Willoughby: Over a century of movies at the Isis | AspenTimes.com

Willoughby: Over a century of movies at the Isis

Tim Willoughby
Legends & Legacies
The Isis theater as it looked in 1939. Aspen Historical Society/Courtesy Photo

The pandemic stopped a 105-year streak of continuous movies at the Isis. The whole history of cinema has played out there.

The Isis is in the Webber Block built by Henry Webber, who was mayor of Aspen in 1888. He came to Aspen in 1880, had a shoe store and was a partner in the Emma Mine. The large brick building housed a wholesale produce business in the beginning and then was home to Landgreen and Hickey Wallpaper and Paint for many years.

It became a theater in 1915. Like the city taking over the building in modern times, the Women’s Civic Improvement League turned it into a theater to host community events because the Opera House had closed a couple years earlier due to the fire that damaged the theater portion. The building with a high ceiling and plenty of space only needed seating. The Improvement League salvaged seats from the Wheeler.

This was at the time when silent movies were the rage so the new space accommodated silent movies and since the chain of theaters that included Leadville and Glenwood was called the Isis, Aspen’s new theater was similarly named.

All kinds of civic events were held there. School events, like graduations and school plays were staged well into the 1950s. The 4H held fashion shows there. Episcopal services were housed.

Silent movies began in September of 1915 with an admission price of 15 cents. ($3.25 in today’s dollars)

Kenneth Hanson, who owned Aspen Drug, acquired the building in 1924 and partnered with James Parson who also was a partner in Aspen Drug to continue showing movies. In 1934 they upgraded the theater for ‘talkies’.

Parson took over all of the theater operation and operated it with extended family members filling all of the positions. In 1949 he remodeled the theater. Prior to that time it had the opening you see in the photo. Parson closed it in and remodeled the lobby adding the most important item, an automatic popcorn machine.

He replaced the seats and solved one of the building’s major problems, it was freezing cold. To solve the problem he lowered the ceiling and lined it, and all of the walls, with the magic insulator of the time, Celotex. He painted the Celotex in a color that was meant to reflect temples of the Egyptian goddess Isis.

For many years the Isis scheduled one movie a week, but Parson added more movie changes and more open nights closing only on Mondays. The price increased in the 1950s to 50 cents. ( $4.00 in today’s dollars)

The Isis introduced another movie change, CinemaScope in 1955, one I remember. The movie innovation involved the lens used in filming, but what it did was allow for a wider screen that in the Isis meant one that was almost as wide as the theater. It was perfect timing because those post CinemaScope years were filled with Hollywood ‘epic’ movies. I remember seeing The King and I, The Ten Commandments, and Ben Hur.

Restaurants in Aspen come and go almost annually, retail stores change hands and names almost as frequently. With the exception of two churches and the Jerome there is almost nothing with continuous use that stretches back to 1915.

Tim Willoughby’s family story parallels Aspen’s. He began sharing folklore while teaching Aspen Country Day School and Colorado Mountain College. Now a tourist in his native town, he views it with historical perspective. Reach him at redmtn2@comcast.net.


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