henever Joey Liechty roamed around Denton, he couldn't help but notice a young man playing the keyboard on the city's street corners -- while wearing a fake tiger head.
The youth, named Joshua, had become a fixture on Denton's downtown square and other spots around town. And Liechty decided Joshua, also known as Tiger Head Keyboard Dude, needed to be on stage.
But not just Joshua. Liechty wanted to spotlight the wacky but beloved sights and characters of Denton -- from the old Howdy Doody sign and Lucky the albino squirrel to a video appearance by Robocop star Peter Weller ('70) and performances by Eric Michener's ('07) band Fishboy and Paul Slavens, host of the Paul Slavens Show on KXT 91.7, to name a few.
Liechty, a computer programmer and DJ who attended UNT from 2003 to 2010, called the event, which took place this past December, Dentonpalooza.
"If you're doing something off the beaten path, we will accept you," Liechty says. "And not only will we accept you, we will celebrate you and champion you in ways that you may have not anticipated."
The event was very Denton. It not only showed off the city's quirky characters, but it also displayed its unique ability to come together and support the community. Through ticket, poster and T-shirt sales, the event raised $16,000 for the Denton Musicians and Artists Collaborative (DMAC) and the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network. It also raised $500 for Joshua through enamel pin sales bearing his likeness.
"Dentonpalooza showed us the best parts of the city altogether and all at once. Generosity, talent, craziness, history, friendship. It was overwhelming in the best way," Liechty says.
In fact, lots of people want to be part of Denton's energetic community. Dentonpalooza is one of many examples of how the city has especially thrived over the past few decades thanks to UNT alumni, like Liechty, who are staying and creating events, businesses and nonprofits that have turned "Little D" into a big destination and bolstered its reputation as one of the nation's best college towns.
The university has always helped to fuel Denton's unique and culturally rich essence. And being near Dallas-Fort Worth, one of the country's fastest-growing metropolitan areas, means easy access to even more opportunities in addition to Denton's local businesses, bustling festivals and caring community in which members are always willing to help out. That's all while UNT's excellence in the arts, nationally recognized research programs and athletic events attract students, researchers and visitors from far and wide.
"UNT brings people to Denton who might not have stopped," says Denton Mayor Gerard Hudspeth ('20), an applied arts and sciences alumnus. "Beyond that, there's the expertise of the university community who set down roots. This creative and forward-thinking attitude has helped put Denton on the map and made it a destination city."
Denton, of course, always has been distinctive. It boasts iconic landmarks, such as the Denton County Courthouse and the downtown square, filled with restaurants and stores.
The town is painted in bold, vivid colors thanks to the many murals splashed across the city's buildings. The soundtrack is provided by buskers on the square and blasted from bars and clubs, giving Denton an edge and unmistakable sense of place.
The city's many quirks include the purple door on the square that is a popular background for Instagram pictures; the lilac building that houses Recycled Books, with its huge inventory of literature and music; and the Chairy Orchard, a small patch of land in the residential neighborhood known as Idiot's Hill, in which chairs are used to decorate a "chairy-go-round" and other whimsical amusements.
Denton speaks its own language -- with phrases like "#dentoning," "Only in Denton" and "Oh No You Denton," coined by former art professor Jude Landry for a T-shirt -- for all those Denton-esque moments that you can't experience anywhere else.
Others have taken notice. In 2012, Mother Earth magazine declared Denton one of "8 Great Places You've (Maybe) Never Heard Of." USA Today ranked it among the Top 25 fastest-growing cities in the country, with the population increasing 63% from 2000 to 2018. Actor Jason Lee -- friends with the members of the UNT-educated band Midlake -- even lived in Denton for a few years.
As UNT has grown, so has the city. The university is experiencing record enrollment and recently reaffirmed its Tier One research status, ensuring the campus and the city continue to flourish together. A McKinsey Global Institute study shows college towns are expected to experience an 11% jump in employment growth in the next decade, thanks to their strong worker pools in creative, STEM and health care fields.
Realtor Darien Orr ('86), who studied art, is active in numerous community organizations and eager to talk about the city and its offerings with prospective residents.
"We're not just getting bigger geographically," Orr says. "We're becoming culturally richer and deeper. There's more variety. Denton also is very welcoming."
When Mike Cochran ('79) came to Denton in 1968 from Dallas, he thought it was a podunk town.
"Like many folks, I came to school with no intention of sticking around," he says. "But I found it a pleasant place to live and raise a family."
Cochran, a history major, ended up not only settling in Denton, but he became active in civic affairs as a former city council member and served as chair of Denton's Historic Landmark Commission and president of the Historical Society of Denton County. He has published a catalog of the works of architect O'Neil Ford, a UNT alum, and recently published a biography of John B. Denton with UNT Press.
UNT was founded in 1890 as the Texas Normal College and Teacher Training Institute in a rented space above a hardware store downtown just 33 years after Denton was founded, giving the city character that others lacked.
