AFD donation

Aspen Fire Chief Rick Balentine, far left, and Karl Adam, president of the board for the Aspen Fire Protection District, gave philanthropist Johnny Brenden, far right, and his daughter a tour of the station during a day of site visits.

Johnny Brenden rarely makes headlines when he visits Aspen, but that doesn’t mean he fails to make an impact.

His family’s nonprofit, the Brenden-Mann Foundation, has helped fund equipment for Aspen Valley Hospital’s breast center and the Aspen Police Department’s bike rodeo, as well as a vehicle-mounted thermal energy camera for the Aspen Fire Protection District’s fire-and-rescue vehicle, a Polaris Ranger. In addition, the foundation has donated to the Aspen Film Festival, Aspen Art Museum and the Aspen Jewish Community Center.

“Johnny does good work everywhere, and pretty much always, nobody knows about it,” foundation director Kathryn Jensen said. “He tries to be of help whenever he can.”

Often, Brenden’s philanthropy bears close proximity to his namesake movie theaters.

“Everywhere I have theaters, I’m involved in the communities,” he said, adding that he learned that practice from his grandfather, Mann Theatres founder Ted Mann. Today, the family business is Brenden Theatres, and Brenden is both CEO of the company and chairman of the foundation.

“He’s always had the philosophy, if you can make a couple of bucks with your business, you should give a couple of bucks to help the community and those that are less fortunate as well. Since his passing [in 2001], we’ve carried on in the community,” Brenden said.

Brenden didn’t open his Rifle theater until 2011, but he’s been coming to Aspen and the surrounding area since childhood, he explained.

“Since I’ve been a kid, I’ve been coming to Vail and Aspen, so I feel like it’s part of my community,” he said. “I come to Aspen … and do my thing with different organizations, and then ski and snowboard once in a blue moon.”

The mountain isn’t open yet, but that didn’t stop Brenden from visiting the Roaring Fork Valley from his Las Vegas home Friday afternoon, during which time he visited with several organizations that have benefited from the foundation. The Aspen Fire Department was among his list of stops.

“We stopped by and saw [Fire Chief Rick Balentine] and he showed us the station and the trucks and introduced us to quite a few staff there,” Brenden said. “He was showing me the new trucks that they bought that were very, very expensive and some of the equipment. It was a good visit.”

Balentine said the thermal energy camera the department was able to purchase, thanks to the Brenden-Mann Foundation, is invaluable, especially for backcountry situations.

“It reveals firefighters or others on the ground, as well as other vehicles and obstacles. It can help the operator keep everyone safer and wildland crews in action when they’re needed the most,” he said. “This camera can also detect hot spots and location of fire embers that could potentially start additional fires.”

And because the camera picks up thermal energy, it offers visibility in situations that otherwise don’t.

“It also picks up heat signatures, so if it’s smoky or foggy, you can actually see where you’re going if you’re going backcountry. It’s a pretty high-tech piece of equipment,” Balentine said. “[The camera] saves lives by seeing through smoke.”

Jensen explained that funding recipients are reflective of causes especially close to Brenden’s heart — in fact, because the foundation does not have a website (though his sister’s Blythe Brenden-Mann Foundation does), organizations are typically invited to apply for grants.

“Johnny’s always got a big place in his heart for volunteer firefighters and the police department, and he knows how much they mean to the community,” she said.

In addition to supporting civil servants, Brenden also has a soft spot for children’s organizations, cancer centers and the arts, he said.

“Kathryn will look it over, and I decide where the grants go. I’ve been involved with the same charities most of my life,” he said, adding that he makes a point to support every Boys and Girls Club that exists near any of his theaters.

As for managing a multistate business and a philanthropic foundation, Brenden again credited his grandfather and those around him in the present day.

“With the theaters, I have a good support system. I kind of grew up in the industry working in Mann Theatres with my grandfather, so he taught me all about structure,” he said. “Certainly with the foundation, too, I have a great support team.”

And while much of the conversation around his giving centers on his grandfather’s example, when it comes to the future, Brenden is clear about his intentions.

“I’ll continue to do it,” he said of his charitable work.

Megan Tackett is a reporter for the Aspen Daily News. She can be reached at or on Twitter @MeganTackett10.