In the early 1900s, John Brisben Walker had a vision of artists performing on a stage nestled into the perfectly acoustic surroundings of Red Rocks. Walker produced a number of concerts between 1906 and 1910 on a temporary platform; and from his dream, the history of Red Rocks as an entertainment venue began.
In 1927, George Cranmer, Manager of Denver Parks, convinced the City of Denver to purchase the area of Red Rocks from Walker for the price of $54,133. Cranmer convinced the Mayor of Denver, Ben Stapleton, to build on the foundation laid by Walker. By enlisting the help of the federally sponsored Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), and the Work Projects Administration (WPA), labor and materials were provided for the venture. Geologically, the rocks are representative of the Fountain Formation. Originally the place was known as the "Garden of the Angels" (1870s-1906), and then as "Garden of the Titans" (1906-28). The park, however, had always been known by the folk name of "Red Rocks", which became its formal name when Denver acquired it in 1928. The amphitheatre's rocks are named "Creation Rock" on the north, "Ship Rock" on the south, and "Stage Rock" to the east. Red Rocks Amphitheatre was designed by Denver architect Burnham Hoyt.
Public, organizational and private performances have been held at Red Rocks for over 100 years. Likely used by the Ute tribe in earlier times, the earliest documented performance at the amphitheater was the Grand Opening of the Garden of the Titans, put on by famed editor John Brisben Walker on May 31, 1906. Featuring Pietro Satriano and his 25-piece brass band, it was the formal opening of the natural amphitheater for use by the general public after Walker purchased it with the proceeds of his sale of Cosmopolitan Magazine.
The amphitheater's largest scale performance to date was the Feast of Lanterns on September 5, 1908. Commemorating the opening of the scenic road up nearby Mt. Falcon, it was patterned after the festival of Nagasaki, Japan, and featured four military bands and fireworks off Mt. Falcon, Mt. Morrison and two intermediate hills.
Renowned opera singer Mary Garden put Red Rocks on the world musical map with her performance on May 10, 1911. Having performed at many opera halls around the world, she pronounced Red Rocks the finest venue at which she had ever performed.
Upon the full construction of the amphitheater to its present form by the Civilian Conservation Corps, the venue was formally dedicated on June 15, 1941. It has held regular concert seasons every year since 1947.
The first performance of each season is the Easter Sunrise Service, a non-denominational service on Easter Sunday of each year.
The earliest notable rock and roll performance at Red Rocks was by the Beatles on August 26, 1964. When Ringo Starr returned to Red Rocks with his All-Starr Band on June 28, 2000 he asked if anyone in the crowd had been at the Beatles concert thirty-six years earlier. On August 26, 2004, the East-Coast-based Beatles-tribute band, "1964" was flown to Denver to re-enact the Beatles concert held at the site exactly forty-years earlier to the date.
An incident during a performance by Jethro Tull on June 10, 1971, led to a five year ban of rock concerts at Red Rocks. Approximately 1,000 people without tickets arrived at the sold-out show. Denver police directed the overflow, non-paying crowd to an area behind the theater, where they could hear the music but not see the band. The situation seemed satisfactory until some of the people without tickets attempted to enter the amphitheater by charging at, and breaking through, the police line. Some of those without tickets began lobbing rocks at the police, and the police responded by discharging tear gas at the gate-crashers. The wind carried the tear gas over the hill, into the paying crowd and onto the stage. Following the "Riot at Red Rocks," Denver Mayor William H. McNichols, Jr. banned rock concerts from the amphitheater. For the next five years, shows at Red Rocks were limited to softer acts, such as John Denver, Sonny & Cher, The Carpenters, Pat Boone, Seals & Crofts, and Carole King. The ban on rock and roll was finally lifted through legal action taken by Denver concert promoter Barry Fey, who tried to book the band America at the venue in 1975. After being denied a permit by the city, Fey took the city to court, and the court ruled that the city had acted "arbitrarily and capricious" in banning rock concerts at Red Rocks. Starting in the summer of 1976, the rock bands were once again welcomed at the venue. Jethro Tull played Red Rocks again on August 12, 2008.
One of the notable performances given at Red Rocks was by the rock group U2 in June 1983. This performance was released as a full concert-length video, ', segments of which were frequently shown on MTV, and captured the band in its ascendancy to superstardom. U2's performance at Red Rocks was later included in Rolling Stones list of the "50 Moments that Changed Rock and Roll".. Two tracks from the performance were included on U2's 1983 live album, Under a Blood Red Sky.
