Willoughby: Wintersköl, Mickey Mouse and Aspen identity
Legends & Legacies
Aspen for generations has fixated on its identity. But that community characteristic usually translates into what Aspen isn’t more than trying to define just what it is.
The following illustrates just one exampleof how Aspen, confined by economic considerations, simultaneously balanced the traditions of a town trying to be different while enticing tourists to visit.
In 1939 the Highland Bavarian partners promoted their just-founded skiing operation in Aspen. Ted Ryan used his East Coast background and acquaintances to spread the word about Aspen to that coast. Billy Fiske, who worked in Los Angeles, did the same for the opposite coast.
Sun Valley, ahead of Aspen in skiing development, latched onto Hollywood celebrities. It recognized that Hollywood had a strong influence and if skiing was chic with stars, others would follow them to Sun Valley. The Highland Bavarian partners tried to apply that same marketing pitch.
Hollywood and Aspen became linked through the years as Aspen became a popular destination for stars, not just film but also music. It accelerated when in 1977 Twentieth Century Fox bought the Aspen Skiing Co. For marketing, the line was “Hollywood of the Rockies.” Locally, Fox did not make management changes, but the community was uneasy with the idea of its “local” company no longer being local. The company had been losing money for years, so it raised its rates, making the change even more distasteful to locals. From 8,000 feet, changes to the town began to be described as the Hollywoodification of Aspen.
A growing LA customer base was welcome and Aspen developed its special way of making stars welcome by ignoring them, not hounding them for photos, etc.
Wintersköl was started in 1951 to have an event to attract visitors during what then was the low point of the season, past the holiday rush and too cold to attract the less dedicated. As a business generator, its management was done by the Chamber of Commerce. In 1983 the chamber, wanting to promote Aspen as a family resort, made Fantasia the parade theme. Walt Disney’s 1940 animated film Fantasia still captivated imaginations.
The chamber approached Disney Productions to have Mickey Mouse for the parade, and Disney agreed, sending Mickey and the Disneyland ambassador for that year, Mindy Wilson, along, too. The chamber hoped that would attract families.
It was successful, but newspaper writer Deborah Caulfield wrote a piece about it for the Los Angeles Times excoriating Disney for sending Mickey to Aspen. She described Wintesköl as “well publicized bacchanalian confluence of bawdy floats, semi-clad women, and plenty of drinking.”
That is where the difference between Aspen marketing and the Aspen community divided — is the parade for locals or is it still for the purpose of getting skiers to town in the cold month? Aspen wanted families to visit, but it had a long tradition of a kind of local humor that was understood locally but seen as offensive by others. Locals were more offended by the description of their parade than having Mickey in the parade — more Hollywoodification.
The ski company was not publicly traded, so its ownership was opaque locally. Twentieth Century Fox was owned by Denver oilman Marin Davis, but in the 1980s Rupert Murdoch bought a major interest. One group of owners that included Davis was known as Miller-Davis-Klutznick-Gray. A third partner in the ski company was the Crown family. At one time in that period the owners had to dispel a rumor that Donald Trump was buying them out. Davis bought out Murdoch and in the end the Crown family secured total ownership of the ski company.
Ties to Hollywood are still there, but not through ownership of the ski company. Defining what Aspen is today is difficult, but it has a history of trying to define what it isn’t, despite marketing.
The Wintersköl theme this year is, “Where Would you Rather Be? Wintersköl 23,” a theme that works for all. Enjoy the festivities.
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