"It added a certain level of culture to the community," Cochran says. "We had an influx of educated individuals who came into our town. The university has been a shot of intellectual energy and artistic vigor."
Cochran says UNT is an "attractive magnetic force" for the community, introducing professors and alumni who often have served on the Denton City Council and other commissions influencing local policy.
"It's hard to even imagine what Denton would be like without the university," he says. "What a dull place it would be."
The relationship between town and gown continues. Hudspeth and UNT President Neal Smatresk meet quarterly to talk about upcoming issues, such as preparing for winter storms, and Hudspeth often represents the city at campus events.
He also works to help graduates stay in Denton by bringing in more business.
"The city's role is to work with UNT so that graduates can land corporate jobs and have a great livelihood here," he says. "I can say to prospective companies, 'Here's the talent. These people will hit the ground running and are ready to go.'"
Denton also has been a place with an exceptionally creative pool of students.
In 1946, UNT created the first jazz studies program in the country, building to a nationally renowned College of Music. Future superstars like Roy Orbison, Don Henley and Norah Jones enrolled at UNT. Programs in the College of Visual Arts and Design helped nationally known artists like the late Jesús Moroles ('78) and Dana Tanamachi ('07) along their path. And writers like Larry McMurtry ('58) and Anne Rice got their start in the English program.
"Denton draws people from all over the world," says Sharon Barnhill ('77), a small business owner who is active in Theatre Denton and other organizations. "We are a very diverse place. Because we have a big arts and music school, we draw people who are talented."
For many decades, the music scene brought in visitors to Fry Street, the area north of campus that boasted clubs like Rick's Place and funky eateries like Jim's Diner and the Flying Tomato.
Music alum David J. Anzaldúa Pierce ('97), a freelance composer and founder of Denton's Day of the Dead Festival, remembers salsa nights at Bagheri's.
"People would just come out and dance in the streets," he says. "It would be OK and would just happen. Those are big 'Only in Denton' moments."
From 1979 to 2007, Fry Street Fair featured a wide variety of bands. Music fans also flocked to Rubber Gloves, now owned by Rob Houdek ('78), near the railroad tracks. Groups like Brave Combo, formed by UNT alumni, grabbed national attention.
"My experience as an artist and musician in Denton was seeing some incredibly eclectic bands making great music," Pierce says. "They were uniquely Denton bands."
One of those uniquely Denton bands, Midlake, has gone from playing in the Music Practice North Building on UNT's campus to the Sydney Opera House in Australia.
The group not only has created great music, but also has helped the downtown square and music scene thrive.
Formed in the late 1990s by students in the College of Music, the band never left its roots in Denton. In fact, its members established Paschall Bar, helped found the restaurants Barley and Board and 940's Kitchen & Cocktails, and run Redwood Studio -- homebase for their production company, Redwood Music -- and Denton Music Workshop, a music studio offering lessons, recording and audio production and rehearsal space for the community.
The band's drummer, McKenzie Smith, is a former One O'Clock Lab Band member who attended UNT from 1997 to 2000.
"It's really exciting to come up with ideas and be a part of something," he says.
The musicians are not the only alums who are creating Denton's cultural and economic boom.
Others have launched unique businesses, such as Oak Street Drafthouse and Armadillo Ale Works, which create their own craft beer and host community events; the DIME Store, in which makers sell their crafts; and Mashup Market, a small shop that sells vegan food products. UNT's College of Merchandising, Hospitality and Tourism sells alumni and student artwork and other goods at the UNT CoLab, off the square.
Often, these businesses began with a simple idea and owners who persevered. Pan Ector Industries started in a garage at a house on the corner of Panhandle and Ector streets. Nick Webber ('10) and Michael Little ('09), graduates of the College of Visual Arts and Design, stored their printmaking equipment in the house they rented there.
They first got a request for a run of tote bags. Soon, some local bands wanted T-shirts and merchandise to sell at their own shows, and Webber and Little often brought their equipment to Rubber Gloves. Now you can't go to an event in Denton without seeing the Pan Ector crew spinning their machine to make T-shirts.
When the business started in 2009, Denton was much quieter during the summer when the students left, but it began to change.
"It was something you could feel slowly happening," Webber says. "More and more people began sticking around."
Artists Beth Klein ('87) and Roxane Clark ('95), business and education alums who opened Sleeping Lizzards gift store in 1992, have seen that change too. Their original clients were mostly mothers and older generations. But the advent of TikTok has brought in college students who want to buy crystals and other hot items trending on social media.
Klein, a jewelry designer and silversmith, and Clark, who makes handcrafted soaps, have not only helped the Denton economy by employing various people in their eclectic shop and selling their wares in many of the local festivals -- they've also promoted the work of other Denton artisans and other independently owned Denton businesses.
