Venue Voices — The Historic Mercury Cafe Isn’t Going Anywhere

Venue Voices is a new monthly series shining a spotlight on all the incredible venues Denver has to offer and the people who keep them running. Denver is one of the greatest music cities in the country, having become a mandatory destination for some of the biggest names in music while fostering a vibrant, thriving local scene made up of artists of all types. The over 30 venues that exist in Denver and the surrounding areas make this fact possible for there would be no music scene without places to dance with those you love the most and strangers alike. From massive stadiums to intimate rooms, Venue Voices will take a deep dive into a different Denver venue each month, speaking to the people who run them in order to learn each venue’s history, challenges and triumphs while also taking a look at what the future holds. 

For the next installment of Venue Voices, 303 Magazine spoke with the new owner of the beloved Mercury Cafe, Danny Newman, about the venue’s history and his plans for the future. 

READ: Venue Voices — How Cervantes’ Masterpiece Ballroom Became a Home for Fans and Artists Alike

The Mercury Cafe was first opened by Marilyn Megenity in 1975 in Indian Hills, Colorado with the intention of creating a home for “poets, punks, rebels and artists from all walks of life.” On Halloween of 1990, they moved to their current location in Denver on 22nd and California St. where it became the bohemian epicenter for the city’s creatives. On June 22, 2021, Megenity passed the torch to Newman and his partners, Christy Kruzick and Austin Gayer, after almost 50 years as owner.

Colloquially referred to as the “Merc,” the venue’s walls drip with life and stories, the hopes and dreams of revolutionaries and tastemakers alike embedded beneath the lights and pieces of art that adorn them. It’s a multifaceted venue dedicated to creativity, community and good trouble. 

In addition to having hosted some of the biggest bands in the world such as Weezer, Blink-182, No Doubt and Radiohead, the Merc is home to the city’s longest-running open mic night, Sunday poetry slams and swing dance classes. They host monthly psychedelic meetups and professional gatherings for CEOs and crypto fanatics. Patrons can get tarot readings and browse their free bookshelf. They have peculiar water-saving toilets and an innumerable amount of fairy lights hanging from the ceiling. Their events calendar is a snapshot of their passion for cross-pollination in the Denver creative community. 

When Megenity first opened the Mercury in the ’70s, she took the leap holding onto a trifecta of a spiritual vision, some restaurant experience and a small inheritance. She initially envisioned a cozy booth filled with friends enjoying a glass of wine and an organic meal while simultaneously plotting a revolution. Able to book a band for the venue, lobby for windmill legislation and reconfigure her ’82 Mercedes to run on biodiesel on the same day, Megenity’s passion for community, activism, and art transformed the place from a sustainable, organic restaurant into the creative haven it’s now known to be. 

After almost five decades as owner, Megenity decided it was time to pass the torch and listed the Mercury for sale in March 2021. Newman contacted Megenity within 30 minutes of listing. He was highly motivated to preserve such a historic space and ensure the original vision and energy of the Merc remained. Newman grew up in Denver and has been attending events there since he was 12 years old. 

“I wouldn’t really consider the purchase a business decision. It was purely emotional. It didn’t make financial sense. But the Mercury Cafe is a staple of Denver — somewhere classic and unique, full of long-lasting tradition and creativity. There was no way I was going to let something like that go without a fight.”

After agreeing to the sale and a vague date to make the transaction, Megenity turned to the stars for an exact meeting time. She’s a fierce businesswoman but she also looks to astrology to guide her. After learning the star signs of the new owners, she chose 5:15 a.m. on June 22nd, 2021 as the divine time to sign the papers and send the Mercury Cafe into its next era.  

Though Newman had experience purchasing and preserving some of Denver’s most unique spaces such as My Brother’s Bar, the Merc presented a unique challenge. He said, “I completely underestimated how many different things were happening there. We’ve got all of these different nights, all of these different stages and all of these different reasons that groups and clubs call the Mercury their home. It was a very big learning experience but one that was fun to jump into.” He quickly had to find a delicate balance between preserving all that has made the Merc so beloved for so many years while making necessary changes in order for it to survive in the modern age. 

The bar and restaurant were streamlined in certain ways. They began accepting debit and credit cards for the first time in 50 years. Newman also called on Gringo’s Tacos to make the menu more conducive to the event-oriented space, now offering more handheld items like tacos and tortas that can be held while dancing or reading. 

The space is separated into a few areas. The bar and restaurant are known as the Rose Room. A wall of mirrors reflects the warm red glow of everything while booths and plush couches are spread between multiple levels. The upstairs ballroom hosts local bands, swing dancing, weddings, and private events, while the Jungle Room is home to weekly poetry readings and jazz band performances. Each room is available to rent out for parties and events of all kinds. 

Newman’s experiences with these stages at a young age fostered an early understanding of community and creativity, allowing his eyes to open to the infinite possibilities a place like the Merc holds. “I started going to the best shows ever in middle and high school, and that was probably the most magical era in The Merc’s history. Every single band that played there went on to be huge.” 

Every kind of person imaginable has walked through those doors, which was always Megenity’s intention. The staff is an eclectic group of kind creatives who are passionate about sharing the Merc’s philosophy with customers. Bartenders often use their breaks to read poems at the open mic. The red velvet curtain into the Jungle Room is a portal into what’s known as the “Isle of Misfit Toys,” a room filled with toys created in the likenesses of the poets who have called the space home. This includes Andrea Gibson, the 2023 poet laureate of Colorado, and winner of the first Women’s World Poetry Slam, who has even said they wish their ashes to be spread at the Merc

This speaks to just how special of a place the Mercury Cafe is. It’s not just a place that has shows and an open mic. Poetry is built into its very foundation. Music echoes through its halls. Laughter emanates from the Ballroom as spirits disguised as memories dance eternally. It’s a haven created by the compounded dreams of those who look to the sky and are reminded that the earth below them is theirs to shape into something beautiful.

Although the owner has recently changed, the philosophy will remain the same under Newman’s watch. He said:

“These are the types of places that people think of when they think of things that are unique to a city. It’s not an artificial community. It’s real, homegrown community. I want everyone to hopefully help keep places like ours alive by frequenting it, by thinking of us, and by helping promote us. But also know that we have no plans to sell out. We are in this to keep authentic community going. It currently feels really hard. But I’m here as long as you, Denver, are here to be part of it as well.”

Fall and Halloween are the most magical times to visit the Merc. Danny is excited about their upcoming 23-year anniversary which will feature the Itchy-O Hallow Mass. This is typically a one or two-night event, but this year they are doing two shows per night for five nights. Purchase your tickets to this one-of-a-kind spooky experience here

Their space is also available to host your holiday parties, business meetings, book signings, and a variety of special events. Book here.

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