weekends. I was home when the call that my grandfather was dying came, just after midnight on a Sunday. I phoned my parents at the cabin. “We’ll be there in no time,” my father said.
Big snowflakes were beginning to fall when I got to the nursing home. My grandfather was small and curled like a newborn; alive though not awake. I took his bony hand and felt his whispery pulse. I knew my parents were probably in the Eisenhower Tunnel at that very moment, speeding to get home in time. But even so, my grandfather didn’t wait for them. After moments of nearly no pulse at all, I felt his blood surge through his veins and then he was gone.
The nurse came in and turned out the lights. I sat with my grandfather in the dark and waited for my parents. It was utterly quiet. Outside, the snow was falling harder and faster, swirling furiously in the parking lot lights. I felt a floating calm, a fierce pride, like my hood ornament ride over Loveland, to have been alone with him as he passed.
And I wondered, was it was clear and bright up there on the Divide?
Going “Native” With A Kayak
By Maximillian Potter
For a while now I’ve been banging my head on a goddamned kayak. A bright-blue, 14-foot-long thing suspended from the garage ceiling on a pulley system that was designed—so my wife has me believing—specifically to support a kayak. When I first saw the boat dangling from the rafters I was reminded of being a kid in the neighborhood seafood restaurant, staring bewildered at a monstrous fake swordfish; of having a similar reaction, which is to say, a mixture of neat! and why? Suspended on the rigging, the kayak is high enough that it’s out of sight yet low enough that it can be dangerous to forget. Kayaks being kayaks, its bow and stern are pointy and hard and, trust me, leave a mark.
I never dreamed I’d own a kayak. Then again, I never imagined I’d have any of the “gear” that fills my family’s garage. There’s the tent that, when opened properly (meaning by someone else), resembles a futuristic igloo; sleeping bags that offer varying degrees of cold-protection (we’re covered if we end up in Antarctica); a propane grill I would have bet was a giant waffle iron; pots and utensils made to travel in a backpack; even a device that looks like a metal flyswatter, used to make toast—one slice at a time!—over a campfire. All of this outdoorsy paraphernalia can be packed in (and on) our SUV, what with its roof-mounted kayak rack and cargo carrier. And on more than one occasion, after I’ve cracked my head on the kayak—bow, stern, your guess is as good as mine—I’ve stood in the garage rubbing my forehead, looking around, and thought, Denver has done this to me.
Like so many Denver residents, I’m a transplant. I moved to the city almost five years ago, with my wife and two young sons, from Philadelphia, my hometown. Together, my wife and I have previously lived in Chicago and Los Angeles. We picked up some athletic-type stuff in those towns, too. In Chicago, we bought bicycles. Doesn’t biking along Lake Michigan sound romantic? In Los Angeles, we got some Rollerblades. One Memorial Day we bladed by President Ronald Reagan and Nancy on the Venice Beach Strand. In Philadelphia, I reluctantly bought a cheap set of golf clubs. A friend liked to play beer-a-hole. But what I’ve come to believe since we’ve moved to Denver is that the stuff we bought before we got here, we chose to buy—as in, Eh, why not? Whereas the kayak and the rest of the supplies bought here (at the REI mother ship), well, we need it.
Live in Chicago and you’re from Chi-Town. Los Angeles is L.A., baby. In my hometown, you say you’re from Philly. To be from Denver, however, is to be from Colorado, and to be from Colorado is to be a “Native.” When I first got here I thought it was a pompous, melodramatic descriptive—Rocky Mountain hippie hype. On the T-shirts and bumper stickers. Aren’t American Indians the only true natives? I figured Denverites went with “Native” because Denverite sounds so uncool, like something that fell off the periodic table of elements. But now I get it. People born in Denver proudly claim Native status as it conveys they are of the mountains and all that goes along with them. The word “Native” communicates that they enjoy and, dare I say it, commune with all the natural beauty of the Front Range.
