Beyond the Mask; Gena Buhler

By Maura Alice


Here in the valley almost a year and a half, Gena Buhler, the new executive director at the Wheeler Opera House in Aspen has big ambition and a host of support behind her. You could liken her to the wizard behind the curtain; the magic-maker in a fantastic place. You could also envy her bravado and sense of purpose to reinforce the important and historic backbone of the Aspen community. Mostly, you could look at her and sense a feeling of both contentment and excitement at being at the exact right place at the right time with the knowledge that she is the right person to do the job at hand.

Armed with a fresh perspective and bag full of innovative ideas, at 36, Gena presents herself as a former dancer on a mission. Gorgeous posture. Super intense and focused. Her vise-like handshake and measured composure are indications that she is ambitious and confident. It doesn’t hurt that she also has the blessings of Aspen City Council behind her.

Since arriving in Aspen from Vail’s Vilar Performing Arts Center in May 2015, she has taken former director Gram Slaton’s tenure to the next level. “Gram was the building guy, it’s time for education and outreach, and looking toward the future of performing arts in the valley,” she said. Her goals include upping the profile of programming, and that includes ticket pricing that is still subsidized at a high level by the funding from the Wheeler Real Estate Transfer Tax (RETT).

The Wheeler Opera House has a lofty history as one of the city’s premier performing arts facilities since it was built in 1889. Under Gram’s tutelage and a generous RETT, the historic site has undergone extensive restoration in the last tens years to bring it back to its former glory.

It is, without question, a beautiful space. Aesthetically pleasing with more red velvet seats, gold leaf applications throughout, an upgraded green room for performers, some structural and other improvements. The Wheeler truly is the queen jewel of Ute city, but is it accessible to everyone?

A fancy version of Belly Up, its back street neighbor, the Wheeler as a performing arts center offers concerts, family programming, movies, lectures, community events and opera.  One way or another, the Wheeler is currently open approximately 315 days of the year. The Belly Up space is open pretty much year-round offering discounted or free events in the off-seasons for the locals like movies and big screen sporting events. The space stays alive and viable for the local folk — which is why Gena is aiming to partner with Belly Up on programs. One such collaboration is a Beach Boys concert in late December (evening show sold out).

Because, really, when was the last time you stepped foot into the gorgeous Wheeler Opera House? It seems too special. Too expensive, too much a place for the older hoity-toity Aspen culture elite of years gone by. Tickets to see humorist David Sedaris in November started at $45 a pop, but also sold out, so clearly there is an audience and an appreciation for performances of all kinds here. One friend recently bemoaned the fact that a John Prine concert at the Wheeler is long overdue.

Some would argue that the concert ticket price point in Aspen is too much for the under 30 set when you throw in dinner and cocktails, and just the cost to get up  valley. Gena identified this problem early on and started the ingenious Wheeler Wins! incentive program a year ago. It includes discounted tickets, advanced notice-of-show additions, and early ticket purchases for a meager $10 membership fee. ”Launching a membership rewards program was at the top of my list when I started here,” she said.

Hers is a story often heard here. Gena came to the mountains after tiring of concrete and city living. But because she worked as a booking agent placing events on the west coast from her NYC office, she is just a phone call away from hooking up great talent for the Wheeler.  In her past life, for example, she was partly responsible for putting the musical “Wicked” on the road, plus other, big commercial shows.

As such, the Wheeler’s Winter Wonderland Series has many tickets at Wheeler Wins pricing including the Beach Boys.  Monday Night Docs began in early Oct. with “Refugee Shorts” exploring refugee experiences across the globe featuring Dr. Hisham Bismar who left his comfortable practice in the U.S. to work in a Turkish hospital 50 feet from the border of Syria. And the “On the Rise” program started Oct. 1 through November to give smaller, or older, or lesser-known artists a leg up in the business. Maybe John Prine will soon have his due in Aspen.

Gena wants to reach beyond the Highway 82 roundabout and look to what the Wheeler can do down valley.  Having been inspired by arts and healing programs, she went to the University of Florida’s Health Shands Cancer Hospital to see how it partnered with the Curtis M. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts to produce shows for patients. Using that same idea, she brought The Von Trapps (the next generation of the famous family singers) to the Shaw Regional Cancer Center when she was in Vail for a somewhat impromptu concert for the chemotherapy patients there. There wasn’t a dry eye n the house, it was so moving; “tears everywhere,” she said.   Her goal is to grow a program much like this one in the Roaring Fork Valley, using the talent brought to the Wheeler stage to immerse more fully in the community at large.

As the new executive director at the Wheeler, she has turned the entrenched Aspen-artsy crowd on its ear. That includes Aspen City Council, and her very encouraging, City-appointed advisory board. The RETT currently funds 85 percent of the Wheeler’s budget, but it’s up in 2020, so Gena and her advisors are trying to pass it again during this election. The Wheeler can’t let the RETT lapse because, thanks to the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights (TABOR), once it’s gone, it’s gone, and a new RETT can’t ever be created or changed from what is now.

The Fund balance is currently at $28 million in RETT funding and is shared between capital and operation expenses. Operational funds award subsidies to non-profits wanting to use the space, among other things like community outreach, as well as annual granting to community arts-based non-profits. From the capital side eventually may come a Wheeler expansion to a new Black Box rehearsal and performance space next door to its Hyman and Mill Streets home.

In addition, the Wheeler RETT fund doubled the Wheeler’s programming budget in 2017 to $650,000, so Gena has resources to play with in a spectacular playground, and she has full intention of making everyone welcomed. The woman behind this curtain will take the Wheeler to its next step, its original intention: a performing arts center for the entire community.

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