Jon Busch: reel film fan |

Jon Busch: reel film fan

Jordan Curet/The Aspen Times

ASPEN Jon Busch concedes that, as arts go, operating a film projector is a relatively easy one to master. Being a good projectionist involves learning to splice film together properly, centering and focusing the image on the screen, and making seamless reel changes. The essence of the art is allowing audiences to forget that there is a projectionist; the most difficult part, says Busch, is knowing what to do when something goes awry, like the film breaking.Most often a problem on the screen can be traced to laziness on the part of the projectionist, a fact that sets off in Busch a minor despair. “It can be subtle things – the sound is not right, the picture is out of focus,” he said. “And people may not realize these things. But the next time, they think, let’s just rent a video. It’s bad for the film business if the projection isn’t taken seriously and done right.”Busch is just as serious about what happens outside the projection booth. A wispy, gray-haired 65-year-old with a distinctively high voice, he nevertheless calls himself “kind of a bad guy” when it comes to theater etiquette.”People, even adults, get one warning – then they have to leave,” he said of chatty moviegoers. “It’s been discussed so much in the industry. People are so used to the home experience they forget that talking during a movie ruins the experience.”Busch strikes such a formidable tone because of the significant projectionist positions he holds. He has run the Wheeler Film Series for the city of Aspen, with co-producer Don Swales, since 1972, and the Aspen Music Festival’s summer film series – now the SummerFilms program, in which Aspen Film is a partner – since 1981. He serves as technical director for Aspen Film, as well as the high-profile Telluride Film Festival, and the Hawaii International Film Festival. The Aspen Gay & Lesbian Film Festival, which he started as part of the Wheeler series, ran for several years in the ’90s.But film got into Busch’s blood before he had such responsibilities. His first job, as a grade-school student, was changing the sign twice a week outside the neighborhood theater in suburban Portland, Ore. Not long after, he had his first experience as a projectionist, at a theater run by two old men, down the street from his uncle’s furniture store. “One guy, the projectionist, had Coke-bottle glasses, couldn’t see the screen,” said Busch. “I had to come up to the projector and focus the screen.”

Busch’s earliest fond memories were less of the movies, and more about the cinema theaters – “the old movie palaces,” he calls them – where they played. As a kid, Busch played clarinet, and on Saturday mornings, after his lessons in Portland, he would visit the cinemas, before the films started rolling.”Somehow I discovered the old movie palaces had a secret door for employees,” he said. “So I’d sneak in and there would usually be someone in there, playing the mighty Wurlitzer. I liked the space, the decorations, and the sound of the Wurlitzer.”In high school Busch had his first official work as a projectionist – and perhaps his first experience in the shoddy side of presenting films. It was a specialty movie house in Portland’s Sellwood neighborhood, which showed triple-feature, sci-fi and horror films. “It was something right out of the movies,” said Busch. “The owner was an alcoholic, and each night he’d be drunk, come up to the booth and tell me to leave a reel out, because he wanted to go home. Which I did. I’d figure out which reel would be most likely not to be missed. I never heard anyone complain.”Busch put himself through Portland State University, where he studied bassoon, by working as a projectionist (and janitor) at the Jefferson Street Theatre. As a graduate student at the esteemed music school at Indiana University, he finally took his leave from the projection booth and focused on a career in the orchestra pit.But his two years of orchestra work – a year in the North Carolina Symphony and another in the Indianapolis Symphony – were disillusioning. “Ultimately I wasn’t happy playing classical music,” he said. “Some people might identify with this: I could never play well enough to please myself. It never made any difference what anybody else thought. So I quit.”Busch set out for Aspen, where he had been a student and a member of the grounds crew for five summers at the Aspen Music Festival. Despite being a longhaired hippie at the time, Busch believed he had earned a reputation in Aspen as a good worker. He got a job at the audio-equipment dealer, the Hi-Fi Shop, and housing, too, in the store’s attic crawl space. When the owner got busted smuggling pot from Mexico, Busch was enlisted to put into motion his boss’s plans to open an FM station. He found himself building a radio studio, KSPN, in the basement of the Hotel Jerome. Busch credits himself with the decision to broadcast 24 hours a day, and to fill the 10:30 p.m.-3:30 a.m. slot with volunteer DJs, who, as often as not, would fail to show up.

