Willoughby: Limelite, folk music and après ski
Legends & Legacies
There was a monumental change in Aspen’s entertainment offerings during a brief three years at the end of the 1950s all centered at the Limelite.
It all began in 1957 when Sheldon Rich acquired what had previously been the Ski and Spur restaurant-bar-lodge. Located at the corner of Cooper and Monarch the Ski and Spur was designed and built by Fritz Benedict in 1949 featuring, what was unusual for the time, large plate glass windows in the bar-restaurant facing Aspen Mountain. The Ski and Spur went bankrupt in 1956. Rich opened his new establishment naming it the Limelite.
Rich decided to feature what was just becoming popular at the time, folk music, and opened with Marilyn Child and Glenn Yarbrough, two well-known singers from the national nightclub circuit. Both had played the prominent club, the Village Vanguard in New York. That same year Rich added another folk artist, Bob Gibson, who had a popular hit with Marching to Pretoria.
The Limelite added another feature in December, a cocktail and free hors d’oeuvres offering beginning at 2:00 P.M. each day. The term après ski was not applied in those years, but that was the intention. The bar area featured a fireplace and those mountain facing windows. There were other bars in town open at all hours, but the Limelite was located close to what was the main ‘bottom’ of the mountain below Lift One and many lodges.
The after-ski time tapped into skiers ready to celebrate their skiing triumphs, but there were two possible outcomes. The first was that a day of sun and exhilaration coupled with high altitude pushed some patrons into bed, especially those who came to Aspen to ski and starting as early each day as the lifts opened. The other use of the after-ski time was to introduce them to the restaurant that featured some of Aspen’s great dining and the folk music of the late-night bar.
The ad the Limelite ran for months is the best description, ”our formula is as follows, first a relaxing cocktail before the roaring fire, as you stretch your limbs and relax your mental knots in a room especially designed for the relief of mental knots and bows. Then you drift casually on the strength of your recent martinis into our dining clubroom where faint aromas and flickering candles bring back all but dead memories.”
Yarbrough liked Aspen and the Limelite so he secured a lease in 1958 and later bought it outright with some partners. He continued performing, especially with Marilyn Child, and brought in many more folk artists including Judy Colins and the Smothers Brothers. He also brought in Katie Lee who became a longtime Aspen favorite for her, “spicy songs for cool knights.” More important, to the history of the Limelite and Yarbrough, he booked Alex Hassiliev and Lou Gottlieb. Buy the summer of 1959 the three men formed a trio, the Limeliters, and as they say the rest is history.
The success of the Limeliters reduced Yarborough’s ability to run his business and he turned over the lease to others who continued folk artists into 1960, but then joined Aspen’s other major draw, offering jazz.
The Aspen Ski School in the club’s early years attached itself to the Limelite and held hot wine parties for pupils. Bob Gibson initiated a branch of folk music, ski songs, that he wrote and recorded in 1959 that were performed in Aspen for years after his stay. His lyrics in his song ‘Celebrated Skier’ defined then, and maybe still today what the Limelite may have started. “I’ve skied more hills than any man from Frisco to New York but talking about the skiing I’ve done is my one and only quirk, especially when I’m standing in the bar.”
Tim Willoughby’s family story parallels Aspen’s. He began sharing folklore while teaching at Aspen Country Day School and Colorado Mountain College. Now a tourist in his native town, he views it with historical perspective. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.