Discourse on the Wheeler’s future is healthy
June 23, 2011
Discussions among Aspen officials over the future direction of the city-owned Wheeler Opera House are a healthy way to iron out any misunderstandings over the facility’s mission and to ensure that the historic facility will thrive going forward.Faced last Monday with a request by Wheeler Executive Director Gram Slaton for a modest increase in festival production expenses, the council launched into an overall discussion about Wheeler finances, bookings and the like. The overall picture wasn’t pretty, with the numbers showing that 47 of 68 “one-off bookings” – the nightly concerts and programs that usually feature well-known artists – didn’t do so well; from 2008 to 2010, the combined losses were $204,495. Figures from the Wheeler’s three festival productions are just as discouraging: The most recent versions of the MountainSummit film event, the Aspen Laff Festival (which replaced the Aspen RooftopComedy Festival and its predecessor, the U.S. Comedy Arts Festival) and the 7908 Songwriters Festival lost a collective $117,073. It should be noted, however, that all three festivals are relatively new.Beyond the numbers, there is hope. While the three festivals all lost money, forcing a city subsidy, two of them – the film and songwriters events – lost less than they did the year before. While the comedy festival saw a slightly larger loss in its first year after replacing its previous incarnation, a joint production with a private company, gains were made in other areas, such as the quality of the comedians. As for the “one-off bookings,” it should be noted that one or two bad shows a year can make up a huge portion of the loss: The December 2010 event featuring Rita Moreno, said to be plagued by poor weather, suffered a $19,485 deficit.We love the Wheeler and its excellent acoustics. The staff is friendly and accommodating and the building is simply beautiful with the right touch of elegance. The ticket prices, though they may seem high for some acts ($75 for regular seats on March 11 for “An Evening with Randy Newman”), are relatively affordable by Aspen standards. We are less crazy about the attitudes of longtime patrons who sneer and glare whenever a hoot or holler rises from the crowd – an expression of endearment and approval – or when a couple rises to dance. This was evidenced time and again at the recent John Oates concert, and has been witnessed at other shows. Such pomposity ought to be exorcised somehow.Slaton, director of the facility for the past 5 1/2 years, seems to have his hands firmly on the wheel of the Wheeler. Some councilmembers praised him for his attention to detail and getting a better handle on expenses and revenues than his predecessor. He wants to keep two of the festivals in the winter-spring tourism season, realizing that he needs to tap into the visitors market to grow the events. He realizes that some extra planning is necessary so that events don’t coincide with other big draws that may be going on around town on the same day or weekend.What else needs to happen at the Wheeler to reduce the city’s subsidies and to bring in more arts lovers? Certainly a fresh look at the bookings is in order. For example, the Broadway stuff, while still a hit with the old-time crowd, doesn’t seem to be the seller it used to be. Should the city survey locals and visitors to find out what their tastes are?It’s tough: As Slaton noted, tastes are ever-changing and what’s popular one year may not move tickets the next; there is no crystal ball that can guarantee a sell-out show at a reasonable price. As for the festivals, we will have to trust that Slaton is on the right track and they will improve over time. After all, Food & Wine wasn’t built in a day.In the big picture, we are heartened by the discussion and we agree with those on the council who want to make the Wheeler’s future a July retreat topic and a goal for the coming year. With a little input from other officials and the community at large, the Wheeler can be the venue of choice for many, not just a select few.