Red Rocks was one of the favored venues for the Grateful Dead and the venue has become a traditional stop for many subsequent jam bands. Widespread Panic holds the record for the most performances at Red Rocks Amphitheater (32 shows as headliner, plus one show opening for Blues Traveler in 1994).
The Insane Clown Posse did a show at Red Rocks in 2004, and the show was featured on their DVD 'Bootlegged In Denver.' They returned in May 2008 for the first annual 'Hatchet Attacks Supershow,' which featured performances by Twiztid, Blaze Ya Dead Homie, Boondox, and the Axe Murder Boyz.
The beautiful and unique setting has led to the venue becoming a favorite for many performers. Geddy Lee of rock band Rush said, "It's an amazing location. One of the most beautiful concert venues in America...or anywhere. I would hazard a guess that it's one of the most beautiful anywhere." Rush played Redrocks on their 30th anniversary tour, and is depicted in the tour program.
Red Rocks has been a popular venue for live recordings, particularly videos due to the visual uniqueness of the setting. During the 1970s and 1980s, local folk-rocker John Denver recorded several world-televised concerts at Red Rocks. U2's 1983 concert video, ', became a best-selling long-form concert video and several songs became popular music videos. Fleetwood Mac singer Stevie Nicks released a 60-minute long DVD of her 1986 concert at the amphitheatre, towards the end of her Rock a Little tour. The video was rumoured to have featured extensive visual and audio re-recordings to disguise Nick's enegral incapability of performing to the peak of her ability, due to narcotics and alcohol abuse.
Other Red Rocks material on CD and DVD includes Dave Matthews Band's albums Live at Red Rocks 8.15.95 and Weekend on the Rocks, The Samples live album, Live in Colorado, John Tesh's Live at Red Rocks and Worship at Red Rocks, the Incubus DVD Alive at Red Rocks, Blues Traveler's Live on the Rocks album, Steve Martin's comedy album A Wild and Crazy Guy, The Moody Blues's A Night at Red Rocks with the Colorado Symphony Orchestra, and Boukman Eksperyans' album "Live At Red Rocks". Widespread Panic's DVD "The Earth Will Swallow You" features a 15 min segment on Red Rocks.
The live Neil Young album, Road Rock Vol. 1 and its accompanying DVD Red Rocks Live was filmed and recorded at Red Rocks in 2000 during the "Silver and Gold" tour. Local Colorado band Big Head Todd and the Monsters released a DVD and live album of a notable 1995 performance in 2003 capturing what has become a local annual early season tradition.
A two-volume 2003 album, Carved in Stone, features live performances by various artists at Red Rocks, including R.E.M., Ben Harper, Coldplay, The Allman Brothers Band, and Phish, with proceeds going towards a fund for preservation of the park and amphitheatre.
Insane Clown Posse released a Bootlegged In Denver' DVD from their 2003 Red Rocks performance on their Hell's Pit album in 2004.Phish front-man, Trey Anastasio, included excerpts from his 2005 performance at Red Rocks on the DVD that accompanied his album "Shine." Country music superstar Gary Allan filmed the music video for his song "Watching Airplanes" during a live sell-out concert at Red Rocks in August 2007. A portion of British rock band Oasis's rockumentary film "Lord Don't Slow Me Down" was filmed at Red Rocks. A Perfect Circle also included one live video recording of their final performance on the CD/DVD aMOTION. Insane Clown Posse came back with Twiztid, Blaze Ya Dead Homie, Boondox, the Axe Murder Boyz, Grave Plott, The ROC, and Motown Rage, in May 2008 to Red Rocks in which to perform the 'first annual' Hatchet Attacks Super Show, which they released a video for later that year.
In film and television
Part of the film The Adventures of Ford Fairlane was filmed at Red Rocks. Opening sequences feature the fictional rock band "Black Plague" playing at Red Rocks Amphitheater where lead singer Bobby Black (played by Vince Neil) makes a grand entrance hanging from the rock face of the landmark red rocks above the crowd swooping on stage via zipline
The amphitheatre was the start and finish line of the reality show The Amazing Race 9.
- After Pollstar magazine awarded Red Rocks the honor of best small outdoor venue for the 11th time, the leading concert industry magazine decided to name the nationally coveted honor the Red Rocks Award—and remove Red Rocks from the running. It is voted on annually by the magazine's membership.
- The American Institute of Architects selected Red Rocks to be Colorado's entry at the National Gallery of Art for the AIA's Centennial Exhibition in 1957.
- List of contemporary amphitheatres
- Red Rocks
- Live at Red Rocks