Longtime Aspen fixture, ballet founder Lita Heller passes away at California home
Lita Warner Heller, a well-known philanthropist and entrepreneur who along with her husband were big supporters of many Aspen institutions, died earlier this month surrounded by her family at her California home. She was 92.
Heller, who moved to Aspen in the mid-1970s with her husband, spent nearly 40 years in the valley and gave time and money to a number of local nonprofit groups. She was married to Mort Heller for 50 years before he died in November 2010. Lita died peacefully in her sleep April 10, her son Michael Hiatt said Friday.
The family first came to Aspen for a ski vacation in the early 1970s and his parents became hooked, Haitt said.
“One of our big, big family trips was to Aspen, and Lefty Brinkman had a place called the Lodge,” Haitt said in a phone interview. “When all of the kids had or were close to graduating, she moved from their home in Bel Air to full-time in Aspen around the mid-1970s.”
Once here, the Hellers were major supporters of the Aspen Music Festival, Aspen Institute, Aspen Medical Foundation and the Aspen Art Museum among others.
She helped develop the cultural arts, specifically bringing modern dance and ballet to the Aspen community, the family said. Lita Heller was a founder and helped launch the Aspen Ballet Co., which now is the Aspen Santa Fe Ballet Co.
“She loved the Aspen ballet. The ballet was very, very dear to her,” Haitt said. “She was passionate about her riding and her horses in Aspen.”
Aspen Sante Fe Ballet co-director Jean-Philippe Malaty met Heller 23 years ago when he and Tom Mossbroucker helped start the current company. He said when they came to town they were told they had to meet Heller.
“Back then it really took some grit and vision to think ballet was going to catch on in Aspen. She was a little bit bigger than life,” Malaty said. “When we came to town, we were clearly told we had to meet Lita Heller.”
He said she came out to see the dancers last year when they were in Los Angeles.
“Really, patrons who love dance the way she did, it’s rare. She was a staple for our community. She had a young mind, and she loved the way dance was evolving and changing,” Malaty said. “She wasn’t stuck in the past. She moved on with the ages.”
In 2008, Heller was honored by Aspen Film when it hosted a dinner to recognize her and her family during a filmfest. The evening included a screening of the film, “The Brothers Warner,” which was about her father, Sam Warner, and his family that started Warner Brothers. The film was written and directed by Heller’s niece, Cass Warner.
Sam Warner was one of the Warner Brothers of Hollywood fame and since he died young at age 40, she was raised by his brother, Harry Warner. Her mother, Lina Basquette, was a child actress and dancer with the Ziegfield Follies but was asked to let Lita stay with the Warner family.
“One of the beautiful things about Harry was that he wanted to take care of the whole family,” Lita Heller said in a 2008 interview in connection with the film.
Heller, who graduated from Beverly Hills High School at age 16 and went to Stanford University, was an equestrian and rode horses much of her life. That love followed her to Colorado and she was a big supporter of equestrian groups in the Roaring Fork Valley. She said the loves of her life were her dogs and her horses.
“When I was little … (Harry) bought me the first bullmastiff in California. It’s in all the books. I’ve had 11 mastiffs or 12 since then,” Heller said in the 2008 interview. “So the two greatest things in my life were my horses and my dogs.”
A young Los Angeles socialite, she married her first husband, Los Angeles and Cedars/Sinai Hospital (then Cedars of Lebanon) Surgeon Dr. Nathan Hiatt. They divorced in 1957 with three children. She later met real estate developer and banker Mort Heller and they were married in 1960.
She is survived by three children, Samuel Warner Hiatt, Michael Hiatt and Vicki Ann Hiatt; two step children Robin Heller Moss and Richard Mark Heller; and an extended family of four grandchildren and five great-grandchildren.
“She provided an amazing life for us. She was a bigger than life person,” Michael Hiatt said.
Funeral services Monday in California are private. In lieu of flowers, the family asks that donations be made in Lita’s name to Aspen Santa Fe Ballet, Windwalker for Horses in Carbondale and Lucky Day for Dogs in Aspen.
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