Jon Busch, Aspen gay icon and champion of cinema, inducted in the Hall of Fame
If you know Aspen, you probably know the major achievements on Jon Busch’s diverse patchwork of a resume: founding Aspen Gay Ski Week in 1977, pushing the Aspen City Council to pass a groundbreaking gay rights ordinance the same year, hosting and programming films at the Wheeler Opera House that spawned and defined Aspen’s cinema culture for four decades, launching the KSPN radio station.
But there are other, more obscure community contributions you probably don’t know about that have bolstered Busch, 77, as a local legend and made him a member of the 2019 Aspen Hall of Fame class.
“I’ve done lots of things that nobody knows,” he said recently over lunch at the Aspen Public House.
As a member of the Commercial Core and Lodging Commission for 18 years, Busch quietly shaped the physical aesthetic of the town: He chose the spruce green color of the street lamps downtown and chose the style stoplights for Main Street. On a city sidewalk and trails committee, he championed the much-trafficked Clark’s Cutoff trails that connect the Mill Street shopping complex to the West End.
He also advocated for a trolley system for Aspen that failed to gain public support.
“That was my biggest failure,” he said.
As a young member of landscaping work crew, Busch installed the original outdoor footlights lining the paths around the Benedict Music Tent, planted many of the trees in the area, and installed the R.O. Anderson plaque in Anderson Park.
He’s as proud of those small contributions as he is of the big ones, like his early gay rights activism when he was spurred to political action after being harassed for dancing with a man in a local club in the mid-1970s, his running the Wheeler’s film program from 1972 to 2014, and his bringing the Aspen Community Church’s massive pipe organ — the second largest on the Western Slope — to town in 1999.
Busch will be inducted on Saturday night, along with Dr. Barry Mink and philanthropists Kay and Matthew Bucksbaum.
“It’s a surprise,” he said of the induction. “It means a lot.”
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 proto-hippie fashion — he resigned and returned to Aspen full-time in 1969.
He’s been a perennial presence in Music Festival audiences ever since.
“I love the Music Festival,” he said. “To this day, I have stayed here because of the Music Festival. It’s such an immersion into the classical music scene. You just can’t get it anywhere else.”
Trained as a film projectionist as a kid in Portland, Oregon, Busch kept money in his pocket by running projectors, doing carpentry work and odd jobs. He gradually became the unofficial dean of Aspen’s cinephile culture, hosting classic film retrospectives and independent titles at the Wheeler.
He put KSPN on the air in 1970, broadcasting out of the Hotel Jerome basement, and managed it for four years when the station was a rollicking platform with local DJs spinning records through the night.
“Locals could just have at it,” he said, recalling the free-form hours the station booked in the late night and early mornings. “Surprisingly, Aspen is awake at all hours.”
Busch’s voice was the first heard on the station. He recalled that he’d planned to launch KSPN by playing the Salzburg Festival fanfare, but the station went on the air accidentally as an engineer was fiddling with the transmitter and Busch had “Subterranean Homesick Blues” playing in the studio.
“I got a phone call that said, ‘Hey congrats, you’re on the air!’” he recalled with a laugh.
Busch is also something of a patron saint of creative ski bum housing.
Locals who are struggling to find beds or navigate the often-maddening government housing system here have a hero and source of hope in Busch, who went to extraordinary lengths to find a way to live in Aspen without much money as a young man.
When he moved back to town in 1969, Busch lived in the upstairs of a foundry near the Roaring Fork River, sharing a room with a late-stage alcoholic whose delirium tremens outbursts kept Busch awake many nights.
“I could not wait to get out of there,” he recalled.
So he moved into a closet under a staircase in the basement of the Jerome, sharing his sleeping bag with the occasional rodent.
“In the early ’70s a lot of people in Aspen did a lot of creative stuff to survive,” he recalled.
In typical Aspen fashion, he moved out of the closet and into the mansion of former Eisenhower administration assistant Secretary of the Navy James Smith and his wife, Diane, in what seemed a plum housesitting gig. Busch recalled that the Smiths banned him from stepping foot on the upper floor of the house — lined with original Matisse paintings — unless he was watering the plants there. The Smiths unceremoniously booted him with a few weeks’ notice during ski season, leaving the plucky young Busch homeless again. So he moved, literally, onto the stage of the Wheeler Opera House.
For more than a year, with the theater’s ghost light above him, Busch spent his nights in his sleeping bag on the historic stage.
Then in 1973, he bought a duplex lot on Race Street above Oklahoma Flats with $7,000 borrowed dollars and built a modest home there. The house is now surrounded mostly by monstrous multimillion-dollar houses owned by people who live elsewhere.
“I bought at the time that everyone else says they could have bought but didn’t,” he said.
Before the 2008 economic recession, Busch had a buyer offer $4.2 million for the place, almost certainly to tear it down and build another big new vacation home there. He didn’t end up selling. He now plans to live out his days in the house and leave it to his beloved Aspen Music Festival to sell and profit from.
Perhaps the most astounding thing about Busch is how his passions are undimmed by time and age and the effects of his advancing Parkinson’s disease. On Friday, you’ll find him at a place of honor for Gay Ski Week’s annual downhill race on Aspen Mountain. Busch still books and promotes local organ recitals at the Community Church and produces and hosts the Pitkin County Library Cinema Series. Three times a week, you’ll find him in the conference room at the library making popcorn and introducing his latest selection from independent cinema.
This weekend, the series is taking Saturday night off so Busch can join the Hall of Fame. But Sunday afternoon, he’ll be back to popping popcorn and working the digital projector for a matinee of the documentary “The World Before Your Feet.”
“When I have a good film and I have a good audience, it’s rewarding,” he said.
Summing up his passion in a 2017 interview, Busch said, “My mission has always been to expand and contribute to the cultural diversity of Aspen, and to what makes Aspen unique among ski resorts.”
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