Chaney makes it happen behind the scenes
The New Ute Events Center has been open for more than a year now, and the downtown hub in Rifle plays host to live music, theater performances, movie screenings, stand-up comedy and private events including weddings, birthday parties and quinceañeras.
It’s a busy little building, with a busy little staff of one: Don Chaney, cultural and special events manager for the city of Rifle.
Chaney accepted his jack-of-all-trades position just over a year ago. On any given day, he’s changing out the marquee, teaching himself how to use the Ute’s popcorn machine when his volunteers aren’t able to come, hunting down a new amp when his musical act isn’t happy with the one its got, appeasing a caterer frustrated with details in his contract, handling ticket sales, sending press releases to media outlets, booking acts and fixing any other problems that could get in the way of a performance running smoothly.
It turns out Chaney’s work experience makes him a perfect fit for the position, even though he felt like an underdog when he applied.
“I couldn’t believe I got it because there were some really qualified people that also applied,” Chaney said. “But it was the three things I did since I was 18 that are all culminated in this job: hospitality, production and marketing.”
IT ALL STARTED WITH DEVO
One of Chaney’s qualifications comes from his experience in event production. That facet of his skill set came from an obsession with the new wave band Devo when he was growing up in Hood River, Oregon, in the ‘80s.
“Way back when I was in high school, what really turned me to the music business was me and my friend, we were these punk new wavers in this small town where we were kind of considered freaks,” he said. “And we loved the band Devo, and we got them to let us interview them for spring break in L.A. for our high school newspaper. They let us come to their studio in Hollywood, and they were really cool to us.”
After that interview, when the band came to Portland on tour, Chaney called Devo’s manager again to see if he could get himself and his friend back stage and into the show.
“I’m sure we were just annoying as hell,” he said with a laugh. “But they made sure that we all got backstage and treated special, the whole thing.
“But it was then that I realized I was more interested in what was going on behind the scenes of a show, or as interested, as I was sitting in the chair watching it. And it never stopped from that point.”
Chaney has worked as a concert producer and even had his own company, 11th Hour Productions, where he would come to music festivals on the day of the show and help out the festival producers. He also worked on the production of the second ever Jazz Aspen Snowmass, and he worked with the festival for six years.
His experience behind the scenes is a major reason why he’s a perfect fit as the manager of the Ute. He handles sound and lights during performances, and he fixes technical problems that bands may have.
“Bill Graham, who is my idol, said, ‘Every event almost doesn’t happen,’” Chaney said. “And it’s so true. There’s something the audience never knows about that almost keeps the show from happening. And that spurs a million stories for anyone who’s been in that business, from missing bands, to somebody who’s not happy with a contract, to a caterer that’s pissed off, just something.”
A KNACK FOR RADIO
In addition to his experience in event production, Chaney’s time spent as a radio DJ has played a vital part in his competence at the Ute. He’s responsible for communicating with media outlets to get the word out about all the Ute’s events.
Chaney studied journalism at Portland State University, and at the time, he wanted to work for the advertising agency Wieden+Kennedy, which had just come up with the “Just Do It” campaign for Nike and was a major player in the ad world.
But then a man came in and gave a lecture on writing radio copy, and Chaney was hooked.
“I just thought the guy was cool, and I talked to him afterward, and he talked me into being an intern at his Portland radio station,” he said. “I just sort of fell into it — that was ‘89 — and I never got out of it. It’s one of those businesses where you leave and come back, and you swear you’re never going to do it again, and then someone offers you a job. I’ve left radio ‘for good’ so many times.”
A part of working as a radio DJ is having a second job, Chaney said. So he supported himself by working as a waiter. He said that customer service and hospitality experience also comes into play at the Ute. He’s the ticket seller, sometimes the concession stand attendant, and he makes sure people are happy with the setup of their private events.
Chaney has held a variety of radio roles in Denver and in the valley. In fact, the only reason he was available for his current position with the city of Rifle was because he was let go from KSNO in Aspen.
“I’d been with them for seven years, and Marcos Rodriguez was going to buy them,” he said. “And he decided he didn’t want to buy it. I mean, one day I had the most secure radio job I could ask for — a morning show in Aspen, good ratings, everybody’s happy — and one day he comes in and says, ‘Don, I’m not buying the station, and you just did your last show.’ It’s radio. It’s not the first time it’s happened.”
After that, Rifle Councilor Dirk Myers told Chaney about the opening as the city’s cultural and special events manager.
WHAT THE UTE CAN DO
Chaney has been working hard to get the word out about the Ute for the last year. He’s finally at a point where booking agencies are reaching out to him, whereas before he would have to search for acts to pitch the theater.
The Ute has had some gems come through, including the Glenn Miller Orchestra and John McEuen of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band. Next month, the Ute will host Lukas Nelson, the son of Willie Nelson.
Chaney is able to snag these bigger acts because Rifle is a midpoint between bigger cities in Colorado and Utah, and when bands have a few free days on tour, those are days they’re not getting paid. It’s in these situations that musicians are especially willing to take a risk on a small city like Rifle.
Chaney also, once a month, pitches what he calls “fantasy booking requests,” because if you don’t ask, you’ll never know.
“I ask an artist that’s so far and away too big to ever play the Ute Theatre, and I give them a compelling reason — maybe for a video or promotional opportunity,” he said. “It’s country artists that I’ve mostly been pitching this too. We’re in Rifle, Colorado. Why not do a video from the Ute Theatre in Rifle, Colorado?”
Chaney has gotten some interest from Ted Nugent’s manager and from Zac Brown, but so far he’s heard no promises.
Although the music side is more up Chaney’s alley, he’s finding the private events are just as important and fulfilling to him.
“In the year and two months I’ve worked here, the stuff that’s been in the theater has made me realize that an event can mean so many different things, and it’s great to be a little tiny part of all of them,” he said. “The Latino community uses the heck out of this theater. I know everyone in that community in Rifle as well as I know anyone right now because I’ve seen them at 30 different events at the theater. I know their kids — now when they come back for a wedding or something, they come and find me. It’s just awesome.”
Chaney’s hope is that the Ute becomes a go-to place for entertainment in Rifle. Rather than only coming out for a big event, he hopes people will start to think, “It’s Friday night; we should go check out the Ute.”
“I think in the long term, I just hope it becomes even more of a community center than it’s starting to feel like now, on a daily basis,” he said.
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