The Wheeler Opera House is hosting an event 100 years in the making next week as it commemorates the fire of 1912 that devastated the historic venue.
The so-called fire sale will take place Wednesday, Nov. 21 — exactly 100 years to the day — at noon at the Wheeler Opera House. The doors to the Wheeler will close promptly at 12:19:12. Those inside when the doors close will be able to revel in the event, dubbed part noontime party and part discount sale.
Attendees will “find free food and drink in our second-floor lobby and, more importantly, they’ll be able to buy tickets for eight great Wheeler shows — for $10 off the regular ticket price. Everyone that comes will be served, even if it takes us two hours to work them all through,” according to Wheeler director Gram Slaton.
Slaton says the phones at the Wheeler will be turned off, and the discount will not be available on the website.
Featured discounted shows include: Best of the Fest, featuring acts from the Wheeler’s 2012 Aspen Laff Festival, on Dec. 27; Joe Lovana featuring Esperanza Spaulding on Feb. 1; New Orleans’ legendary Preservation Hall Jazz Band on Feb. 10; “American Idol” eighth-season winner Kris Allen on Feb. 20; Austin songstress Shawn Colvin on Feb. 15; Jerry Jeff Walker on Feb. 16; a rare small-hall performance by The Temptations on March 3; and Rolling Stones cover band Satisfaction on March 8.
Since its founding in 1889 by New York entrepreneur Jerome B. Wheeler, the opera house has been at the center of Aspen’s cultural scene, subsequently serving as a launching pad for numerous careers — from actress Kate Hudson and lyric soprano Renee Fleming to comedian Lewis Black and musician Lyle Lovett.
But a string of fires in 1912 threatened the beloved venue’s legacy. The first came on Nov. 12, 1912, but was quickly contained and caused no serious damage. The second, started around 2 a.m. on Nov. 21, 1912, in three separate locations, burned with such intensity that steel cables melted and the top two floors of the tallest building in town were destroyed. Arson was the suspected cause, and the long-winded headline the next day in the Aspen Democrat Times expressed the sentiments of Aspen’s citizens: “Fiendish Firebugs Again Rampant in Our City, Wheeler Opera House Partially Destroyed, the Prettiest Little Structure of Its Kind Between Pueblo and Salt Lake City is Sacrificed to the Venom of a Degenerate Unfit to Remain Upon Earth.”
For the next several years, the theater remained dark and boarded up — almost forgotten — until finally, in 1918, it was acquired by the current owner, the City of Aspen. In 1949, a community effort was made to clean up the opera house, repair the fire damage and replace the leaking roof. In the 1960s, Walter Paepcke, a U.S. industrialist and philanthropist, leased the theater from the city. Along with architect Herbert Bayer, he embarked on a renovation project combining Victorian elements with Bauhaus touches.
The opera house building was included in the State and National Historic Registers in 1976. In the 1980s, the City of Aspen, with the assistance of Roger Morgan Studio in New York, started the renovation process. In 1984, the Wheeler was restored to its current Victorian splendor. Today, the Wheeler Opera House once again serves as a centerpiece of the Aspen community, serving as the primary venue for nearly 300 film, art, theater and live music events.
“This really is a once-in-a-lifetime commemoration,” says Slaton, “and a great opportunity to stock up on Wheeler tickets for the season, especially with the winter holidays coming up. But be warned — show up at 12:20 p.m. and the doors will be closed. So come early and join us for some Wheeler fun.”