Aprs in the Limelight, and at the Palace | AspenTimes.com

Aprs in the Limelight, and at the Palace

Stewart OksenhornThe Aspen TimesAspen, CO Colorado

Steve JohnsonThe Defiance Stringband plays Friday afternoons through March at Aspen's Limelight Lodge.

ASPEN – When Greg Jurgensen first got to Aspen, for a winter in the mid-’80s, he got a bartending gig at the Tippler. The job, right at the bottom of Lift 1A, placed him smack in the heart of the quintessential aprs-ski scene: DJs and cover bands and acoustic guitarists strumming John Denver tunes; ski boots scratching up the dance floor; skiers drowning out the day’s aches and wounds with pitchers of beer; Aussies bonding with Texans over cheap shots.”Aprs-ski was pretty much bigger than the nighttime was,” Jurgensen recalled, adding that the old Little Nell bar – situated, like the Tippler, right at the foot of Aspen Mountain – was just as much of a scene as his place of employment.It must have seemed like a phenomenon that would never die. What could be a more perfect fit than a dive bar at the bottom of a ski slope, just waiting for skiers to get off the slopes and make the transition from athletic activity to other forms of recreation?As it happens, Jurgensen’s first winter in Aspen would be the last year before the Little Nell bar was replaced by the pricier, more exclusive Little Nell hotel. It was, in a way, the beginning of the end for old-school aprs-ski in Aspen proper, and the era might have come to a close when the Tippler was shuttered in the early ’00s, to make way for the tony Residences at Little Nell project. Aprs-ski didn’t go away, exactly. There was the Ajax Tavern, with a deck looking up Aspen Mountain; the poolside scene at the Sky Hotel for the younger set; Mezzaluna’s reliably buzzing happy hour; and a host of smaller scenes scattered about town.But for someone looking for the aprs-ski scene of mountain-town legends – big room; loud band; a feeling that what happened during aprs-ski stays at aprs-ski – they were better off in Snowmass Village or Aspen Highlands. Snowmass had a space at the end of the mall – the Timbermill, then the Cirque – that was ideal for aprs-skiing: huge, built to take punishment, a location such that skiers leaving the mountain were practically forced to walk by it. Before the massive renovation at Highlands, the old A-frame at the bottom of the hill functioned in a similar way.Blame the fall of aprs-ski on rising real estate prices (those spending $800 a night on a slopeside room might not see an aprs party as an amenity), the overall taming of America (it’s likely that the aprs scene in every ski town pales next to what went down in the ’80s), Aspen’s loaded nightlife and cultural options (which means aprs hours are often spent napping or primping for nighttime activities), or that Aspen is heavier on touring musical talent than the local acts that tend to play aprs-ski.••••But people have definitely noticed the void in Aspen, and this season are taking ambitious steps to fill it. The Limelight Lodge has launched an aprs-ski scene in its lobby. And longtime bar operator Greg Jurgensen, whose past ventures include the aprs-focused Silver Nugget in the old Tippler space, has taken over the former Crystal Palace space and is running it as The Palace.Both are bold strokes, beyond the often used idea of finding a corner to stick an acoustic duo a couple afternoons a week. The Limelight, which was purchased by the Aspen Skiing Co. earlier this year, went so far as to redesign its lobby to make it aprs-friendly. The redo included building a stage and buying a P.A. system – practically a necessity, given that the Limelight is going with a lineup heavy on full bands (of the bluegrass and Americana variety), rather than solo performers or duets. The Limelight inaugurated its aprs-ski last weekend in style, with two performances by the Limeliters, the folk trio that got its start at the lodge back in the ’50s. While there are plenty of local acts – Frank Martin & Yellow Dog Dingo; the trio of Rich Ganson, Tom Hills & Randy Utterback; and the Defiance Stringband, which plays Fridays throughout the season, beginning Friday – there are also touring bands on the schedule, including banjoist Jayme Stone, Grand Junction’s Stray Grass, and the Mile Markers, who have played at Belly Up. There is music scheduled Wednesdays through Sundays, with Sundays an open-mike night hosted by Dan