“We were all teenagers, working on coming together – and you know what brought us all together? Music.” This was how Tony Guillory, former cabaret manager and co-founder of The Family Dog in Denver – likely one of the city’s most significant, and most hidden, venues. Guillory and I were talking that night in the backyard of the Wanamaker family home, some of the Dog’s original staffers, where people from all over had gathered to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the short-lived but hugely influential venue.
The Family Dog Denver was the cowtown’s dream and nightmare
The Family Dog, which occupied the building that now holds PT’s Showclub Denver at 1601 West Evans from September of 1967 to July of 1968 – less than a year – hosted such legendary greats as Janis Joplin/Big Brother & the Holding Company, Jimi Hendrix, The Grateful Dead, Canned Heat, and The Doors and more, in short order (to get deeper into the history of The Family Dog, check out Westword‘s article). The Family Dog not only set the tone for Denver’s future music scene, and made an indelible dent in the world of Rock n’ roll (at least for a slow-growing cowtown on the eastern plains), the venue also effectively launched the career and promotional empire of Barry Fey.
“The Tale of the Dog: the Untold Story of Denver’s Greatest Rock Club” is trying to raise the necessary funds to keep production going – editing the film, distribution, promotion, rights & permissions, and more – and if you give, your donation will be 100% tax-deductible. You can find more information and donate online.
The party Guillory and I were in the middle of was almost a family reunion of old band members, promoters, artists, and personalities all associated with – and very much in love with – the Family Dog. Guillory managed the events at the Denver Dog during its short lifetime, and then went on to a lifelong career in entertainment, but is by his own account truly a painter. In fact, he got his start in show business by painting set backdrops and helping set up events for many entertainers who turned later out to be legendary stars – including Johnny Mathis. He also managed the band Allmen Joy, about whom he said: “We were going to call the band ‘Snickers,’ but it was too close a rhyme with the sadly popular vernacular of the time.”
His incredibly interesting history includes time spent with the Hell’s Angels and the Rolling Stones in the historic Altamont show, chronicled by the 1970 film “Gimme Shelter,” and booking and managing bands and shows all over the world.
Local family members worked late hours for the bands and the venue
Among the guests were Melody Duggan, and Marilyn and Roy Wanamaker, who all worked at The Dog during its short existence. Roy, who started at the Dog when he was “… 15 or 16 – it’s hard to remember a lot of specifics from back then,” as he put it, used to run the psychedelic light shows that covered the bands as they played.
“I used to hang out on the balcony above the dance floor – and that balcony is still there – with an overhead projector, water, oil, and food coloring, splashing trippy colors all over the bands,” remembered Wanamaker, “among other things. I don’t remember all of them, but I have a lot of good feelings about what I do remember.” Wanamaker also regaled us with some stories about now-legendary rock stars that visited the Dog – including Jim Morrison (“My mother – who everyone just called mom, always said Morrison smelled awful!”), Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, and more throughout the night.
The other reason all of these beautiful ex-hippies gathered at the Big House that night was to help move a very special film project forward – “The Tale of the Dog: the Untold Story of Denver’s Greatest Rock Club” – which is being made and produced by Dan Obarski and University of Denver Medieval and Renaissance Art professor Scott Montgomery. A labor of love, the film has nearly reached critical mass as far as content, but is falling short of funds to get fully completed, and the pair are using the nostalgia for an era to generate awareness, and to raise some of that necessary money.
Montgomery and Obarski have been collecting verbal histories, memories, snippets of conversation, and just about anything they can find about the “Denver Dog,” which, regrettably, really isn’t much. They both met at a Family Dog concert poster exhibit in early 2015, and have been hot on the trail to unearth the venue’s true history ever since.
There’s not much proof left of the Family Dog Denver – except posters, and memories
“Aside from some pretty bad videos on YouTube, and the posters in the original exhibit and hanging in the parlor here at the house,” said Montgomery, “there really isn’t much proof the Denver Dog existed, outside of memories.” Part of the cool thing about being at the 50th anniversary was the fact that one room of the house was set aside, cleared out, and dedicated to another exhibit of Denver Dog poster art, only the second ever to . Aging hippies spent a lot of time strolling through, looking at the posters, remembering adventures, sharing war stories – and laughing, smiling, and sometimes tearing up, too.
Among the celebrities at the party was Paul Conley, the keyboardist from the seminal psychedelic band Lothar and the Hand People, who brought with him a veritable archive of magazine and newspaper clippings, photos, and artwork from the band’s early days. Among other revelations about the Hand People’s history that Conley revealed was the fact that they were “…the first band to ever tour and perform live with a synthesizer,” given to them by Bob Moog. He also confirmed that The Beach Boys’ Brian Wilson was inspired by his band’s use of Lothar – their theremin – which he eventually used in the hit “Good Vibrations.”
Every story, every memory, every reunion hug, every gut-bucketful of familiar laughter – all of these added up to the undeniable proof that The Family Dog was – and still is – the seed of Denver’s long rock n’ roll history and its constantly growing music and art scene. The fact that the Denver Dog attracted such a number and stature of celebrities in such a short time – in a desolate area of a small cowtown with nothing, really, more than aspirations to be a big city – as well as a pretty strong hippy scene so far away from Haight/Ashbury, speaks volumes of both the vibe of the place, and its loving, tireless staff.
“Growing up – surviving, there was no money – which supposedly runs things,” waxed Guillory, as the night wrapped up. “But that wasn’t true then. It’s friendship that runs things.”