After facelift and delay, Wheeler Opera House opens its doors
January 10, 2016
After months of renovation, the Wheeler Opera House opened its doors to the public this weekend and unveiled the results of a $4 million facelift. Most prominently, the new Wheeler includes reconfigurations of the historic city-owned theater's first- and second-floor lobbies.
"Most of the $4 million was in front-of-house audience experience amenities and upgrades," Wheeler Executive Director Gena Buhler said Thursday at a soft opening.
The 1889-built theater had palpable momentum as the winter season approached — a preview party and lineup announcement from its new director, Buhler, at the Limelight Hotel drew an unexpectedly enthusiastic, standing-room only crowd and a burst of initial ticket sales.
But the winter has been a buzzkill for the Wheeler since then. Structural issues forced the theater to delay its opening by three weeks and to move a performance by Postmodern Jukebox and Aspen Film's Academy Screenings across town to Harris Hall. The theater canceled a New Year's Eve show by the Slambovian Circus of Dreams. Filmmaker Kevin Smith canceled a Dec. 20 talk due to travel trouble.
Friday's "One Man Star Wars Trilogy" show was the first public event there since September's MountainSummit and the first Wheeler-produced live act in nine months (the Aspen Music Festival produces the summer opera series in the theater). The dark run and delay have hurt ticket sales for the winter lineup, Buhler said.
"People haven't had live performances other than opera in here since April," she said. "People have gotten out of their Wheeler habit. Ticket sales have been a little slow because of that. I think people aren't buying tickets until they can say, 'OK, they're really open now.'"
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And they are really open now.
The lower lobby area has been given a spacious upgrade — taking out a center wall between the lobby and main stairs, replacing it with columns circumscribed at floor level by sofa benches and installing brighter lighting from two chandeliers. Buhler compared the audience experience in the old, tighter setup to salmon swimming upstream.
The floors throughout have been lined in a red custom wool carpeting — on the main stairs, the carpet bears a design reflecting the patterned gold trim of an historic bank vault in the second-floor lobby.
Upstairs, the bar has been pushed back and angled, increasing the capacity of the area, which is lined with photos from the theater's 127-year history. The bar, overlooking downtown and with views of Aspen Mountain, is part of the renovated Wheeler's bid for new vitality. On a trial basis this winter, bartenders from Justice Snow's will serve there from a new menu of theater-themed cocktails and a focus on Colorado spirits and beers (no Colorado wines yet, but bar manager Michelle Kiley is hoping to develop a locally sourced wine selection.)
"We wanted to step up what we've been offering (in the bar)," Buhler said.
The bar will be open to the non-ticketholding public before shows, as Buhler hopes to cultivate a livelier scene and make the Wheeler a nightlife destination.
The Justice Snow's temporary contract runs through the end of April. Because the Wheeler is funded with public money, it must consider other bar operators with an open request for proposals. Buhler expects to begin that process in the spring and sign a longer-term deal with an operator by the end of the summer.
Other new features include two staircases that lead into the theater chamber for an easier flow into shows and more lighting in the upper stairs. There are new bathrooms with more stalls on opposite sides of the lobby in the hopes of avoiding the lines and bottlenecks of Wheeler shows past. A coat-check alcove with an attendant takes the place of a simple coat rack.
"I remember coming from Vail and seeing shows here and going, 'Check at your own risk? This is Aspen. Who is hanging their fur up?'" said Buhler, who ran Vail Valley's Vilar Performing Arts Center before joining the Wheeler last year.
Even the theater's Steinway piano has a fresh shine — it went to a specialist in Utah for a cleaning and finish after years of use (and scratches left by Bernadette Peters performing atop it in December 2008).
Behind the scenes, a new heating and ventilation system was installed. And for performers, the backstage area has been refurbished, with expanded dressing room searing, showers and an upgraded green room.
But the Wheeler renovation still isn't quite done. At the soft opening, some walls weren't yet painted, and all of the doors were temporary (custom ones from a Denver company are still being detailed). The new roof isn't complete, though it has been winterized, and will have workers back on top in the spring. Snowmelt systems in the sidewalk on Hyman Avenue also haven't yet been installed, and will go in this spring.
The project is the last of three major recent renovations for the Wheeler, which underwent a $2.8 million upgrade in 2011 and a $3 million facelift for its theater chamber in 2013. Originally budgeted for $3.4 million, the city-owned theater increased the final phase's price tag by $600,000 to upgrade its elevator. The delay and event relocation to Harris Hall cost an additional $20,000 to $30,000.
The theater hosts a double feature of Warren Miller ski films today and a free performance by singer-songwriter Seth Glier on Sunday.
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