Tony Vagneur: Three generations of Wheeler fun

Tony Vagneur
Saddle Sore

Every mining town, if it was civilized, had one. First, there was the Corkhill Opera House, down on Hopkins. Then, pushed by the cultured types, the Rink Opera House opened, over on Cooper. “What the hell,” said Jerome B. Wheeler, “I’ve put enough time and money into this town, I’ll build my own opera house, and in addition, it will house my bank.”

The Wheeler Opera House operated from 1889 until 1912, and then morphed in to one of those almost self-administered comas, brought on by very quiet years, including a fire or two, and title fights, until its refurbishment in 1950. It’s been going strong ever since, which brings me to the point of this column, as if you thought I’d never get there.

The year was 1951. I was a fresh-faced first-grader in the red brick school and because the gym wasn’t finished yet, the annual Christmas play was being held at the Wheeler Opera House. The Wheeler (newly refurbished) had more room and panache than Armory Hall, the previous host. If you don’t know about the Armory’s amazing history, it’s City Hall today.

In whatever format the play entertained, Terry Morse and I, dressed as court jesters, were dispatched from stage left to load a newly cracked Humpty-Dumpty into a Radio Flyer wagon and wheel him off the stage. We did our job admirably well, I firmly believe.

We didn’t know at the time, but the Wheeler was to become one of the core establishments of our youth, and honestly, of our Aspen lives, as well. We’d hurry off the ski mountain to catch Lowell Thomas broadcast the day’s news from the Wheeler stage; later on, Warren Miller always seemed to be showcasing a new film, something no one missed, at least none of us kids.

It was our second movie house, after the Isis, and for some reason, we never questioned the “why” as to why we were always catching the late films our parents had no idea we were watching. The Wheeler was a staple in our lives.

In about 1993, my 10-year old daughter, Lauren, performed on the Wheeler stage as one of the ballet dancers in “The Nutcracker.” Watching her do perfectly executed, one-armed cartwheels speeding across the front of the stage filled my heart with a speechless feeling, one I cannot adequately describe. Immense pride might come close.

For the past 12 or 13 years, yours truly has been part of the “Aspen History 101” production, put on every year by the Aspen Historical Society to kick off the annual Winterskol celebration. Our collaborator, Aspen State Teacher’s College gives us some “modern” street cred. Georgia Hanson gets my undying thanks for nudging me into doing that show, in honor of my great-grandfather, Jeremie.

How familiar that hardwood stage floor has become after all these years, always a thrill, and then a great surprise came my way, to inject more energy into it. My grandson, Cash, a kindergartner at Aspen Country Day School was, as are all the students, given a part in the annual All-School Play.

The performance, normally held in April, had to be moved up to January in anticipation of restoration work going on this coming spring at the Wheeler. The ACDS kids, led by the graduating eighth-graders, refused thoughts of cancellation or moving to a different venue and upped their creative involvement by leaps and bounds to put the story together by such an early date.

“Uncovered” was a production of amazing proportions, the seed of creativity coming from the eighth-grade students who put the idea together. It was centered on the importance of reading, of how literature helps keep our minds free and staves off unwanted outside control. There was singing, dancing and serious dialogue. The live pit band, made up of local musicians, was dynamite.

And shortly after intermission, there was my grandson singing and dancing with the other kids, big and small. Then, in a surprise move, he came to the front of the stage and sat on an eighth-grader’s lap. Someone handed him a microphone, another one to a girl a couple of laps over, and believe it or not, an offspring of mine sang a short solo duet. The adults in this family are not big singers.

And there you have it — three generations of my family having performed on the Wheeler Opera House stage, four if you count my great-grandfather in absentia. You can’t plan things like that — it just came out that way, which is one of the beautiful things about Aspen.

Looking to the future, my granddaughter, Charli, will be getting her turn on the stage in a couple of years. Hang on, Wheeler!

If you have a chance next year to see Aspen Country Day School’s production of its All-School Play, take it. You’ll enjoy it.

Tony Vagneur writes here on Saturdays and welcomes your comments at