Gram Slaton’s vision for Aspen’s Wheeler Opera House
ASPEN – This past September, Brandi Carlile, a singer-songwriter from Washington state, found herself stranded in Salt Lake City for three days, her gig having fallen through. Carlile thus focused her thoughts on the next venue on her concert itinerary, the Wheeler Opera House. She had played Aspen’s Victorian-era theater twice before, thought of it as a special place, and came up with an appropriately special idea. For three days Carlile and her band rehearsed their entire back catalogue of three albums. When they got to the Wheeler, fresh and enthusiastic, they pulled out tunes they had long since retired from their concert repertoire and rocked the house.The performance pleased Gram Slaton, the Wheeler’s executive director, greatly – not only because Carlile’s show was sold out (a rarity for an off-season presentation), and not only because the performance was an artistic tour de force (and Slaton’s favorite concert in just over five years at the Wheeler). For Slaton, it was something simply for Carlile, a hip 29-year-old, to think of the Wheeler Opera House as a place worthy of special attention.”What better compliment is there? That they’re tailoring their material for your venue, and they’re really excited about it,” Slaton said.Since arriving at the Wheeler, following a 12-year run as director of the Community Arts Center in Williamsport, Penn., Slaton has found it a struggle to convey the idea that the Wheeler is something to get excited about. On paper, it’s a no-brainer: the Opera House is situated smack in the middle of one of the most glamorous places, and most arts-oriented small towns, there is. The venue, with a cozy capacity of 503, was lovingly restored in 1984, and thanks to a real estate transfer tax that funds the building, is in even better shape now than it was the day the curtain was lifted on the renovation.In practice, however, the Wheeler hasn’t matched its potential. There is a perception of stuffiness – a pervasive notion that this is, in fact, your grandfather’s theater, suited only for proper, sit-down-and-applaud-between-numbers performances. Competition in the arts, stiff to begin with, got only rougher with the rise of Belly Up, which opened just a few months before Slaton came to town. And when Slaton arrived, in October 2005, he found that even the local arts community, the group most likely to see the Wheeler as a treasure, had developed a frosty relationship with the venue.Slaton went to work to make things right. A first order of business was to build a user-friendly staff, and that began with the rehiring of Gordon Wilder, a sound designer with an excellent reputation.”It was the right thing to do because he’s one of the best sound men in the world,” Slaton said. “But it also sent the message out that there was going to be a different way of doing business here. To get Gordon back said, ‘We’re doing things that make sense.’ That brought us a lot of goodwill in the community.””Working with the Wheeler, on a professional basis, is easy,” said Josh Behrman, a local event producer who has presented concerts at the Wheeler since the mid-’90s. “Gram and his staff make my life easy, from the tech to the box office. It’s very fluid.”Along with the goodwill have come tangible improvements. A redesign of the seating provided relief from the notoriously cramped quarters. A digital soundboard gave the 121-year-old theater state-of-the-art sound. The lobby was redone with Victorian drapes. Under Slaton, the ticketing system has been upgraded twice; the Wheeler-run Aspen Show Tickets now handles not only Wheeler shows, but events all over town.There have also been disappointments and setbacks. The biggest was the rejection last year of what was called the 21st Century Master Plan. An initiative of Slaton’s, the plan included a thorough redesign of the existing building and an expansion into the empty lot next door, owned by the city. The city council, citing concerns over cost, the size of the proposed building and whether there was a need for additional capacity, shelved the project and directed the Wheeler to explore off-site options.The Aspen Rooftop Comedy Festival, an ambitious collaboration between the Wheeler and the San Francisco, Internet-based Rooftop Comedy, never caught fire in its three-year existence, and has been put to rest. There is also a quirk of history the Wheeler is forced to confront: Decades ago, the Aspen Music Festival was given the right to use the theater for the heart of the summer, shutting the Wheeler out of its own building during the busy concert season and the peak time for the arts in Aspen. Overall, programming at the Wheeler has not created a consistent buzz, nothing on the level of Belly Up or Jazz Aspen Snowmass’ Labor Day Festival.”I would like to see better acts there,” said Behrman, the concert producer.And Slaton concedes that he is not satisfied with attendance at the Wheeler.