Chuck Morris has said it many times before and he’ll say it again: “Our vision was to build the finest 4,000 seat club this town’s ever had. … And I think we have.”
Actually, that’s a bit toned down from what he told Denverite in March, which was, “We think we’re building one of the great clubs in America.”
The point is: This is big. Mission Ballroom is most definitely a new kind of venue for Denver and among the most high-tech venues in the country. The 60,000-square-foot space at Brighton Boulevard and 43rd Street will have “a million-dollar sound system,” state-of-the-art lighting and “flexible stage technology” that allows owner AEG Presents Rocky Mountains to change the capacity of the room from 2,200 to 3,950 people.
Eight days before the Aug. 7 grand opening starring The Lumineers, the space is still a hubbub of construction. Two cranes rise on either side of an enormous disco ball, which Denverite’s tour guide said features interior lights, two halves that can rotate independently and large mirrored panels that create a light effect more like a kaleidoscope than the traditional sparkle. Workers swept up debris and hauled in parts and equipment. The stage is only partway built but the murals are finished and bright.
The finished product will be pretty close to the original vision, Morris and AEG Presents Rocky Mountains co-presidents Don Strasburg and Brent Fedrizzi agreed.
“There are some things that have not been done in a club this size,” Morris said, highlighting the bleachers that allow for sitting or standing and the movable stage that can adjust to make any crowd feel like a sold-out crowd.
“Those two things really excite me the most. Everything excites me the most.”
It took AEG eight years just to pick a site for Mission Ballroom and a little more than a year to build it. It doesn’t sound so unusual as far as development goes, but according to Strasburg, it’s a rare-around-the-world example of a modern built-from-scratch venue.
And in the Denver region, it’s been a while since anyone built something new.
“To do it from the ground up — our company has done it worldwide, but locally, I think the last venue that was built in Colorado was the 1stBank Center, from the ground up,” Strasburg said. “So it’s been a while.”
AEG is taking a victory lap.
“This won’t be the last thing we do,” Fedrizzi said, “but this is the biggest thing we’ve done for sure.”
Morris, Strasburg and Fedrizzi have been doing this as AEG Presents Rocky Mountains for about 25 years. They started by acquiring the Ogden Theatre and the Bluebird Theater and have since built an empire that also includes the Gothic Theater, Fiddler’s Green Amphitheatre and 1stBank Center.
The company employs around 60 people full time and the leadership trio expects to employ more than 150, including security, on show nights at Mission Ballroom.
“[Morris’s] experience starting in this field at Tulagi back in the days of yore in Boulder, Colorado, and his experiences with Barry Fey moving through the ’70s and ’80s opened up a lane for Brent and myself, along with our team, to take it to the next level. And the Mission is another step if that mission — of continuing, improving and doing our absolute best to over-deliver for the Colorado community and the artists who come to visit.”
(Lest you think the compliments are only flying one way: Morris later said he’s “got the two greatest partners in the world.”)
Talking with Denverite before the opening, Strasburg made a point of giving credit to the team that built Mission Ballroom, including general manager Cameron Marcotte, production manager Sherwood Webber and co-head of marketing Kellie Donahoe — she’s the one who thought of the disco ball.
“The amount of work that goes into things that hopefully people don’t notice — it’s mind-numbing. While us three had the initial vision and set this thing off … those people executed,” Strasburg said. “And without the execution, you know, it’s just an idea.”
Mission Ballroom represents a vision of Denver Future in a few ways.
The massive North Wynkoop development Mission Ballroom is a part of will also include office and retail space, a market, apartments and a pedestrian plaza. (Notably, a plan for Art Space to build affordable artist housing there fell through.) It’s a total transformation of a stretch of Brighton Boulevard that has so far remain mostly untouched by change.
As the first piece of the development to open, Mission Ballroom is acting, grandly, as a leader and example. It’s big, it’s flashy and it’s built to satisfy the bigger and flashier expectations AEG perceives in a wide swath of music fans and artists.
“As the music community evolves and their expectations of where they want to go and where they want to see live music, along with the artists and what they’re expecting as technology changes, as design changes, you know, we feel like this is the next step for the community,” Fedrizzi said. “The Fillmore has been in existence for 20 years now, so there’s definitely room for an upgrade, and we feel like we’ve got that here.
“Fans are paying a lot of money for tickets. We’ve gotta provide something that leaves them wanting to come back, and so this is an exciting time for us and I think — knock on wood — we got something right here.”
They say Mission Ballroom is also tackling the actual acquisition of tickets — specifically how hard it often is to get them directly from the venue and not a scalper — with the Mission Fair Ticketing system it’ll use for select shows. The basics are: When a show goes on sale, an individual fan can request up to four tickets, and from those requests the system randomly selects who gets to buy tickets.
As for who the programming itself is for, the answer, AEG hopes, is everyone. Among the 80 or so acts booked through the end of the year are Kamasi Washington, Flux Pavilion, the Steve Miller Band, Trey Anastasio, The National, Ween, Wilco, Kevin Gates, Yelawolf, Gregory Alan Isakov, String Cheese Incident, King Gizzard & The Lizard Wizard and Highly Suspect. Fedrizzi said they’ll have local headliners (Isakov is one) as well as openers, and that they hope Mission Ballroom is a stepping stone between venues like the Ogden and Red Rocks Amphitheatre.
“We have really attempted to bring in a really diverse lineup of people and will always continue to because we have a really diverse community and all of our responsibility,” Strasburg said. “… Our responsibility is to Denver and to Colorado, our community. They count on us to bring in amazing entertainment and everybody’s different and we need to make sure that we’re there for everybody.”
They also plan to host corporate and nonprofit events. One is already in the books — a benefit event for the family of The Jeff Austin Band and Yonder Mountain String Band mandolinist, singer and songwriter Jeff Austin, who died in late June. That event will be held Nov. 4.
“We take this responsibility really seriously. We have to run a business but we don’t think of it as a business, we think of it as our role,” Strasburg said. “Some people are doctors, some people are lawyers, some people keep people healthy, some people keep people’s cars running. People do all things in a community, and we, every day, our mission is to make sure that our community is the funnest place to live.”