Kaptain Ka-Boom: Paul Stone lived life as if shot out of a cannon

Paul Stone, a k a “The Cannon Guy,” was the DCPA Theatre Company’s first shop foreman. Photo by John Moore.

Paul Stone was not an actor, but he certainly knew how to put on a show.

Stone was a pyro-technician, fireworks aficionado and the original shop foreman for the Denver Center for the Performing Arts Theatre Company. More than 35 years later, he  is still spoken of in reverential tones as the founder of the DCPA’s Power Tool Olympics.

The what?

The Power Tool Olympics. You know: Boxing matches with power drills as the pugilists. High-diving competitions with saws making death-defying leaps into pools of water. A toaster triathlon.

Stone was the rare backstage theatre technician who could steal the spotlight in a snap – while donning a Lilly Pulitzer print. But he never chose acting for his own career, said lifelong friend Adrian Egolf, “because he was too smart for that. There were too many other things he wanted to do with his life.”    

Stone died Monday night in Lansing, Kan., of ALS, or Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis, often referred to as Lou Gehrig’s disease. He was 65. 

“I cannot imagine another human soul who embodied so much playfulness and silliness,” said Egolf, a Creede native, DCPA actor (Benediction) and sidekick in any number of ridiculous Paul Stone productions from the age of 7. “He was a true original.”

Stone worked at theatres across the country as a carpenter and props director before settling in the tiny town of Creede, which is nestled in the San Juan Mountains 250 miles southwest of Denver. 

Paul Stone Quote
Photo courtesy John Gary Brown.

In Creede, Stone is known simply as “The Cannon Guy.” Kaptain Ka-Boom. He would amuse himself by firing bowling balls off the mountainside next to the town. He even applied to shoot Hunter S. Thompson’s ashes out of a cannon — and reportedly made it into the top five.

“He liked to blow things up,” said Egolf. “Toilets, turkeys, TVs, flourescent lightbulbs. … He called it ‘explosion therapy.’ ”

Stone also made perfect ham sandwiches by shooting the tasty luncheon meat through a series of blades he constructed. It was an elaborate cannon accessory that produced sandwiches in a manner David Letterman would have applauded as the stupidest of human tricks.

“A lot of people think Americans are just a bunch of gun nuts — but a lot of us are into artillery too,” Stone said in a 2010 interview with The Denver Post.

Stone lived his life, friends said, always in danger of growing up. His story, they say, is a lesson in living the life you imagine.

Each May, when Creede Rep’s 70 or so seasonal company members arrive for the summer, Stone would lead them into the Rio Grande National Forest on a cannon-shoot pilgrimage. A typical bowling ball travels a half-mile up in the air and lands about a mile away.

“People get scared when they hear the sound of cannon fire in town,” Stone said. “But I’ve gotten pretty good at not endangering people’s lives.”

The tradition started 25 years ago as a promotion for a now-defunct local bowling alley. People would drop a ball off a cliff, aiming it at a tiny bowling pin placed all the way at the bottom. “It would bounce like God’s Superball — we’re talking 1,200 feet in the air,” said Stone. He built his cannon as a ball return, “because we got tired of carrying them back up the hill.”

Stone called his cannon shenanigans performance art. “It’s the best street theater you’ll ever see — without the street,” he said. “Or the theater.”

His friends chronicled all of their crazy Stone stories in a video documentary by Allie Quiller titled Paul Freakin’ Stone: That’s Who.

The trailer introducing Allie Quiller’s documentary, “Paul Freakin’ Stone: That’s Who.”

“Paul is a fixture in Creede and the theatre world in general,” said Kate Berry, a former actor with the Creede Repertory Theatre. “He’s kind of a technical theatre god. And his life has been pretty incredible.”

That life began Nov. 3, 1950, in Casper, Wyo. He attended high school in Kansas City and attended the University of Kansas, where he once hosted a stand-up show that included him performing open-heart surgery on a Cabbage Patch Doll — with a chainsaw. While washing (and blow-drying) his hair. While doing his taxes (long form, natch). While shooting his foot out of a cannon. 

Stone first visited Creede after his freshman year of college in 1972. “As with many, he was sucked into the magic of Creede and couldn’t get away,” said actor Christy Brandt, who just completed her 41st season with the Creede Repertory Theatre.

Stone moved to Creede the next year to be the company’s full-time shop foreman. Although his budding romance with Brandt fizzled, Stone would be the best man in her wedding to John Gary Brown in 1981.

