Wheeler Opera House, Aspen’s largest cultural asset, to reopen in December
After being dark for what will be nine months, the city of Aspen’s largest cultural asset, the Wheeler Opera House, will open in December with local, community-oriented events that will be conducted live in front of a capacity of 53 people, as well as streamed online.
Aspen City Council gave its blessing Monday during a work session for Nancy Lesley, interim director of the Wheeler, to begin planning for a soft opening, as long as safety protocols and COVID-19 cases are not on the rise.
The 500-seat Wheeler shut down in mid-March when the pandemic hit Aspen and all events at venues throughout town were canceled.
The city has taken advantage of the historic resource being dark by expediting planned capital projects, including the current exterior refurbishment of the brick that requires scaffolding around the building.
Lesley told council that Wheeler and city staff feel comfortable with a soft opening, which also is recommended by the Wheeler Advisory Board.
“Reopening in mid-December to a maximum of 53 patrons is a number arrived at by ensuring that the social distancing guidelines are strictly adhered to,” she said. “We feel like starting off with some films in that mid-December period, with no intermissions, no bar, things like that. …
“What we’d like to do is look at doing some sort of live entertainment with one or two people on stage, pretty straightforward stuff, and staff would also like to do some live streaming from the Wheeler stage and performances that the Wheeler can buy into.”
Strict cleaning methods will be adhered to between events, like air filters, cleaners, ultraviolent lights and cleaning solutions with quick “kill time,” Lesley said.
Council members were hesitant in agreeing to open the Wheeler, but are willing to try it with proper safety measures such as having a touchless reservation system and patrons agreeing to divulging their personal contact information so they can be traced if there is an infection outbreak.
Councilwoman Rachel Richards said news reports she’s read in the past few days suggest that experts predict the next six to 12 weeks will be the darkest of the entire pandemic, with case numbers rising and flu season coming.
“We’re right on the cusp of a real tipping point unfortunately for all of us and December sounds like right in the middle of that period,” she said.
Lesley said she and her team are working closely with the city’s risk management department to ensure there is a robust reentry plan.
The costs associated with local performers and locally produced performances, along with minor events like movies and holiday programming centered around families and kids, will be dramatically reduced versus getting outside acts, Lesley noted.
“We would be looking at a lot of fixed costs which are staff, turning on the lights, the heating, those sorts of things,” she said. “By bringing in somebody local or films or something like that, our actual programming expense is pretty close to nil.”
She pointed to one idea of a kid’s holiday film, along with a packet that has sheet music and the ability to write a letter to Santa and having a mailbox outside the Wheeler for drop-off.
Councilman Ward Hauenstein said his heart says yes to opening something to the community as long as it focuses on programming available to residents over tourists.
“I’ve got two concerns: one is the cost of subsidizing and then the bigger concern is the cost of public health,” he said, acknowledging the closure of the Aspen Recreation Center this past Thursday due to a person with COVID-19 having exposure to dozens of people at the facility, including the high school hockey team. “I’m fearful of a spike on the heels of an opening.”
Councilwoman Ann Mullins said she supports a cautious opening, as well.
“I would support a soft opening and see how it goes in December and then visit it after Christmas,” she said. “I think it would be great if we can do it for the community. … It’s something fun for people to look forward to, and everybody needs that right now.”
While new restaurants enter the Aspen scene, there are several spaces that will remain empty this winter. Meanwhile, the retail market remains extremely hot.