Walt Whitman, an East Coaster himself, didn’t spend much time in Denver, but the poetic wanderer passed through enough to understand the essence of Native. In his poem “Pioneers! O Pioneers!,” he wrote,
Colorado men are we,
From the peaks gigantic, from the great sierras and the high plateaus,
From the mine and from the gully, from the hunting trail we come,
Pioneers! O pioneers!
Denverites are pioneers who explore, and exploring requires gear, stuff. I’m not a “Native,” I know. Outdoor activity for me, back in Philly, was throwing sneakers on a telephone wire, cranking open a fire hydrant, and maybe hitting the Wiffle ball. A kayak was something Hiawatha used. Colorado was Boulder. Mork & Mindy. John Denver’s “Rocky Mountain High.” And when we first arrived in Denver I was content to sit on my front step in Platt Park and look at the peaks of the Rocky Mountains. I had no hankering to live like a “Native.” But those peaks and lakes and trails have pulled my wife and two young sons to them. My sons in particular. At six and seven years old, they were not born here, but after five years, try telling them that.
A few weekends ago, we loaded the gear into the SUV and drove up to Steamboat Lake. My wife and two boys had gone camping on their own before, but this was our first time all together. We fished, slept in the igloo tent, made some toast one piece at a time, and my wife took the boys for a few kayak rides. The boys dove from the bow, or maybe it was the stern, into the lake. At night, after the kids were in bed, we stayed up and drank beer and looked at the stars. And when we returned home, we unloaded the car and I helped rehang the kayak in the garage.
An Urban Perspective
By Laura Pritchett
A few days ago, I drove to Denver for a reading at a library, although I have sworn repeatedly, on a stack of my favorite books, that I would not ever, ever drive to Denver again for said events. I have two reasons for this: One, as any author knows (except those really famous sorts), I’m as likely as not to be met by a fairly empty room—a few librarians and patrons, and maybe two or three people who have actually read my book and liked it (or not liked it, and want to come tell me the various reasons why).
Reason number two: The long drive down rarely makes that empty-room scenario worth it. And true to form, here’s how it went: I drove 160 miles in my old Subaru on my own dime, in bumper-to-bumper traffic. On the way home it poured rain, thus necessitating slow and white-knuckled driving.
The only saving grace was that my father went along. He’s aging and we’re both busy, and this was a time to talk uninterrupted, or rather, it was a time for me to listen—and I was glad to do so, especially about his early days in Denver. On the drive down, he talked about how small Denver was then, about his first house, and about his time at the Department of Agriculture and his rather fascinating genetic studies of bull’s scrotal circumferences and cattle fertility rates. On the way home he was tired, and so he started singing and whistling old tunes. Oh, I wish I was an apple, an apple on a tree, and every time Cindy came along, she’d take a bite of me….
Which not only calmed me during the terror of driving in pouring rain, but also made me reminisce about my early days in Denver. And I was surprised by what I discovered—first one layer of memories, and then another, more important, layer underneath.
By the time I was born, my parents were living on a ranch in northern Colorado, and we went to Denver about once a year. For me, as a kid, Denver was impossibly large, a confusing and strange land that contained, thankfully, 1) Casa Bonita, 2) the National Western Stock Show, 3) the airport, and 4) the zoo, in that order of importance and charm. I’m sorry to say that it contained those elements because I know this only represents the cartoonish, clichéd Denver. But as a kid, it’s what I had.
But wait, no, there was more, wasn’t there? As I drove in the slanting, crazy rain with semi-trucks roaring past, I realized that Denver had actually been quite a teacher. But not the kind who lectures quietly. No, Denver was my first big city, the one that made me feel embarrassed and enlightened at once—like the proverbial babysitter who was willing to teach me how to cuss and put on makeup. When you grow up among cows and spend summer days reading in the hayloft, Denver, even back in the ’70s, was akin to visiting a foreign country. Where else do divers jump from rocks into pools of water while you’re eating yet another sopaipilla?
