Willoughby: silent films draw audiences to Aspen


Silent movie star Mary Pickford filming The Pride of Clan in Marblehead, Massachusetts in 1916 – Library of Congress / Courtesy Photo

Silent films captivated American audiences around 1910, when the film replaced Edison’s Single Viewer Kinetoscope and movie studios formed and produced films. Aspen followed the national trend with the opening of three theaters earlier this decade.

The first to open was Dreamland, which is part of a chain that also opened one in Leadville. The channel featured films from the American Vitagraph Company, the most prolific company at the time. A few titles from this period include: The Crooked Bankers, Collecting the Bill, Snakewille’s Epidemic and Slippery Slim. Films were advertised by their content and a viewer was promised several offers, each lasting 10 to 20 minutes. Later, a movie may be billed as having more than one reel. Four reels were generally the entertainment of a night.

Like the rest of the country, Aspen enjoyed films with what most consider first movie star Florence Turner. In the very early years, films were known by their studios and not promoted by their stars. At first, therefore, she was known as “the Vitagraph girl”. She was paid $ 22 per week, $ 520 in today’s dollars. Another popular Vitagraph artist was comedian John Bunny who dominated until his death in 1915.

The Isis Theater in Aspen opened its doors at this time. In the beginning, there was a balance between live performances, civic events, and movies. Admission was ten cents ($ 2.40 in today’s dollars). The Isis featured biographical films of which there were over 3,000. Biographical director DW Griffith hired Mary Pickford and she appeared in 51 films in 1909 which Aspen saw in subsequent years.

In 1917 the films were longer and told more complicated stories. The hit that year was a Mary Pickford film, The Pride of Clan, which ran seven reels. At that time, the movies were associated with stars and stars made over. Pickford was making $ 10,000 ($ 200,000 in today’s dollars) a week plus half the profits of a movie.

Kathlyn Williams was another Aspen Isis favorite, possibly because she grew up in Butte, MT. She worked for Selig Polyscope, the first film company to set up in Southern California, and appeared in 48 films. The Adventures of Kathlyn was popular, a series where the story was also published simultaneously by the Chicago Tribune. He has been credited with inventing “the cliffhanger”.

The third Aspen Cinema was started by my maternal grandfather, John Sheehan. He and his partner Jesse Yates rented the Wheeler Opera House. Their first project in 1908 was not movies, but a minstrel show with a local cast that traveled to other cities. They also organized local plays and events. They showed their first film in 1910. The commercials touted “three reels and two songs,” all for the price of fifty cents downstairs or twenty-five cents for a balcony seat.

Yates was a violinist who performed frequently at Aspen evens starting in high school. He worked for a few years in pharmacies in Aspen, then attended the New England Conservatory of Music. The silent films were enhanced with live music and Yates won over audiences with his excellent musical accompaniment. Yates’ nickname in Aspen was “the man in the picture” to master the challenges of projection as well as musical accompaniment.

The movie industry was a side activity for both of them. Sheehan and his brother ran a grocery store on Hyman Avenue. Yates gave violin lessons and worked for the Smuggler mine.

The Isis was the only theater in Aspen to make the transition to talking movies in the late 1920s. Imagine, an Aspen company that has been around for over a century!

Tim Willoughby’s family history parallels that of Aspen. He began to share folklore while teaching at Aspen Country Day School and Colorado Mountain College. Now a tourist in his hometown, he considers it from a historical perspective. Contact him at [email protected].

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Kehoe Young

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