Willoughby: An amazing collection of local talent produced melodies and memories that linger | AspenTimes.com

Willoughby: An amazing collection of local talent produced melodies and memories that linger

Tim Willoughby
Legends & Legacies

Wooden benches for seating at the 1950s Wheeler Opera House doubled their useful life at the amphitheater.

Song lyrics from early childhood may enter consciousness when least expected. You may remember a lullaby sung by a parent who rocked you to sleep, for instance. My memory specializes in snippets of songs from "I've Had It," a homegrown Aspen musical.

"I've Had It" played out an emotional turnaround for Aspen. Performed in 1952, it came shortly after Aspen's largest employer, the Midnight Mine, had closed. In 1949, the Goethe Bicentennial Celebration had established Aspen as a home for the arts. And the 1950 FIS world championship ski races put Aspen on the international ski map. Aspen had begun to emerge from its cocoon, but the Aspen Skiing Co. had yet to show a profit. The Aspen Institute's summer festivities and, later, the Aspen Music Festival, would toddle through highly subsidized beginnings.

Masque and Music, a local group founded to offer entertaining events and raise money for local causes, managed the musical. The group kicked off the annual Hospital Thrift Shop, staged a Gilbert and Sullivan musical, and provided musical entertainment for a number of events.

Almost all participants in the group had arrived in Aspen recently, enticed by skiing and the arts. The performers they gathered for productions demonstrated that the city had attracted an amazing collection of talent.

Broadway musicals dominated 1950s entertainment. "The King and I" and "Paint Your Wagon" held forth in 1951, "Can-Can" and "Kismet" reigned in 1953. To fit the trend, Masque and Music created an original musical.

Two Aspen residents teamed up to write it. Fred Glidden, pen name Luke Short, was recognized nationally as one of the most popular western writers. To his credit: serial magazine stories, novels and a movie script. Joe Marsala, a well-known jazz clarinetist, composed the music. Marsala played with the greatest jazz stars and formed his own band. He dabbled in the popular music genre called Tin Pan Alley. One of his songs, "Don't Cry Joe," became a national hit.

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The musical's director, Frank Myers, had directed summer stock shows. Before he moved to Aspen to open a lodge, Myers had worked as an assistant director at MGM. Experienced talent played key roles, as well. Louise Deane had played a leading role in a Broadway show. Adele Girard, Marsala's wife, held the distinction of becoming the first jazz harpist. And Girard had played a movie part, opposite Mickey Rooney.

Community members with less experience completed the cast. These included Kurt Bresnitz, owner of Aspen Jewelers, and Bob Lewis, a teacher at Aspen High School.

The Denver Post and Life Magazine covered the musical, which opened in spring to a warm reception. After a run in Aspen, the crew took the musical to Denver in the summer, and reopened in Aspen in July. The idea that a small town could produce an original, notable, musical launched years of community activities. The new Aspen had come of age.

Ed Smart, one of the actors, had recorded events of the Goethe Bicentennial during his first trip to Aspen. A short time later, he moved to Aspen to open the Little Nell Café. Smart set up a recording session in Denver and, with Louise Duncan and some of the "I've Had It" cast, produced 78-rpm records that featured the musical's best songs. The records sold well in Denver, and everyone in Aspen bought one—my mother included. Later, Duncan won local favor when she played at Sunnie's Rendezvous.

Decades later, the musical's songs "Sometimes It Don't Pay to Get Up," "You'd Make a Wonderful Stranger," and the "Train with The Diamond-Stack Engine" linger in my imagination. After all, who would ever forget "I Met my Snowbunny in Aspen, Colorado — She Made a Ski Bum Out of Me"?

Tim Willoughby's family story parallels Aspen's. He began sharing folklore while teaching Aspen Country Day School and Colorado Mountain College. Now a tourist in his native town, he views it with historical perspective. Reach him at redmtn2@comcast.net.