Everyone who has attended a show at the Wheeler Opera House has walked by the only remaining stair post from the original building, but they probably didn’t realize it. On the second floor, as attendees climb the stairs to the theater’s main level, they must pass a 5-foot oak post that may either seem like an obstruction or completely unnoticeable. Next time, look — it’s the one with sunbursts on its inlay.
This is just one interesting tidbit that Aspen Historical Society guide Nina Gabianelli shared during a tour of the Wheeler on Wednesday. The organization is now offering free tours of the nearly 128-year-old structure every week at 1:30 p.m. They will be given by Gabianelli and Travis McDiffett, an AHS guide. Both Gabianelli and McDiffett are professional actors as well — people may recognize them from their Crystal Palace Theatre days — and in addition to thorough history they can share stories about actually performing in the Wheeler Opera House.
“There’s something special that happens here as a performer,” says Gabianelli. “There’s something magical.”
That may have to do with the appreciation for culture the town has displayed since its earliest days. Jerome B. Wheeler, who married into the Macy’s department store family (one that was celebrating enormous success at the time instead of Wednesday’s announced massive layoffs), invested in Aspen through several mining claims in the early 1880s, just when the town was being discovered. Following the mines’ success, he decided to open a bank on the corner of Mill and Hyman. On top of the bank, he provided a law and dentist office on the second floor and a theater on the third.
“He gave the city the gift of a Victorian opera house,” says Gabianelli. “This wasn’t the wild west in Aspen, where people could come in and rob a bank and leave. There was only one way in and out. Instead Aspen grew with the idea of culture, performing arts and theater.”
At the time, only two other opera houses rivaled Aspen’s in the state: Leadville’s and Denver’s.
The Wheeler Opera House was completed in one year. Its debut on April 23, 1889, was the “event of the decade,” Gabianelli says, referencing newspaper reports of the time. More than 800 people attended the opening (today capacity is 504) which featured a performance of “The King’s Fool” and included extravagant touches like rosewater-scented programs.
Because two railroads chugged into Aspen at the time, the Wheeler was on what was called the “Silver Circle.” That meant bringing in elaborate performances was doable because of the access offered by efficient transportation. For several years, Aspen got a little bit of cosmopolitan culture high in the Rockies.
But with the demonetization of silver came the “Quiet Years.” In 1912, three suspicious fires broke out gutting the inside of the theater.
“Some people said, ‘That sounds a lot like arson,’” says Gabianelli.
Today, she points to charred brick that can be seen through a glass on the Wheeler’s balcony level.
The city of Aspen purchased the building in 1918 for $1,155 in back taxes, and it sat vacant for decades.
Around the time that Aspen started to experience its cultural rebirth in the early ‘50s thanks to Walter Paepcke, the Wheeler Opera House started a second shaky trajectory. Despite a renovation in 1965, the opera house almost shut its doors during the ‘70s.
Several community organizations came together to ensure its future, and funding was secured through a real estate transfer tax in 1985. Voters in November re-approved this mechanism through 2039. Much of the money goes to support Wheeler programming, operations and capital improvements like the multi-year four-story renovation that was recently completed.
The Aspen Historical Society and Wheeler Opera House have partnered for the first time in more than 10 years to give interior tours to guests. Though many make their way into the iconic building for performances, seeing it during a calmer and quieter time offers a sense of gravity for the stories the building tells, and the people who’ve stood on its stage.
“The Beach Boys were here last weekend and next week I’m here,” jokes Gabianelli.
But as history proves, both acts are lucky that the Wheeler is here to stay.
Wheeler Opera House
Every Wednesday at 1:30 pm