30 years in the fast lane
Ralph Dinosaur reflects on life as a Western Slope rock ’n’ roll icon

Ralph Dinosaur gets some backup help from a member of the audience during a show last Friday at Scoot ’n’ Blues, in downtown Durango./Photo by Ben Eng.

W hen Ralph Donner was 18 he attended his first Grateful Dead show at Boulder's Folsom Field, and the impressionable young man from the eastern plains was changed forever.

"They threw 40 pounds of pot into the crowd," he said. "I knew I wanted to be a rocker after that."

Now more than 30 years later, Donner, 51, more widely known as Ralph Dinosaur, has realized that dream. Backed by his band, the Fabulous Volcanoes, the frontman with a penchant for women's undergarments has become a perennial Western Slope stage presence, playing everything from proms and weddings to juke joints and roadhouses.

And while Donner has changed since the old days - when cocaine was brokered freely over the mic system and audience members discarded clothing like cigarette butts (he hasn't had a drink in 21 years) - his gregarious, oftentimes bawdy shows continue to pack them in.

"We've had a lot of fans that have been with me since the beginning years," said Donner.

Most local fans know Donner as one of the hardest working men in the local music scene for his 20-year stint on the now-defunct Farquahrt's stage, where he played hundreds of shows. However, Donner, who started playing music at the age of 10 in his hometown of Akron, Colo., got his start professionally as a student at Mesa Junior College in Grand Junction. That's where he met his right hand man and Volcanoes lead guitarist of 23 years, Alan King. At the time, King was playing with The Backwash Boys, a country-rock band in which Donner had a marginal role.

"They wouldn't let me in for the first three years," he said. "They would let me play the breaks, but I didn't have an electric guitar, so I had to borrow one."

But, as these sorts of stories often go, Donner's persistence paid off.

"After a few years, they said, 'Ralph, we want you to front the band,'" he said.

For the next several years, The Backwash Boys toured the honkytonks of the Western Slope, until Donner and King broke away to form Ralph Dinosaur and the Fabulous Volcanoes in 1981.

According to Donner, the band's name was an answer to some of the more cryptic band names of the era.

"We'd go and see a band and the next day we'd say, 'They were pretty good. What was their name again?'" he said. "I wanted a name people would remember."

Ralph Dinosaur wears the adoration of his fans on his chest in one of his more reserved getups. “It’s an election year; I like to keep it close to the center line,” he says./Photo by Ben Eng.

A hobby archaeologist, Donner said he chose the name Ralph Dinosaur because in Grand Junction that same year paleontologists had unearthed both the smallest and largest dinosaurs ever found. However, the other band members wanted to go by "The Fabulous Volcanoes," so they compromised on the rather long but memorable combination.

The band got its start during the oil shale boom in Grand Junction, where money and drugs flowed as freely as the black oil from the surrounding rock. It also was the early '80s, the heyday for bands like The Who, Led Zeppelin and the Rolling Stones - when partying like a rock star still meant something.

"What happened is, we'd go in on, like, a Monday night and everyone had an Exxon credit card," he said. "It was like Sodom and Gomorrah...and oh, the drugs."

According to Donner, drugs were so commonplace that he would solicit cocaine over the microphone on the behalf of audience members. Eventually, this behavior landed Donner on the wrong side of the law, staring felony charges and a possible jail sentence in the face. He escaped with a slap on the wrist - and a valuable lesson.

"I got probation and a deferred judgment and straightened up my act," he said. "I didn't become a felon, and basically have flown right ever since."

Donner also learned another valuable lesson from this time in his career: Always come prepared - with women's clothing. "It started with the girls taking off their clothes and giving them to me," he said. "Then I thought, 'What if no one brings any?' so I just started bringing my own."

Since then, cross-dressing has become a trademark for Donner, who has run the gamut from vamp, in floor-length silver lame, to X-rated Minnie Pearle, in low-cut flowered school marm frock and straw hat.

"I like a lot of irony. I like to be a tough guy in a dress," he said. "In a crazy, mixed-up world, that seems to be the way to go."

Miraculously enough, Donner said his cross-dressing has never caused a problem and actually has helped.

"It's a weapon, people get out of my way," he said. "I realized the audience is just as afraid of me as I am of them."

Fans pack the dance floor at Scoot ’n Blues on Friday night for Ralph Dinosaur and the Fabulous Volcanoes, who have been packing the house for 23 years with their rock ’n’ roll and stage antics./Photo by Ben Eng.

While Donner may have toned down the drug aspect of the show since the early days, he hasn't skipped a beat with his on-stage antics, which aside from his animated singing and occasional blow-up sidekick, often include outlandish contests that prey on the tipsy tourist.

Among Donner's more memorable stunts were dog food eating contests at the Fly Me to the Moon Saloon in Telluride, in which two cans - one Alpo, the other corned beef hash with an Alpo label - were presented to the crowd. Donner would open the can of hash and dig in, prompting his competitor to do the same, only with the canine version.

"I'd get a spoon and eat it, and then we'd get these tourists to eat theirs," he said. "You'd get people shoveling it in. We would laugh so hard."

Among Donner's other more memorable yet not so family friendly stage exploits were a sight gag involving pureed pumpkin and a contest in which people competed in timed intimate interludes with a mannequin.

"People want their smut," he said.

In fact, an appearance in this year's Snowdown Fashion Do's and Don'ts sporting a pair of borrowed crotchless panties (worn over a tiger-print bodysiut) brought down the house.

"They were such a hit," he said. "I got a standing ovation from 300 women."

Despite Donner's somewhat rowdy and raunchy stage presence, his offstage persona is actually quite staid. The father of a 13-year-old daughter is a scratch golfer and local history buff who oil paints and studies archaeology in his free time.

"I'm into four things: oil painting, archaeology, golf, and rock and roll," he said. "Rock and roll pays the bills. I've created this wonderful life. I'm not getting rich, but I can afford to do all the things I like to do."

And while Donner admits he is getting older, he also insists he is getting better. With a new drummer from California, Ben Simpson ("he knows the beat to the original 'Mony Mony' by Tommy James, not the Billy Idol version"), an original band member, Bobby Walker, returning to play percussions, and his faithful lead guitarist, King, Donner said he is more optimistic about his music now than he's ever been.

"Playing music, you go through a lot of periods of ups and downs," he said. "Right now, I'm on an 'up.' I'm really excited about this new line up. I think the best is yet to come."

And if Mick Jagger, the lead singer in what he considers his greatest musical influence, can keep on doing it, so can he.

"I'm enjoying playing now more than ever," he said. "I've created the most incredible job. I get to go to a party every time I go to work."







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