For six decades, Dell Burke’s Yellow Hotel brothel anchored Lusk’s main street.
Burke was more than a madam, however. She donated to local charities and churches, paid for locals’ college educations and loaned the town money during the Great Depression.
Burke is gone, and so is her Yellow Hotel. But those who knew her recounted their memories of Burke as a shrewd entrepreneur and a generous philanthropist in a new documentary about her life set to debut later this month.
Documentary filmmaker Dennis Rollins captured her story through the people who knew her and her unique presence in Wyoming to help keep it from fading away. His film, “Dell Burke and the Yellow Hotel,” will run on Wyoming PBS at 9:30 p.m. March 30.
Wyoming was home to many frontier brothels, but the Yellow Hotel and its owner were a different story, he said. Burke managed to run her business openly on a main street from 1919 to 1978. Some even say she owned most of Lusk’s power company and threatened to shut off the electricity when a sheriff tried to close the Yellow Hotel, Rollins said.
The film features interviews with locals, actors portraying scenes from Burke’s life and original music by Casper musician Cory McDaniel.
“This is going to be one of the few things that is going to be left to remind people of this great story — how much she helped the town and how much she cared about the town,” Rollins said.
A Wyoming story
Rollins was working on a separate project, the Wyoming Portraits series, when he happened across the story of Dell Burke.
The filmmaker was in Lusk filming the Legend of the Rawhide pageant when he drove by the dilapidated Yellow Hotel. He’d heard some of its stories a couple years before while filming a family reunion in town.
He found an open doorway and shot footage while exploring the building.
In 2012, shortly after his visit, the town burned the building down because it was deemed a safety hazard.
His are the last images of the hotel, he said. He later interviewed an elderly man about his memories of the hotel, just before the man died.
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“I had a couple of things there that could never be captured again, and so that was kind of the impetus for me to say, ‘You need to do something with this,’” Rollins said.
Support from Wyoming actors and business owners made the documentary possible, Rollins said. Part of the film was shot at the Higgins Hotel in Glenrock, and the main street was blocked off and lined with 1950s cars.
“Everybody involved was doing this for free,” Rollins said. “They just did it because they thought it was a worthwhile project.”
Actors portray Dell Burke and the Lusk residents of her time. Actress Dawn Anderson Coates in the title role even wears Burke’s clothes and drives her prized car, which Rollins now owns. He tracked down the New Yorker just hoping for a photo, but said he couldn’t pass it up when he found out it was for sale.
The scenes depicting her life show her making sure her employees didn’t spread gossip about their clients and embarrass townsfolk. Burke kept a low profile, Rollins said. For example, when she arrived for the first time at her hairdresser, she asked if she needed to slip in by the back door. The hairdresser, interviewed in the film, told Burke to come in the front door like everyone else.
“You know, everybody that I talked to that knew her — nobody had a bad word to say about her,” Rollins said.
The story of Dell Burke and the Yellow Hotel isn’t one of a brothel, he said.
“I guess I would like people to watch this and enjoy it, first of all, but also to know that we’re trying to save a piece of Wyoming history that is vanishing, and there’s not going to be people around to talk about it,” Rollins said. “And just to realize what a wonderful person she was and everything that she did for her community while operating a completely illegal business.”
History in music
Casper musician McDaniel grew fascinated with the story after Rollins approached him about music for the film. He ended up writing 12 songs, a handful of them featured in the documentary.
The music styles range from ragtime — hearkening to the era when she opened shop — to a rock tune celebrating the day she bought her new 1955 Chrysler New Yorker, McDaniel said.
Rollins worked some of McDaniel’s songs lyrics into scenes, including one based on a true story the musician heard from a former Yellow Hotel patron.
McDaniel was impressed with how Burke pulled off her business, which began before women nationally gained the right to vote, he said. Burke succeeded by her wit, fell in love with a man who died of a heart attack and and cared for her employees and the town, he said.
Her character and life is a rich story containing comedy and tragedy — ”every bit of life is in there,” he added. The documentary captures that story and her personality, he said.
“I really wish I could have met her,” McDaniel said.
Follow reporter Elysia Conner on Twitter @erconner