Editor’s Note: For those who missed the February broadcast of Rocky Mountain PBS’ “Colorado Experience: University of Denver,” the episode is posted below. In addition, Chancellor Robert Coombe sat down with RMPBS CEO Doug Price to discuss his pending retirement and years as the institution’s chief executive on the Feb. 28 episode of “Colorado Quarterly.” That program can be viewed here.
Throughout its 150-year history, the University of Denver has seen plenty of triumphs and hardships, not to mention colorful characters, bold leaders and independent thinkers.
Those ups and downs and movers and shakers are chronicled in a new documentary scheduled to premiere at 7 p.m. MST Feb. 27 on Rocky Mountain Public Broadcasting Service’s (Channel 6 in Denver) “Colorado Experience.” The documentary kicks off the second season of the series, produced by RMPBS and History Colorado and designed to do for the Centennial State what the PBS history show “American Experience” does for the nation.
“‘Colorado Experience’ looks at the people, places and events that have shaped Colorado,” says executive producer and director Julie Speer. “And there is no institution older than the University of Denver. It is by far the first and oldest institution in our state.”
Speer and her three-person documentary crew began work on the show in December 2013, collaborating with History Colorado and University historian Steve Fisher to identify key moments and personalities and to flesh out the narrative. As the story began to take shape, Speer was especially struck by the number of outsized personalities behind the University’s evolution from spunky startup to venerated hive of ideas and knowledge.
“There are some fascinating personalities,” she says. “That’s been the most fun part — all of the colorful characters. John Evans himself was a character, right? But then Rufus Potato Clark [who gave the institution a parcel of land to establish the University Park campus]. We could do a documentary just on him. His life story is fascinating. He was a whaler; he traveled all around the world. He was very gregarious and outgoing and friendly with the bottle.”
To tell the University’s story, Speer and the team relied not just on archival photos, footage and documents, but also on interviews conducted with Fisher and state historian William Convery, as well as Chancellor Emeritus Daniel Ritchie; DU history Professor Susan Schulten, and alumnae Ann Richardson, Karen Mathis and TaRhonda Thomas.
These interviews — captured on more than six hours of tape — allowed the team to dispense with the narrator, a staple of so many history documentaries. “It’s completely the voices of the interviewees that are going to be woven together to tell the story. That’s sort of my signature style,” Speer explains. “It’s easier to just sit down and write it, but this way I feel it’s a little richer because you have this emotional passion piece when it’s first person. When an alum tells their story, it’s better than a narrator.
“We did end up largely focusing on the people and telling the history of the University, the milestones, through the people,” Speer adds, noting that the program covers such key events as Woodstock West during the Vietnam War-era and the dissolution of the University’s football program in 1961.
“What I found fascinating was that, prior to DU dropping football, there were no professional sports in Denver. So the University of Denver football team was the sports of the city at that time. It was a really big deal,” Speer says.
Speer expects the University of Denver documentary to enjoy a warm reception from the station’s viewers. She also expects it, like other installments in the “Colorado Experience” series, to play several times throughout the year. The show also will be posted on the program’s web page, allowing viewers from all over the globe to screen the documentary at their leisure.
“Rocky Mountain PBS members love history,” Speer says. “Science and history are like favorite, favorite favorites of our viewers. … ‘Colorado Experience’s’ first season was met with great viewership and ratings. We repeated the full season three times, with three airings a week. This one will probably air about nine times, if we follow our pattern from last year.”
Riveting though the DU documentary may be, it can’t possible be comprehensive, Speer notes. “It’s really hard to take 150 years and boil it down to half an hour.”
RMPBS audiences also will enjoy a series of two-minute “interstitials” drawn from the documentary. These brief spots, which will air as bridges between longer shows, are a benefit of the University’s sponsorship of “Colorado Experience,” made possible through the generosity of Trustee Doug Scrivner (JD ’77) and his wife, Mary.