••••As part of his overall praise of Slaton, Behrman notes his dedication. “He works very hard toward his goal, toward bettering the Wheeler,” Behrman said, “and to make it a success, and make it better than what it’s been in the past. There’s a great desire and work ethic. You need that in an executive director – someone who’s going to eat, breathe and sleep the Wheeler.”That dedication can be seen in Slaton’s disappointment with a poor turnout or, less frequently, a mediocre performance. He tends to wear these personally.But Slaton’s investment in the Wheeler is more conspicuous in his efforts to elevate the experience at the venue. Slaton is open and pragmatic in his approach – whatever works to get more people into the Wheeler and to enjoy the experience there, he is willing to try. Slaton has booked jugglers, Broadway divas, old folkies, young folkies, magicians and more to see what audiences want.He also has a tenacity, which is best seen in the venue’s recent history with comedy. When Slaton came to Aspen, the U.S. Comedy Arts Festival, a high-profile event produced by HBO, was still in business, and Slaton delighted at the big names and big crowds that filled the venue for a few days in early March. He also saw that the size and configuration of the Wheeler made it an ideal space for comedy.After the USCAF shutdown, in 2007, Slaton launched What’s So Funny?, a worthy stand-up series co-produced with comedian David Brenner. When it became apparent that the series would be short-lived, because Brenner’s presence in Aspen was only intermittent, Slaton started the Aspen Rooftop Comedy Festival. It was a large-scale undertaking; the first edition, held in late May 2008, featured six shows and some 30 comedians over two days. By the 2010 festival, the event had expanded to five days in multiple venues, and included several film screenings.Attendance, though, was weak, a fact Slaton chalks up to timing. Because Rooftop Comedy was tied to the National College Comedy Competition, the festival had to be presented in late spring – not a time when Aspen teems with visitors. So Slaton is back at the chalkboard. The new Aspen Laff Festival debuts with four days of comedy, March 16-19. Rather than rely solely on up-and-coming talent, the festival hopes to gain attention with two prominent headliners, Caroline Rhea and Christopher Titus.”It’s going to be delightful,” Slaton predicted of the Laff Festival. “We learned a lot working with Rooftop, and we built a lot of strong relationships with comics.”Among those comics is Tom Simmons, who appeared at What’s So Funny?. Slaton is bringing Simmons back not only as a performer, but as a co-producer, calling on his contacts in the comedy business to build the festival.••••Creating programming out of personal relationships is becoming a leitmotif of Slaton’s Wheeler. For instance, John Oates, the Woody Creek musician who is half of the hit-making pop duo Hall & Oates, made several appearances at the Wheeler, and got to know Slaton. This past September, Oates and the Wheeler co-produced 7908: The Aspen Songwriters Festival, a four-day event that attempted to create a niche by focusing on songs and songwriters. The festival featured Sam Bush, Jim Lauderdale and David Bromberg as well as Oates, and while attendance was so-so, Slaton believes another calendar relocation – the second edition is set for March 31-April 3 – will draw bigger crowds.”I hate the idea of even trying this without John Oates as a partner,” Slaton said. “John has a facility to get through to people, and he’s hugely creative.”The event that looks, at the moment, to be Slaton’s signature programming achievement likewise grew not out of the customary route of booking an act through an agent, but through floating ideas with a partner. Over Memorial Day weekend of 2008, Slaton made his first visit to Telluride, and landed in the middle of the Mountainfilm in Telluride festival. Impressed by the event’s vitality, Slaton made contact with David Holbrooke, the festival director. Together the two hatched MountainSummit, an extension of the Telluride event. The Aspen festival debuted in 2009 to decent-sized but markedly enthusiastic crowds; the 2010 edition, held in late August, saw attendance double, and established a notable buzz.”That might be the one where we had the formula right. It didn’t take itself too seriously, even though it involved enormous issues,” Slaton said of MountainSummit, which has presented films and talks on such topics as plastic pollution, the Civil Rights movement and Mormon teenagers escaping their hometowns. “I think what people responded to is it’s so much like what Aspen used to be – where