Despite the host of celebrities who visit Aspen, more often than not it is the town itself that shines the brightest.
Devil’s Doorway was filmed in the Maroon Creek Valley in 1948, putting Aspen on the filmmaking map.
Hollywood and the entertainment industry at large have long been synonymous with Aspen—the lure of the Rockies, the promise of glamour and the lore of the Wild West drawing celebrities, film crews and writers. But for as many A-listers who have made their way to the mountains, movies that have been based here, and even reality television shows that have shot scenes at 7,908 feet, it is still Aspen itself whose star burns the brightest. “I think everyone wants to put Aspen in their title, whether it’s a book, film or an ad, because it carries a weight in itself,” says Aspen Historical Society archivist Anna Scott. “Having a location in Aspen means something. People who don’t live here have a certain idea of what Aspen is, and that’s through the media. You have to remind people that there is a local population with everyday lives here.”
From top: Robert Taylor during the filming of Devil’s Doorway in 1948; director Anthony Mann during the filming of Devil’s Doorway; Dumb and Dumber, an iconic Aspen movie, was mostly filmed in Breckenridge.
It arguably all started with Austrian-born ski pioneer Friedl Pfeifer, who came to know Aspen while training with the 10th Mountain Division at Camp Hale during World War II. When he returned in 1945, he started and ran the ski school, helped develop Aspen Mountain and Buttermilk, and brought high-profile friends like Gary Cooper with him. Soon, Aspen became a popular set for ski films of the 1950s, helping to grow the town into the aspirational destination it is today. “They were doing ski films to entice people to come here, like [Dick] Durrance’s Ski Time in Aspen and Fred Iselin’s Little Skier’s Big Day,” says Scott. “You also had movies that were shot here like 1950’s Devil’s Doorway, which introduced people to the rustic, Western feel of the area.”
Bethenny Frankel filmed an episode of Bethenny Ever After in Aspen.
May Selby, director of PR and social media for The Little Nell, seconds the notion that the iconic actors of the past helped define Aspen as a entertainment mainstay. “Aspen has been intertwined with Hollywood ever since skiing was introduced here,” she says. “Cary Grant would spend time at the Hotel Jerome and the Red Onion in the 1950s, as did other Hollywood notables. When Marvin Davis—the one-time owner of 20th Century Fox—owned Aspen Skiing Company, he often brought celebs here.”
Two Pitkin County Sheriff’s deputies looking for Ted Bundy in 1977.
If the origins of Aspen’s allure began in the middle of the century, it reached new heights in the ’90s, when films like 1993’s Aspen Extreme and the following year’s big-budget Dumb and Dumber helped secure Aspen as a fixture in pop culture. And while Dumb and Dumber, which starred Jim Carrey and Jeff Daniels, was not actually filmed locally (it was mostly shot in Breckenridge), its infamous line describing the town as “a place where the beer flows like wine, where beautiful women instinctively flock like the salmon of Capistrano” became a sort of unofficial mantra for the town. “Dumb and Dumber is intertwined with Aspen in a pop-culture way,” says Jeff Hanle, VP of communications for SkiCo. “It’s something that we can all laugh at—it’s funny; it’s interesting; and it clearly recognized what Aspen is in a very offbeat and amusing way.”
On the other hand, Aspen Extreme, about two Detroit buddies who head to Colorado to become ski instructors, has become a cult classic among the skiing set. While many of the action scenes were actually shot in Canada, it is still something of a campy source of pride for Aspenites. “Shortly after the Nell opened in 1989, Aspen Extreme was filmed in Aspen with several scenes from the interior and exterior of the Nell,” says Selby. “There are scenes of après at Shlomo’s (where Ajax Tavern is now), and The Little Nell Suite was staged as the ski school director’s office.”
But according to Hanle, it is still Dumb and Dumber, for better or worse, that is most oft referenced in association with our little mountain town. “Aspen Extreme is less universally known because it was a ski movie,” says Hanle. “Here in Aspen, we recognize it and other people in the ski industry think it was funny, but Dumb and Dumber had famous actors rather than just a famous location.”
