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
"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
"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
to the center line,” he says./Photo by Ben
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
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
|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
"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
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
"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."