Please, no more ‘fern bars’ at the Wheeler | AspenTimes.com
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Please, no more ‘fern bars’ at the Wheeler

John Colson

Sometimes you have to wonder what gets into the head of our elected city officials and the people they hire, and what kind of substances they’ve ingested at some point to make them say and do the things that make you wonder.

I believe that’s a tautology ” a logical feedback loop that leads one in circles with no end in sight ” but maybe that’s just what’s called for when considering the intricacies of our city government.

What got me started on this particular loop was the discussion this week about Bentley’s, the corner bar at the Wheeler Opera House that’s been in business for a quarter of a century but now seems to find itself in the sights of someone with “A Plan.”

Now, for those that remember, Bentley’s didn’t exist before the city renovated the grande dame of Aspen’s Victorian architecture in the mid-1980s. The Wheeler had become a run-down hulk, a ghostly version of its historic and splendid past, in Aspen’s heyday as a silver-mining boomtown.

Scorched by two fires, neglected by a succession of owners as Aspen huddled through its Quiet Years, the Wheeler had become a warren of offices, painted-up windows and, in the basement (where the Wheeler offices now exist), a raucous old bar known as The Pub.

The Wheeler showed some great movies in the 1970s and early ’80s ” classics, art films, strange cinematic offerings from various demented directors. The balcony was condemned and closed, since the bureaucrats believed the props holding it up were too weak to support a few dozen moviegoers. That left it to a motley crew of stoners who liked to creep up the stairs before the show, puff on a joint or a pipe, then sneak back down to the main floor before the movie manager, Jon Busch, caught wind of the sweet smell.

But The Pub was a world apart from the old Wheeler. A rowdy, smelly hole in the ground with a door and a stairway leading back up into the light, it was a true den of iniquity, a place where things happened that weren’t talked about in polite company. In other words, it was the favorite bar of that segment of the local population that partied hard, worked harder and then partied again.

When the city renovated the Wheeler building and erased The Pub from the local scene, many were crushed. Some still haven’t forgiven City Hall for this transgression, and their anger boils to the surface whenever they’ve had a few too many. Their friends, recognizing the madness coming on, usually get them home and tucked away before they start ranting.

Anyway, that’s when Bentley’s was born, and it was perceived as a “fern bar” for the theater set. That’s right ” a genteel place where smartly dressed theatergoers could lounge and sip before a show, or relax and unwind afterward, with little threat of being overwhelmed by a drunken mob of working slobs.

But it didn’t stay that way for long. Oh, in the beginning it lived up to its hype and was frequented by people who would never set foot in The Red Onion or Cooper Street Pier. But business realities forced changes, and over the years it has become a mainstay for locals eager for a quiet meal or a drink, and for tourists looking for some vanishing local color.

It seems Gram Slaton, the Wheeler’s executive director, isn’t satisfied with the way things have worked out, though. He called Bentley’s “a rowdy bar” in a discussion with the Aspen City Council last week, a remark that almost made me drop my drink.

This is what happens when institutional memory is lost, when generations die out and newcomers have no idea what was here before they were. If Slaton thinks Bentley’s is rowdy, he clearly has no clue as to the meaning of the word, at least not in the mind of the common masses. Now, The Pub ” THERE was a rowdy place.

There was no indication in the story I read about what Slaton wants to replace Bentley’s but I suggest that, aside from a quick spruce-up and maybe some new equipment, it should be left as it is. If the goal is to create another genteel spot for the upper crust to hang out, give it up. It was tried and failed in that very space, and we’ve got enough such establishments.

We don’t need to lose another place where locals can feel comfortable and out of the madding tourist traffic.

We’ve lost enough already.

jcolson@aspentimes.com


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