But there was more to it than that. It was from the window of the family van that I saw prostitutes and drug dealers on the way up Colfax to get to the pink restaurant. My brothers noticed too, and would elbow me in the ribs. “Girls don’t look like that back home,” they offered, summarizing the situation thoroughly.
I remember the sickening, sudden feeling of learning something about my own naïve and ridiculous situation. “Oh,” I remember thinking. “That’s what a black person looks like.” I craned my head around to look back at a young black girl my age, holding her father’s hand.
Framed by the van windows, I saw my first wealth: the gold dome on the Capitol, the skyscrapers, the fancy cars and houses that signaled money far beyond my scope of experience. I saw my first homeless person. And ramshackle houses and dilapidated cars. I saw overpasses and underpasses and buildings that reached into the sky. It was my first lesson in the decibels of noise, the smells of city grime, the fear that comes with being in uncertain circumstances.
“Look,” my mom or dad would say, “did you see that?” By which they meant: I want you to grow up and see the whole world, not just the one you call home. I do not wish to imply that I—or my family—was hick-like dumb. I grew up in a place that had the smooth, calm beauty of a landscape painting, but it was not devoid of lessons: I learned the things that are required of such a life, such as how to raise goats, tend goats, milk goats, make goat cheese, and then, finally, eat said goat cheese with a smile on my face. But what my parents were trying to do with our city forays, I now realize, was give us some depth—and that is why my memories are painfully bright, sharp-edged, and loud. Denver stands out quite starkly in my mind.
As we age, surely the maps in our brains develop rapidly as soon as we are able to imagine aerial re-creations of a place, or as soon as we are able to take on the challenge of figuring out the mazes and corridors of unfamiliar places. As an example, I recently moved back to my hometown, which is still in the country, still in a rural, mostly white, mid-middle-class place. I wanted to raise my kids here—I wanted them to learn more about making goat cheese than the symphony. That is the hard choice that I made. The house we moved into was built in the ’70s and later added onto in all sorts of crazy directions. When we moved in, I could see my children’s confusion. In one part of the house, they still got lost: Is this the way to the bathroom? Mommy, there’s a bedroom back here!
Watching them, I newly remembered that feeling of trying to unravel a place. Of that myopia that comes from inexperience and smallness. A mild confusion at the mazes of the world. At such a young age, these children could not see the floor plan as I could, from an aerial point of view, with a mind that categorizes and places things in order.
But it will come. To help them on their way, I bring them to the city.
On our three or four trips to Denver each year, I take them, I am very, very sorry to admit to you, to 1) Casa Bonita, 2) the National Western Stock Show, 3) the new airport, and 4) the zoo. Also, they have seen their first dinosaur bones at the Museum of Nature and Science and taken their first roller-coaster ride at Elitch Gardens, and soon they will be old enough for the symphony or a full-fledged play, and later they will be able to wander and perhaps become acquainted with the real Denver.
“This place is kinda weird,” my son declared on a recent trip, not liking the uncomfortable feeling that comes with being in new and unfamiliar territory. He placed his hands over his ears, and then plugged his nose, trying to cover both sensory inputs at once.
“Yeah, and mama? There’s a man sleeping on the sidewalk,” my daughter said, in a worried voice. “Should we go get him?” She is exactly the same age as I was in my earliest memories of Denver, being surprised by the very same thing, and the look on her face brings back a startling-clear recollection of the feelings my heart housed way back when. What the heck, she’s thinking, is that all about?
When we go to Denver, I often find myself saying, “Look,” meaning the same thing my parents meant: Do you feel the vibe and the energy? Do you feel how strange and spectacular it is?
That is why, during my drive home the other night with my father, who still sat awake (bless him, because it was nearly midnight), I thanked him.
“For what?” he mumbled sleepily.
“Oh, I don’t know. For coming with me here.” I think I meant: for showing me the negative space in what has become the painting of my life. I could not be so fully in love without being in the world completely, and I could not understand who I am without understanding where I come from and who I could be—or who I’m not.
