Dancin’ in the Seats (and the aisles)
Fans of Colorado acoustic quartet Yonder Mountain String Band were greeted at the band’s two-night stand in Aspen this past April with what must have been a surprising announcement. Josh Behrman, whose Mountain Groove Productions presented the shows, and Gram Slaton, whose tenure as executive director of the Wheeler Opera House was in its sixth month, informed the sold-out crowd that they were welcome to dance – at their seats, in the aisles. The greeting laid to rest an issue that had long been a thorn in the side for concertgoers and staff at the stylish, century-old theater: to dance or not to dance.As Yonder Mountain’s fans twirled and bobbed, a new era of glasnost appeared to settle in over the Wheeler. The break with the past was sharp enough that some had difficulty believing what they had heard.”People came up and said, ‘We didn’t know if you were serious about us having a good time.’ And I said, yeah, knock yourselves out,” said Slaton.There were some limits to the good times to be had at the Wheeler. During the set break of the concert, Slaton had to remind the crowd that smoking, of all kinds, was forbidden, a mandate that was largely obeyed. But it is true that Slaton wants the Wheeler to be seen not as a plush but delicate heirloom with a ‘Do Not Touch’ sign hung out front. The top item on his to-do list was to make Wheeler a fun house.”The first thing we wanted to do was tear down ‘Fortress Wheeler,'” said the 52-year-old Slaton, who marks his first anniversary in Aspen early next month, after having spent 12 years as director of the Community Arts Center in Williamsport, Pa. “That was the biggest negative against the Wheeler – that people didn’t feel welcome, didn’t feel appreciated, felt looked down on. That’s the user groups, to a certain extent – the audience.”Slaton called the mood at the Wheeler, when he arrived, as “fearful and paranoid,” an opinion more or less echoed by others close to the facility. “People were fearful of using the place,” he added. “There was a terrible black cloud over the building.”Also high on Slaton’s agenda was the replacement of the seats. There were many purposes: to improve sight lines, to update fixtures that dated back to the ’60s, and above all, to provide more legroom for patrons. In addition, the orchestra pit cover was strengthened. The result of the construction is that two seats have been lost. (An old memo unearthed by Slaton claimed that replacing the seats would have meant a 72-seat reduction in capacity, unthinkable for a 500-seat venue.) There is also symbolic value to the project, especially in the fact that 53 seats can now be cleared from the floor to make way for dancers. Slaton and his staff are willing to listen to Wheeler users (who have probably been complaining since the 19th century about cramped space), that the building and its amenities are not sacred cows.The signal seems to be getting through. “The more relaxed it is, the better the experience. I think Gram is totally committed to that,” said Behrman. “He wants to take the Wheeler and make a 180-degree change and turn people’s heads and change the image, the facade, that has been built over the years.” Behrman, who has been booking concerts and theatrical performances at the Wheeler for a decade, agreed with Slaton that the image needed a renovation. “Before Gram, it was stoic,” he said. “People wouldn’t buy a ticket to certain bands. They’d say, why should I see this band here, when I know I’ll just be told to sit down?”Under Slaton, the ticketing system has been replaced. Ticket-buyers can now make purchases and choose seats online, 24 hours a day. That is a major step in the improvement of the website, which is now about halfway done. The phone system should have its sorely needed modernizing complete by year’s end.Infrastructure, and the rules regarding the physical space, have hardly been the only issues Slaton has tackled in his first year on the job. There were personnel questions to be addressed. And Slaton arrived with a mandate from Aspen city council to make the Wheeler a busier place, with more programming of live events. Yet he has handled all of these with an approach similar to that witnessed by the dance-happy Yonder Mountain audience – with an eye toward making the Wheeler a friendlier venue.Take the rehiring of Gordon Wilder. Wilder, a longtime sound man at the Wheeler, parted ways with the venue under Slaton’s predecessor, Nida Tautvydas. Slaton touts Wilder’s rehiring as an indication of the Wheeler’s new direction.”That made such a huge impression on the community,” said Slaton, “because he’s so well respected, so well loved in the community. And he’s a damn good sound man. That was a piece of putting together a great staff.” (Slaton is quick to give credit for the Wheeler’s turnaround to his staff, about half of which he has hired.)On the programming side, the Wheeler has announced the first round of its own presentations for the 2006-’07 season. The names – Canadian fiddler Natalie MacMaster; country-rocker Chris Hillman, formerly of the Byrds and the Flying Burrito Brothers; South African vocal group Ladysmith Black Mambazo – are in line with the level of artists who have traditionally appeared at the Wheeler. (See sidebar for a full schedule of Wheeler presentations.)But the Wheeler is taking a leap by presenting Bernadette Peters, who will appear with a 29-piece orchestra, a mammoth production for the venue, and who comes with a corresponding price tag. (Tickets range as high as $225.) A March jazz concert by guitarist Pat Metheny and pianist Brad Mehldau is a co-presentation with Jazz Aspen Snowmass, the first Jazz Aspen concert at the Wheeler in several years. And with other outside groups – the Aspen Writers’ Foundation; the local theater company Hudson Reed Ensemble, which inaugurates the refurbished Wheeler with its production of “Red Herring” next week – making increased use of the venue, Slaton says there are three times as many presentations on the books now as there were when he came here.”I think that’s because people are happy with the Wheeler, and think they can come back and have a pleasurable experience,” he said.Slaton has had some surprises during his year in Aspen. On the positive side, he was pleased to discover an enthusiasm for skiing, an activity he had never tried before. More pertinent to his job, he was amazed to see what happened to the level of activity in town – and attendance at the Wheeler – come mid-April and mid-September.”April 15 hit and I couldn’t believe how empty it got,” he said. “The tumbleweeds were blowing down the street. It hit me: This really is a tourist town. But it gave us time to work on the building.”Slaton has also had to adjust to the amount of competition for the arts dollar in Aspen. But he has found an appreciation for organizations like Belly Up and Jazz Aspen, who have become collaborators and inspirations as much as competitors. And he praises arts organizations such as Aspen Filmfest and the Writers’ Foundation for their creativity.Slaton says Belly Up has sometimes beat him to acts that he would have liked to book at the Wheeler. But he gives the team of owner Michael Goldberg and talent buyer Steve Weiss credit for the club they have created, and for successfully challenging certain rules of the concert business.”They’ve created a healthy concert environment there,” he said. “They’ve broken a lot of the assumed conventions, like you can’t charge over $30 a ticket. Promoters should be happy that Michael Goldberg decided to challenge that. I don’t know how else you’re going to get Bernadette Peters or Seal or other acts we’re looking to get here.”Slaton is satisfied with his year at the Wheeler, and sanguine about the venue’s future. He is in discussions with the city of Aspen and user groups about developing the city-owned parcel, currently unused, next to the Wheeler. He is dreaming about creating a series of live broadcasts from the Wheeler.”We’re that kind of venue, that people love to play at, and sound so good here,” he said. “But we have only so much time. There’s so much more potential. This last year has been about turning the ship around.”Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org
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