That was in 1973, long before then-hardscrabble Telluride showed signs of becoming a posh getaway. Luddy remembers wandering through the tiny town’s empty streets and past its boarded-up storefronts en route to the theater. It was love at first sight.
“The theater was very romantic,” Luddy said.
The theater is celebrating its 100th anniversary this year. In Telluride’s earlier heyday as a mining boomtown, it hosted lavish parties, balls and live entertainment. The Great Depression forced its operators to close the doors, and over the decades, through multiple ownership and title changes, it fell into disrepair.
That’s how the Pences, operators of a chain of Western movie theaters (and Janus Films distributors), found the Victorian structure in 1973. They bought the property, began restoring it and invited Card, the founder of the George Eastman House’s archive, and Luddy, the founder of the Pacific Film Archive, to see it. They probably saved the Opera House from destruction or worse (conversion into condominium units?). And they found a home for their fledgling film festival.
“The moment James Card saw it, he said, ‘Let’s start a festival,’” Luddy said.
The Telluride Film Festival launched on Aug. 20, 1974 on the Opera House stage with a tribute to silent film star Gloria Swanson, who regaled festivalgoers with stories of early Hollywood while the organizers showed various clips from her films.
“Here was the woman from Sunset Boulevard in a true Sunset Boulevard moment,” Luddy said of Swanson’s role in the inaugural Telluride Film Festival. “We had her present a film and come out in the spotlight. I made the mistake of asking her how she would come out on stage to introduce the film,” Luddy said. “She said, ‘I don’t come out on stage—I make my entrance!’
“That program was a magical moment. It was the baptism for me of what we were all about in celebrating the history of cinema.”
The Sheridan Opera House has been the venue for honoring festival tributees from Werner Herzog to Mickey Rooney, Jack Nicholson to Meryl Streep; Jimmy Stewart graced its stage, as did Martin Scorsese, Cab Calloway and the best filmmakers from around the world, including many on their first-ever visit to the U.S.
Today, the Opera House, one of 13 National Historic Landmarks in downtown Telluride, it hosts a variety of programs, year-round. It is alive and flourishing today thanks to the efforts of the nonprofit Sheridan Arts Foundation, established in 1991, and to its indelible connection to the Telluride Film Festival.
Sam Adams is a staff writer for the The Watch Newspaper.