Stone always wanted to work for the movies, so he left Creede for Los Angeles in 1974. He built sets for a string of Hollywood blockbusters including “Jaws,” “Marathon Man” and “The Towering Inferno.”

“But I think L.A. was too crazy for him,” Brandt said. “He was crazy enough on his own.”

Stone worked for some of the nation’s top regional theatre companies, including the Seattle Repertory Theatre, Arena Stage, Oregon Shakespeare Festival and Alaska Repertory Theatre.

He returned to Creede and bought a piece of land for $50. He built his own house out of salvage from two dilapidated houses. The new place included a greenhouse on the first floor. “He put in a drip system and grew tomatoes and marijuana,” Brandt said with a laugh. “He may have been Colorado’s first grower.”

Stone was widely loved in Creede, in part because he was a handyman and could fix anything in a town where the winter population drops to 500 and the average annual snowfall is 47 inches. Oh, and he was a stripper.

“It’s true,” Brandt said. “If you were having a bachelor party, you called Paul. He would dress as a woman … or not.” In 2007, Egolf surprised her mother for her birthday by hiring Stone. He came as a fisherman. “I remember fishing waders … and a very large pole,” said Christina Egolf.

Stone worked in various capacities at the theatre in Creede, including designing scenery and props. At the meet-and-greet each May, Stone would always introduce himself as the company psychiatrist. “If any of you girls have any problems, come to me,” he would say.

Though Stone never married, “Paul was very successful with the ladies,” Brandt said. He built a hot tub on his property that was affectionately referred to as “The Babe Crock Pot.” “Whenever you wanted to find the most beautiful young women in the company,” Brandt said, “the first place you would check was the Crock Pot.”

They were drawn, she said, by Stone’s singular sense of humor.

When asked why a man who loved noise and constant visual stimulation chose to make Creede his home headquarters for more than 40 years, Stone said, “I like the peace and quiet.” (Seriously.)

In June 2013, Stone was diagnosed with ALS, an insidious, progressive neurodegenerative disease that affects nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord. ALS robs patients of voluntary muscle action, leading to paralysis and eventual death. The disease left Stone and his family with more than $100,000 in medical expenses. Using an online fundraising page, friends have paid the tab down to about $56,000.

Stone rarely spoke about his disease. “When he was diagnosed, all he said was, ‘I am going to get the fastest electric wheelchair ever made,’ ” Brandt said. “And he did. I raced him in it.”

The disease progressively robbed Stone of his ability to walk and talk. “But his sense of humor was the last thing to disappear,” Brandt said.

Stone was the youngest of five brothers. He is survived by brothers Tim, Ted and Jay, and their mother, Edna Stone. He was preceded in death by brother Mike.

Stone insisted there be no memorial service, but today (Jan. 28), the town of Creede is observing Paul Stone Day at the Creede Historical Museum, where Stone’s cannon is now on permanent display.

He has donated his body to scientists for ALS research. After a period of time, his ashes will be returned to his family. “And I am sure he will want his ashes blown out of a cannon,” Brandt said.

Adrian Egolf said Stone’s life was essentially an ongoing, entertaining mashup of vaudeville and burlesque.

“What I love most about Paul is that he has never apologized for anything he has ever done,” she said. And why would he?

“He never found anything that he did to be strange or out of the ordinary.”

Simply put, Brandt said: “He was one of the wittiest, most entertaining, most imaginative people the world has ever seen.”

Paul Stone riding on motorcycle in Creede’s Fourth of July parade, raising money for his annual fireworks display. Photo by John Gary Brown.

Social media comments:
Cassaundra Rene Seamster Honeycutt: “The world, and especially Creede, was a better place for having him in it. He was one-of-a-kind, and a kind one to boot.”

Mig Lillig: “If not for Paul, my children would not know that you can fry a pickle; that  trophies can be works of art; that vacuums can suck up just about everything; that fireworks can rise from mountains, or that you can live your life exactly how you want.”

Deb Stavin: “Paul is one of the funniest and most original, creative people I’ve been lucky to meet in my life. Thanks for the many fabulous, blow-milk-out-my-nose, hilarious moments.”

Paul Stone Creede. Photo by John Gary Brown.
Paul Stone riding with Scott Lamb in Creede’s 2015 Fourth of July parade, above. Below: the final canon shoot at the rifle range near Creede in 2014. Photos by John Gary Brown.

Paul Stone Creede. Photo by John Gary Brown.

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