“Oh, you bet,” he answered, good-naturedly. “But it’ll be good to get home.”
Birth of the Cool
By Eli Gottlieb
Certain cities are first met in books, and the encounter, when a happy one, can produce a visual picture in the mind so distinct it eclipses the first moment of glimpsing the city with naked eyes. I first met Denver, fatally and irrevocably, at the tender age of 15, in Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, and the love affair was on. The million-mile-an-hour music of the writing, the remoteness of the settings, and the bop spontaneity and lawlessness of the characters all combined to draw me in. But to a teenager, the book was also a bible of behavioral cool, and my belief was that if I aped the speech patterns and dress of the protagonists with enough fervor I’d somehow find a way out of my own (self-pitying, age-specific) unhappiness.
Meanwhile, the hipness of the novel slowly wound itself around the axis of Denver, which was one of the main venues where the action took place, and in the process the city began to acquire visual mass in my mind. I saw its streets; I saw the looks of its people. I eventually came to imagine it as a giant Xanadu of a sort, lying on a pedestal high above the Plains. Set apart from the gritty reality of Manhattan, where both my parents and I had been born, Denver was an exotic birdcage of a place yanked halfway to the heavens and filled with the plumage of angel-eyed hipsters, young girls in tight T-shirts or angora sweaters, big cars driven dexterously by half-drunk madmen, jazz like a kind of cosmic radiation available for the asking, and blizzards of spontaneous chat, whisper, and song.
I wanted to go there, but I was afraid. Denver gave me performance anxiety. I took New York’s incredible towers and human concentrations for granted. But Denver was another story entirely. The city apparently had a lock on everything suave, which was precisely what I craved most. My friends wore plaid shirts; they were interested in math problems and politics; they played Chopin on the cello, for God’s sake. How could any of them possibly compete with a guy like Neal Cassady, whose bona fides included reform school, 10,000 women, a thinly fictionalized portrayal of himself as Dean Moriarty in On the Road, and, most of all, a childhood passed in Denver, USA?
Over the years, and before actually clapping eyes on it, the image of Denver as a magical metropolis remained alive in my head. Finally, in 1997, well after the disappearance of my teenage angst, I arrived here on a book tour. What I couldn’t tell anybody, as I did the rounds of radio interviews and press events, was that I was secretly surprised to see how normal and predictable Denver turned out to be. Yes, I was somewhat taken aback by the Stetsons and cowboy boots, which to my Easterner’s eyes seemed so cornpone and affectedly retro they made me laugh. Yes, I noticed the slightly solar aspect that everyone had, as if they were all a bit stoned on sunlight and long views, and, for that, unsettlingly cheery. And I noticed, too, that Boulder, which I visited at the time, struck me as having such excessively groomed streets and inhabitants that it seemed more a kind of mammoth swim club than a city. What I couldn’t tell anybody, as I made my authorial rounds, was that I was secretly heartbroken to find that there was no magical soap bubble of hip floating over the street corners of Denver; no civic monopoly on cool. It was a town like any other, where people raised their kids, were late to work, and roared their lungs out yearly for the home team.
What I was missing, of course, was the enchantment of childhood itself. I was experiencing a cognate version of that which happens to people who visit their grade schools as adults and find the booming halls and gigantic spaces of memory shrunk to a modest brick building with construction-paper cutouts on the walls. Denver for me will always be bound up with that one magical book that lied to the reader the way all good novels do. There never was a city quite like the one Kerouac described; it was only, alas, to be found within his pages.
In recent times, I’ve made a home for myself in Boulder; I’ve put down roots and am raising a family. The luxe amenities of a city I found slightly absurd 10 years ago now seem merely part of my daily expectations. I’ve never been happier, in certain ways, and yet the truth of the old maxim remains: You can’t go home again. You can find bits and pieces of it in the remembered glow of books and films from childhood, and in the cherishing of memories and what they do to you. But part of the larger irony seems to be that if you can’t go home again it doesn’t keep you from trying, your whole life long, to do just that.
