Guest commentary: Time for Wheeler to step up its performance
I have a long and intimate history with the Wheeler Opera House, and yes, I do mean “intimate.”
I first entered the Wheeler as a music student in 1964. The auditorium windows had not yet been boarded up, there was no carpet, and balcony seats were hard, wooden benches. I moved permanently to Aspen in 1969 and in 1972 took over the film program that had been run by Don Swales since 1965. Bill Pence, who went on to found the Telluride Film Festival, was involved, too, but I was the man on the ground.
These were the days before Turner Classics and Netflix and were a golden age for foreign and classic film on the big screen. Every summer we held a film festival where we played a different movie every night all summer long. Don moved away and Bill no longer had time for Aspen with his Telluride fest, so I ended up as “the movie man.”
There have been several attempts to create an addition on the side of the Wheeler, and I submitted one in the late ’80s.
Let me explain where I was and still am coming from. The Wheeler is a civic auditorium, but it could be a performing arts center. The difference is that a performing arts center has more than one public-use space. Typically it has rehearsal space and often has flexible areas that can attract conferences and exhibits. Hall rental events can be tailored to expected attendance.
The most recent plan, which was submitted by former executive director Gram Slaton, was doomed to failure. It was to be an additional 250-seat auditorium and contained a third floor of “artist accommodations,” which the lodging community took exception to. More critically, the plan submitted called for keeping some of the real estate transfer tax money in reserve and asking the city for around $6 million (I don’t remember the exact number) instead of using the nearly $30 million in the RETT.
I had a different idea. It started with the directive that architects would have X-many dollars and to design something within that budget. Dave Gibson, a local architect, went through my plan and determined it was feasible. He thought it could be done for under $10 million. It was a long time ago. So here it is.
There was a recital/lecture/film hall with stadium seating for 120. It utilized the existing passenger elevator and the “back stage” was within the existing Wheeler basement.
The second floor was the most creative. Based on the “black box” concept, it was a very large space with a high ceiling and a folding wall that could become a lobby. There was an exterior balcony to set back the addition and not detract from the Wheeler’s historic exterior. The second floor was at the same level as the existing Wheeler lobby and could be used for overflow. Likewise, the existing lobby could function as a lobby for the black box space. Though the black box would have dressing rooms, they would be complementary to existing facilities. The plan included some storage and scene-shop space.
That’s it in a nutshell, which only leaves the question of need. The separate space that was proposed by a private group a few years ago asked for some of the Wheeler RETT in exchange for a certain number of nights a year given over for the Wheeler’s use. When the city balked at the proposal, the organizers said they’d do it on their own. Given the price of real estate and that it was to repurpose existing buildings, it doesn’t do much for the Wheeler or the greater cultural/resort experience if it were ever built. Proposed performance centers downvalley have the serious potential of sidelining Aspen. It may not be popular to say, but having the Wheeler the best it can be needs serious consideration in this competitive world.
Oh, and about my “intimate” history with the Wheeler, I lived on the stage for more than a year in the ’70s, only sleeping on others’ couches when the Music School put on their summer opera. They only put on one in those days and no master classes or recitals, which leads me to say, don’t worry about whether there is a need to expand the Wheeler. Where there is space users will appear, and that’s good for Aspen’s future.
Jon Busch has been involved in public affairs since his arrival to Aspen in the 1960s. He was inducted into the Aspen Hall of Fame in January.