Longtime Aspen resident, former director of Wheeler Opera house, loses battle to cancer
Longtime Aspen resident Bob Murray, who first came to the Roaring Fork Valley in the 1950s and worked at the Crystal Palace, died earlier this month after a yearlong battle with cancer. He was 85.
He left in the 1960s to attend year, but returned in 1976 to take over as the director of the Aspen Community School in Woody Creek. When the City of Aspen decided to finance an expansive renovation of the Wheeler Opera House for which he was hired to be the director in 1984 until he left in 1998.
He oversaw the renovation and subsequently organized a week-long grand reopening celebration featuring the silent film star Lillian Gish; a performance of G.B. Shaw’s 1889 play, “The Devil’s Disciple”; a concert with maestro James Levine and cellist Lynn Harrel; a Momix dance lead by Moses Pendleton and David Parsons and a poster of the Wheeler Stage by artist Red Grooms.
During his tenure at the Wheeler, Bob was able to bring some of the biggest names in show business to the Wheeler and often was able to have them return in subsequent years due to the favorable experiences shared at the Wheeler.
Bob, at this time, was also on the board of directors of the League of Historic American Theaters for which the Wheeler, one year, hosted an annual conference that included the recognition of the Tabor Opera House in Leadville.
Murray, born and raised in Wisconsin, attended the University of Wisconsin where he was active in the University Theater and also where he met his wife, Erika. They were married in Aspen in 1957.
However, before getting married he had an obligation to the Army where he was stationed for a time at Camp Hale near Leadville and also in Stuttgart, Germany. As he was an officer he had the unenviable duty to defend three soldiers against an accusation of bank robbery in Buena Vista, for which his defense was a successful experience that amused him, and those who heard this tale, greatly throughout his life.
Being decommissioned while stationed in Germany he, being an officer, had the benefit of having the U.S. government ship his Volkswagon convertible back to the United States. His goal, post service, was to drive from New York to California where he was to become a screenwriter.
On this cross country drive he decided to accept an invitation for dinner from Erika Grob, an art student he had met in University, albeit a year late in Aspen as the Military postal service was less than efficient at that time. He never made it to California as he and Erika were married in 1957 in Aspen.
To make ends meet they both worked at the Copper Kettle and were two of the earliest employees of the Crystal Palace dinner theater. During this time in Aspen, Bob accepted a position at the Aspen Institute for Humanistic Studies to run the executive seminars and also to steer the Aspen Film Conference. Bob was able to bring together pioneer Hollywood directors King Vidor, Norman Corwin and film journalist Arthur Knight as well as many of the important actors and directors of the 1960s. He once had to break up a fight between Roman Polanski and a projectionist at the Opticon Theater in Snowmass.
In the early 1960s, Bob received the Theater Guild Academic Residence at the Yale School of Drama. He Erika and growing family packed up into a station wagon and drove across country to New Haven, Connecticut.
After earning his Master’s Degree he was invited to be the John Golden Foundation resident in playwrighting under John W. Gassner at Yale.
During this time he wrote the plays: “The Good Lieutenant”; “Flickers”; “Picture This, Picture That” and “Donner”. “The Good Lieutenant” was chosen by PBS to be the televised play of the week and was also performed as part of the Yale School of Drama’s 40th anniversary celebration in November 1965.
In 1968, Bob became a professor of playwriting and dramatic literature at Emerson College in Boston. Again, the family packed up the station wagon and moved to the historic town of Salem, where they purchased a mansard roof Victorian that looked down the length of historic Chestnut Street.
While in Boston, Bob became the bicentennial coordinator for the City of Salem. He wrote and produced the pageant “Salem Chronicles” performed by students from Emerson College and was able to secure a visit from Arthur Miller to discuss his play, “The Crucible” at Salem’s historic “Old” Town Hall. He was instrumental in bringing about a sea change in the preservation of historic architecture in Salem and having National Historic Districts formed to protect architecture that was being torn down at an alarming rate.
Bob was born in Evanston, Illinois, on April 8, 1932, and is survived by his brother Gibbs, daughter Madeline “Molly”; sons Timothy and Gideon; and grandsons Briggs and Keaton.
A memorial service is planned for Sept. 24 at the Wheeler Opera House.
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