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Damon Runyon: Pueblo’s Storied Man

Iconic storyteller Damon Runyon once said, “You can keep the things of bronze and stone and give me one man to remember me just once a year.”

Today, Runyon has bronze, stone and many who remember him. Runyon’s name has connections in sports, theater, journalism and even cancer research. But before he was ever associated with sports writing or Broadway, Runyon was a Puebloan.

In 1887, Runyon’s father Alfred, a newspaperman, moved the family from Kansas to treat Runyon’s mother, Libbie, for tuberculosis. To alleviate any housework from Runyon’s mother, the family moved into the Mount Pleasant Boarding House.

Within a year, Libbie Runyan-Damon became Runyon after a typo in an article later on in life and it stuck-returned to Kansas with three of her four children because she was homesick. Damon Runyon stayed behind with his father. In 1888, Libbie Runyan returned to visit Alfred and Damon and died at the Runyan home at the age of 30.

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Photo courtesy of the Damon Runyon Cancer Research Foundation

Runyon was a grade-school dropout who followed his father into the printing business in turn-of-the-century Pueblo. He began writing for the Pueblo Chieftain as a teenager, eventually moving to Denver to write about sports for the Denver Post and then on to New York, becoming one of the most celebrated writers of the early 20th century.

Remembered as a colorful character who rubbed elbows with the likes of Al Capone, Babe Ruth and Walter Winchell, Runyon’s stories of the sports and gambling culture of prohibition-era America became the basis for dozens of feature films and the popular Broadway musical “Guys and Dolls.”

 

“If I have all the tears that are shed from Broadway by guys in love, I will have enough salt water to start an opposition ocean to the Atlantic and Pacific, with enough left over to run the Great Salt Lake out of business.” – Guys and Dolls

A Kansas City Star article said John Mosedale, author of The Men Who Invented Broadway, described Runyon “as a cold and often disagreeable man with a steely eye, the archetype of the male chauvinist even before the term had been invented.”

“(Runyon) profited from such unethical practices as secretly owning a part of a boxing organization that controlled Joe Louis and on whose fight promotions he reported for his paper. That was akin to Winchell’s practice of shaking down advertisers in one of the first periodicals for which he wrote,” the article said.

But that isn’t often how Runyon is portrayed now.

While his written work is his most well-known contribution, Runyon’s influence can be seen across the nation where streets, schools and other landmarks are named in his honor.

The Denver Press Club, where he was once a member, awards scholarships to college students and honors a renowned journalist each year at the Damon Runyon Awards banquet. Past recipients include Tom Brokaw, Bob Costas, Katie Couric and most recently, Norm Clarke of the Rocky Mountain News and Las Vegas Review-Journal.

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A popular photo of Damon Runyon, left, and Jim Wong at the Denver Press Club. Photo courtesy of the Denver Press Club

 

After his death from throat cancer in 1946, Winchell founded the Damon Runyon Cancer Research Foundation which awards fellowships to promising scientists and researchers. Eleven of the foundation’s scientists have received the Nobel Prize for medicine and research, and its members continue to produce innovative ways of treatment and diagnosis each year.

There are hundreds of places around the U.S. that bear the Runyon name, and Pueblo is home to several. Runyon Lake, a 35 acre recreational area, sits just off Runyon Field Road and Santa Fe. It’s managed by Colorado Parks and Wildlife and is stocked for a variety of fishing opportunities.

Runyon Field Road also leads to the sports complex that has carried Runyon’s name since 1948.

Judy Hildner, retired sports editor for the Pueblo Chieftain, said the ball field has had its ups and downs but thrived during the 1940s when a minor league baseball team was based in Pueblo, and it has gone through many changes over the last few decades.

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In Pueblo, the Damon Runyon Baseball Field Complex honors its namesake. For the Denver Post, Runyon’s influence is seen by creating the way sports writers covered baseball during its peak popularity. Photo by Christy Smith

“The baseball complex has been a vibrant part of Pueblo for many years,” Hildner said. “I think people want to connect with a famous person who was here in Pueblo, and that is one reason why it was named in (Runyon’s) honor.”

Runyon’s influence on sports in Pueblo may not have been extensive, but during his time in Colorado, he became a popular sports writer for the Denver Post, covering baseball when the game was a fundamental symbol of America. For the field in his boyhood home to take his name seems a fitting legacy.

