Longtime Wheeler Opera House sound man Gordon Wilder retires after 25 years
May 18, 2017
For a quarter century, musicians and comics and theater troupes at the Wheeler Opera House have trusted Gordon Wilder to make them sound their best. He's been the guy at the controls for Tony Bennett and Willie Nelson, Steve Martin and a generation of local kids performing in school plays.
A fixture at the Wheeler for most of the past 25 years, Wilder, 66, is retiring from the sound board.
"I feel like I'm the most fortunate fellow in this valley," Wheeler told me a few days before his last day on the job in May. "I'm so grateful."
Over the years, Wilder got in the habit of pausing after the end of a show — after he bid the crowd good night over the PA system — and watching the faces of the audience members as they walked out. A gratified smile opens over Wilder's face as he describes the experience.
"You see people coming out and you realize that, for the last two hours, they've forgotten their problems," he says. "It's really worthwhile. The entertainment business is great and people do get a lot out of it. It's nice to be a part of letting people forget about their troubles for a little while."
A Tulsa, Oklahoma, native, Wilder fell in love with Aspen as a child. His parents would road trip with him and his four siblings into the high country to camp every summer.
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He earned a journalism degree from Oklahoma State University, although, as he put it, "I majored in staying out of Vietnam and minored in a rock and roll band."
Music and skiing were what drew him to settle here in midsummer 1973. He played in a variety of bands — and still plays drums for the country-western Caleb Dean Band — and ran a recording studio on Bleeker Street while skiing his brains out. After the snowless winter of 1976-77, Wilder recalls, he and a friend pledged to ski every day the following winter and logged 122 days on the mountain.
His first show in the audience at the Wheeler was a Jimmy Buffet set in the mid-'70s, during the theater's dilapidated years when audiences exited via the fire escape to the alley.
From playing music, he had a crude understanding of the basics of sound engineering. He became one of the best by watching the best in Aspen.
"I came a long way in the business and I learned everything here in this valley, in our itty bitty town, which is remarkable," he says.
Asking for tips from sound engineers and picking up mentors, he learned the ropes and grew into a consummate pro. By the late '80s he was working sound at the Paradise Club (in the space that is now Belly Up). When Taj Mahal came in for a two-week stand there, Taj's sound man took him under his wing. When HBO's U.S. Comedy Arts Festival came to the Wheeler, comics brought some of the best sound guys in the world — crews that had literally worked the Super Bowl — and taught him what they knew.
"Once they figured out that I wanted to learn and that I was capable, they would show me a whole lot," Wilder explains.
Wilder first began working sound at the Wheeler in 1992 after spending three years in Nashville trying to land a record contract with a country band. His tenure on the boards at the Wheeler hasn't been continuous — some stretches have been part-time, and he quit during the tail end of executive director Nida Tautvydas' tumultuous tenures. When Gram Slaton took over as director in 2010, one of his first actions was to hire Wilder back. Wilder is among the few employees who worked for all four directors of the Wheeler since the city of Aspen bought it in 1979 and its modern age began.
What's the best show he worked at the Wheeler? He can't name just one. The monthlong residency by Jon Anderson and Jean-Luc Ponty in 2014 is up there. The once-in-a-lifetime collaborations at John Oates' 7908 Songwriters Festival gave him some of his most memorable gigs — Keb Mo onstage with Sam Bush among them. Oates became a friend over Wilder's years mixing the Rock and Roll Hall of Famer's shows at the Wheeler. During the Forstmann Little conference, he mixed two private shows by the Eagles and a reunion of Carol King and James Taylor. At HBO's U.S. Comedy Fest, he had nights with Steve Martin and Don Rickles and an unforgettable one with the legendary Tommy Smothers.
"He was getting ready to take the stage and he said, 'I'm nervous, man. Can we talk?' So we just started joking around," Wilder recalls.
When Dave Chappelle was an unknown doing a week of nightly stand-up sets at the St. Regis in the '90s, Wilder was his man on the boards. When they ran into one another years later, after Chapelle's stratospheric "Chappelle's Show" fame, the comic threw his arms around Wilder like a long-lost friend.
But one encounter at the Wheeler topped them all.
"The best thing that ever happened to me in the Wheeler is when I met my wife in 1992," he says.
During his early days working sound, his future wife, Lauren, was designing lighting. He knew he'd marry her as soon as he met her, he says: "Since then's been the happiest time in my life."
Early this month, during his final gig running sound for the Aspen Community School play, Wilder found himself working alongside Lauren and her son, Cody, also now a professional lighting designer.
"Here's my wife, my son and myself, just three tech people working on a show," he recalls. "Man, it was so cool."
He's not completely hanging it up. Because he loves the work, he says, he'll continue freelancing occasionally for concerts at the Wheeler, while focusing most of his time on his own music and putting in time engineering at Mad Dog Ranch Studios.
He says he felt comfortable retiring now because the historic theater is in good hands and on an upward trajectory with director Gena Buhler and her crew.
"Right now, the team is great, it's fun to work there, the energy in the audiences is incredible," he says. "The Wheeler has a bright future ahead."
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