A community Christmas gift | AspenTimes.com

A community Christmas gift

Tim Willoughby
Aspen Times Weekly

Willoughby CollectionThe Isis Theater was Aspen's major entertainment venue for decades, and proved especially valuable to local families each Christmas.

Retailers rant about slow seasonal sales. Chains like K-Mart push Christmas products onto their shelves in early October to capture every holiday cent from customers. The joy of giving is overshadowed by businesses boosting their bottom lines. In contrast, one Aspen business of the 1950s gave back to the community every Christmas.

James “Jimmy” Parsons and his wife, Irene, were proprietors of both Aspen Drug and the Isis Theater. In the 1950s, Aspen exemplified a typical small town with owner-run businesses. Few businesses had competitors and those that did ” grocery and drug stores ” attracted consistently loyal customers. Customers of Aspen’s two pharmacies, Aspen Drug (corner of Galena and Hyman) and Mathew’s Drug (now Carl’s) favored particular pharmacists and considered each store’s proximity to their homes. Most Aspenites walked to shop, so Aspen Drug served the east end of town, Mathew’s the west.

Nearly all businesses closed on Sundays. Drug stores, the exception, opened for limited hours. Aspen Drug opened for a few hours after church services to fill emergency prescriptions and to sell the Sunday Denver Post and Rocky Mountain News.

Parsons’ second business, the Isis Theater, ran on an entirely different schedule. Serving a limited population of moviegoers, it usually showed each film for only one night, offering at least three different movies weekly. There was a lag between the big city theaters’ premieres and showings at the Isis, but eventually every major film made it to Aspen.

The Isis was a family business. Marjorie Jenkinson, the Parsons’ daughter, sold tickets while Jimmy collected them and patrolled the aisles to maintain order among children and teens. Someone else sold popcorn and hot nuts, and there was a projectionist. After Jimmy’s health failed, Marjorie and her husband, Earl, took over the operation.

Isis movies provided Aspen’s major entertainment for decades. Children and teens attended nearly every weekend. Parents dropped them off and picked them up from what was otherwise known as Aspen’s primary babysitting service.

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Cinema fare in the ’50s included a newsreel, at least one cartoon and the featured movie. Westerns and war movies accounted for at least half of the film genres.

Although Jimmy Parsons was parsimonious the rest of the year, his Christmas generosity atoned for that: a free early-afternoon movie on Christmas day. That was a special treat for children from families who could rarely afford a night at the movies. For most Aspen families it was an annual tradition to fill the Isis to near capacity.

The significance of this most magnanimously given time was not lost on the parents of Aspen. By one o’clock they suffered from Christmas chaos. As they tired and lost patience, a 3-hour break from their children was generally perceived as a godsend.

Parents regenerated energy by quietly preparing Christmas dinner, cleaning up disorder and trading Santa stories.

Do you know any business today that would willingly take on a hundred hyped-up kids for a few hours on Christmas day? Such a gift would make for a truly merry community Christmas.

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