According to the history on its website, Runyon Field once hosted Babe Ruth in an exhibition game, and since the 1980s, it has added several diamonds, concession stands and a clubhouse with money from grants and community support.

The complex is managed by Dave Dudley and Charlie Manning, longtime supporters of sports in Pueblo. Dudley taught and coached in District 70 for 30 years, and Manning spent 15 years coaching high school softball. Although both retired from coaching, they now work together to organize games for the nearly 150 teams that play at the Runyon complex each season.

Manning, who has been with Runyon Field for six years, said he has no regrets about coming out of retirement to work with Dudley.

“It’s right down my alley. We are a two man crew, and we work well together,” he said.

He is also proud of the community feel of the complex where advertising dollars go to keep the cost of playing ball reasonable for families.

“We rely on local businesses to advertise, which keeps the costs down for the kids.  There are scholarships where they have to meet a certain criteria, and then we require the kids to come and volunteer. They work and earn their money,” he said. “I’ve recommended a lot of the kids and have seen them go on to good careers. They represent the organization (Runyon Field) and make us proud.”

“Anyone can write about winners. I write about losers.” – Damon Runyon

Damon Runyon was a writer, first and foremost. Once he left Colorado and made his way to New York City, his style developed and he drew his readers into the world of gangs, gambling and prohibition. He frequented Manhattan nightclubs and wrote stories about the people and places around Broadway.

“Anyone can write about winners. I write about the losers,” many friends and acquaintances heard him say.

In Pueblo, one man decided to honor Runyon’s literary and Broadway connections by founding the Damon Runyon Repertory Theatre. Sean Briggs, who started the group in 1997, said he chose the name because it had theatrical significance.

“We were throwing around names; it had a local flair and was a natural fit,” he said. “We even had a local history unit in fourth or fifth grade where a film was shown about Damon Runyon. Many of his influential stories were about Pueblo, and our community doesn’t really know the influence he had.”

Runyon still contributed to the local Pueblo news from time to time after moving away, and some of his most famous stories and characters developed out of his experiences in Colorado, Briggs said. Sky Masterson, one of the main characters in “Guys and Dolls,” was based off a meeting with Bat Masterson, one of the most famous marshals in the Old West who was involved in the Royal Gorge Wars in the late 1800s. Ironically, Bat Masterson spent his later years in New York and, much like Runyon, he was a columnist for the local newspapers.

“He (Runyon) was a common man’s writer, mixing the lingos of Pueblo and New York. They call some of his expressions ‘Runyonisms’ because they are so unique to him,” Briggs said.

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Pueblo’s Runyon Theater is on homage to the man who is often credited with creating modern-day Broadway in New York City. He has a street named after him there: “Runyon Way,” which is just off Broadway. Photo by Christy Smith

In Runyon’s writings guns were ‘rods’ and money was ‘scratch.’ Men and women were ‘guys and dolls.’

The building that now houses the theatre at 611 N. Main Street has a colorful history and even made the list of most haunted locations in Pueblo. It opened in 1918 as the Rialto, which Briggs said contained half stage for performances and half screen for silent movies. In the 1930s, it became the Chief Theatre and was fitted for sound.

“This was the elite house, the most posh of all the movie theaters in Pueblo,” Briggs said. “It showed all the Disney films when they came out, up until 1989.”

The Runyon Repertory Theatre took over the spot in 2003, bringing musicals and live performances back to the historic building, and Briggs feels like the theatre has found its permanent home. The Rep puts on a variety of programs for youth in the community and hosts shows each year from the in-house company, touring companies from New York, Chicago and film showcases and the theatre program for East High School.

Briggs said “Guys and Dolls,” the musical based on Damon Runyon’s short stories, has been performed in the theatre twice, connecting his days in Pueblo to the space which now bears his name.

Back across I-25, in the middle of the baseball diamonds and concessions at the Runyon Sports Complex stands a bronze and stone sculpture of Damon Runyon and two young baseball players. Inscribed on the nameplate is a short biography of Runyon. The final words of the inscription seem to answer Runyon’s desire to be remembered, not just in bronze and stone, but as a “storied name known far and wide in Pueblo and throughout America.”  

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