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The Isis crisis

Paul Andersen

The Isis crisis has mounted to theatrical proportions. Now the tony but unprofitable movie house is equated with the soul of Aspen. It is a telling sign for this community that longing for a basic socks-and-underwear store has lost its pragmatic appeal to an opulent venue for celluloid fantasy.Laura Thielen made the convincing case in a recent opinion piece that public entertainment has been vital for millennia as a means of coalescing community. The Greeks did it with instructive live theater. The Romans did it with visceral gladiatorial combat.Shared film fantasies in a darkened theater, Thielen wrote, create enchantment for an audience: “You can’t duplicate that shared experience in a home theater or in front of a computer screen.”Is the enchantment over for Aspen? This question has prompted plenty of head-scratching over the Isis. When is a theater not a theater, but rather an ill-conceived real estate scheme doomed from the first flash of a dollar sign?Thielen stated that the free market should not be the arbiter of survival for a vital community asset, and she’s right. Yet the free market has done that throughout Aspen’s resort development by eagerly converting community into commodity.Former Mayor Bill Stirling made a recent appeal to those who have gained the most on Aspen’s profitability to plow back enough money to preserve the Isis as a landmark amenity. “It’s time to give back,” he concluded. I am reminded of the Judy Garland/Gene Kelly film “Summer Stock,” where kids band together to convert an old barn into a venue for their theatrical escapade. “What this town needs is _____” fill in the blank. Today it’s a movie theater.It would be great if Stirling’s paean could spur magnanimity from the free market, thereby scripting a happy PG movie ending for the Isis crisis. But I fear that we live more in an R-rated world, where gritty reality trumps happy endings.Rather than leaving us teary-eyed with sentimental warmth for the beneficent rescue of the Isis by captains of capitalism, we will instead be teary-eyed with nostalgia for what has been lost to the myopia of the free market. Cultural salvation harking to the Paepcke vision, which Stirling lauded, may not extend to failed movie theaters. Magnanimous capitalists have watered many a Hollywood production with tears of rescue and redemption, but the same script is not being read in Aspen today regarding the Isis Theater and its luxurious penthouse condos.Still, the Isis is not the only movie house in town. There are two other theater venues that Jon Busch has been running successfully for years – the Wheeler Opera House and Paepcke Auditorium. The Wheeler is owned by the city of Aspen, which can mandate more films to counter the loss of the Isis, should there be sufficient public outcry. Paepcke Auditorium represents the core of Aspen’s cultural campus, which could also offset the void at the Isis.Losing the Isis is sad. So is losing rural character, innocence, tranquility, sense of community, social diversity, egalitarian values, messy vitality and all the many community assets that the free market has parlayed into profit.If the Isis is to be redeemed through idealism, then Aspen – the movie version – needs a serious rewrite, a new cast of players, and one hell of an editor. Unfortunately, we are already past the previews and deep into the main feature.Paul Andersen wonders if they could raise the price of popcorn. His column appears on Mondays.


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