Why is the city of Aspen saving a private business?
November 8, 2006
A wise but crazy man repeatedly writes that all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.
A simple man recounts that “Mama always said life was like a box of chocolates.”And a lovable lost alien reminds us to phone home.They are fictional characters. But fictional characters impart great wisdom, from time to time.According to Laura Thielen, an engaging film feeds the souls of a captive audience.For the executive director of Aspen Filmfest, movies are more than mere entertainment. They are a way of life.
“There’s that commonality of experience that runs through people’s lives long after the film,” she said. “The conversation spills out of the theater into the restaurants and their homes … It’s the whole gestalt of bringing people together.”Over the past several years, Aspen’s longest-running cinema, the Isis Theatre, has united the community in another way. Ever since it changed owners in 1998, it’s been on a roller coaster of change. As people began to fear it would disappear forever, it’s been a rallying point for a community that has watched its last, great places slowly disappear.It’s nearly impossible to imagine Aspen without the building, which was constructed in 1892, only a dozen years after the town adopted its name. But the structure alone is not what makes it such an integral part of Aspen’s heritage. The Isis Theatre opened in 1915, the same year director D.W. Griffith released his pioneering film “Birth of a Nation.” Since then, the theater has stood by as “talkies” supplanted silent films, color replaced black and white, and, now, as the digital age threatens the Golden Age of film.But for the past eight years, the fate of the theater has been uncertain. After changing ownership in 1998, it closed for massive renovations, reopened for just less than a year, closed again for more than a year, then reopened again. Several times, the community turned to the City Council to bail out the ailing business.The council has recently entertained pleas to save businesses considered vital to Aspen’s soul. And the Isis is a flagship in this regard.
It’s not that uncommon for the city to protect parks and buildings, but saving private companies? That’s a whole new ballgame.The cries for help didn’t end with the Isis. As staples like Cooper Street Pier and the Red Onion have been put on short leases, many locals have begun to fear the loss of their best hangouts.In January, bookseller Katharine Thalberg died. Thalberg founded Explore Booksellers and Bistro, now located in a historic Victorian on Main Street, and personally ran the store for almost 30 years. Eight months after her death, amid looming fears about losing the Isis, her daughters placed the bookstore on the market, and the community found itself facing the loss of another landmark. Once again, people turned to the city to save one of its last, great places.Former Aspen Mayor John Bennett said the trend is a new twist on an old theme.
“We’re expanding the concept of historic preservation to include businesses, whereas in the past, it was a building or a park,” he said. “These are new situations that Aspen hasn’t had to face in the past. Their potential loss strikes a lot of fear in people’s hearts.”For some, so does the very idea of the city “saving” private businesses.”This is slippery ground,” Bennett said. “What’s essential to one person is not essential to another.”Even those who don’t support the city’s involvement acknowledge that, if the Isis sells on the open market, it won’t remain a theater. Nonetheless, most people tend to agree the Isis has become an irreplaceable gathering spot where people connect.
Like Explore, the Isis found itself with a proprietor who poured himself into the operation. By the time they retired in 1998, Dominic and Kitty Linza were so much a part of the Isis it was hard to separate them from the movie-going experience. For 30 years, Dominic Linza introduced each film personally, and if viewers didn’t like what they saw, he gave them their money back. If they didn’t have the money to get in to begin with, Linza gave entrance for free.”It was a friendship,” he said recently, recalling his years at the Isis from his home in Grand Junction. “I’d move back there in a heartbeat, if I could run it like I used to run it, to get up on the stage. … I made a comment about every film I ever showed.”For Linza, who lived with his family in an apartment above the theater, running the Isis was much more than a job.”That was my love,” he said. “It’s more than a business. It’s a community get-together. So many people come together and hold hands rather than stay at home and watch a video.”Before turning the theater over to new owners in 1998, Linza chose the Italian film “Cinema Paradiso” as the last movie he would introduce.
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It’s the story about a cinema projectionist who helps nurture a young boy’s lifelong love of film. As an adult, the boy returns to his hometown after learning his mentor has died and that the theater where he learned about love and life will be torn down.”The ache in the theater, the acknowledgment in the audience that this was the end of a chapter – people really relished that,” said Laura Thielen, executive director of Aspen Filmfest, which relied on the Isis as a staging point for the festival for 20 years. “I just don’t think it can be overemphasized how precious that is.”Shortly after Linza’s departure, the new owners gutted the century-old building, preserving only the facade, and replaced it with a more modern – and economically viable – five-screen venue.Meanwhile, on nearby blocks, more upscale chain stores like Prada and Gucci crept into town. Cold, expensive exteriors froze out most year-round locals, creating dead spaces in the community that stand in stark contrast to lively gathering spots like a theater, a bookstore or a restaurant. “Every community goes through change. Change is a part of life,” said Thielen. “But it’s so important to have common places where people can come together. It keeps people human. It has the potential to keep us from fragmenting more.”
The high-end boutiques have international caché but little value for many full-time Aspenites. In Thielen’s eyes, people like Linza who invest themselves, not just their savings, in a business have the power to unite the community.”There’s a personal responsibility. You run into your patrons at the grocery store,” she said. “You have your finger on the pulse of the community. You know what will play and what won’t.” Thielen recalled Linza’s agonizing over whether to show the movie “Trainspotting” at the Isis, because the film is rife with drug use. Ultimately, he did show it, but not without a lot of thought, she said.But local owners and patrons are not necessarily enough for the community to rally around a business that’s getting ready to close its doors.When the 35-year-old Walnut House went out of business earlier this year, nobody asked City Council to keep it alive.
“A lot of people felt a connection to it, but was there really a community benefit to it if you weren’t into photography?” asked Tom Egan, communications director for the Aspen Historical Society.Egan agreed community gathering spots are necessary to Aspen’s identity, and he said the town has led the way when it comes to implementing new ideas. During the 1970s, Aspen was on the cutting edge when it dedicated several busy city blocks to pedestrians. In the following decade, it was among the first places in the country to adopt a comprehensive smoking ban.Last month, the city helped facilitate an innovative plan to save the Isis without putting up one penny of taxpayer money. If all goes as planned, the nonprofit Filmfest and a private corporation will buy the theater, using the city’s good credit to obtain a lower interest rate for the multimillion-dollar sale. The deal is the first of its kind in the city.”I don’t think we should avoid doing things that don’t seem either right or proper at first, because they might work,” Egan said. “This is another attempt at trying to fix the problem. Will it work? Ask me again in a couple of years.”
Whether the Isis deal succeeds remains to be seen, but the proposal begs the question, where does it end? Restaurants? The supermarket? What about a hair salon?The fear seems to be that if the town continues to lose irreplaceable business that draw people together, Aspen will become nothing more than a facade masking the empty shell of a once-vibrant place.But that hasn’t happened yet, and the repeated requests for help from the city suggest the community isn’t ready to give up the fight. Perhaps it could be the beginning of a beautiful friendship.Abigail Eagye’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org