Aspen Times Weekly: Wheeler director Gram Slaton looks back, moves forward

by Andrew Travers
Wheeler Opera House executive director Gram Slaton, right, with filmmaker Tom Shadyac. Shadyac screened his documentary, “I Am,” at the Wheeler’s MountainSummit festival in 2010.
Aspen Times file |

For nearly a decade, Gram Slaton ran the Wheeler Opera House — Aspen’s historic downtown theater. But as 2014 comes to a close, Slaton is on the road back to his hometown of Charlottesville, Virginia, where he will direct the Piedmont Council for the Arts.

Slaton’s nine years in arguably the most prominent job in Aspen’s arts scene included founding the MountanSummit film festival and the Aspen Laff Festival, which has kept comedy alive at the Wheeler in the wake of the HBO U.S. Comedy Arts Festival leaving town. He and Rock and Roll Hall of Famer John Oates founded the 7908 Songwriters Festival, which didn’t last, but which Slaton says may get a new lease on life in Virginia.

Along with that programming legacy, he leaves a better building behind (though not a bigger one, as he had hoped). He oversaw more than $8 million in improvements to the city-owned historic building, including replacing a the venue’s balcony and cramped seating, which has knees all over town thanking him.

Slaton says the deaths of former Aspen Mayor Helen Klanderud and Aspen Times arts editor Stewart Oksenhorn, and his own brush with mortality, encouraged him to make the move, along with his roots back east.

I sat down with Slaton in his basement office at the Wheeler during has last week here to discuss the past, present and future of both Gram Slaton and the Wheeler.

Andrew Travers: What made you decide to go?

Gram Slaton: A lot of what informed my decision that it was time to leave, other than the fact that it had been nine years — which is a long time for an executive director — was a series of personal events in my life.

Starting with the fact that I learned I had kidney cancer in May 2013 and almost died. That was my big wakeup call that you can’t keep postponing your life and saying, ‘I’ll do that next year,’ because there may not be one. Then Helen Klanderud died [in 2013] and that was like snapping the lifeline with the town. That was a big loss for me. Then Stewy’s suicide [in February]. Helen’s death was pointing me at the door, Stewy’s death was turning me around and pointing me at it, and then when [stand-up comedian and Aspenite] David Brenner died two months after Stewy, that was the last push toward the door. All my era’s connections to the town were now gone. And I had almost gone, too, therefore, life was tapping me on the shoulder and saying, ‘What do you want to do?’ The answer was, ‘Uncomfortable as it’s going to be, I need to be moving on.’

AT: Are you getting nostalgic as you pack up?

GS: A funny thing about both me and my significant other is that we don’t really do that. We don’t look backwards. I think it just feels like this chapter is completing. I know this is a place I can go back to. It’s a place I’ll come back to ski for a week in the winter and that’s good.

AT: The new gig brings you home. What was the attraction to go back to a place you haven’t lived since college?

GS: Going back to Charlottesville allows me to deal with some family business that I’ve been putting off for years now. My mom has dementia. She first started showing signs 15 years ago. Four years ago I had to get her out of the house and institutionalize her. So that’s a big piece of it. The fact that there’s a home there waiting for me is a piece of it. The challenge of the new job, running an arts council, so I can work in public policy and things like that — that I really found in the last number of years I really liked doing here — that’s exciting.

But there’s also that thought that at the end of March it’s really warm there and I can plant a garden, there are songbirds that will sing all night long. When I was home four years ago, working outside on the house, strangers would come up and say, ‘Are you moving in?’ And I thought, ‘Why would I do that. Then I started thinking, ‘Well, that’s not a bad place. So I’ve been making peace with my hometown. It’s a place I can go back to without a family history looming over me, necessarily. Now I can come to Charlottesville on my own terms, make my mark in a positive way, and hopefully finish out my career.

After college, I’d visit. But it wasn’t really until 2010 that I was spending extended chunks of tie there, going eyeball to eyeball with it, reconciling my history with it.

AT: What have you had to reconcile?

GS: You have to understand, my first grade class was the first class that was integrated in the state of Virginia. So I grew up in the civil rights era, and every spring there were riots. There were bomb threats. There was a lot of discomfort in being part of that process. You cannot sit on the sidelines in that kind of culture, you’re either in one camp or another. So for me the best thing to do was to extract myself from it. Now, there are still other problems in the town and they still have a fairly big racial issue to deal with. Virginia is a hotbed of conservatism in some ways again. Some of the old ghosts are rising out of the past, but I’m better equipped to deal with it now.

AT: What are your proudest moments at the Wheeler?

GS: When I want to be facetious I say that my greatest achievement was getting rid of Bentley’s [laughs]. But that actually is a good integer for everything we did — it’s certainly the most visible — in taking a place that’s served it’s time and replacing it with something [Justice Snow’s] that fits with what the Wheeler is now.

When I came in, they wanted to reorganize the place, update it, and get the Wheeler expansion up and going. And to repoint the ship after a number of years where it wasn’t quite what people wanted it to be. So those early years were easy in that you could get a lot done. The Aspen City Council then, led by Helen, was motivated to get a lot done. So we got a lot done in the first couple years. Then after the recession, after the fall of 2008 happened, everything got suspended for awhile and we refocused on our programming, starting the three festivals. Two of those have survived and I think they can continue to survive.

I’ve already gotten John Oates hooked up with some people in Charlottesville restart [a songwriters festival]. So nothing is wasted.

There’s redoing these offices. Doing the balcony project. The residency with Jean-Luc Ponty and Jon Anderson. Going skiing with David Brenner and just cracking up. I think it’s been a good nine years for me, I hope it has for the town.

AT: I imagine Brenner was a good skiing partner. Are there other relationships with artists that formed, or moments backstage, that stand out to you?

GS: There’s a lot of them. Most of them I can’t say out loud.

AT: The expansion hasn’t happened as you hoped. Do you think it will?

GS: We still need to do the expansion. We just flat-out do. And if we’re not going to do that then we need to have some kind of sister facility in town. It’s not going to be the powerhouse building, but if City Hall moves, it could be City Hall — that’s an old armory. If you’ve seen pictures of it from the 1950s — it would be a perfect space. The Wheeler really only has a season that runs 14 weeks. We miss the entire summer [because of the Aspen Music Festival and School takes over the theater in the summer months]. So if you’re not going to Theatre Aspen, you’re not going to the Music Tent, and you don’t want to spend a lot of money to go the Belly Up, you don’t have a lot of options.

In the next five years, though, the key thing is renewing the real estate transfer tax [which funds the Wheeler]. If you don’t do that, it’s all moot.

AT: Programming-wise, have you identified a Wheeler brand of artist or event?

GS: [Belly Up owner] Michael Goldberg and I have long agreed that you go to the Belly Up for the party and you come to the Wheeler for the concert. You come here to have a different kind of great time than you do there, and one’s not better than the other. I expect the new person will have a new spin, which I hope will be younger and hipper and bring in that audience that’s been elusive under my booking.

AT: What kind of advice do you offer to that person?

GS: Executive directors tend to have really big egos. And there’s nothing more humbling than a big hero idea of ‘I’m going to book this name and its going to be a sell out and they’re going to carry me around town on a sedan chair’ and then you can come up so short in this town. You can bring the greatest artist that ever was born and you can draw thin air. Is it because of the day of the week? The week in the month? How the wind blew that day? Eventually you realize you’ll just have some hits and misses and some surprises and you go forward.