By Andrew Corsello
I miss the Cooper Theatre. In the cosmology of my Denver childhood the place stood out like a lodestar. In part this was simply because it was Glendale’s most defining feature, as otherworldly in its own way as the Sleeper House atop Genesee Mountain. Important things, wonderful and terrible things, happened to me at the Cooper. What was it Obi-Wan said to Vader on the first of June 1977—a day that changed my life forever (and also my 10th birthday)? If you strike me down, I shall become more powerful than you could possibly imagine. So it went with the Cooper: struck down in 1994—at the portentous age of 33, no less—to make way for a turd of a building housing a Barnes & Noble, but all the more mythic in recollection as a result, all the more a source I turn to now when searching for clues to my past selves.
Am I alone in this? Was I the only kid in Denver who, throughout the 1970s, regarded the Cooper as a knowing presence, quietly ahum with energy, waiting and watching, sending me messages? I cannot imagine I was. It was Richard Crowther’s architecture—by itself, even apart from the experience of seeing movies at the Cooper—that hypnotized me. The way the exterior, a cylindrical burnt-orange beacon set upon a plinth of black brick, aligned with the interior: the screen, with its impossibly deep 146 degrees of arc, and the correspondingly curved rows of cushioned seats. Every element seemed lean and purposeful and attuned to every other element, all of them working to create an organic whole. A gigantic whole that, at least to a child, seemed as far beyond scale and grasp as the Sphinx or the Hoover Dam.
Yet something in Crowther’s design—his original blueprints now reside in the Denver Public Library’s Special Collection Department—made the Cooper’s gigantism seem horizontal and unheavy, even mobile. Stepping into the ovoid enormity of that lobby, I never felt I was entering the Cooper so much as boarding it. It almost goes without saying that the technical superiority of the theater—the mind-blowing seven-track discrete directional surround-sound system; the perforated ceilings that extinguished the noise of the building’s ventilation equipment—augmented this feeling of being aboard. Years before the mind-bending visual that opened Star Wars lit up the Cooper’s 105-foot-wide screen—and introduced us to the notion that spaceships could be the size of ocean liners—I used to daydream that the theater was flight-worthy, capable of sustaining a large human population in Earth’s orbit for decades should the planet be rendered uninhabitable by nuclear Armageddon. Maybe other kids my age dealt with the Soviet scare…differently?
Maybe. But this cannot be disputed: the sensual wrap-around of the Cooper was never more overwhelming, more deliriously disorienting, than it was the summer night that city-sized, rhinestone-studded football materialized over Devils Tower in Wyoming. The alien ship in Close Encounters of the Third Kind and the Cooper Theatre—similar enough in their structures and effects that they could plausibly have descended from a common ancestor—presented a relativity question: Which was moving and which was standing still?
You think I’m romanticizing, don’t you? You think that today’s stadium-style theaters with their digital technologies surely surpass whatever the Cooper brought? Then I tell you that you are discounting what Crowther brought. The vast planes of glass facing Colorado Boulevard and the warmth they brought to the lobby. The cool mahoganies and ochres of the inside fixtures. The ethereal neon illuminations. The dark gold latticework half-enshrouding the elevated smoking lounges (in the theater, like opera boxes!) on either side. The place was groovy—not self-consciously, but genuinely.
You never felt at the Cooper, as you do at today’s Cineplexes, that access and egress had been engineered to slam you face-first into the concessions stand. Popcorn wasn’t a “loss leader” at the Cooper; it was simply…there for you if you desired it. Subtly, surely, the generosity of Crowther’s space removed you from the banality of commerce, from yourself, from gravity—and it informed the way you absorbed what was on the screen.