Sadowsky. Music goes from 4-7 p.m.”We want to bring the Limelight back as its original idea – a place to gather, live music, our guests and the whole community sharing this experience,” Angele Dupre, assistant front of house manager of the Limelight, said on Wednesday afternoon, as the local trio the Roaring Fork Ramblers set up on the stage, which is backed by floor-to-ceiling windows. “There is that lacking, bringing everyone together. You can go to a bar, but it doesn’t have that uniqueness. We want to bring back the uniqueness. I grew up skiing Snowmass, and going to the Cirque was one of my greatest memories. I wasn’t drinking then, but I remember being inside or outside, listening to a band, dancing.”Dupre acknowledged that the Limelight’s location, three-plus blocks from the gondola, was a disadvantage. But she hopes the scene – fireplace, music, fresh-baked cookies, family-friendly vibe, and, coming in the spring, a pizza restaurant – will lure aprs-skiers.”We know we’re not the closest to the mountain,” she said. “We hope what we’re providing is strong enough.”Steve Frischman, guitarist for the Roaring Fork Ramblers, who lived in the valley through most of the ’80s, remembers the wildness of the aprs-ski scene back then. “It was a lot of drinking,” he said, recalling the times at the old Dean Street Inn, where the Hyatt Grand Aspen now stands, but also mentioning the Timbermill and the base of Highlands. “We used to get them fired up. Once you got them over the edge, it just went crazy.”Frischman doesn’t expect those days to return soon. But he expects the Limelight to help make aprs a vital part of the Aspen ski experience, calling the Limelight lobby “a beautiful place, the best spot for aprs-ski around.”••••Jurgensen might argue the point, just as he might dispute the idea that going to a bar for aprs-ski can’t be a unique experience. But Jurgensen’s space is something apart from the typical bar.Jurgensen has taken over the old Crystal Palace spot and turned it into the Palace, which will have both aprs-ski and nighttime performances. While the entertainment will be very different than the satirical/musical show presented when the space was a dinner theater, the atmosphere remains much the same. Much of the stained glass is intact; the room feels grand and special. Jurgensen thinks it will draw crowds to walk across town from the mountain.”If I was talking any old space, I wouldn’t even try it,” Jurgensen, who also runs the Mustang bar, said. “But the setting is worth the walk. And certainly the music is.”While the Limelight aims for a mellower twist on aprs-ski of old, Jurgensen wouldn’t mind reviving aprs as it existed when he got to town: pitchers, rock ‘n’ roll, ski boots.”We’re more throwback,” he said. “Everyone else is about standing in tight packs, no tables, crowded. We’re getting back to the old aprs – a table from Madrid next to a table from Nebraska, taking to each other the way they wouldn’t have been in any other setting.”Jurgensen, who operated the old Double Diamond rock club, is using music as the catalyst. He’s going for a lineup of local rock ‘n’ rollers; the schedule prominently features the Great Divide Band, which includes Aspen icon Bobby Mason and members of the old Take the Wheel. The band performs Saturdays and Wednesday for aprs-ski, beginning, Dec. 18, at 4 p.m.”The room lends itself to performance,” Jurgensen said. “We’re trying to reinvent the old Aspen here, featuring the musical talent that’s always been here.”Jurgensen is freshening up the old aprs-ski in one way – with fresher food. At the Mustang, he has found that people these days recognize when a kitchen puts in the extra effort, rather than pouring frozen foods into fryer. So the Palace’s bar menu includes house-made items.Other than that, the Palace wants to turn back the clock.”At the Tippler, everybody stretched out and socialized,” Jurgensen said. “It was a social scene. I’m looking forward to getting back to that.”Of course, it is possible that the memories of aprs-ski of yore have been exaggerated by time and alcohol. But Dave Notor, a musician who lived through Aspen’s aprs-ski scene dating to the late ’70s, says no; it actually was pretty wild.”It’s not a myth. We have pictures to prove it,” he said. “Sex, drugs, rock ‘n’ roll were in then; the inhibitions weren’t there. It was ski, aprs, take a nap, go out at night, do it all over again.”stewart@aspentimes.com