Aspen Times Weekly: The Passion of Jon Busch

by Andrew Travers
Jon Busch
Courtesy photo


Jan. 20-22: ‘Denial’

Jan. 27-28: ‘His Girl Friday’

Jan. 29: ‘Zero Days’

Screenings are held in the Dunaway Community Meeting Room at the Pitkin County Library. Shows start at 7:30 p.m. with a classic cartoon. Admission is $8. Tickets available at the door, at the Wheeler Opera House box office and at

For most of Aspen’s modern history, Jon Busch has been the town’s guide to cinema. For the last 45 years, he’s aimed to enrich local film culture with screenings of art-house movies, foreign titles, classics and the small independents that wouldn’t normally make it to screens outside of metropolitan areas.

In the 1970s, he regularly drew a hundred or more Aspenites to the Wheeler Opera House for retrospective series that showcased directors like John Huston or Federico Fellini or the films of the Marx Brothers. His local experience earned him gigs on the staff at the Hawaii International Film Festival, where he’s been technical director for 28 years, and the vaunted Telluride Film Festival.

On a recent Saturday night, Busch was perched behind a card table at the back entrance of the Pitkin County Library, selling tickets and scooping popcorn for the six local cinephiles who came out for his screening of the Meryl Streep dramedy “Florence Foster Jenkins.”

As the lights dimmed after Busch’s introduction, a patron at the back of the theater whispered joyfully, “This is like old Aspen, it’s so low-key and quiet.”

“My mission has always been to expand and contribute to the cultural diversity of Aspen, and to what makes Aspen unique among ski resorts.”- JON BUSCH,pictured at Wheeler Opera House in 1981

The largest audience to come out for an entry in his new Library Cinema series – running since November – totaled 14 people.

Aspen has changed and cinema culture everywhere has certainly changed, but Jon Busch is still a believer.

“Aspen was always special to me – that’s why I moved here and I stay here, because it’s so special,” Busch, 75, told me recently over lunch at Justice Snow’s. “My mission has always been to expand and contribute to the cultural diversity of Aspen, and to what makes Aspen unique among ski resorts. I always felt an art film program is something that fits.”

Busch’s contributions to Aspen culture go far beyond film. He helped found Aspen Gay Ski Week in 1977, the same year that he pushed the Aspen City Council to pass a groundbreaking gay rights ordinance that forbade discrimination based on sexual orientation. As a carpenter, he built the original KSPN studio in the basement of the Hotel Jerome and was among the first voices heard on Aspen’s first FM radio station. A lover of organ music, he brought the Aspen Community Church’s massive pipe organ – the second largest on the Western Slope – to town in 1999 and still programs recitals there. (Another kind of pipe dream, the Aspen trolley system Busch championed, never gained city support).

His new cinematic venture hasn’t caught on yet with the masses. But Busch believes that Aspen remains the unique kind of ski town that will come out and enjoy these kinds of movies together.

Busch first arrived in Aspen in 1964 to study clarinet at the Aspen Music School. He came back for four summers, before taking a post with the Indianapolis Symphony. After a dispute over the orchestra dress code – he wore mutton-chop sideburns and a mane of brown hair in the Age of Aquarius fashion – he quit and came back to Aspen full-time.

He’d worked as a film projectionist in movie theaters since he was in the eighth grade in Portland, Oregon and had used the skill to support himself through college, when he manned the reels at a grindhouse showing double- and triple-features of horror and sci-fi. Along with other odd jobs, he supported himself as a projectionist here in Aspen, too.

Busch took over the Wheeler’s film program from Don Swales in 1972. Back then, in the days before HBO and VHS, and when cinema was still the center of the pop culture conversation – he could fill the house nightly for screenings of classics and new art house films. Home entertainment options – first cable television and home video, then on-demand streaming – has steadily whittled away at his audiences, while expanded Aspen Film programming has provided competition. But until the last few years, his film series was still a prominent part of the Wheeler’s programming. (His “Farewell to Film” program in 2014, screening the last celluloid films before the theater went digital, filled the house.)

As his audiences shrunk, the Wheeler offered Busch fewer and fewer dates. For the winter of 2016-17, the historic city-owned theater offered him just two days in November for movies. But then the Pitkin County Library – with its newly renovated building and its spiffy new Dunaway Meeting Room – came to the rescue, volunteering to be Busch’s new cinematic home. (The library also bought him that new popcorn machine.)

Busch launched the series in November with promising titles like the Ron Howard-directed rock doc “The Beatles: Eight Days a Week,” the acclaimed Swedish book adaptation “A Man Called Ove,” along with a showing of the 1957 film noir classic “Sweet Smell of Success” and Park Chan-wook’s “The Handmaiden,” which was one of the best reviewed movies of 2016.

“I hoped to regain the audience that I used to have at the Wheeler,” he says. “I do have regular followers that come to everything that I show, but you can almost count them on one hand.”

Perhaps local film buffs are getting their fill from Aspen Film, which now hosts a monthly indie showcase at the Isis, or the one-screen Crystal Theatre in Carbondale, which regularly picks up art-house and avant-garde titles.

Busch’s films now screen in a library conference room with patrons in office chairs – a less than ideal theatrical experience. But it’s impossible not to be charmed by the bespoke, personal touches Busch has added to the series. In throwback fashion, he selects a cartoon to precede each feature, matched thematically to the film (before “Florence Foster Jenkins,” the story of “the world’s worst opera singer,” he played the Looney Tunes classic “What’s Opera, Doc?”).

The film series will run until at least early March. When daylight savings time switches, he’s taking a hiatus (the Dunaway Room doesn’t have blackout curtains for its windows, or at least it doesn’t yet).

Upcoming movies include the new Holocaust courtroom drama “Denial,” the 1940 Howard Hawks classic “His Girl Friday” and the cyber warfare documentary “Zero Days.” Busch is proud to give these movies a place to show in Aspen and he doesn’t expect his Library Cinema series to become the phenomenon in town that his Wheeler shows may have been 40 years ago.

“The time was different – Netflix wasn’t around. People didn’t have big flat screen TVs in their homes,” he says. “Also I think the film audience was a bit more sophisticated, they knew Howard Hawks and they knew a lot about what made something like ‘His Girl Friday’ special.”

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