Red Rocks Is An Iconic Coloradan Venue – But There’s A Fascinating Secret Hiding Below It
By Claire Harding
Deep beneath a world-famous music venue outside Denver, Colorado, a local reporter follows a guide into the bowels of the Earth. Skirting around signs that warn of impending peril, the pair find themselves in a dark and eerie space. Here the glitz and glamour of the stage seem worlds away – but what is the secret hiding under Red Rocks?
Since the beginning of the 20th century, the unique landscape of Red Rocks Park has played host to some of the greatest musicians the world has ever seen. In amidst towering pillars of sandstone, crowds have gathered to hear the songs of The Beatles, Jimi Hendrix and more ring out through the mountain air. But for decades a mystery has lurked beneath their feet.
Over the years, the organic acoustics of Red Rocks Amphitheater have drawn musicians from across the globe. And to many, a performance on the rock-flanked stage is the pinnacle of their career. But often, satisfied fans are not the only thing that they leave behind. In 2016 Denver anchor Jaclyn Allen went on an adventure into the belly of the beast – and what she found will blow you away.
The story of Red Rocks began around 300 million years ago, when the erosion of the Ancestral Rocky Mountains formed the bedrock known as the Fountain Formation. Over time, the plates of the Earth’s crust shifted, creating the region’s distinctive, tilted cliffs. And today, this unique landscape stretches for miles across Colorado and Wyoming.
In Colorado, the city of Denver owns some 870 acres of this landscape, known today as Red Rocks Park. Famous for its vast outcrops of rust-colored sandstone, it is littered with formations brought to life by evocative names. The Seat of Pluto, for example, casts a mushroom-like silhouette, while the Cave of the Seven Ladders mimics stairs stretching up towards the sky.
But while these formations are well known, they pale in comparison with the most famous attraction of Red Rocks Park. Nestled in the mountains outside the small town of Morrison – some 10 miles from Denver, CO – there is a natural amphitheater. And for more than 100 years, performers have been traveling to the area to take advantage of its spectacular acoustics.
In fact, the idea of hosting music at Red Rocks was first conceived at the beginning of the 20th century. According to legend, the American publisher John Brisben Walker experienced a vision set within the confines of the dramatic park. Apparently, he saw musicians playing on a stage surrounded by sandstone crags – and set out to make his dream a reality.
Back then, the area of Red Rocks Park containing the natural amphitheater went by the name Garden of the Angels. But soon it would be set for a very different destiny. In 1905 Walker sold the magazine Cosmopolitan to William Randolph Hearst for $400,000 – the equivalent of more than $11 million in today’s money.
With this fortune, Walker was able to purchase the amphitheater at Red Rocks. And after renaming it the Garden of the Titans, he hosted an opening concert in May 1906. Featuring a brass band with 25 members, the performance was the first time that members of the public had gathered to enjoy music in this unique setting.
Two years later, the amphitheater hosted a performance so ambitious that it has yet to be outdone to this day. Boasting no fewer than four different bands and a fireworks display in the surrounding mountains, it was designed to mimic the famous festival in Nagasaki, Japan. Then in 1911 the renowned opera singer Mary Garden really cemented Red Rocks’ reputation.
According to reports, Garden pronounced the amphitheater the best venue that she had ever played throughout her global career. And from there, Red Rocks went from strength to strength. Eventually, in 1927 Walker sold the complex to the City of Denver for $54,133 – the equivalent of almost $790,000 today.
Keen to build upon Walker’s vision, Denver Parks manager George Cranmer convinced Mayor Benjamin Stapleton to make Red Rocks even better. And in 1936 the city enlisted the help of the Works Progress Administration and the Civilian Conservation Corps to extend the existing venue. Five years later, the work was complete.
Designed by Burnham Hoyt, a leading Denver architect, the new amphitheater – now known as Red Rocks – was impressive in both scope and scale. Stretching almost 6,500 feet above sea level at its highest point, it was capable of accommodating more than 9,500 people. And on either side of the structure, staircases consisting of 380 steps afforded visitors fantastic views.
