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Longtime Aspen fixture, ballet founder Lita Heller passes away at California

Lita Warner Heller, a well-known philanthropist and entrepreneur who along with her husband were big supporters of many Aspen institutions, died earlier this month surrounded by her family at her California home. She was 92.

Heller, who moved to Aspen in the mid-1970s with her husband, spent nearly 40 years in the valley and gave time and money to a number of local nonprofit groups. She was married to Mort Heller for 50 years before he died in November 2010. Lita died peacefully in her sleep April 10, her son Michael Hiatt said Friday.

The family first came to Aspen for a ski vacation in the early 1970s and his parents became hooked, Haitt said.

“One of our big, big family trips was to Aspen, and Lefty Brinkman had a place called the Lodge,” Haitt said in a phone interview. “When all of the kids had or were close to graduating, she moved from their home in Bel Air to full-time in Aspen around the mid-1970s.”

Once here, the Hellers were major supporters of the Aspen Music Festival, Aspen Institute, Aspen Medical Foundation and the Aspen Art Museum among others.

She helped develop the cultural arts, specifically bringing modern dance and ballet to the Aspen community, the family said. Lita Heller was a founder and helped launch the Aspen Ballet Co., which now is the Aspen Santa Fe Ballet Co.

“She loved the Aspen ballet. The ballet was very, very dear to her,” Haitt said. “She was passionate about her riding and her horses in Aspen.”

Aspen Sante Fe Ballet co-director Jean-Philippe Malaty met Heller 23 years ago when he and Tom Mossbroucker helped start the current company. He said when they came to town they were told they had to meet Heller.

“Back then it really took some grit and vision to think ballet was going to catch on in Aspen. She was a little bit bigger than life,” Malaty said. “When we came to town, we were clearly told we had to meet Lita Heller.”

He said she came out to see the dancers last year when they were in Los Angeles.

“Really, patrons who love dance the way she did, it’s rare. She was a staple for our community. She had a young mind, and she loved the way dance was evolving and changing,” Malaty said. “She wasn’t stuck in the past. She moved on with the ages.”

In 2008, Heller was honored by Aspen Film when it hosted a dinner to recognize her and her family during a filmfest. The evening included a screening of the film, “The Brothers Warner,” which was about her father, Sam Warner, and his family that started Warner Brothers. The film was written and directed by Heller’s niece, Cass Warner.

Sam Warner was one of the Warner Brothers of Hollywood fame and since he died young at age 40, she was raised by his brother, Harry Warner. Her mother, Lina Basquette, was a child actress and dancer with the Ziegfield Follies but was asked to let Lita stay with the Warner family.

“One of the beautiful things about Harry was that he wanted to take care of the whole family,” Lita Heller said in a 2008 interview in connection with the film.

Heller, who graduated from Beverly Hills High School at age 16 and went to Stanford University, was an equestrian and rode horses much of her life. That love followed her to Colorado and she was a big supporter of equestrian groups in the Roaring Fork Valley. She said the loves of her life were her dogs and her horses.

“When I was little … (Harry) bought me the first bullmastiff in California. It’s in all the books. I’ve had 11 mastiffs or 12 since then,” Heller said in the 2008 interview. “So the two greatest things in my life were my horses and my dogs.”

A young Los Angeles socialite, she married her first husband, Los Angeles and Cedars/Sinai Hospital (then Cedars of Lebanon) Surgeon Dr. Nathan Hiatt. They divorced in 1957 with three children. She later met real estate developer and banker Mort Heller and they were married in 1960.

She is survived by three children, Samuel Warner Hiatt, Michael Hiatt and Vicki Ann Hiatt; two step children Robin Heller Moss and Richard Mark Heller; and an extended family of four grandchildren and five great-grandchildren.

“She provided an amazing life for us. She was a bigger than life person,” Michael Hiatt said.

Funeral services Monday in California are private. In lieu of flowers, the family asks that donations be made in Lita’s name to Aspen Santa Fe Ballet, Windwalker for Horses in Carbondale and Lucky Day for Dogs in Aspen.

Aspen government vulnerable with no controls

It saddens the community to see a family devastated by misguided conduct. Yet a cautionary lesson lies in the saga of alleged theft from Aspen Skiing Co. Many ask, “How could this go undetected for years?” Press accounts answer, “lax controls at Skico.”

Only Skico’s owners’ wealth was diminished by lax controls. In contrast, lax controls at a public institution cost the public both money and opportunity. Consider the city of Aspen’s mismanagement of parking meters, permitting hundreds of thousands of dollars of lost revenues.

Aspen-Pitkin County Housing Authority has flown blind for years with not merely lax, but virtually useless information about who occupies its billions of dollars of real property. APCHA and the city claim to be building systems to track its units and occupants. Despite City Council’s demand for timely completion of a new system, the bureaucracy keeps answering, “We need a couple more years.”