And Dentonites have helped them too. When their store flooded 14 years ago, local businesses sent clean-up crews and food. During the two-month lockdown at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, customers bought gift certificates -- some as much as $500 -- and purchased items online.
"Denton has a deep-rooted core of people who value individuality, arts, creativity and local business," Klein says. "Denton is growing so fast, you would think that this ideal might disappear, but that has not been the case."
In 2009, Orr, the realtor and UNT art alum, eyed a newspaper ad for a new community market. She signed up for a $10 booth to sell her notecards featuring photos of her vintage Barbie and Ken dolls frolicking around Denton sites. She joined about 10 other people, most of them selling jewelry or art, that first day.
"Denton people really want to support local makers and artists," she says. "It was a perfect combination of the two things."
The Denton Community Market has grown, now attracting 500 to 1,000 visitors and 50 to 70 vendors, who sell everything from soap to food each week. People gather to listen to local musicians and munch from food trucks' offerings.
And Dentonites love a festival. There are more than a dozen such events each year, drawing hundreds of thousands of visitors annually. Many are organized by alumni.
The Day of the Dead Festival began in 2011 when Pierce wanted to produce a Halloween cabaret musical for families called Cirque du Horror and pitched the idea to Dan Mojica, who owns Dan's Silverleaf. Pierce envisioned a Shakespeare in the Park-type layout around Industrial and Hickory Streets with a mini-festival built around it. The event would be set in the fall to celebrate harvest, Halloween and Dia de los Muertos, a holiday Pierce grew up celebrating that reflects his Hispanic heritage.
The festival was packed with people that first day, and it continues to attract hundreds each year with its arts and food booths, children's area and coffin races. A huge Denton Day of the Dead Festival mural now takes up a wall on Hickory Street.
"I didn't have any idea how grand it was going to look," Pierce says of the mural. "Every time I go by there, it's hard not to think of coffin races and that time of the year. I have to pinch myself sometimes."
And there's the Denton Black Film Festival, which takes place in the first months of the year and was originally started to raise scholarship money. Its first screening in 2015 brought in 800 people to see 13 films. Now the festival attracts about 9,000 filmgoers and has added art, music, dance, spoken word and a tech expo.
Although the festival has temporarily pivoted to an online format due to COVID-19, it takes over downtown in its in-person format, booking up venues for screenings and workshops. When it began, then-Mayor Chris Watts ('83, '92 M.Ed.) told the event's co-founder, Harry Eaddy ('79 M.B.A.), that he was struck by the tremendous amount of diversity, not only in terms of race but age.
"He thought that we did a lot to bring people together and, during the festival, Denton became a very diverse community downtown," says Eaddy, who founded the event with his wife, Linda ('72, '82 M.B.A.). "It reinforced what we believe is our mission: to share culture and build community."
That sense of community is a big reason why people love Denton and are so willing to give back to it.
"We're still a small enough city in which people can make an impact," Hudspeth says.
Josh Berthume ('05 '10 M.A.), a political science major, noticed Denton had a gap in its business community. After graduating and settling in Denton with his wife, Diana Foner ('07), he often drove to Dallas for freelance creative advertising work and wondered why no one had set up such a business in Denton.
"My wife said, 'You could be that person,'" he says, and in 2011, he founded Swash Labs. The business creates ads and social media campaigns for its clients, including Denton-based Little Guys Movers, co-owned by alum Marcus Watson.
"Denton is a community that is interested in your ideas," Berthume says. "There's a real community spirit around new ideas that I've found very welcoming. With as much as Denton has grown, it's maintained that scrappy entrepreneurial spirit."
Kiara Hunter ('21) feels the same way. She and her husband, Charlie ('21), who were both applied arts and sciences majors, volunteered with 35 Denton, the music festival that took place off and on from 2009 to 2016.
"We loved celebrating Denton's diverse musical culture and sharing it with the community," she says.
When 35 Denton folded, the Hunters became involved with the Denton Music and Arts Collaborative, an organization that supports creatives by subsidizing insurance for health care, with an annual fundraiser, Summer Hangout, and other events.
And, in 2013, they co-founded Friends with Benefits along with Mindy Arendt. The nonprofit organization has raised over $140,000 for 33 nonprofit organizations, including Denton Friends of the Family, as well as annual winter-wear clothing drives for Our Daily Bread. The organization attracts a youthful crowd with its fun, low-cost events, such as We Denton Drag It and She-Rock.
Hunter says all of the experience she's gained from volunteering helped steer her life in a different direction, prompting her to finish her degree and work in the nonprofit sector. Alongside her volunteer work, she is proud to serve Denton as the executive director for Denton Animal Support Foundation, a local nonprofit that supports the City of Denton Animal Shelter.
She has seen firsthand how the whole town pulls together with sincerity.
"Denton is an amazing, authentic community," she says. "People feel that energy when they're walking around downtown. We're doing what we can to support one another, and I think that attracts and keeps people."