you could go to Bentley’s and have Jack Nicholson on one side of you and Madeleine Albright on the other, and talk about fishing or mountain biking. Or the war in Bosnia. That’s a quality we brought back, with a festival in Aspen, that frankly seems to have been missing.”MountainSummit has already had its own mini-offshoot. Among the participants at last summer’s event was Tom Shadyac, who presented his documentary “I Am,” about his discovery that happiness is more tied to generosity, not materialism. The film was a hit, and Slaton wanted badly to have an encore screening at the Wheeler. Last week, on Christmas Day, 325 people turned out to see “I Am” at the Wheeler, with Shadyac again in attendance for a conversation. The recent screening generated a second round of buzz for a film that isn’t scheduled for general release till February.”He greeted us with such warmth and enthusiasm. Gram, he seems like your brother, your cousin,” Shadyac said. “Really, it’s why we came back. He was so enthusiastic about us. We’re back largely because of Gram’s grace.” “As a staff, we seem to speak with a single voice in our enthusiasm for MountainSummit,” Slaton said. “Which is why we dropped everything in our busiest time of year to add ‘I Am’ for Christmas Day. I couldn’t have done that if the whole staff hadn’t gotten up and said, ‘Hell yes, let’s do this.'”While Slaton continually tinkers with programming that will attract the distinctive Aspen audience, he has also built up the Wheeler’s profile by getting local groups involved. The Crystal Palace Revue, comprising local performers from the old Crystal Palace, got a prime-time holiday slot this past week at the Wheeler; the show sold out. In December 2009, Slaton gave six nights to Jayne Gottlieb Productions, a local children’s theater troupe, for a version of “White Christmas.” The risk paid off; houses were full for the first run, and another round of shows this past December drew strong crowds. For Winterskl later this month, one night will feature a benefit for the Carbondale-based organization Feed Them with Music, with local musician Paul Frantzich scheduled to play. Local schools, church groups and not-for-profits have come to know the Wheeler as the little space around the corner that welcomes their events.”I would hope that any individual or group that has a good idea knows that my door is open,” Slaton said. “We’ve done a lot of partnering, particularly since the recession, to make sure a lot of those good ideas happen – like the benefit for Lift-Up, the benefit for Haiti, programming ideas like Bla Fleck’s African Project.”••••Slaton is confident that the Wheeler is a different place than it was when he arrived. Leave aside the fact that the executive director’s position had been vacant for half a year, and that there were less than a handful of performances on the books. The common view of the Wheeler at the time, Slaton says, was as a difficult place, an exclusive place, a place that had not found its place in Aspen life.”It wasn’t any fun – that was the dominant perception, that it was a drag to go to the Wheeler,” he said. “The staff was unhappy; if you tried to get up and dance, the volunteers told you to sit down. The building was run down. There was that mentality that this was Fortress Wheeler, an us-versus-them mentality.”One of Slaton’s latest efforts to shake up the Wheeler had nothing to do with the building or programming. He read “Bill Graham Presents: My Life Inside Rock and Out,” a biography of the late concert promoter, and informed his staff that he would buy a copy for any member of the Wheeler staff that wanted one.Slaton isn’t aiming to be Graham, who was famously pugnacious and lived by a my-way-or-the-highway mentality, and he certainly doesn’t envision the Wheeler as a rock palace, la Graham’s Fillmore Auditorium. (Slaton says he wants the Wheeler atmosphere to be somewhere between a “Tabernacle of the Arts” and “spill your beer on yourself.”)But he would like to emulate Graham in at least one respect. The oft-repeated line about Graham’s clubs was that concertgoers showed up without even knowing who the act was on a particular night, they had that much faith that what awaited them was a worthwhile night out.”No matter what you think of Bill Graham, he made the business fun,” Slaton said. “At the original Fillmore, he’d greet the audience at the top of the stairs with an apple. He had balloons, light shows. His audience came to trust that whatever he put in the venue was going to be great.”My hat’s off to [Belly Up owner] Michael Goldberg, because he’s done that. And I want to do the same thing – for people to come in here trusting that they’re going to love what we do. Only in a different way.”firstname.lastname@example.org
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