It’s alleged that millions of dollars of ski equipment was stolen from Skico. What’s the value of APCHA housing being stolen by unqualified occupants? Without controls, no one knows.

Maurice Emmer


PETA gives Aspen props for drones over fireworks

I am writing on behalf of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) and our more than 6.5 million members and supporters worldwide, including many across Colorado, to commend you for choosing to replace fireworks with drones at the annual Fourth of July celebration this year. I am delighted to inform you that the Aspen Chamber Resort Association has earned a Proggy Award (Proggy for “progress”) from PETA for choosing a progressive celebratory event that will protect Aspen’s wildlife, domestic animals, children, veterans and elderly people.

As you may know, during fireworks displays, dogs panic as they try to escape from the loud noises and have been known to jump through glass windows or over fences and end up getting lost, seriously hurt, or killed. Fireworks displays can also scare wildlife onto roads, where they risk being hit in traffic. The loud blasts cause birds to fly into chimneys and houses — and even to panic and abandon their nests and their young. The stress caused by these displays also affects veterans and others suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder who are sensitive to and can be deeply disturbed by the noise of the explosives. As you noted in your decision, fireworks also pose a risk of wildfires, which can kill smaller animals — such as beetles and squirrels — who cannot flee quickly enough from fast-moving flames. They also decimate the habitat and food sources of others, such as black bears. Fires have also been known to wash ash into rivers, depleting oxygen and suffocating fish.

Drone shows — which are safer than fireworks, produce virtually no air pollution, and are growing in popularity — were used recently at Disney World’s Starbright Holidays show, the New Year’s Eve celebration over Sydney Harbour, and the opening ceremony of the Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea, as well at Travis Air Force Base in Fairfield, California, among other places.

Aspen Chamber Resort Association has set a fine example for other Fourth of July event organizers to follow, and we hope you’ll continue to celebrate without fireworks in the years to come. In honor of your compassionate decision, we will be sending you a framed certificate and some delicious vegan chocolates. Our best wishes for your success!

Ingrid E. Newkirk

President, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals

Dispatchers — our unsung heros

This week there is a banner hanging over Aspen’s Main Street to recognize National Public Safety Telecommunications Week. Please help us celebrate by thanking a 9-1-1 dispatcher.

Every day the safety and lives of our community members are guarded by dedicated and caring emergency dispatchers.

Your emergency dispatchers at the Pitkin County Regional Emergency Dispatch Center (PCREDC) are on-duty 24 hours a day, always alert and ready to answer all calls. Each dispatcher is CPR-certified, trained in Emergency Medical Dispatch and skilled in dealing calmly and efficiently with emergency situations. They are your first first responders.

In 2018, PCREDC dispatched 64,875 incidents to law enforcement, 6,421 incidents to fire and medical, and handled over 36,936 calls to 911 (up 3,000 from 2017) and over 100,000 total calls that came into our center. And these statistics fail to reflect the calls

dispatchers handled themselves: giving out phone numbers, giving directions, providing referrals and general information (“Is the pass open?”), rerouting calls to other departments and other requests.

Please take a moment to look back over the last year when an occasion called for assistance from the Pitkin County Sheriff’s Office, the Aspen Police Department, Aspen fire or ambulance districts, Snowmass Village Police, Basalt Police, Roaring Fork Fire Rescue or Carbondale Fire Ambulance District. One of your well-trained dispatchers determined what was needed, prioritized the (usually multiple) pending calls for service, and promptly sent the right resources.

There is no greater sign of appreciation than to be honored by those you serve. During National Telecommunications Week (April 14-20), help show our dispatchers you realize how essential they are in public safety response. If you know any of Pitkin County’s wonderful dispatchers, let them know you appreciate all they do. If you don’t know one, rest assured that if you ever need assistance, in an emergency or on a routine matter, they will be there for you.

Brett Loeb

Director, Pitkin County 911 emergency dispatch

The city of Aspen’s failure to communicate

At Monday night’s meeting during a public hearing, Aspen City Council is being asked to approve certificates of participation that will total approximately $60 million, which includes interest to build only the new Galena Plaza/Rio Grande city offices.

Then at a later date, another $13.9 million (not including interest) will be asked for the renovation of the Armory Building for City Hall, with still another $1.2 million (not including interest) for the Tasters building renovation into a city office annex.

These amounts do not include the costs for the required affordable housing, parking spaces and change orders.

I am curious why the public is not being given the chance to comment on the three funding mechanisms available of revenue bonds, borrowing from the Wheeler and/or certificates of participation.

