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Aspen’s Historic Wheeler Opera House

Jane M. Battaglia

How many theatres in an urban multi-use building can claim to have hosted world-class performers – survived two devastating fires – and still managed to survive, all since 1889? Not many…if any! And, all this right in the heart of the Roaring Fork Valley. We are talking about the Wheeler Opera House, built in 1889 and which to this day continues as the center of arts, culture and entertainment in Aspen.

Today, the Wheeler presents a variety of programs annually – and is home to numerous local organizations providing the community and surrounding towns with performing arts presentations throughout the year.

Thanks to very rich silver deposits, Aspen became a mining boomtown in the 1880s. Many investment capitalists were attracted to the area for its financial potential. One of these investors was Jerome B. Wheeler, a wealthy entrepreneur originally from New York State. He was one of numerous such investors who helped Aspen attain prominence, and the success of the community was further assured with the arrival of the Midland and Rio Grande railroads in 1887 and 1888 (J.B. Wheeler was also an investor in the Midland Railroad). Mr. Wheeler continued to invest in Aspen with the construction of a beautiful Queen Anne style Victorian home in the prestigious west end of town and, in 1889, he built the Hotel Jerome (which still exists as a luxury hotel on Main Street in Aspen) and also the Wheeler Block which houses the Wheeler Opera House building.

Occupying the important corner position of the Wheeler Block was the Jerome B. Wheeler Bank. On the first floor, other businesses included clothier Louis Weinberg’s Haberdashery and the Ladies Palace of Fashion. The Aspen Mining & Smelting Company, an attorney, and a dentist occupied the second floor. The basement housed Aspen’s finest “tonsorial parlor” – now known as a barber shop. However, the third floor, which housed the Wheeler Opera House was what attracted the most public attention and admiration. The Wheeler Block, as a whole, though, reflected the economic success of Aspen and its aspiring arts culture.

Although Aspen of the late 1880s had several popular theaters, none was so elegant and grand as the Wheeler Opera House. The Aspen Daily Times called the Wheeler, “a perfect bijou of a theater,” which was apparent upon entering. J.B. Wheeler had spent lavishly in decorating and furnishing the Opera House. There were crimson velvet draperies, plush gold seats with Moroccan leather cushioned arms, a ceiling painted blue and studded with silver stars (to commemorate the town’s silver mining status) and a ladies “retiring” room at the back of the theater.

The Wheeler Opera House was wired for electric lighting when most of the country was still using kerosene lamps and wood or coal for heating. A dazzling chandelier was suspended by wire ropes. This chandelier was the centerpiece of the theater. It was handmade of hammered brass, trimmed with silver and set with three dozen incandescent lights, each with an opalescent shade, flared out at the end in the form of a flower. It illuminated the room with an iridescent glow. The splendid surroundings of the fine woodwork, opulent draperies and frescoed walls created an atmosphere which let you know that this was no ordinary mining town!

The famous “Olio” curtain, a representation of the Brooklyn Bridge, was designed by two New Yorkers who were world-famous for their scenic art. It was painted by Chicago’s opera house painter. The curtain featured the bridge and the East River, as well as ships from all over the world. Just sitting in the Wheeler Opera House was a delight for the senses.

The Gala Grand Opening of the Wheeler Opera House on April 23, 1889, was considered to be THE most important cultural event of the young mining town’s history. The opening night performance was the English comic opera The King’s Fool, which included a remarkable performance by a group of Viennese lady fencers. It received rave reviews and was hailed as “one of the most notable evenings in the history of Aspen’s most eventful year.”

With the opening of the opera house, Aspen became part of what was known as the Silver Circuit – mining towns that drew big-name entertainment. From 1889 through early 1894 traveling companies brought Shakespeare, minstrels, comic opera, vaudeville, concerts, lecturers, melodrama, burlesque and even boxers to town. Local performers presented concerts, musical programs, plays and operettas.

Once the Sherman Silver Act of 1893 demonetized silver, the Wheeler Opera House, like most of the Aspen community, slowly went into a decline. With Aspen’s population dwindling, there were a minimal number of local productions (none from outside the valley) and silent films presented there. Two major fires, as well as an early Depression left the Opera House vacant for almost 30 years. It was not until after World War II that a community effort was made to clean up the Opera House, thanks in part to the interest of wealthy industrialist Walter Paepcke. Aspen’s growth as a ski and cultural retreat helped revive the Wheeler Opera House, too. In 1984, a $4.5 million restoration was completed.

Most recently, the seats have been replaced – with the opportunity to clear away seats in the front to make room for dancing. The ticketing system has been updated, too. Ticket buyers can now make purchases and choose seats online, 24 hours a day, and a new Wheeler Opera House website is on its way. And, by the end of the year, the phone system at the theater will be modernized.

As in the glory years past, the Wheeler Opera House now hosts some of the hottest acts in the country – from Jerry Seinfeld and Sheryl Crow – to jazz greats Wynton Marsalis and Harry Connick, Jr – to country stars Lyle Lovett and Kathy Mattea. Broadway plays, film festivals, U.S Comedy Arts annual festival, professional opera and ballet, and jazz, share the famous stage with lecture series, school plays and community and private events (we attended a special 65th birthday celebration for a friend there this past winter).

All shows are reserved seating and all performances start at 8 PM. Be sure to get there early, though, to view the exhibit gallery area where the history of the Wheeler Opera House is showcased in photos with detailed background materials. For more information, please call the Wheeler Opera House at (970) 920-5770 or log on to the Wheeler’s newly designed website at http://www.wheeleroperahouse.com. The Wheeler Opera House is located at 320 East Hyman Avenue in downtown Aspen.

Historic information and photos courtesy of the Wheeler Opera House.


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