Buhler discusses future plans for Aspen’s Wheeler Opera House
Wheeler Opera House Executive Director Gena Buhler has her eyes on tweaking the Aspen Laff Festival, launching a new music series and, maybe — depending on what the City Council says — spending more money to bring some of the top names in entertainment to the historic, city-owned theater.
After a year running the Wheeler, Buhler recently looked back on some of the lessons of her first season and ahead at the years to come.
Her first big event at the helm of the theater — the documentary film festival MountainSummit in late August — broke attendance records. But after closing for renovations in the fall, the 2015-16 season had some early bumps, with construction work running late and delaying the theater’s reopening from mid-December to early January. The season also brought high-profile, last-minute cancellations from Kevin Smith and Clint Black. Buhler tried to take the rough patches in stride.
“Overall, just seeing people back in the space — and people who hadn’t been back in a long time — and talking to people about diversity of programming, I’m feeling really good about it,” she said over coffee recently at Victoria’s Espresso and Wine Bar.
Mayor Steve Skadron credited Buhler for collaborating with other arts organizations to present events, for her progress getting to know the Aspen community (she came from the director’s job at the Vilar Performing Arts Center in Beaver Creek in May 2015) and for bringing a new energy to the Wheeler.
“I love Gena’s vibrancy and I feel that infuses the whole organization,” Skadron said. “I always feel from Gena that something special is coming next.”
Renovation work continued in a patchwork approach through the season and remains ongoing. For an admitted perfectionist like Buhler, it was a struggle to have artists in unpainted backstage area and to deal with some of the irregularities of a not-quite-complete physical overhaul: one night the lights wouldn’t shut off; on another, the construction crew locked the beer cooler before a show and left bartenders beerless for the night.
“I just had to step back and say, ‘It’s OK,’” she said.
Onstage, Buhler pointed to the nearly sold out Recycled Percussion show in February as a high point — hitting a sweet spot between high-caliber performance and a diverse crowd that ranged from children to adults. The free show by singer-songwriter Seth Glier in January also was a winner for her. A personal highlight, she said, was Glier performing at the Pitkin County Senior Center the morning after his Wheeler concert.
“I got chills seeing how people were affected by the music, who may not have been able to come into town for the show,” Buhler said.
Glier’s concert inspired Buhler to launch a new “discovery series” for this fall, showcasing talented bands and musicians on the rise.
“You may not know all the artists, but they’re going to be really good,” she said.
Buhler also pointed to Broadway star Susan Egan’s March show, which included a song with Theatre Aspen’s Paige Price, as a success for a type of program that Wheeler audiences aren’t accustomed to seeing.
In regards to ticket sales, concerts averaged about 250 tickets sold, filling about half of the house. Family events like Jason Bishop’s magic show did very well through the season, averaging 350 to 450 audience members. The Wheeler did hit the city’s $180,000 ticket-revenue goal for the December to April season, surpassing it by $1,600. Given the season’s delayed opening and scant crowds at January events, Buhler was relieved when stronger February and March sales put them over the threshold.
“You never know what’s going to hit and what’s going to miss,” she said. “You can count on one a season where you’re like, ‘OK, I shouldn’t have booked that one.’ I had that moment.”
“a certain level of quality”
That moment was “Sing Along With the Muppet Movie” in March, a puppet-enhanced movie screening that may have pleased some children but left parents — and Buhler — cringing. While duds are inevitable for any venue, Buhler said maintaining and building the Wheeler audience depends on a reliably high caliber of shows.
“I’d rather not have a show than have something that doesn’t live up to quality,” she said. “I want people to know that if something is presented by us, it’s going to have a certain level of quality.”
A new weekly Wheeler survey program — along with talking to patrons — helped Buhler and her staff gather feedback on events and better understand the sometimes fickle Aspen audience. It also led to what might be a major programming shift. Buhler said she heard from countless patrons that they want and expect bigger names on the bill at the Wheeler — artists on par with the top-notch acts that regularly play the privately owned Belly Up music club. So Buhler is planning to meet with the Aspen City Council next month to discuss putting more money into the programming budget — which is currently about $300,000 per year — for a handful of showstoppers. Based on audience feedback, she is hoping to add one, two or more marquee events to the annual schedule with performers that might cost the Wheeler $50,000 to $150,000 per show.
“People say, ‘If we can see it at the Belly Up, why can’t we see it at the Wheeler?’” she said.
Worth the investment
Doing so would require a supplemental budget increase with approval from the city council. Buhler said she has her winter 2016-17 lineup already about 80 percent booked. The extra cash would allow her to send offers out to a handful of marquee performers currently out of her price range. The money would come from the surplus the Wheeler is holding from its dedicated Real Estate Transfer Tax surplus — a fund which the council has considered repurposing for other city needs.
“Does it make sense to spend $150,000 on one night that 504 people can come to? It’s possible. It puts us on the map,” she said.
Skadron compared the considerations around such an expenditure on a splashy event to the public money the city invested in hosting the USA Pro Challenge bike race.
“We’ll give it a thorough discussion with great consideration for public money and the return on investment,” he said.
While that potential change will be up to elected officials, Buhler already has committed to substantial tweaks to the Wheeler-produced Aspen Laff Festival and its Monday Docs series.
Buhler stuck with the Laff Fest format she inherited for 2016, which included two headlining shows with opening acts, two nights in a row preceded by a locals’ stand-up showcase at Justice Snow’s. This winter, she’s planning to spread the shows out over a four-day festival, beginning with the locals’ night and followed by one nightly headliner.
“I found that by the time the second headliner went on, you were so tired you couldn’t do anything,” she said.
She’s also scaling back the Monday Docs series, which averaged an audience between 100 and 200 for weekly documentary films. The model of running it 11 weeks in a row, she found, kept even film buffs from coming to all of the movies. She’s planning to run the series throughout the winter on the first Monday of each month, in the hopes that more people will buy a season pass and come out for all of them.
The “Wheeler Wins” membership program has outstretched expectations since Buhler launched it in November. The program for Aspen locals has benefits such as discounted tickets, early access to sales and meet-and-greet events with artists for $10 per year. After beginning with a goal of 150 memberships, the program attracted 350 by season’s end. Buhler now has her eye on hitting 1,000 members.
Based on its success and feedback from part-time Aspenites who wanted something comparable, the Wheeler is planning this summer to launch a similar “Club Wheeler” membership for second-home owners. They, Buhler noted, are providing most of the Wheeler’s funding through the real estate transfer tax that comprises about 85 percent of the theater’s operating budget.
The renovated second-floor Wheeler bar remains a work in progress. Buhler had hoped to make it more of a lively space and draw crowds in early for shows, which didn’t catch on with audiences over the 2015-16 season.
“It’s just who we are as Aspenites,” she said. “We can’t get anywhere on time, let alone early to have a drink.”
Operated by Justice Snow’s through the 2015-16 season, the city will put out a request for proposals to find a permanent operator for the bar. A small, removable second stage for that space is expected to arrive in early June. During the summer, when the Aspen Music Festival rents the main Wheeler theater for its opera season, Buhler hopes to put on a few initial events to test out the second stage with comedians or local bands, “just to check out the space and see how people deal with it.”
The next big Wheeler-produced event on the docket is MountainSummit on Aug. 24 to 28. The Aspen Music Festival’s opera season opens with “La Boheme” on July 14.
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