From above: Scenes from Aspen Extreme, a local cult classic film about two men from Detroit who moved to Aspen to become ski bums.
Aspen Chamber Resort Association Director of Marketing Eliza Voss agrees that the movie is something tourists often ask about. “Aspen Extreme is referenced a lot with a certain generation of skiers, but Dumb and Dumber is the most iconic,” she says. “Guests always want to have their picture taken in front of the ‘Welcome to Aspen’ sign in Aspen Extreme, which of course doesn’t actually exist. They are shocked to find out that the movie wasn’t even filmed here.”
But it isn’t only movies that have been drawn to Aspen. With the meteoric rise of reality television shows in the last decade or so, many franchises have chosen this mountain town as their destination of choice. And while many, many shows ask to shoot on Aspen’s mountains and use the town’s vast amenities, only some get the access they desire.
As for who get it, Hanle says it’s generally the productions that are self-sufficient and aren’t making unreasonable demands. “We say no to many of them,” he says. “The reality shows that create drama and aren’t authentic don’t represent who we are as a community. They are what some people outside see us as, but that’s not who we are. They think Aspen needs them, when it’s really that they need Aspen. It’s always like, ‘Do you know how many people watch our show?’ We don’t need that—Aspen does what it does for itself, and that’s why you want to come here.”
The Bachelorette contestant Rachel Lindsay visited valley native Dean Unglert in Aspen.
And, yet, still many reality shows find a way. Bravo’s Top Chef, the short-lived Bethenny Ever After starring The Real Housewives of New York Bethenny Frankel, and A&E’s Gene Simmons Family Jewels all shot episodes in Aspen. And ABC’s The Bachelorette season 13 came to the Roaring Fork Valley when its star, Rachel Lindsay, had a hometown date with Dean Unglert, who was raised in Aspen. With the wide array of reality shows on TV today, some make more sense in Aspen than others. “[The A&E] show Growing Up Gotti came and did their thing here,” says Hanle about the show that traced mafia boss John Gotti’s daughter. “The fact that they wanted to come here and film was interesting to me. There was a guy on the shoot who sat around with an oxygen tank to help him breathe while he smoked cigarettes.”
In addition to reality shows, Aspen has unfortunately been a co-star in a few true-crime series, including Netflix’s recent Conversations With a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes, which depicts the serial killer escaping from the Aspen area—where he was being held by law enforcement—not once, but twice. Another crime story that put Aspen in the all-too-bright spotlight was that of French actress-singer Claudine Longet, who was convicted of negligent homicide of her boyfriend, Olympic skier Vladimir “Spider” Sabich, in the late ’70s, for which she only served 30 days in jail. The controversial story became the subject of many a crime television show, including E! True Hollywood Story and A&E’s City Confidential. Scott says that the interest in Aspen’s true-crime tales comes in unmistakable waves. “What’s hot these days is Ted Bundy,” she says. “There are a bunch of different projects about him, and they all come to Aspen Historical Society to do research.”
Ted Bundy at the Pitkin County Jail
Regardless of the subject—good, bad or salacious—there is little denying that Aspen is a bona fide star. It’s a place people aspire to be and to learn more about, making it the ideal spot to set a fictional story or to tell a true one. Depending on the tale being told, that can be a good or a bad thing. “People always think they’re going to put us on the map,” says Hanle. “We’re already on the map. At times, we want to be taken off.”
Photography by: Devil’s Doorway photo courtesy of aspen historical society loey ringquist collection | robert taylor photo courtesy of aspen historical society / Berko collection | anthony mann photo courtesy of aspen historical society | dumB and dumber photo courtesty of getty images |bundy courtesy of the aspen historical society; Bethenny Frankel photo by Zach Ornitz/Bravo/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images | aspen extreme photos courtesy of everett collection | ted bundy photo courtesy of aspen historical society / cassatt collection | the bachelorette photo courtesy of nbc