‘Aspen, Dream of the Past Hoping for a Future’

Travel through time at Historical Society’s Retro Film series

From “A Return to Aspen” (1987) which is featured in the Aspen Historical Society’s 2022 Retro FIlm Series.
Courtesy Aspen Historical Society

The Aspen Historical Society and Aspen Film’s always-fascinating Retro Film Series has dusted off some rarely seen, locally made classics for its 2022 edition.

For the second year in a row, the series is virtual. It opened in January and runs through the end of March with three different programs featuring nine total short films that offer glimpses of an Aspen in shaggier days in the 1970s and ’80s.

But rather than a pure nostalgia trip or stories from an unrecognizable former Aspen, some of the films make clear that the heated debates over Aspen today, and the town’s questions about its identity, how it is changing, who it is for – these are not new questions.

“A Return to Aspen,” in particular, is a fascinating document and a must-see for anyone interested in Aspen today. Made in 1987 by Aspenite and ski film and photography pioneer Dick Durrance, and produced by the Aspen Skiing Co., it is both a gut check for locals and a marketing pitch that asks whether Aspen still has soul (was there ever a time when we weren’t debating this?).

“For some of us, it’s also a permanent address,” Durrance narrates, noting Aspen’s enduring resort/town duality. “Some of us have been here 30, 40 years or more.”

Running 22 minutes, the film features longtime Aspen Times editor Bil Dunaway and architect Fritz Benedict – who had both been here since the birth of the resort after World War Two – talking about Aspen’s unique charms in its early postwar days and arguing that it still retained that spirit in the mid-’80s, seemingly responding to Aspen’s rapidly evolving reputation as a vapid glitz-and-glam “pleasure slum” (to borrow a phrase from another old-school Aspenite).

“It’s an athletic community and yet it’s an intellectual community as well,” Dunaway explains.

From “One for the Money,” featured in the Aspen Historical Society’s Retro Film Series.

He and Benedict both recall the early days of the resort fondly, when the ski developers overlapped with people who’d been here since the silver-mining days of the 1890s.

“It was a charming village where you knew everybody,” Dunaway says in the film.

Their testimonies play out in between historic footage and contemporary 80s scenes on the mountain and around town, with Durrance serving as a sort of narrator-tour guide.

Not unlike today’s marketing pushes on social media, this ’87 Skico marketing film bangs the gong of Aspen’s community values. “A Return to Aspen” is selling its viewers on the idea that locals are cool and living here is cooler than visiting, differentiating it from other resorts that don’t have a year-round community.

From “A Return to Aspen” (1987) which is featured in the Aspen Historical Society’s 2022 Retro FIlm Series.

“Aspen has always been a place where people lived as well as played,” Durrance narrates. “It’s a grand place to raise our kids and live out our lives.”

And Benedict argues, despite all the change, that ’80s Aspen isn’t actually that different from ’50 Aspen: “To me, you can still live out the kind of life you could 30 year ago.”

The film also checks in on unnamed locals (one woman proclaims “I’m not leaving for love or money!”) as well as tourists from Brazil, Texas and Australia.

It includes some incredible archival film – pulled by Durrance from the Aspen Historical Society archive – of the early days of skiing here, including shots of soldiers skiing Aspen Mountain in the 1930s and a harrowing follow cam perspective on the Roch Cup course. It tells the familiar history of the silver mining town that went bust and was reborn as a ski town and utopia and became a magnet for free spirits, and celebrates Winterskol in its now long-done heyday and hits on local racing history, from the 1950 FIS World Championshp to the 1987 America’s Downhill and also toasts the then-new Silver Queen Gondola.

Durrance, in his narration, coins an apt phrase that could have applied to the local anxieties that’ve persisted from the Quiet Years to the postwar ski boom, through the go-go ’80s and certainly into today’s moment of warming climate and a pandemic-accelerated housing and affordability crisis and rapid redevelopment: “Aspen, dream of the past hoping for a future.”

“A Return to Aspen” will begin screening on the Feb. 8 Retro Film program, which also includes the incredible “One For the Money.” This freewheeling 13-minute ski racing doc, produced in 1973 by Fat City Films’ Norm Clasen and others, offers a glimpse of the wild local ski racing scene of the early 1970s.

It’s narrated by Aspen great Spider Sabich in his prime, three years before he was shot by singer Claudine Longet (yes, she makes a cameo in “One For the Money”) when he was all cocky charm and blonde locks and gate crashing.

“I never feel like training,” Sabich says in the film’s opening moments, showing him jogging through aspen groves in the fall.

Spider Sabich in “One for the Money.”

Sabich and his legendary cohort – Tyler Palmer, Jean Claude Killy and so on – are shown in chaotic head-to-head races, often depicted in adoring slow motion over a wailing soundtrack of blues guitars as they flying off of jumps and bound through race gates, skiing hard and chugging Coors.

“It’s a matter of confidence more than anything,” Sabich says. “Knowing you can stick it out when you land.”


What: Retro Film Series, presented by Aspen Historical Society and Aspen Film


When: Through March 31; new programs go live Feb. 8 and March 8

How much: Suggested donation $60 for all three programs or $20 each

More info: The first program went live Jan. 11. Screenings go live on the Eventive platform at 5 p.m. on release date.