Willoughby: Aspen Saturday nights at the Isis, the silver screen, and the silver on the screen
Legends & Legacies
My father journeyed with his father from Hotchkiss to Aspen in 1915. He was 7 years old and fell in love with the new big city. After all, Aspen had two movie theaters.
If the fare at Aspen’s Isis Theater did not appeal, a viewer could walk a block to check out offerings at the Dreamland. The Dreamland ran through three reels each Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday night. For 10 cents, moviegoers could take in a comedy such as “Jolts of Jealous,” a Jack London drama such as “During Daylight,” or serials such as “The Clutching Hand” and the “Poisoned Room.” It didn’t matter that billings rarely listed the stars. A film could attract business without relying on actors’ names. Although the Isis did not show as many reels, it pushed higher quality films and advertised the stars.
The Isis opened its remodeled theater in 1915 with a raked floor for better viewing. Although it had no air conditioning, its operators bragged about the airflow. A new pianist enhanced the movie-watching experience. Silent movies, still a novelty, would take a decade to peak in popularity.
Not long out of high school, father sought his fortune in the world, mostly at rival mining towns. In 1927 he visited Los Angeles, where he lived at the edge of downtown and indulged in his favorite pastime: movie-watching. While he was there, “The Jazz Singer,” the first, full-length talkie, revolutionized the industry.
When my father returned home, the Isis provided viewing pleasure through the 1930s. A Saturday night movie provided a fitting end to a six-day workweek. The war years required him to work seven long days at the Midnight Mine every week to meet the demand for strategic minerals. That schedule and then the arrival of two children supplanted his passion and routine for movies.
When I reached fourth-grade, my parents sent me and my older sister to the Isis most Saturday nights. Most of the time neither my parents nor I knew what was playing. But we knew the day of the week: movie night. Movies prevailed as weekend entertainment until the advent of television.
Jim and Marjorie Parsons owned and operated Aspen Drug. They filled the townspeoples’ pharmacy orders in the daytime. At night, they operated the Isis. They sold the tickets and cooked the popcorn. They patrolled the isles to quash rowdy youngsters and reminded us to remove our feet from the seat in front of us.
Westerns, war movies and Roman gladiator epics nurtured our imaginations. Hollywood ratcheted up the action, with bullet-ridden horsemen falling dramatically to the ground. Chase scenes in the war movies featured surprise aircraft attacks. Gladiators vanquished one another with flashing clashing swords. All this on a CinemaScope wide-as-life screen.
My peers and I continued our Saturday-night habit throughout high school, outside of basketball season. We watched whatever Parsons scheduled. We endured a few major changes. The audiences grew. Black-and-white films disappeared. Bats moved in and would tour the ceiling after the show began. The Isis sustained our film cred with the classics “Birdman of Alcatraz,” “Giant,” “Oklahoma” and the “Great Escape.”
In his senior years, my father would turn on the TV at home to see movies he had first watched during the 1930s at a theater. He would invite me to watch with him and point out his favorite stars. He wondered whether some of the ore that he had mined had returned to Aspen on a silver screen.
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 email@example.com.
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