By Stephen Knapp
For the Courant
It’s an amphibian free-for-all.
It’s ribbeting entertainment.
It’s a frog day afternoon.
And it’s back.
Boldly busting a seven-year dry spell, on Saturday, June 30, the wet and wacky Empire Frog Rodeo leaps back onto Clear Creek County’s summer schedule, and the whole town is saddling up for the fun.
“It’s definitely a small-town event, and almost everyone in town is involved,” says rodeo organizer Sally Rush. “The event had a 25-year history in Empire, and I saw the last one in 2005. It’s one of the things that enchanted me about this town.” So much so that Rush moved to Empire a year later and helped spearhead efforts to revive the merry mountain carnival.
This year’s enchantment kicks off at 10:30 a.m. as the not-even-a-little dignified Empire Frog Rodeo Parade takes the quarter-mile moseys down Bard Creek Road to Minton Park and Ballfield.
“The parade is definitely local color,” Rush says. “Anyone or anything may show up — bikes, dogs, burros, politicians. One entry that Clear Creek is proud of is the new Cub Scout troop that meets in Idaho Springs.”
Spectators not immediately identifying the pageant’s underlying theme may be affected by the sharp sun and thin air at 8,600 feet, or could be distracted by the striking pine-clad peaks on every side, or may simply be busy checking their text-messages when the genuine Texas longhorn bull ambles past with a giant frog perched on his tawny back.
Them what’s never had the pleasure might not be aware of the subtle differences that distinguish a frog rodeo from the more common horsey varieties. For starters, they can expect to see frogs — green tree frogs, specifically, known in squinting circles as Hyla cinerea; spirited, clean-limbed creatures imbued by nature with speed, cunning, and sleek little heads that are mighty hard to lasso. They can also expect to see kids; utterly captivated and purely delighted kids; inexpert frog wranglers doing their comical best to drive their bug-eyed champions to victory with squirt guns.
“It’s really, really exciting,” Rush laughs. “It’s also totally chaotic. The parents get as excited as the kids. It’s worse than little league.”
The main event launches at high noon, Empire welcomes all comers, and admission is a mere $1 a head, or $3 per family. Those who didn’t think to pack a frog when they left the house can purchase one for a very reasonable $5.
“This is mainly for kids, as few events during the summer are. We’ll have the old-fashioned games like bean-toss, horseshoes, go-fishing, water-balloon contest and three-legged sack race, all with prizes provided by the Redman Hall, Mad Creek Bed and Breakfast, and the town of Empire. And every kid who participates will get a really cute frog medallion to wear around their neck. There’ll also be bouncy rooms — one just to bounce, the other an obstacle course.”
And while the little ‘uns are whooping it up at the park, there’ll be fun enough for the big ‘uns on the ballfield next door. Because a sunny day in the park goes down cooler with a soundtrack, local rock-and-whatnot band Empire Strikes Back will lend musical color to the lively scene.
“We do everything from Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young to Grateful Dead to Blues Brothers,” says band member Timothy Knowles. “Classic rock, plus whatever we like.”
As it happens, Knowles is also orchestrating the vendor area, and the lineup he’s put together would be hard to beat.
“There’ll be a drum circle with Redman drums, children’s books by Usborne Books and More, and jewelry by Davora Designs,” says Knowles. “The Idaho Springs Ghost Hunters will have a face-painting booth, and there’ll be a full-size Indian tepee.”
Astute shoppers will want to snag a highly collectible Empire Frog Rodeo T-shirt, which history shows to be beautifully designed and rarer than frog’s teeth. Speaking of teeth, there’s nothing like a good time to whet the appetite, and the good people of Empire are on top of that, too.
“We’ll have a fantastic bake sale put on by the Ladies of Empire,” says Rush. “Jenny’s Restaurant and the Lewis Sweet Shop will be donating, as well as Dairy King, the Peck House and the Coffee House.”
Those wishing to follow up their dessert with a bite of lunch will enjoy the hearty bratwurst, sauerkraut and German potato salad feed being cooked up by Empire’s own Original Hard Rock Café, as well as a more typically American fare of hot dogs, soda pop and popcorn, and plenty of ice-cold suds supplied by Tomato Liquors and Serenity Wellness.
Not surprisingly, the Empire Frog Rodeo must necessarily import its main attraction from distant parts, in this case from descriptively named Reptilian Paradise on West 44th Avenue in Denver, which is importing well over a hundred of the happy hoppers from a ranch down Florida-way.
“I went to six different places before I walked into that shop,” Rush says. “They’re just what I was looking for. Very nice, very knowledgeable, and very enthusiastic to be a part of the Frog Rodeo.”
In addition to running stock, Reptilian Paradise will bring along a selection of petting breeds including, but not limited to, a bearded dragon, a Peruvian boa constrictor, George the chameleon, and a lumbering tortoise named Speed Bump.
Better and better. But with so much fun to be had, a body can’t help but wonder why Empire suspended the franchise in the first place. The answer lies in basic humanitarian — or perhaps amphibian — impulses. While Hyla cinerea is wonderfully adapted to survive the rainforest’s moist perils, he’s not nearly so well-equipped to endure the exuberant affections of keyed-up 6-year-olds, and casualty rates tended to be high. This time around, Rush and her neighbors instituted policies that will both increase the event’s madcap qualities while keeping mayhem to a minimum.
For one thing, circular racetracks will give competitors a field clear of little stomping feet. For another, a pair of race officials will closely monitor every heat to make sure every competitor is afforded the protections guaranteed by the Marquess of Queensbury, or some reasonable facsimile thereof. Perhaps most important, Reptilian Paradise will offer for sale a range of portable frog habitats so that nobody’s wee fly-catcher need depart clenched in its master’s tiny fist, and will happily round up and stable any unattached frogs at the end of the day’s excitements.
“This won’t just be the first frog rodeo we’ve had in years,” Rush says, “it could be the best one Empire ever had.”
To learn more about the Empire Frog Rodeo, visit www.empirefrogrodeo.com.