Deer Pile art space fills niche for DIY Denver creatives

On any given night at the Deer Pile, curious pedestrians can wander into the second-floor space
and hear comedy, poetry, podcast recordings and live music, or participate in an improv class or a record swap, attend an activist meeting and, later this year, take a college-level literature course.

The 775-square-foot room, which sits above the hip City O’ City vegetarian restaurant at East 13th Avenue and Sherman Street on Capitol Hill, has been filling a need among young creative types hungry for a multipurpose, all-ages space for shows, meetings and more.

Deer Pile co-founder Jonny DeStefano poses for a portrait before an evening of improv comedy.

The Deer Pile’s role as a de facto community center and home to progressive causes is based on nurturing artists and delivering them to audiences. And all without charging a dime.

“It’s not a bar, and it’s not really a licensed venue, because it’s all free or donation-based,” said Nathan Lund, who helps run the Deer Pile’s popular “Too Much Fun” stand-up showcase each Wednesday night. “The reason most other shows exist is to sell drinks and food for the venue, but the Deer Pile is definitely a labor of love.”

Breaking down the barriers of cost and age is not a new concept for a venue, but it’s one that has attracted a dedicated scene of aspiring artists and activists — as well as legitimate performers — to the Deer Pile to barter with a different type of currency.

In the two years it’s been open, attendees have seen professional opera singing, short films, a two-week “Vagina Monologues” run, hip-hop titans A Tribe Called Quest and Comedy Works headliners like the Sklar Brothers, Kyle Kinane and Ben Roy. But they’ve also attended Occupy Denver and PETA meetings and poured out their souls at lesbian open-mikes.

“We had no preprogrammed idea of what it was going to be,” said Daniel Landes, owner of City O’ City and Denver’s Watercourse Foods.

Landes bought the long brick building, which was erected in 1937 and takes up half of the block between Grant and Sherman streets on 13th, for $1.8 million in 2012 — right around the time he was renovating and expanding City O’ City.

Landes’ friend Jonny DeStefano, a longtime and well-connected Denver musician, was also trying to start a comedy-music series with comedian Lund at City O’ City called Laughs and Beats.

But they were quickly stymied by word of city regulators cracking down other Capitol Hill bars for not having a cabaret license — which is required to put on live entertainment in a venue that sells liquor — so they killed the idea after the first show.

The Deer Pile space, which for years had been a print-making shop, storage room and, in the 1960s and ’70s, a rumored bathhouse, had been neglected and littered with cinderblocks and trash.

With Landes’ permission, DeStefano and friend/comedian Abbey Jordan worked around the clock to clean up the space, enlisting friends like artist Derek Keenan to come up with a theme.

Sheen suggested the Deer Pile — which he communicated graphically with a giant black-and-white mural of three deer, er, procreating in a pile.

“At first it was like the cleanup job from the Wolf in ‘Pulp Fiction,’ ” said DeStefano, the space’s co-founder. “We hid stuff behind pallets and sheets. It was creepy but kind of cool.”

“I thought it would be fun to call it the Golden Dome, just because you can see the Capitol from the windows,” Landes said. “But when I walked in and saw that (deer) mural at 2 a.m. one night I said, ‘That’s dumb. This is much better!’ And as soon as we opened we realized there was this huge need for something like this, and people started coming up with their own ideas of how to fill the space.”

The Fine Gentleman’s Club comedy troupe was first with their “Too Much Fun” showcase, which had been unceremoniously booted from the suddenly-shuttered Rockaway Tavern a few weeks prior.

The main Deer Pile room, which seats about 60 but can pack in more sans folding chairs, quickly grew a reputation as a cool, do-it-yourself art scene as additional comedians and artists began flocking to it. Soon adjacent rooms were turned into artist workspaces and a yoga studio, expanding the Deer Pile “brand,” as Landes calls it, to the entire second floor of the building.

Now the only requirement to book a show at the Deer Pile performance space is to find an open date on the calendar, request it from booker/manager Johnny Morehouse, and promise to promote it.

“If you can bring your friends out and respect the space and have gratitude about it, you can do it,” DeStefano said. “It’s ‘a shame-free environment,’ as (Fugazi singer) Ian MacKaye once said to me.”

The cozy space has analogs in comedy and theater black-boxes like the Upright Citizens Brigade Theater in Los Angeles or the Hideout in Austin, Texas.

But without professional lighting, a stage curtain or a green room, the physical and emotional distance between performer and audience at the Deer Pile is nearly nonexistent, which encourages a casual, conversational vibe.

Of course, vibes don’t pay the rent.

But for an arts-patron like Landes, the cost-free structure makes sense since attendees often spend their money after the show downstairs at City O’ City.

“When you think about your marketing budget as an entrepreneur, a restaurateur could pay $1,000 for an ad in the paper — or, by giving something to artists, you can get something back from the community,” he said. “This is a testament to the fact that it works.”

John Wenzel: 303-954-1642, [email protected] or