Narrator Bill Fries’s rich voice extolled “the scarred summits of the San Juans” to the strains of the London Symphony Orchestra. The applause that erupted at the end of The San Juan Odyssey testified to how much it has been missed.
The multi-media tribute to the San Juans has returned to Ouray after a 12-year hiatus. The story told through magnificent images of ghost towns, jeep trails, the narrow gauge railroad, and snow banks on fourteeners had a 20-year run until 1996. Fries, the show’s creator, is also known as C.W. McCall, the country and pop singer/composer who gave us the trucker saga “Convoy.” The youthful 79-year-old is also a former three-term mayor of Ouray (1986-1992).
The photos that comprise The San Juan Odyssey, he said, are “a life’s collection of memories, as vast as the stars we saw at Lost Lake where we camped many summers ago.”
The Odyssey had been a wildly popular summer attraction in Ouray from the day it opened in 1977. Shown at the Wright Opera House, it played 120 nights each summer, gaining a loyal following of area residents and vacationers. Main Street Restaurant and Theatre owner Tom Vallejos is a longtime fan.
“I remember being moved by it even as a teenager,” he said. “That proves it has to be good!” When he and his wife Cynthia owned the Ouray Candy Company near the opera house, they would sell candy to people waiting in line to see the show. “The Odyssey was great for our business,” Vallejos said. “The waiting lines used to literally wrap around the building.”
The show consisted of 15 synchronized, 35 mm slide projectors, and five screens that created a 50-foot wide panorama. Then, as now, the soundtrack featured Aaron Copland’s “Appalachian Spring” and “Billy the Kid” as performed by The London Symphony Orchestra. Fries drew on his writing talent in penning the lyrical script.
The slides eventually faded and the projection equipment became outdated. Meanwhile, Wright’s Opera House was sold and the new owners wanted to use the space for live theater. Long after The Odyssey shut down in 1996, people continued to ask Vallejos what had happened to “the best multi-media presentation in the San Juans.”
He approached Fries last year about bringing The Odyssey back this summer and offered the Main Street Theatre, which seats 230 and is wheelchair accessible. Fries had made a video format edition of The Odyssey in 1983, but wanted to update the whole presentation. “Until Tom approached me, I hadn’t seriously considered bringing The Odyssey back to life. But this was a real offer,” he said. “So my son Bill and I have been going crazy for the past two weeks scanning hundreds of slides and converting them to digital form.”
Fries and his sons, Bill III and Mark, took thousands of photos during family trips to the Ouray area before Fries and his wife, Rene, settled here in the 1980s. Since then, they’ve continued to photograph four seasons of the San Juan Mountains, accumulating over 25,000 pictures. Although these slides form the heart of The Odyssey, the end product is definitely not your typical yawn-inducing slide show.
The newly re-mastered and digitized show features a wide-screen format, 3500 Lumen projector and new sound system. The software tool CodeJam enables Fries to create “stills in motion” from 35 mm slides. He can overlay, fade and dissolve pictures, achieving seamless effects Ken Burns could envy.
“I’m an old art director,” said Fries who worked in advertising before he “became” C.W. McCall. “I know when to pan and zoom and how long to keep a scene on the screen before they human eye gets bored.”
Fries’s son Bill introduced his dad at the premiere of the reincarnated Odyssey. He described his first impressions of the San Juans as the family station wagon approached Ouray in 1961. “We stopped to camp at a site near the Amphitheatre overlooking the town,” the younger Fries said. “It was June 20 and it snowed. But we fell in love with this place.”
The family’s love affair with the mountains grew more fervent through the years during subsequent visits. In the early 1970s, Fries and his boys put together Our Mountains, a precursor of The San Juan Odyssey. They showed it for free at the Ouray High School gym for a few years. “Then Dad had a slight career change,” said Bill III. He was referring to the instant fame that “Convoy” brought to C.W. McCall. That hit was followed by many others including songs set in San Juan locales.
Fries now had the resources and time to devote to The Odyssey. Whether some of the audience members were drawn to the Wright Opera House because of C.W. McCall didn’t matter; anyone leaving the 36-minute show had a new perspective of the San Juans.
Bill III and Mark continue to add spectacular photos, many taken from hikes up Mt. Sneffels and other fourteeners. “The show encompasses what the mountains are all about – railroad history, ghost towns, old mills and mines,” said Vallejos. “And then there’s Bill’s big, booming voice … it’s an honor to present this to the public again.”
Kelly and Dirk Yarnell, of Olathe, were among the audience of more than 100 who attended the May 24 screening. Dirk said he recognized many of his favorite hiking and jeep trails such as the Engineer and Imogene passes. “I enjoyed seeing these fantastic places he’s talked about so much,” said Kelly. “Now I want to get out there and see them too.”
The San Juan Odyssey will be shown every night at 7:30 p.m. throughout the summer, along with weekend matinees. A DVD of The Odyssey will be on sale in about a month at the Main Street Restaurant and Theatre and other Ouray businesses.