Extra, Extra! A look back at Denver’s own ‘Newsies’ past

Denver Newsboys 800. Denver Public Library

A group of children, probably delivery boys and girls, pose outside of The Denver Post on 16th Street sometime between 1890 and 1910. A sign reads: “The Denver Post, Every Day in the Year.” Photo by Harry H. Buckwalter reprinted with permission of the Denver Public Library

Nathan Gart, patriarch of the empire now known as Sports Authority, is just one notable character in the colorful history of Denver’s newsies

If not for the spunky street urchins who peddled papers on Denver’s street corners in the early 20th century, Mile High Stadium might not be named after the Sports Authority retail giant today.

Nathan Gart, patriarch of the Gart Brothers sporting-goods empire that has since morphed into Sports Authority, was an entrepreneurial Denver Post newsboy who owned the corner of 16th and Lawrence streets. He learned at age 12 how profitable it could be to buy watches and rings from his regular customers, mark them up and re-sell them. He opened his first store in 1928 selling fishing rods with $500 he saved from hawking one screaming headline at a time.

Denver Newsboys. Tom Payne,. Denver Public Library

(Photo above right: A portrait of Tom Payne, a Denver Post newspaper delivery boy, taken sometime between 1900 and 1920. Photo reprinted with permission of the Denver Public Library.)

Gart is just one notable character in the colorful history of Denver’s newsboys, whose plight was positively Dickensian. In 1901, The Denver Times claimed that most newsboys, almost all of whom were orphans, cripples or runaways, made 10 to 15 cents a day selling papers they sold for a nickel. The newsies looked on one particular boy who made 40 cents a day as “a bloated aristocrat,” the paper reported.

America’s most famous champion of newsboys was Horatio Alger, whose stories presented newsboys as exploited young heroes who succeeded through a mixture of pluck and luck. That is until Disney released Newsies, the 1992 musical film that introduced Christian Bale. The story, inspired by the real-life New York newsboys strike of 1899, was made into a Broadway musical in 2012 with music by Alan Menken, lyrics by Jack Feldman and a book by Harvey Fierstein.

But if legend is to be believed, Denver’s newsboys were a much tougher lot than those striking, high-stepping New Yorkers.

Benny Bee, a crackerjack Denver Post newsboy in his time, was arrested while visiting New York and charged with “disturbing the peace and tranquility of Manhattan,” according to Bill Hosokawa’s history of The Denver Post, Thunder in the Rockies. His crime? “Demonstrating to New York newsboys how papers were sold in Denver.”
Benny Bee reportedly introduced the profitable practice of “bootjacking” to his Big Apple counterparts. That’s when newsboys would mix in outdated editions of the daily paper with those that were hot off the presses and sell them to unsuspecting customers as the latest news.

This was at a time when apocalyptic shouts of “Extra! Extra!” were ubiquitous on Denver street corners. Extras were special mid-day updates to the daily newspaper that would trumpet breaking and often trumped-up news scoops. According to Hosokawa’s book, Denver’s five competing daily newspapers would issue an “extra” at the least provocation, sometimes several times a day. Burning oil fields, the bubonic plague or stolen babies were all handy tools to help newsboys sell more papers. But as soon as any new edition was printed, hundreds of now dated editions were relegated to the trash heap. Until bootjacking.

The decade after World War I was a time when newspapers were Americans’ only source of reasonably real information. TV was unknown and radio was still a novelty. This was the golden era of yellow journalism, and Denver’s dailies were quick to embellish any story or stoke any flame to sell more papers. In the 1890s, The Denver Post’s downtown office became known as “The Bucket of Blood.”

It may have been a period of contemptible journalism, but it also was the best show in town. The Post, co-founded by Frederick Bonfils and Harry Tammen, once hired comedian Charley Murray to jump off its 12-story building. A crowd of 25,000 gathered to watch what turned out to be a dummy thrown off the roof. Tammen’s mantra: “The public not only likes to be fooled — it insists upon it.”

And newsboys were part of the show — literally. They regularly got together and staged corner minstrel shows for spare change.

Denver’s newsboy tradition dates back to 1870, when young carriers would deliver copies of the Rocky Mountain News on horseback to houses that were considered far out on the prairie in those days — we’re talking what is now 7th Avenue and Broadway.

More Colorado theatre coverage on the DCPA NewsCenter

“More than once, herds of antelope sped out of my way as I rode out,” Theodore De Harport once said of his earliest newsboy days.

On Oct. 14, 1925, Denver Mayor Benjamin Stapleton signed an ordinance making it illegal for newsboys to sell papers on the street. Newsboys over age 12 — “and newsgirls over 21” — would be permitted to sell papers, but only with a free license. And the practice of calling out headlines was made a criminal offense.

In a 1959 retrospective, the Rocky Mountain News interviewed Edward J. Keating, presiding judge of Denver’s District Courts, about his days as a newspaperboy 35 years earlier. He claimed “the majority of judges in Denver and Colorado courts today earned their first dollars toward their educations by delivering newspapers.” Keating used his earnings to pay his tuition at Denver’s Cathedral High School, which he parlayed into a college scholarship.

“The newspaperboy of today has raised his work to such a high level of respect,” he said, “it has become a mark of pride for every prominent businessman and civic leader who can link his early career with the profession.”

John Moore was named one of the 12 most influential theater critics in the U.S by American Theatre Magazine in 2011. He has since taken a groundbreaking position as the Denver Center’s Senior Arts Journalist.

Special thanks to Brian Trembath of the Denver Public Library.

Disney’s Newsies: Ticket information

  • March 23-April 9 at the Buell Theatre
  • Tickets: 303-893-4100 or BUY ONLINE
  • TTY: 303-893-9582
  • Groups of 15 or more: 303-446-4829
  • Also: Purchase in person at The Denver Center Ticket Office, located at the Helen Bonfils Theatre Complex lobby. Buy and print online at DenverCenter.Org.
  •  Kids’ Night on Broadway, Talkback with the Company: 7:30 p.m. March 24
  • Accessibility performance: 2 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. April 3

Previous NewsCenter coverage of Disney’s Newsies:

Michael Gorman: The Oldsie of Newsies returns to Denver
Stephen Hernandez: Dancer’s paper trail runs from Wyoming to Newsies
Try our Newsies crossword puzzle


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