Being at the Coop—just being there, regardless of what was showing—was a form of transport. A flick could be pretty piss poor and still register, almost in a physical sense, as a moving experience. It was almost impossible to disengage from a movie at the Cooper, to be a mere spectator. You felt implicated in what you witnessed. Hell, if you sat in the first 15 rows, once those red felt drapes parted and the previews began, you were literally inside the curved embrace of that Cinerama screen: the sparks from James Caan’s torch dazzling not just in front of you but in your peripherals and behind you as he breached that safe in Thief; the blizzard of stars encircling…no, devouring your head as the Millennium Falcon escaped the surly bonds of Tatooine to surpass the speed of light….
Gotta say it now: Goddamn!
The membrane separating first and third person was particularly thin when it came to action and horror. Thanks to the Cooper, Alien didn’t scare me; it scarred me. Alien, a “scary” movie? Please. Rapacious, more like. I attended with another boy, someone I will not name, someone who remains close to me (because of, not despite, our Alien abduction at the Coop). When that evil jellied squid pumped its fleshly funnel down John Hurt’s throat in order to…plant its seed, this boy (and I, and every other soul present) began clutching our stomachs. Low moans filled the theater. Soon enough that seed came to term. As the aptly named Hurt bayed in pain, this boy began to whimper. Oh, no. Oh, no. Oh, no. And when the creature erupted from Hurt’s chest, spraying gore and squealing triumphantly, this boy promptly and thoroughly pissed himself. Then fled to the lobby with dozens of other patrons of all ages whose need for “transport” had been met, and then some. He remained through the closing credits.
That’s the thing: The lobby of the Cooper was always populated during the runs of scary movies. Not a surprise, given the undiluted, all-enveloping experience of seeing movies there. You needed to breathe, needed to see some light, needed to look out at the traffic on Colorado Boulevard for a few minutes in order to be reassured that this was reality, and that the horrors being unleashed back there, in the dark, were not. I myself spent a good portion of Jaws in the Cooper’s lobby. (That unholy soprano scream from Quint as the teeth of the beast pierced his chest and lungs.) I had lots of company. The year was 1975. The day was December 24. I was eight. Lord knows I love the man, but I gotta ask: Dad, dad, taking an eight-year-old to see an early evening showing of Jaws at the Cooper Theatre? On Christmas Eve? What the F?
My full recognition of what the Cooper was, it’s scale and meaning, came three years after it was razed to make way for an elegant piece of strip-mall architecture, and one year after Crowther died at the age of 96. I was in the balcony of the Ziegfeld in New York City—another truly great movie theater you don’t so much enter as board—for the 20th anniversary rerelease of Star Wars. The lights dimmed, the John Williams tantara ushered in the signature text (A long time ago…) and then there it was. The woman in the next seat, who later became my wife, tells me that a great cheer went up in the Ziegfeld as the triangular underside of that Imperial cruiser endlessly filled the screen.
At that moment I was back at my 10th birthday party, immersed in the movie that forever changed the landscape of my imagination, and at the theater that had formed not a small part of that landscape to begin with. Do you remember what you felt the moment that Imperial cruiser came into view? Us kids, we just started shrieking. Shrieking with disbelief and joy. Eight-hundred and fourteen seats in the Cooper Theatre, eight-hundred and fourteen kids and their parents: shrieking. Not all out. At least not at first.
What looked to be a couple hundred yards of spaceship had passed above us before the optical paradigm, the default of what the human eye was used to, was shattered. But then, as if cued by a conductor’s baton, the kids at the Cooper began cooing. Uuuuuuuuuuuhuhhhh…. Softly, then rising in volume, the vowel evolving into an aaaaaaaaaahhhhhhhhh! composed of one part panic, two parts exhilaration. The chorus kept rising in volume and pitch to an all-out eeeeeeeeeeeeEEEEEEEEEEEE!—an insane, glass-cracking peal of joy that crested just as the stern of the Imperial cruiser finally presented itself, blue flames thundering from its three engines, each as big around as Mile High Stadium.
