The way we really were
Sunday in the Park
Park Record columnist
I heard a sound bite this week that made me pause and laugh and realize I have lived through a lot of film festivals here. The comment was something like, “I really do enjoy the festival. I just wish it was some other time of the year, not in winter.”
When I moved to Utah in 1979, the U.S. Film Festival took place in Salt Lake City. It was started by some guys at the Utah Film Commission. They were independent souls and they recruited Bob Redford’s brother-in-law to help them.
It went okay. In the early ‘80s they decided to move it to Park City. I remember taking my young children to some exquisitely painfully, slow films. Heartland, I think, was the name of one where it took about two hours to witness the grainy, detailed birth of a cow. I had them watch the documentary about the gay activist, elected San Francisco Supervisor Harvey Milk, who had been assassinated right before we moved to Utah from California.
By 1982, I was helping run the press room for the fledging festival. And around then the event moved from being in the fall to the winter. The ski resorts thought that would be great because after folks came skiing from other places for Christmas, nobody returned until President’s weekend. Nothing happened in January and most of February. Nothing. Nobody came here. Which, yes, was kinda fun for the locals when we had the town and the mountain to ourselves. Kids got out of school on Fridays, the resort had ski passes for students for way under $100, so they hopped on the free bus and skied without parents most of those afternoons.
But making a living required multiple jobs. The only two real restaurants were the Claimjumper on Main Street and Adolph’s on the public golf course. Dolly’s Bookstore was on lower Main in the old mortuary building and the city library moved from one small room on Main to the relocated Miner’s Hospital. And the open space, well, we thought that was everything past the Old Mount Air Cafe out to the lonely gas station when you hit the interstate: two lanes to Salt Lake City. We didn’t have much. We didn’t need much.
In 1981, when the old Silver Wheel theater was renovated and returned to the original Egyptian Theater, the U.S. FlIm Festival rented it out to show a premiere each year.
I remember when “On Golden Pond” played and the place was packed. No real stars came, but the director did. I stood outside in the lobby after the film started to explain to latecomers there were no more seats . One ruggedly handsome man in a plaid flannel shirt and hiking boots showed up and asked if he could go inside just to stand in the back. One of the volunteers said, ‘No, it was just too full.’ The man looked crestfallen. He said he had written the screenplay and just wanted to hear the audience’s reaction. I invited Ernest Thompson (who went on to win an Academy Award and fleetingly the heart of a local secretary) in to watch the film, standing in the back, with us.
All the other makeshift theaters were falling down buildings all over town with power outages and broken equipment and uncomfortable chairs and light leaks. In the mid-1980s, it looked like the whole ambitious idea just couldn’t sustain itself and Robert Redford stepped in to save it from dying. It was the perfect match to the kinda summer camp he was already running down at his resort Sundance. Independent-minded film people, from actors to directors to cinematographers, came to his cabins and spent a few weeks learning from each other and cooking up ideas. Hell, nobody else was staying there then.
A few breakaway films happened: “Sex, Lies and Videotape” and “Reservoir Dogs” being seminal firsts.
And more and more people came to the festival. And not too long after that we were part of the winter Olympic bid. And it became clear in the ‘90s we would need hotels and more restaurants and a bigger space to show films.
Sundance threatened to leave town unless the community helped them find better spaces to showcase the weeklong event.
Because by that time the town had grown to depend upon the festival. We were junkies for the celebrities who ate breakfast at the chrome stools in the Mount Aire and played pool at the Alamo and skied and bought clothes and books and lots of meals. We had themed costume parties together in the old Memorial building. The closing night party was in the Racquet Club where everybody came to congratulate all the filmmakers and they all came to celebrate. There were no cellphones, hence no selfies nor record of our exuberant celebrations.
It was a simpler time. And we were simpler people.
It was long before we considered what it meant to be/to have an arts community. It was decades before I started signing my business letters with “Art Matters.”
We need to be careful when we get nostalgic about wanting to turn back the clock. For all the charm and good times, we were also a rundown, neglected old mining town with no mining left. And a bunch of ski bum hippies who mostly were starting over from someplace else after failing at a job, or a marriage, or school, or the service.
It was lots of fun but as folks now like to say, “It was not sustainable or scalable.” ‘
But in one chapter, we built this city on rock and roll and roll film. We were all the augmented reality we needed. Welcome to the festival held in the month formerly known as “Slow.” Enjoy each day, including Sunday in the Park…
Teri Orr is a former editor of The Park Record. She is the director of the Park City Institute, which provides programming for the George S. and Dolores Doré Eccles Center for the Performing Arts.
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