‘Lady Day’ at the Onion " Wintersköl 1952
Billie Holiday’s two nights at the Red Onion made the 1952 Wintersköl one of the most memorable. Holiday, known as Lady Day, was still popular in 1952 even though her deteriorating health affected her performances. She had a big hit that year called “Love For Sale” and a new marriage to Louis McKay, who was trying to stem her alcohol and drug abuse.
Aspen in the ’50s was not on the booking list for major entertainers. But arrests for drug possession resulted in Holiday losing her permit to perform in New York City. Her studio-recording voice was still unmatched, but her singing grew ever more faint during tours.
The 1952 Wintersköl was the second such celebration and the first to use that name. The first year it was called Aspen Winter Carnival. Jack dePagter and Myrna Armstrong hatched the idea one day when the Jerome Bar was empty. After December’s crowds left there was a lull in tourism for most of January. In order to fill empty beds and bars they launched a scheme that emulated European winter celebrations and the turn-of-the-century Leadville Ice Palace.
All of Aspen worked to make the second year a success. Nearly every business donated materials, money or muscle. Ten committees of volunteers divided up the week’s tasks: decorate the town and event locations, organize races, populate a parade, create nighttime events, and publicize the whole production. Merchants and volunteers from as far away as Basalt, Glenwood and Grand Junction contributed.
Delphine Carpenter, the owner of The Bookstore, co-chaired the celebration with dePagter. Carpenter’s creative touches were as diverse as the offerings of her store that sold books, artwork, stationery, candy, cards and even coffee makers. She sponsored a logo design contest that limited the colors to white and red. Otto Haerdle’s design won.
The 1952 Winter Olympics rekindled interest in skiing and ski racing. Future Aspen residents Andrea Mead (Lawrence) won two gold medals, and Stein Eriksen won both gold and silver. Wintersköl featured only fun competitions, including children’s races, a ski school costume slalom and obstacle race, ski-joring and a couples relay. Aspen’s ski patrol and ski school instructors initiated a torchlight descent.
There were skating events at the city rink, then located a block north of Little Nell. Nighttime entertainment included dancing, singalongs, a costume ball and nightclub entertainment.
Ski clubs were Aspen’s primary source of tourists well into the 1950s. The clubs sponsored Wintersköl queens. The five candidates represented Michigan State College Ski Club; Caberfae Winter Sports Club of Lansing, Mich.; Cascade Ski Club of Portland, Ore.; Michigan State College Ski Club; and the University of Colorado. To qualify you had to be single, between 18 and 30 years old, and able to ski. There was no swimsuit contest. Candidates were judged in ski clothes. The coronation was in Armory Hall, the building that is now Aspen’s City Hall.
Songwriter Joe Marsala moved to Aspen because entertaining in smoky nightclubs was hurting his health, and he composed the first Wintersköl song. It didn’t match the lyrics of his hit song, “Don’t Cry, Joe,” but qualified as a subliminal drinking song. “Let’s all drink, drink, drink to the Wintersköl. Let’s all sing, sing, sing to the winter’s charm. Skol to the snow and the mountainside. Drink to the glow of the fireside. Sing to the happy trails and skol to the Wintersköl.”
News of 1952 included the end of large-scale mining, the advent of the hydrogen bomb, Nixon’s “Checkers” speech, and Eisenhower’s victory over Stevenson. Aspen locals remember that year for the success of Wintersköl and a riveting night in the audience of Lady Day.
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With 4/20 long designated as the holiday for getting high, another date on the calendar, which stands for “oil” backwards, has gained momentum in the post-legalization era.