MountainSummit: A reel connection between mountain towns
August 27, 2009
ASPEN – When Wheeler Opera House Executive Director Gram Slaton decided to launch the MountainSummit festival, what he was essentially trying to do was transplant a bit of Telluride in Aspen. The festival, which opens Thursday for its inaugural go-’round, is an extension of Mountainfilm in Telluride, an event with a 31-year tradition in Telluride. Slaton accidentally witnessed Mountainfilm in 2008, when, on a Memorial Day weekend trip, found not the quiet Telluride he was expecting, but instead a town in full-on festival mode. Enchanted by the overall energy, and the programs of films, discussions and more, Slaton began that very weekend making the contacts that would result in MountainSummit.”It just enveloped the entire town. Everyone in Telluride was a part of this festival,” said Slaton. “It just seemed like what Aspen was back in 1990, which is what everyone celebrates as its final great hurrah.”But perhaps the debt that Aspen owes Telluride for lifting its festival isn’t all that great. Trace the original roots of Mountainfilm, and eventually you will be led back, at least in part, to Aspen.Among the founders of Mountainfilm were climber Michael Kennedy and Aspen Institute director Bob Craig, both of whom were Aspenites in 1979, when Mountainfilm was created. The group of founders included several Telluridians, including the festival’s director, Bill Kees, and Lito Tejada-Flores. But to Scott Brown, who would later become chairman of the Mountainfilm board, the event probably not have been created if not for Craig.”After I took over, it became obvious to me that the backbone was Bob Craig,” said Brown, who served as Mountainfilm chairman from 1984-’93. “He was the guy who was more than along for the ride. He was there, supportive.” Brown, who splits his time between Telluride and Tucson, added that many of Mountainfilm’s attendees in the early years came from Aspen.Brown says that Telluride can tip its hat to Aspen for more than just Mountainfilm. Calling Telluride “Aspen’s birth-child,” he says it was “Aspen that created Telluride.””There were some miners and shit in Telluride saying, ‘Wouldn’t it be cool if we had a ski resort?’ But they didn’t have a clue how to do it,” said Brown, who had a stained glass business in Aspen in 1970, but eventually found it cheaper to live and work in Telluride, and drive his goods from Telluride to Aspen.In Brown’s view, Telluride’s status as a cultural center can also be linked to Aspen. “It goes back to Walter and Elizabeth Paepcke – that idea of reviving an old mining town, and not only building a ski resort, but that what brings humans to life is this combination of art and nature. That whole thing created in Aspen started something. When I went to Telluride, I was so used to having art and culture and interesting people.”In Brown’s first week in Telluride, he started the Telluride Arts Council, which put on an art fair. Soon after, Brown took over the annual Fourth of July celebration, which, he was disappointed to see, revolved around motorcycles and alcohol.”I said, ‘What we need is some music,'” recalled Brown. He looked to Aspen for musicians and hired the noted rock band Black Pearl, which featured singer-guitarist Bobby Mason. But in the days before the festival, the band members couldn’t be reached, and Brown turned to Telluride’s only music group, which happened to be a bluegrass combo. Eventually, the Fourth of July bash morphed into the renowned Telluride Bluegrass Festival.”Bobby loves that story,” said Brown. “He says, ‘Thank god I was drunk.’ Because bluegrass stuck. It was unique.”Brown took over as Mountainfilm chairman in 1984, when the festival was in dire trouble. Among his first tasks was to call Bob Craig for advice and support. Brown and a business partner, Chip Kamin, donated some money and energy, and persuaded Telluridian Jim Bedford to take over as managing director. The festival survived and Brown remained chairman until 1993, when a new group took over in what Brown refers to as “a coup.” (That leadership has since been replaced.)But Brown was more or less ready to go. Two years earlier he had achieved his major goal, of luring Sir Edmund Hilary to appear at Mountainfilm. “You know when you’ve lost your gas,” Brown said. “My dream had been fulfilled.”Brown, who is a co-owner of the Aspen-based Western Housing Solutions, a business that builds workforce affordable housing, is pleased to see that Mountainfilm has survived. And he finds poetic justice in the fact that the festival’s first effort at a full-scale extension is happening in Aspen.”There are always idiots [in Telluride] saying, ‘We don’t want to be like Aspen.’ And I always say, ‘You’re idiots,'” he said. “Nobody wants to mimic Aspen. But the great things about Aspen I believe in strongly.”
MountainSummit runs today through Sunday, Aug. 30, with daily film screenings and discussions at the Wheeler Opera House. The festival also includes the Moving Mountains Symposium on Food, set for Friday, Aug. 28 at the Doerr-Hosier Center at the Aspen Institute.Thursday features screenings of “The Cove,” at 5:45 p.m., with the film’s production coordinator, Joe Chisholm, in attendance for a Q&A session; and “Rock Prophecies,” with photographer Robert Knight, the subject of the documentary, and filmmaker John Chester in attendance.