Meanwhile, the centerpiece of Hoyt’s creation was the impressive performance space. Flanked by Ship Rock in the south, Stage Rock in the east, and Creation Rock in the north, it provided an atmospheric backdrop for the venue’s visiting artists. And in June 1941, the amphitheater opened to the public once more.
Six years later, in 1947 Red Rocks hosted its first regular season of concerts. And since then it has maintained an extensive program of performances every year. However, many of the venue’s most notable performances occurred in the 1960s, when some of rock’s biggest legends took to the picturesque stage.
On August 26, 1964, The Beatles performed at Red Rocks during their tour of the United States – the only stop where tickets did not sell out. But while it was far from their biggest crowd, it was an occasion that stuck in their minds. And when Ringo Starr appeared again at the venue 36 years later, he shared the memory with the audience.
In fact, Red Rocks has always maintained a connection with The Beatles. And in August 2004, management marked the 40th anniversary of the concert by flying in 1964, a tribute act from the East Coast. Meanwhile, the 1960s had another iconic performance to offer in the shape of Jimi Hendrix, who took to the stage in September 1968.
Three years later, however, a disastrous incident nearly spelled the end for rock concerts at Red Rocks. On June 10, 1971, the British band Jethro Tull played to a sold-out crowd. However, around 1,000 fans showed up to the event with no tickets, clashing with the police who had been brought in to keep things under control.
As the concert progressed, the situation escalated, with officers using tear gas to subdue the crowd. Dubbed the Riot at Red Rocks, the incident was bad enough that the mayor called for a ban on similar concerts. However, just five years later, the move was overruled, and rock bands returned to the amphitheater.
In the 1980s, Red Rocks hosted world-famous bands such as U2 and Depeche Mode, while the 1990s saw performances from Phish and The Moody Blues. And in 2004 the Canadian rockers Rush chose the venue as one of the stops on their 30th anniversary tour. But of course, it isn’t just live music that the amphitheater is famous for.
Over the years, many artists have made live recordings at Red Rocks, hoping to capture its unique aesthetics and acoustics for posterity. In the 1970s and 1980s, for example, the musician John Denver, who took his name from the nearby city, filmed a number of performances at the venue. And in 1983 U2 made history with one of the most epic concert videos ever made.
Even today, Live at Red Rocks: Under a Blood Red Sky is considered a classic example of the genre. And in the years since, a wide range of artists from Stevie Nicks to Neil Young have captured their Red Rocks experience on film. More recently, acts such as Mumford & Sons and Opeth have released videos of their performances at the famous amphitheater.
Perhaps the mystique of the venue is best summed up by English band The Moody Blues, who performed there in 1992. In an April 2019 interview with newspaper the Colorado Springs Gazette, one member explained the appeal. “Whether you come to Red Rocks as an audience member or performer, you feel like you’re part of something,” he said. “Like a thread through history. You feel like you’re part of something that’s gone on for centuries and will go on long after you’re gone.”
Today, Red Rocks remains one of the top attractions in the Colorado area. In fact, in 2017 more than 1.3 million people attended events at the venue, watching acts such as Bonobo and Jethro Tull perform on the dramatic stage. And according to records, it was the busiest season ever, with more than 140 shows.
As visitors have flocked to Red Rocks over the years, however, most eyes have remained fixed on the dramatic Colorado landscape all around. In fact, few would have guessed that perhaps the most fascinating part of the complex lies deep underground. But now, some 75 years after the amphitheater was first built, the secrets of this historic venue have been revealed.
Unlike most other venues, the backstage area of Red Rocks is actually underneath the performance space. And as audience members tramp faithfully up the ramps en route to see their favorite bands, most of them likely miss the iron and wood door tucked away beneath them. But for the lucky few who make it to the other side, many wonders await.
