The history of one of Colorado’s most famous venues

Red Rocks Amphitheater brings music to life
Photo credit: Bobby Jones

If someone were to look up the top tourist locations in Denver, they’ll find a list including places like the Denver Zoo or the Botanic Gardens. On that same list, they’ll find something that no other city in the world has to offer: Red Rocks Amphitheater.

Located in the small mountain town of Morrison, Colorado, Red Rocks Amphitheater is the only naturally formed, open-air amphitheater venue in the world. The venue has hosted everything from well known bands like The Beatles and Jimi Hendrix to lesser known artists like Tallest Man On Earth and Nico Vega.

The history of Red Rocks as a venue traces back to the early 1900s. In 1911, opera singer Mary Garden became the first solo singer to ever perform on a makeshift stage built between the two famous rocks. She later wrote, “Never in any opera house in the world over have I found more perfect acoustic properties. I predict someday, 20,000 people will assemble there to listen to the world’s greatest masterpieces.” But why has this venue risen to international acclaim?

According to the Red Rocks Amphitheater website, the rocks that form the iconic walls of the amphitheater, known as Ship Rock and Creation Rock, are sandstone monoliths that date back to over 250 million years—that’s  all the way back to the middle Paleolithic time period. If a concert-goer is looking at the stage, Ship Rock is on the right of the amphitheater and Creation Rock is on the left.

The two rocks were formerly a part of the ocean floor, and gradually rose out of the sea over the course of millions of years. They found their way into their current locations, making the space between them the optimum place for musical acoustics.

Up until the early 1900s, the area that holds the amphitheater was known as the Garden of Angels. According to Denver Mountain Parks, visitors were able to take burro rides into the unpaved park to secluded picnic sites deep into the land’s mysterious caves and  other rock formations throughout the park. Unlike today, visitors were encouraged to explore and climb the rocks. Stairs and ladders were installed in the rock to allow visitors to access the steep terrain. Even women dressed in elegant gowns could be found exploring the rocks in the park.

One of the first people to discover the acoustic qualities of the land was John Brisben Walker. Walker owned the land between 1906 and 1928, renaming the formation Garden of the Titans. He planned on building an amphitheater between the two largest monoliths in the park—Ships Rock and Creation Rock.

While waiting to build his amphitheater in the park, Walker constructed a temporary platform where the theater’s current stage stands. Between 1906 and 1910, Walker hosted the very first concert in the historic amphitheater, thus beginning the land’s legacy as one of the top concert venues in the world.

The city of Denver purchased the park from Walker in 1928 and renamed the area Red Rocks. Walker’s amphitheater was brought to fruition in the 1930s when the government created the New Deal, a plan to create economic activity to help the country recover from the Great Depression. The New Deal created the Civilian Conservation Corps, a public work relief program for unemployed and unmarried men. The men stationed in the Mt. Morrison and Genesee camps began the construction of the amphitheaters in 1936. Building the amphitheater to perfectly capture the natural acoustics that the rocks offer took a total of five years, bringing the now world-famous venue to completion in 1941.

Red Rocks isn’t just concert venue. Many locals use the venue as a magnificent and convenient way to get exercise and experience the theater. In the summers, the venue hosts Yoga on the Rocks and Film on the Rocks, where locals can experience the venue from a new perspective.

The popularity of the venue only continues to increase with time. In the last decade, there have been more concerts scheduled in the amphitheater than the past 60 years combined, according to the Denver Post. The venue used to be known primarily for hosting classic rock bands that filled the land with their powerful guitar riffs and crooning vocals. Now, the amphitheater gains popularity for electronic music concerts like the annual Global Dub and Global Dance festivals.

The awe that Red Rocks inspires is enough to affect anyone. In a book about the history of the amphitheater, author Nolie Mumey wrote, “The visitor or citizen who misses seeing Red Rocks Park, with all its weirdly shaped formations, or fails to listen to the songs of an artist or the musical tones of a concert, has missed an opportunity of being in one of the great wonder places of the world. It has a beauty all its own, and if the visitor will only yield to a receptive mood, he will find manifold facets to absorb his imagination in the glory of a sun-lit day or under hosts of starry night.”

No matter the reason for gathering at Red Rocks, most visitors will agree in saying that the experience is a semi-spiritual encounter. Even when the occasion is not holy in nature, anyone in the venue cannot help but be overwhelmed by the intoxicating energy created in the history of the land and art of the musicians being intertwined. Red Rocks takes a band and makes their songs feel and sound transcendent. No other venue in the world immerses musicians and fans in music quite like Red Rocks Amphitheater.

“It makes your hair just stand up when you think about the artists who’ve been here,” Red Rocks marketing manager Erik Dyce said on their website. “This place is a temple. It’s overwhelming when the venue overpowers the artist.”

For those who have never visited the amphitheater, it needs to be added to a list of places to visit. The land that was once said to be a wonder of the world offers an experience like no other anywhere else in the world, and CU Denver students are lucky enough to have it in their backyard.

Photo Credit: Bobby Jones

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