The annual production dates to 1946
Although it has had a variety of sponsors, caretakers, principals and venues through the years, the Gridiron Show always has been rooted in the traditions and characters of the Denver Press Club. The club has been a place for brainstorming, scriptwriting, rehearsals, spiritual inspiration and inspirational spirits.
Gridiron was started in 1946 by two Rocky Mountain News legends: the late Sam Lusky, then the paper’s city editor, and the late Pasquale (Pocky) Marranzino, a columnist for the Rocky.
At that time, Marranzino was president of the Denver Newspaper Guild, and the Guild needed money. World War II had depleted the union’s ranks and emaciated its coffers. Lusky suggested putting on a Gridiron dinner like the one put on by the National Press Club in Washington to raise money for the Guild. “We played the idea back, and back again, and with each liquid stimulant visions of theatrical sugarplums danced through our heads,” Marranzino wrote in 1984.
Lusky suggested scheduling the show for the Sunday before Election Day – a tradition that continued for years, helping to ensure a big turnout of political candidates eager for a mention, even an embarrassing one.
Tickets for the first Gridiron were just five bucks each, and the show was a sellout; every one of the 250 seats in the old Albany Hotel ballroom was filled. The following year, the tab went to $12.50 and the venue moved to the Silver Glade ballroom in the Cosmopolitan Hotel. That 1947 show sold 400 tickets.
The Gridiron stayed at the Cosmo for much of the next quarter-century. Both hotels were demolished years ago: the Albany in 1977 and the Cosmopolitan in a spectacular planned implosion in 1984. The first generation of the Gridiron Show had imploded a few years before, in 1979, when the Newspaper Guild ended its sponsorship.
The 2014 Gridiron Show played at the Reiman Theater in the newly renovated Margery Reed Hall building (2306 East Evans Avenue) on the University of Denver campus, next to the Daniels College of Business.
Tom Murray and Tom Pade of Media Memo magazine brought the show back in 1984 to raise scholarship money for students at the Community College of Denver. The show was held every other year until 1990 when, again, it was dropped.
The 1984 show was welcomed back with, among other things, an executive order from then-Gov. Dick Lamm, who “urge[d] everyone attending the dinner to roast, grill, insult, slander and revile everyone attending or not attending the Gridiron Dinner with artistry, affection and zeal, in honor of their dedication and devotion to their profession and community.” Lamm was later to appear in the show as the Statue of Liberty, in a tinfoil crown carrying a tinfoil torch.
Lamm’s appearance was one of Gridiron’s often-memorable moments. Others included Bob Stapp’s annual monologues; the frequent reprise of “The Olinger Cross,” a song to the tune of “The Old Rugged Cross” and commemorating the mortuary’s mountainside display of lights; the time stripper Evelyn “Treasure Chest” West disrobed to the waist while appearing as a nurse in a skit; or the time Post staffer Sharon Sherman stabbed her hand (for real) with a prop knife and stanched the flow with a piece of bread until she could get to the DGH emergency room after the show.
Through the years, the show has depended particularly on the writing talents of Press Club members like Lusky and Marranzino, Jim Crawford and Cary Stiff during the ’70s, Dusty Saunders and Fred Brown during various decades, and recently – and especially – Bruce Goldberg, who has been the principal driving force behind it every year since reviving it in 1990.
Gridiron was the opportunity for the press and community leaders to step back and laugh at themselves. It was the leveling of the playing field that served to foster better working relationships between reporting press and working government and industry. The Gridiron is on hiatus starting in 2016.