To mark the 75th anniversary of the famous amphitheater, Jaclyn Allen, a reporter for local news station Denver7, was invited on a VIP tour underneath Red Rocks. Guided by venue director Tad Bowman, she skirted the danger signs and found herself heading through the mysterious door. And there, she discovered steps descending into the depths.
However, what Allen found was no ordinary underground tunnel. All along the brick-lined passage, she soon discovered, was what looked like graffiti scrawled on the walls. But on closer inspection, she realized that they were actually the signatures of people who had visited – and often performed – at Red Rocks in the past.
In fact, some of the most famous names in rock have left their autograph somewhere in the secret tunnel. “It started out with some signatures on the walls,” Bowman told Allen in a video published in June 2016. “And then some of the space on the walls kind of ran out, and so they started doing signatures on the steps.”
On her tour of the tunnel, Allen spotted signatures belonging to hip hop duo Big Gigantic, American singer John Mayer and country rock outfit the Zac Brown Band. Moreover, during her visit, she got to witness history in the making. Before their June show at Red Rocks, Denver band The Lumineers stopped in with some Sharpies to leave their mark.
“That does look like a good spot, right next to Flobots,” one member told Allen during filming. According to the band, the Colorado amphitheater is their favorite venue in the world. “It’s very photogenic,” they explained. “But it’s got a spirit about it, you know, it’s like an incredible place.”
As well as famous musicians, Allen noted, members of various production teams have taken time out to sign the wall. And according to Bowman, the tunnel has become part of Red Rocks’ years of tradition. “So now, I think performers make a point of coming up here,” he explained.
But even though the tunnel is normally off-limits to the public, Allen isn’t the only journalist who’s been lucky enough to explore its depths. In September 2018 Cody Alan from iHeartMedia was also treated to a trip beneath Red Rocks. And with the sounds of rock music echoing through the walls, he went on his own tour of the famous signatures.
Amazingly, Alan was able to sign his own name on the wall – right next to the autograph of the English musician Phil Collins. However, exactly which rock stars are represented on the walls is still a matter of some debate. In April 2019 Colorado Springs Gazette journalist Seth Boster managed to catch a closer glimpse than most.
According to Boster, one crew member claimed to have seen Led Zeppelin scrawled somewhere on the wall. “Gorillaz have signed it three times… Steve Miller’s got a big one up there… Pretty Lights signed the light fixture,” he continued. “Every time I go up there, I try to find somebody new.”
Throughout his tour of the tunnel, Boster spotted an array of signatures that would make any autograph-hunter proud. Deep underground, artists such as Tenacious D, Elephant Revival, Nine Inch Nails, Santana and Stevie Nicks had scrawled their names on the walls. And half-faded beneath the writing, he spotted the name of The Grateful Dead, who counted Red Rocks among their favorite venues.
In fact, some of the signatures date back decades – although no one is quite sure when the tradition began. According to records, the tunnel first appeared on plans back in 1959. However, the earliest autograph that Boster could spot dated from 1988. And although one scrawl reading 1964 can be seen, it’s believed that refers to the Beatles tribute band who appeared in the 2000s.
“It’s just faded over time, so who knows if signatures like from the ’60s and ’70s are still there anymore?” Josh Lenz, a Red Rocks guide, told Boster. Meanwhile, Bowman explained that the autographs were an organic phenomenon, rather than something that had been encouraged or organized. “That tunnel has come to represent this special uniqueness of what Red Rocks is,” he said.
Today, the tunnel connects the sound booth with the green room, where performers relax before and after the show. Apparently, the latter is decked out with typical furnishings, such as a sofa and a television. However, the Red Rocks magic can be seen even here, where a vast wall of stone juts out into the space beyond.
Even today, Bowman notes, bands continue to squirrel themselves away beneath Red Rocks, markers in hand. “People go through there, in a literal sense leaving their mark, adding to this sort of mystique” he told Boster. But aside from the occasional public tour, it’s an experience that remains the reserve of a hallowed few – for now at least.