Until that afternoon at the Ziegfeld in 1997, I hadn’t shed a tear since the summer of 1981. (A tennis match I choked away.) But I tell you, it was Pavlovian. From the instant the tip of that cruiser entered the frame: an explosion. I don’t pretend to know what it was. Not entirely. But I do know that it was largely about the Cooper and its place in my own symbology, and that a large part of what I was feeling was gratitude. As it is with lost love, so it was and is with the Cooper: the knowledge of what has been lost taking its true shape and commanding a full appreciation only after it is gone.
Strike me down now….
By J.R. Moehringer
Just after I started as a reporter at the Rocky Mountain News, 18 years ago this fall, a man walked into the newsroom leading a mountain lion on a leash. The man looked crazy, as only a man walking a mountain lion can. He asked to see the nature writer, so we all figured he was a flack for the museum or the zoo, pitching a story about mountain lions. But we didn’t dare ask the nature writer, whose nature was menacing. On a good day he made us nervous—now there was a mountain lion at his desk.
As the lion’s tail bobbed and twitched behind a row of computers, I crouched under my desk and dialed a friend in Manhattan, where I’d just spent three years as a copyboy for the New York Times. “How’s Denver?” my friend asked breezily. “There’s a mountain lion in the newsroom,” I said in a frantic whisper. My friend was irked. He thought I was playing him for a chump, pretending Denver was still an outpost for beaver trappers and Conestoga wagons.
But the Denver where I did my newspaper apprenticeship did have a boot in the past. Though the city had started to modernize, to widen its roads and air out the smell of horse urine from the LoDo stables, its newspapers still gave off a vague whiff of frontier. They had a rawboned looseness, an Old West tolerance for misfits, eccentrics, exiles, losers—and greenhorns. That’s why I fit right in. Not that I could articulate it at the time. I couldn’t articulate much at the time.
On my first day, wearing my charcoal-gray suit and wine-red necktie, I watched as editors and reporters went by wearing Rockmount shirts and cowboy boots and belt buckles as big as my face. I saw a reporter pacing and rehearsing his lede aloud, as though he were belting out a big number in Oklahoma! Evidently that was how he wrote on deadline—out loud. Coworkers dropped by my desk to say hello, then filled me in on the News’ wild, lawless history, including one editor-in-chief who had been a raging cocaine addict, snorting lines while OK’ing headlines. Leaving the News some nights, walking home to my unfurnished apartment in my fraying gray suit, I often asked myself: Where the hell am I?
But I was right where I was supposed to be. Samuel Butler wrote: “We are like billiard balls in a game played by unskillful players, continually being nearly sent into a pocket, but hardly ever getting right into one, except by a fluke.” At the News I was shot flush into a side pocket that was perfect for me. At 25, I thought what I needed was to learn how to write. Of course you never learn to write. You only have brief lulls where it hurts slightly less. What I really needed was to learn how to relax, and there was no newspaper more relaxed than the Rocky Mountain News of the early ’90s.
Shortly before I arrived the News reported that actor Lee Marvin had been spotted skiing in the Rockies. This must have come as a terrible shock to the Widow Marvin. And yet, no one at the News got fired. No one even got chewed out. I was shocked by the editors’ placid reaction. I was calmed.
I don’t mean to say mistakes didn’t matter. But the margin for error was wider at the News, and we luxuriated in that wideness. We didn’t give ourselves, or each other, ulcers. Time and again I’d hear a fellow reporter, after erring or writing something lifeless, say the following: “Ah well, some days the bear gets you.” I never once heard that phrase at the Times.
Somehow the man who rehearsed his ledes aloud became my mentor. Whenever we worked night cops together he’d take me to a dive on Federal Boulevard for a $4 steak dinner. I couldn’t believe there was still a place in America that served a $4 steak. I was suspicious at first. I questioned the provenance of the meat. But it was one tasty rib-eye, and it even came with a baked spud and a bowl of creamed spinach. After dinner we’d sometimes go for coffee or a beer and chat about writing.