In 1972, Telluridian Bill Pence, who had the contract with Aspen to present a film program at the Wheeler Opera House, hired Busch to run the series. The most popular feature of the program was the annual summer film festival, which would be devoted to different themes.”That’s when I really got into movies: The Marx Brothers, Humphrey Bogart, Truffaut, John Huston,” said Busch, who had a column in various Aspen newspapers for 25 years, has been an advocate for local rail and running trolleys on the streets of Aspen, and was instrumental in getting a pipe organ – the largest on the Western Slope at the time – installed at the Aspen Community Church.Busch ran the Wheeler program until 1981, when the opera house closed for renovations. When the Wheeler reopened, in 1984, it was decided to run the film series in-house, with poor results. Fewer and fewer films were shown, and the program lost money. Each year, Busch would offer his services to turn the tide. “And eventually, around 1989 or ’90, they relented, and said, ‘OK, OK, you can do the film program,'” said Busch. “And I’ve done it ever since. And I’ve never lost the city any money.”Those qualifications may or may not be enough for Busch to keep the job, structured as an independent contractor for the city, with Busch and Swales keeping a percentage of the gross receipts. Recently the Wheeler Opera House, as it periodically does, opened the job to bids. The deadline for the Request for Proposals is Friday, May 4; the Wheeler staff and board of directors will then examine the submissions. According to Gram Slaton, executive director of the Wheeler, the decision may take months.Slaton believes that films at the Wheeler can be a bigger draw. Busch estimates that an average of 50 people attend each screening – far more than in the early days of the program. But there are caveats in comparing attendance to that of a commercial theater. Because live events take precedence at the venue, the Wheeler Film Series generally gets midweek dates, and is at its busiest in the offseason, when there are fewer people in town. Because the Wheeler’s film calendar is broken up by concerts, plays and the like, film runs are usually limited to a few days, rather than the weeks a commercial theater must promise a distributor in order to get blockbuster films. So the Wheeler calendar, with 120 to 140 dates a year, is heavy on foreign and independent films, and documentaries – hardly the big attention-getters. In that area, the Wheeler competes with Aspen Film.

“We’d like to see more butts in seats,” said Slaton. He added that one way to accomplish this would be to feature more special events, tied in with film people visiting town. Another would be to focus more on underserved niche audiences: Latinos, the swarms of Argentineans who come for the winter to work on the slopes. “If we’re going to be a public service, we can do better with all segments of the public,” said Slaton. “And not only with movie programming, but with live programming.”Raising attendance is one of Busch’s goals. But, having kept his eye on films over the last half-century, he has also developed a taste in movies. He sees part of his job as exposing audiences to lesser-known, little-publicized films that aim toward quality.”I always say, the secret of successful art-film programming is having the right balance between films people want to see, and what they should want to see,” he said. “The films people want to see should cover the costs for the films I want them to see.”A recent entry in this latter category was “Old Joy.” A story of two friends on a weekend camping trip, the film has almost no action. Still, The New York Times tagged it as a “must-see,” and the Wheeler screened it two nights late last December. Despite the Christmas crowds, the film did little business.”I actually had people complain it’s a boring movie, and not much happens. And it’s true,” said Busch. “But it’s all about dialogue, unsaid things, communicated without words. That’s the sign of great acting.”Would I not have wanted to show that film? No. I wanted to show that film, and I’m proud to show it.”The Wheeler Film Series has had its moments of glory under Busch. “Dazed and Confused,” Richard Linklater’s 1993 film of ’70s high school kids, drew a line of people (who created a cloud of pot smoke inside the theater, mimicking the onscreen action). “What the #$*! Do We Know!?” played over and over (minus the smoke) in 2004. Busch said Aspenites tend to flock to such spiritually oriented fare.

Busch added that his programming tastes are appreciated by at least a small crowd of movie lovers. “I’ve got a very loyal following. I’ve got some people who will come to everything I play,” he said.Another factor Busch needs to contend with is Aspen’s aged population. The biggest audience for films, he notes, is the 18- to 24-year-old crowd, a set not well-represented here. And while the younger crowd, back when Busch was a part of it, hungered for the sort of art films that play at the Wheeler. Now, action-packed event films, lowbrow comedies and horror films have the attention of the young filmgoer.”I’ll play a classic film – Bergman, going way back to ‘Wild Strawberries’ or ‘Seventh Seal,'” he said. “Those movies, when I was in college, we’d flood to them, and talk about them. That was fun – discussing what everything meant in that movie. “Today, everything made in that style – I can’t believe how slow it is. I’m afraid it has to do with TV. We’ve become so insistent on instant gratification, we don’t take the time to look for the deeper things in films.”For a full listing of the May schedule of Wheeler Films, see Snapshots on page 17. For a full listing of this week’s movies in the Roaring Fork Valley, go to Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is

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