Michael Solheim: an Aspen icon and J-Bar legend
On the sidewalk that passes by the J-Bar on Aspen’s Main Street sits a metal sculpture of a well-clad man poised on a bench, gripping a cane. The sculpture is called the “Sidewalk Judge.” Justice — and history — would be better served, suggests Bob Rafelson, by honoring one of Aspen’s most influential political and social forces in the late 1960s and ’70s.
Rafelson, a longtime Aspen resident and renowned film director and producer, said the man deserving this proper due is Michael Solheim, who ran the J-Bar in the ’70s, a time when it also was Aspen’s hub of thought, political activism and debauchery.
“The statue outside today, that brass man on the bench — he should be replaced,” Rafelson said in an email to The Aspen Times. “A reclining Solheim on the pavement, perhaps … head pointed toward the gutter, his eyes fixed on the book he’s reading: Dostoevsky’s ‘Notes From The Underground.’ Tourists would have to step over him. Some might ask, Who is that? Few can now explain. A legend he was. A little guy with a giant heart.”
Stop by the J-Bar on Main Streets these days, and it’s a fairly mellow haunt. The drinks taste the same and conversation’s still good, provided you meet the right company.
But there was a time when the Main Street tavern was the bustling gathering spot for artists and celebrities, laymen and dignitaries, and everyone else in between. That included politicians, journalists and horses.
And through it all, there was the common denominator who many would come to befriend and revere: Solheim, the manager of the J-Bar. On April 19, Solheim died at his home in Scottsdale, Ariz. He was 79.
“He was unflappable, with all of the chaos going on,” recalled Aspen resident Tim Charles, a patron of the bar where he met his wife, and also had his last drink. “I can’t say what was going on there, but his office was always crazy, the elevator was always crazy, and the men’s room was a joke.”
Bob Braudis, a former Pitkin County sheriff, was a deputy under then Sheriff Dick Kienast, a regular patron of the J-Bar, during a part of that era in the ’70s. He recalled Solheim hiring smart bartenders and equally intelligent waitresses, whose looks attracted ample attention.
“After work you could go to the J-Bar knowing you would have an intelligent conversation with someone,” he said. “Everybody there was drinking and drugging. And intelligent.”
A downhill skier who worked as a house painter before he took over the J-Bar, Solheim spent more than 60 years in Aspen. He also was immersed in Aspen politics and was the campaign manager for Hunter S. Thompson in his failed bid for Pitkin County sheriff in 1970. Thompson chronicled the campaign — the outlaw writer ran on the Freak Power platform — in the “Battle of Aspen” series for The Rolling Stone.
The story was folded into Thompson’s “The Great Shark Hunt,” and although Thompson lost, as did his politically like-minded lawyer-friend Joe Edwards in the 1969 Aspen mayoral race, the two contests spurred a liberal philosophy that carried on in the form of growth-control measures over the next two decades.
“In our naivete, we thought we were doing something good,” Solheim is quoted as saying in the book “Conversations with Hunter S. Thompson.” “But a couple of years ago, I took my daughter to go into town to go trick-or-treating on Halloween. There was nobody there. House after house in the West End was dark, and everyone was in Hollywood or Manhattan.”
During much of the year, that remains the case in modern-day Aspen. But lost in time is the J-Bar under Solheim’s reign, one that provided indelible memories for his hordes of customers, many of whom he befriended with his charisma and wit, friends recalled. Don Dixon, one of Solheim’s bartenders back in the day, called him the “Will Rogers of the Jerome hotel.”
“The Jerome bar was noted for all of the celebrities that came in, and they came in because Michael was the personality behind the bar,” said Dale Hower, Solheim’s ex-wife. “That part made the Jerome bar very exciting.”
In an email to The Aspen Times, Sam Brown wrote, “Michael’s wit and charm ensured that, during his years, the Jerome was always full of interesting people. Carl Sagan would drop in and hold forth from the round table near the door, only a few feet from Hunter’s seat at the bar.”
Brown, once Colorado’s state treasurer who also served in the Carter and Clinton administrations, regularly visited Aspen in the ’70s and lived here in the early ’80s.
Friends remembered Solheim opening the J-Bar to all sorts: Jack Nicholson, John Denver and Jimmy Buffet were regulars, as were such local artists as Tom Benton, Dick Carter, Chris Cassett and Gaard Moses, among others. But that didn’t mean everyone with elevated status received royal treatment.
“I was there when the Shah and Shabanu, of Iran, planned to come in for the evening,” Brown recalled. “The Shah’s staff called and said they would like to come and Michael said, ‘Sure, we run a welcoming bar and they can come right in.’
“The staff person demurred and repeated, firmly, that ‘the Shah and his party would like to come to the bar.’ It was clear they expected to take over the place. Michael just politely acted as if he didn’t get it and repeated that the bar would be open and they could come right in. After a few minutes of this, the staffer simply gave up and said they would go elsewhere.
“But more ordinary people understood that the door was always open and Michael always welcoming.”
The Hotel Jerome and its popular bar were hardly the lavish spots they are today. But that was part of its dilapidated Victorian charm and allure, and Solheim, his friends remembered, was the driving force behind it all.
“The best thing was, you could walk in knowing some fun would happen,” Braudis recalled. “We got to be real close eight nights a week.”
Rafelson was a regular. But the way he entered the bar on one occasion was anything but.
“Main street had been paved, but The Jerome hadn’t been done up yet,” Rafelson wrote in an email to the Times. “There was a half-assed hitching-post in front of the bar. I rode my horse in one night and decided to go straight in. The horse bolted at the steps and a bit more at the patrons who barely looked my way. I hit my head, tumbled to the floor.
“Solheim called the police. I think Sheriff Kienast came in probably to drink and not to be bothered. He asked what Solheim wanted him to do, arrest me? ‘No,’ Solheim said. ‘Arrest the horse.’
“The man had a unique way of interpreting the law. He was amazingly bright. We had a room upstairs where we could do things after two a.m. In those days, no one slept. Michael looked after us, negotiating a slender peace.”
Said Brown, “I was Michael’s political friend as well as his bar friend. Michael called me in the mid-’70s when I was state treasurer, and the Alcoholic Beverage Control Board was trying to shut the bar because the nubile young bar maids couldn’t seem to keep all their clothes on around the old pool. Eventually the board backed off. Michael couldn’t even control, or didn’t care to control, what they wore in the bar and he certainly didn’t care what they wore at the pool.
“So, for at least one summer, sanity — and partial nudity — prevailed. Thank you, Michael.”
Solheim was the father of Evan (Thomas) Blondin and Lauren Skye. He has three siblings and spent the remainder of his life with his companion Barbara Koval. A memorial service will be held in Aspen at a later date.
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