Our conversation usually drifted to Damon Runyon, the most famous newspaperman ever to write for the News. My mentor was Runyon-besotted. He wore a fedora that I guessed was Runyonesque, and won eternal fame in the newsroom for a Runyonesque lede about a killer stalking Denver’s homeless: Life is tough enough on the streets without having to worry about some creep with a knife in his hand and midnight in his heart. Fun as it was to read, hearing my mentor say it aloud was better.
Runyon enjoyed drinking, enjoyed it immensely, but decided when still quite young to quit. Just like that he set down his drink and picked up his craft. If the man in the fedora was my mentor, Runyon was my role model. His ghost hovered and smiled when I was hungover on deadline, but he came closer, and patted my head, when I decided this hangover would be my last. I’d been at the News about six months when I made that decision, and it may have been the first real step I took toward learning how to relax.
If it wasn’t Runyon’s ghost at my elbow, it was William Byers, the Moses of the News, who trucked a used printing press from Omaha to Denver on a prairie schooner in April 1859. During a big spring snow he brought out the first copy of a six-column broadsheet, filled with items sure to interest the local whores, rustlers, ’59ers and Arapaho braves. (Everything I knew about Byers came from a lovely book, The First Hundred Years, by Robert L. Perkin, which still occupies a slot of honor on my bookshelf.) Byers busted his ass to get the first issue of the News on the street minutes before the rival Cherry Creek Pioneer, meaning the News was born in the midst of a newspaper war, and there has never been so much as a ceasefire since. The enemies have varied—the Republican, the Herald, the Times, the Post, the Internet—and a few have turned into quasi-allies. The war, however, has always been for the same elusive thing. Survival.
No one can say what will happen to newspapers in the next two or 10 years, but it doesn’t look good. A man or woman younger than 30 who reads a newspaper (besides the Onion) is harder to find on the streets of Denver than a ’59er. The sad thing is how much better the News is today than when I worked there. In the early ’90s, if you’d told the drinkers and scrofulous wackos gathered at the Press Club that the News would one day rack up Pulitzers and match the nation’s best newspapers on some of the biggest stories of the decade—JonBenét Ramsey, Columbine—they would have insisted you weren’t drunk enough and forced you to down another beer. Now it’s a fact, taken for granted—and still circulation keeps going down and down.
Diehards say newspapers will never disappear, they will simply vaporize onto the Internet. When the Internet isn’t blamed for killing journalism, it’s hailed as Journalism Heaven—all good newspapers will go there when they die. But even if newspapers rise up to that pearly ether, their transubstantiation will be a shame. They will be here, but not here. They will be as ghostly as Runyon and Byers.
I’ll miss them all, none more than the News. When the last blue newspaper box is gone from Denver, something precious, something primeval, will be lost, like the last crouton of gold panned from Cherry Creek. You might call me a Luddite, just as you might call it rank sentimentalism to have sensed Byers and Runyon at my side. But they were there; I felt connected to them. I was part of their frontier, and I have the clip to prove it.
In the mid-1800s more than 100 people gathered to watch boars lock horns in the middle of Denver’s dirt streets, and the News sent a reporter. Fast-forward 134 years: The city desk sent me to cover something called the Running of the Pigs, a LoDo spectacle modeled after the Running of the Bulls in Pamplona. The editors not only let me write it up in mock Ernest Hemingway style, they actually ran what I wrote.
Soon after, I left for a bigger newspaper, and on my last day at the News, as they rolled out my sheet cake and popped the Champagne, the managing editor read my pig story aloud to the newsroom. He began by shaking his head and declaring: “I cannot believe that what I’m about to read to you once appeared in this newspaper.”
But then I thought: Where else could it have run? All at once I felt knocked sideways by sadness and fondness and gratitude—a small preview of what’s to come if it ever becomes necessary to say good-bye again to the News.