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Willoughby: Silent movies attract Aspen audiences

Silent movie star Mary Pickford filming The Pride of Clan at Marblehead, Mass. In 1916.- Library of Congress/Courtesy Photo

Silent movies captivated American audiences around 1910 when film replaced Edison’s single viewer Kinetoscope and movie studios formed and cranked out films. Aspen followed the national trend with three theaters opening early in that decade.

The first to open was Dreamland, part of a chain that also opened one in Leadville. The chain featured films from the American Vitagraph Company, the most prolific company at that time. A few titles from that period include: The Crooked Bankers, Collecting the Bill, Snakewille’s Epidemic and Slippery Slim. Films were advertised by their content and a viewer was promised several offerings, each one reel long running between ten to 20 minutes. Later a movie might be billed as having more than one reel. Four reels usually constituted a night’s entertainment.

Like the rest of the country Aspen enjoyed films with what most consider the first movie star, Florence Turner. In the very early years movies were known by their studio and not promoted through their stars so at first she was known as ‘the Vitagraph girl’. She was paid $22 a week, $520 in today’s dollars. Another popular Vitagraph performer was comedian John Bunny who dominated until his death in 1915.



Aspen’s Isis Theater opened in that period. At first there was a balance between live performances, civic events and movies. Admission was ten cents ($2.40 in today’s dollars). The Isis featured Biograph films of which there were over 3,000. Biograph director D.W. Griffith hired Mary Pickford and she appeared in 51 films in 1909 that Aspen saw in subsequent years.

By 1917 films were longer and told more complicated stories. The hit for that year was a Mary Pickford film, The Pride of Clan, that ran seven reels. By then movies were associated with stars and stars made more. Pickford earned $10,000 ($200,000 in today’s dollars) a week plus half of a film’s profits.



Kathlyn Williams was another Aspen Isis favorite, maybe because she grew up in Butte, Montana. She worked for Selig Polyscope, the first movie company to locate in Southern California, and starred in 48 films. The Adventures of Kathlyn were popular, a serial where the story was also simultaneously published by the Chicago Tribune. It has been credited with inventing ‘the cliffhanger’.

The third Aspen movie theater was started by my grandfather on my mother’s side, John Sheehan. He and his partner Jesse Yates leased the Wheeler Opera House. Their first project in 1908 was not movies, but a minstrel show with a local cast that traveled to other towns. They also hosted local plays and events. They showed their first movie in 1910. Ads touted ‘three reels and two songs,’ all for the price of fifty cents on the lower floor or twenty-five cents for a balcony seat.

Yates was a violinist who played frequently at Aspen evens beginning in high school. He worked for a couple years in Aspen’s drug stores then attended the New England Conservatory of Music. Silent movies were enhanced by live music and Yates won movie audiences with his excellent music accompaniment. Yates’s nickname in Aspen was ‘the picture man’ for mastering the projection challenges as well as musical accompaniment.

The movie business was a sideline for both of them. Sheehan ran, with his brother, a grocery store on Hyman Avenue. Yates gave violin lessons and worked for the Smuggler Mine.

The Isis was the only Aspen theater to make the transition to talkies in the late 1920s. Imagine, an Aspen business that has been around for over a century!

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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