1947: Aspen’s first summer of arts
June 30, 2011
The summer after the first Aspen Ski Company season was the first test of providing arts to attract tourists. Walter Paepcke’s Aspen Company leased the Wheeler and underwrote entertainment for summer 1947, expanding Aspen’s skiing reputation to include summer activities.
The City of Aspen acquired the Wheeler due to taxes owed. Beck and Bishop Grocery occupied the bottom floor, but the upper floors suffered from a leaky roof and fire damage. To secure a lease on the building, Paepcke agreed to repair the roof and fire damage, make necessary structural improvements, and pay for heating the county library (most recently Bentley’s). Paepcke renovated the performance space, simply at first, with wood benches for the audience.
Film star and singer Burl Ives gave the first Wheeler performance. Ives, known now mostly for his role as Big Daddy in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and for the television version of Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer, drew attention then as a folk singer. Following his Aspen appearance, Aspenites followed his career: he followed his 1948 hit, The Blue Tail Fly, with an Academy Award nomination for best original song, Lavender Blue, and his CBS radio broadcasts. Months after his Aspen Opera House appearance, he gave a rousing performance at the San Francisco Opera House. What a contrast: the lavish San Francisco seats and decorations, compared to Aspen’s small theater, where audience members brought chairs and pillows to sit on the floor of a not-yet renovated Wheeler.
As an harbinger of Aspen’s future as a musical training center, a summer Minstrelsy School and a School of Dance were initiated by Richard and Melvene Dyer-Bennet. Richard intended to train students in the ancient tradition of being a minstrel. In his first-ever minstrelsy school, Dyer-Bennet taught students Spanish guitar, voice and performance techniques.
Richard went on to become the first folk musician to give a solo performance in Carnegie Hall. He was averaging more than 50 performances a year (including two in Aspen in 1947). In the 1940s and early 1950s, Dyer-Bennet had researched and performed songs from many countries and centuries. He was credited with paving the way for other folk singers. After he was blacklisted his performances ended, but he continued recording, a total of 13 albums (reissued by Smithsonian Folkways).
Melvene, a dancer with the Hanya-Holm dance group, taught a six-week session of modern dance, including movements of American Indians and Haitians.
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The Dyer-Bennets wanted their summer program to succeed so they could spend their summers in Aspen, but it did not attract enough students to make it worthwhile to return the following year.
A chamber music series filled August, featuring mostly members of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Dudley Powers (principal cellist from 1933 to 1953), John Weicher (concertmaster from 1937 until 1959, when Sidney Harth replaced him), and violinist Rosemary Malocsay provided the strings. Van Vactor (noted composer and conductor of the Knoxville Symphony beginning that year and continuing until 1972) played the flute. Rudolph Reuter gave a piano recital and harpsichordist Dorothy Lane joined others in chamber ensembles. Both were later known for their teaching.
The first summer’s entertainment closed with the premier of a dance/drama, “When Satan Hops Out.” Written and directed by Charlotte Perry with music composed by Harry John Brown and Bernardo Segall, the play was created during the Perry-Mansfield Theater Workshop, a summer program in Steamboat Springs. Harriet Anne Gray choreographed the production and played the lead role. Gray spent many summers with Charlotte Perry and Portia Mansfield teaching dance in the Steamboat summer program. At the time of the Aspen performance, she also performed and trained dancers in Hollywood for Columbia Pictures.
The 1947 season of arts was overshadowed by the 1949 Goethe Bicentennial and subsequent Music Festivals, but it formed the foundation of Aspen’s summer.