Revenue bonds are cheaper than participation bonds and borrowing from the Wheeler has been brought up by council members yet the only option presented for approval to council are the more expensive certificates of participation.

Why has the city not run any ads letting citizens know about this important funding public hearing?

There have been oodles of ads for public comment on the funding of $300,000 to keep the recycle center maintained but not one ad for the minimum $75 million for new city offices, city hall and city office annex building.

We know already that due to the extra costs involved in certificates of participation — many city projects are put on hold or will not happen at all.

Why not revenue bonds which are cheaper and will free money up for other projects?

With your office’s spotlight on improved communications and transparency for the public — why oh why — are the three funding mechanisms not being discussed in a public hearing?

Hopefully your office will have this requested information available for discussion at Monday night’s public hearing on funding the $75 million plus for city offices.

Toni Kronberg


Bathroom door not working in Snowmass

Surely a multimillion-dollar ski area like Snowmass can afford a quality door to its rest-room facilities. The door under the Westin, just behind Snowmass Sports on the mall, has not been operable for 10 years. It can take a strong person to operate it either from inside or outside. Please!

Bob Lucas


Emotional politics

“The Righteous Mind” by Jonathan Haidt explains that people make decisions based on emotion, not logic. Once the emotional decision is made, arguments concocted by the “rational” mind are used to justify it. The arguments don’t have to withstand logical scrutiny; they just have to seem to support the decision from the viewpoint of the “decider.”

Think about political decisions made recently by Colorado legislators. Think about whether the justifications for them make sense to you. If they don’t, remember the emotional mind.

Maurice Emmer


The Avs are Stanley Cup material

The first month of this 2018-2019 NHL hockey season found the Colorado Avalanche team the best in the league. Then for some reason, the Avalanche fell off a cliff and they started losing. Come March, the team was down six points from qualifying for postseason play. Somehow they barely climbed back up to make the Stanley Cup championship playoffs through great play by their back up goalie (who won eight of the last 11 games of the regular season) and star player Nathan MacKinnon.

In first-round play, the eighth-seeded Avs traveled to Calgary, which had home-ice advantage, to get defeated on the scoreboard — although their game play obviously won the game save for the remarkable saves of Cagary’s goaltender’s “game of the year” that Colorado happened to fall victim to.

Game 2 found the Avalanche continuing to play their same style (without the lucky play of the Calgary net-minder) and winning the game — stealing the away game and heading back to home-ice advantage for games 3 and 4.

This gave the team confidence that they should be in the playoffs. Defeating the so-called best team in the West showed them that they could hoist the famed Stanley Cup trophy.

Coming home with momentum, the team acquired their 2017 first-round draft pick and the current best Division 1 college hockey player from the University of Massachusetts, 22-year-old defense man Cale Makar.

Makar is from Calgary. During the NCAA Frozen Four college hockey championships, his team defeated Denver University to make it to the finals. Makar was awarded the Hobey Baker Award, given to the best hockey player in the NCAA.

In the Avs’ first game at home — in Cale Makar’s first NHL game — in the first period, on his first shot, Makar scored what ended up being the game winning goal for his new team. Colorado went on to win 6-2 with the first two goals coming from Nathan MacKinnon.

Cale’s $925,000 a year salary seems like a great investment for Joe Sakic’s Avalanche.

Scott Barta


Enough is enough at Aspen schools

Thank God for recently elected school board member Susan Zimet, who pointed out the horrific stats from the Wilson Foxen survey about the superintendent (“Aspen Board of Education weighs in on climate and culture survey,” April 9, The Aspen Times). I wish the school board from three years ago (Susan Marolt, Sandra Peirce and Sheila Wills) would have listened to those who knew it then.

All we have is now. Don’t waste anymore time, money, emotional energy, and our children’s education. Dr. John Maloy must move on immediately, if not sooner!

Ruth Harrison


Applauding Sen. Donovan’s stand

I attended the Senate’s discussion and final vote on the Extreme Risk Protection Orders bill (House Bill 19-1177) where I heard some legislators’ fears that the temporary removal of firearms could infringe on the rights of gun owners.

I was impressed by Sen. Kerry Donovan’s “yes” vote considering she herself is a gun owner. She reasoned that this law is moderate, limited and has safeguards against unfair removal of guns from citizens. This new law provides a means to protect those who feel threatened by family members who are struggling with personal issues and possess guns. A judge has to determine the credibility of the threat before removal of any firearms. Additionally, the person from whom the firearms were removed will be able to regain his/her personal property when an intervention shows that the threat has ended.

Sen. Donovan has experienced a backlash for her support of this bill; however, I appreciate her thoughtful consideration, and I believe the law will save lives. Thank you, Sen. Donovan, for your support of ERPO.

Larry Witlen