There was no back door on Lusk’s old Yellow Hotel when Dennis Rollins decided to take a look. There wasn’t a “no trespassing” sign either, so the documentary filmmaker went inside.
He’d heard many stories about the brothel a madam named Dell Burke opened in 1919. Most frontier towns had one, usually in a seedy part of town and frequently shut down by law enforcement. But Burke operated hers openly for 60 years in the middle of downtown.
The yellow paint had faded, and the abandoned building had fallen into disrepair since the business closed.
Rollins shot footage of the building and conducted an interview with a man who’d delivered milk to the hotel as a teen. The man died not long after the interview, and the town razed the old hotel.
Rollins started working on a documentary to tell the story of Dell Burke and the Yellow Hotel.
The Casper Art Walk, Sept. 1, features the “Dell Burke and the Yellow Hotel” trailer premiere, appearances by cast members, Burke’s 1955 Chrysler New Yorker on display and an unveiling of Casper artist Jim Reed’s painting of the Yellow Hotel. The event kicks off an online fundraising campaign to complete the film.
“The thing I’ve been trying to shoot for in this project is not your Old West cat-house story, but more the story of a woman who was way ahead of her time,” Rollins said.
The film will include interviews with Lusk residents who remember Burke and an author who wrote a biography about her, as well as shots of some of her belongings that were auctioned after her death in 1981.
One of those is the Chrysler she bought new in 1955. The second owner in Lusk sold it to a family member in Missouri. The car happened to be for sale again, so Rollins bought it for the film.
Later, he interviewed Burke’s hairstylist, who’d bought many of Burke’s possessions, including a purse with the business card for the dealership where she bought her car. Rollins turned the card over and saw where the salesperson had written the cost, including the options she chose, minus her trade-in.
Dawn Anderson Coates portrays Dell Burke in some scenes in the film, which is narrated by local announcer Brian Scott Gamroth. She wears some of Burke’s clothing, which fits her perfectly, she said.
She enjoys being able to connect to the character through stories, her clothing and driving her car, which was top of the line at the time – with power windows – and is still fancy by today’s standards.
“It’s just added a whole new dimension to being able to portray her,” Anderson Coates said. “And it’s kind of an honor so to speak to play a lady of ill repute in such a reputable manner.”
She enjoys hearing stories about how Burke owned a majority of the power company, and she how she threatened to turn off electricity to the town when the sheriff threatened to close her business.
She was known for donating to all sorts of charities and even sending local residents to college.
“Apparently, she was quite a character about not just Lusk, but all of Wyoming. Everybody knew Dell Burke,” Anderson Coates said. “It’s sad because not a lot of this generation know about her, so we’re hoping to bring her back. I think it’s very important to tell stories of fascinating women in Wyoming history – not just the straight and narrow ones, so to speak, but all the gals that made this place what it is.”
Stories abound about how Burke operated her business for sixty years – some verified and some speculation, Rollins said. She’s remembered today as a shrewd businesswoman and kind benefactor who gave back to her community.
He plans to finish the documentary next year to preserve this piece of Wyoming history. He hopes to raise $20,000 to complete the documentary with more interviews along with editing, voice-over, acting, music and closed captioning.
His studio, Wolf Gang of Wy, LLC, has been involved in producing documentaries since 1995, including the award-winning “Wyoming Portraits” television series for PBS.
Little remains of Dell Burke’s story other than the belongings sold and scattered at her estate auction and the memories people hold.
He believes the story is important not only to Wyoming history, but also to the success of a single woman forging a successful life against the odds.
“Putting aside what her occupation was,” Rollins said, “she was still able to become a successful businesswoman in a western town at a time when that just didn’t happen.”