Colorado Experience: Fannie Mae Duncan and the Cotton Club
2018, for Rocky Mountain PBS
Producer/Director/Archival/Research/Videographer/Writer/Editor, Kate Perdoni
with interview videography by Eric Hernendez
and additional videography by Erynn Mitchell
Fannie Mae Duncan was an African American nightclub owner who brought her motto, “Everybody Welcome,” to true meaning at her Colorado Springs jazz venue, the Cotton Club. Arts lovers of all backgrounds had a place, despite rampant and volatile social oppression, racism, and segregation.
Duncan, a granddaughter of Alabama slaves and daughter of Oklahoma tenant farmers, came to Colorado Springs with her family as a teenager. She was the first woman of color to gain a business license in the city and went on to take a stand for her community amid civil disharmony and personal heartbreak. In doing so, she maintained the first racially integrated entertainment club in the city for almost thirty years until 1975, when the property was seized by the city via eminent domain and torn down in an Urban Renewal effort by the city to erase black culture from the business center of downtown.
I first heard of Fannie Mae Duncan in a Public Art Commission meeting in 2017. Her friend and biographer, Kay Esmiol, came to present an idea for an artwork she wanted to facilitate in downtown Colorado Springs: a bronzed statue of Fannie Mae. As a musician, especially, I was shocked I had never heard of the iconic Fannie Mae. Sensing my interest in this story, Kay gave me her entire binder of information -- saying "she could print more." I put it on my desk at work, knowing I would at some point find a reason to report on the Cotton Club, once a staple of downtown.
I didn't have to wait long. In 2018, I was invited to create a documentary for the Rocky Mountain PBS series "Colorado Experience." I started pre-production on the episode to include photo research at Pikes Peak Library District and the Pioneers Museum; tours and information gathering and sharing with the African American Genealogical Society of Colorado Springs; and reaching out to Fannie Mae's surviving friends, relatives, and employees. I interviewed historians and community members and began to shape the narrative of Fannie Mae's life. Many of the incredible sagas that characterized her life would never even make it into the documentary.
I read about African American history in Colorado Springs, including "The Invisible People of the Pikes Peak Region" and Kay's book, "Everybody Welcome" about the life of Fannie Mae.
Fannie Mae's story is magnificent and larger than life. Her family and friends were unanimous in their expression of her hallmark generosity and tenacious attitude. Bearing a multitude of personal tragedies did not stop Fannie Mae from taking on an enormous amount of responsibility for the betterment of her community.
Colorado Experience: Fannie Mae Duncan and the Cotton Club appeared on Rocky Mountain PBS in November 2018. A sold-out premiere at Stargazers Theatre featured the cast from the documentary. It has since been shown at film festivals, premieres, events, screenings, and educational settings throughout Colorado and across the country. The work was nominated for a Heartland Emmy® for Cultural Documentary, and a portion of the film was shown on the State House Floor to support a resolution in honor of Fannie Mae in 2019.
Myself, Kay Esmiol, Fannie Mar's niece Claudean Bragg-Brooks, film biographer Steve Antonuccio, and organizer Shirley Martinez co-received the Cultural Heritage in the Arts Award in 2019 from the Arts Business Education Consortium, honoring a work of art created to keep the cultural legacy of our community and of Fannie Mae alive.
Also in 2019, a statue honoring Fannie Mae was installed downtown under Kay's leadership. I was able to speak at the statue dedication at the Pikes Peak Center, following the Mayor, with my son in the front row, in a room filled with people with hearts of gold -- many of whom we had come to know over the two years of working on the project. It was one of the best occasions and most celebratory and beautiful days of my life.
Please see below for some additional resources...
Colorado Experience: Fannie Mae Duncan Script (pdf)
Interview Transcript with Fannie Mae Duncan biographer Kay Esmiol and interviewer Kate Perdoni: Interview Transcript (pdf)
"Colorado Experience: Fannie Mae Duncan" Premiere Q&A, Stargazer's Theatre, Colorado Springs Oct. 24, 2018 (YouTube)
In the News
Springs Magazine: Honoring Fannie Mae Duncan
Colorado Springs Gazette: Colorado Springs civil rights pioneer Fannie Mae Duncan subject of Rocky Mountain PBS documentary
Colorado Springs Business Journal: Duncan’s role echoes in today’s Women of Influence
The Colorado State House of Representatives honored Fannie Mae Duncan in a Legislative Tribute at the Colorado State Capitol on Monday, April 15, 2019. A portion of Colorado Experience: Fannie Mae Duncan was shown on the House floor as part of the commemoration.