The birth of film

The Telluride Film Festival came to be thanks to a partnership between the Town of Telluride, the town’s former arts board, the Telluride Council for the Arts and Humanities and the National Film Preserve. (Courtesy photo)

In March of 1974, I got a call from my old friend Bob Korn one afternoon. Bob said that he was in his office and that Bill Pence was there and they wanted me to come up to talk about something they were working on. Not needing much of an excuse to take a break from making stained glass windows in the Belmont Building, I told them that I’d be right up.

Bob’s office was in the upstairs of the Examiner building. His office was in the front with a great bay window and George Greenbank and Kimble Hobbs had their architecture outfit in the back.

I had known Bob since I moved to Telluride in the summer of 1971. Bob and his wife Carol were already settled in and had a house on west Main Street. Coming from Kansas, I think Bob was maybe the first New Yorker I had ever met and I was certainly the first person from Kansas that Bob had ever met. Regardless of our geographical differences, we shared a true love of Telluride and were always involved in whatever was going on but certainly not always on the same side.

Bill Pence was the owner of the Sheridan Opera House, which he had recently refurbished and had opened as a movie theater with Milt Moore as contractor. They really did a beautiful job on the restoration and set the bar high in terms of class and style. The community was very grateful.

A few months before he had brought in Bill Card, the curator of the George Eastman House, for a presentation of old Charlie Chaplin films. The community really responded and showed up more in support of Pence than in curiosity about the films. As it turned out, the Chaplin films were very funny and entertaining and Card’s talk following the showings, was informative and educational. Bill also owned a string of small movie theaters in Aspen, Crested Butte and Denver where he showed mainly films from the Janus Films collection, which his family was connected to.

Bob and Bill got right to it. The pitch was that Bill wanted to start a film festival in Telluride and needed some help. As the Chairman and founder of the Telluride Council for the Arts and Humanities, (TCAH) they wanted to pitch me on delivering some of the things they needed — things like the money, organization, know-how, staff, table, chairs, ushers, ticket takers, and ultimately an audience.

My first question was: “What’s a film festival?” Bill was very excited and animated, which if you know Bill is a bit unusual. He said all the right things including, “it will be good for the town, good for the arts” and “what would TCAH want in return for their help?”

I explained that TCAH had been formed and was recognized by the State of Colorado and the National Endowment for the Arts for just such an opportunity and that we had some money saved up, plenty of volunteers, lots of tables, chairs, tents, and would love to help.

So, I said, “Have you thought of a public educational component that would be free and open to all, not just special people and it will be a requirement in future grant applications” Bill, who thought very quickly on his feet, said, “How about a panel discussion in Elks Park where people talk about film, the film industry and their love of movies?” I said, “Great, that will work.”

I responded that pursuant to grant opportunities that there had to be an educational component as part of our program and Bill responded that “What if we have a movie-making school headed up by our honorees and other filmmakers and guarantee that local people will always be included?”

“That sounds perfect,” I said. “Next we need, to involve the arts community. How about a poster designed by local artists?”

Bill said, “Perfect, we’ll stage a design contest and award some kind of prize.” As it turned out the first year poster design award went to Nancy Ward who had an art gallery on Main Street next to the Belmont Building.

Next, I added, “The event has to be held under the umbrella of TCAH, so we can apply for state and national grant funding for future years, but we are too late this year.” 

Bill, replied, “I agree. Now you’re talking, how much money, do you think we can count on from TCAH?”

I replied that we had several thousand dollars in our bank account that we had raised over the past few years with art shows, music, theater and bake sales.

“And, last,” I added, “there always has to be some local tickets available at affordable prices and there must always be a local outdoor theater so the whole Telluride community can participate and watch some of the selected movies.”

“I agree,” said Bill. “How about Elks Park?”

“Then it’s a deal,” I said. “I’ll need to get formal approval at next week’s board meeting, but I can tell you that everyone will love it.”

Bob was gleeful. He hugged me and said, “I knew you could do it.”

We all shook hands and I went back to being a stained glass artist.

At the next TCAH board meeting, I presented the proposal and everyone was extremely excited. The board members quickly divided up assignments and when it was my turn to pick a job, I said, “I’m going to be kind of busy. I’m not sure how much time I’m going to be able to devote for a while. I’m getting married in late May, and you’re all invited.”

Doing business with Bill Pence is always a pleasure. He performed as agreed. The film festival came off beautifully. The panel discussion in the park was a big hit with locals, attendees and the special guests that participated in the panels, and the nightly movie in Elks park was a big hit.

Nancy Ward won the poster contest. She did the best poster that has ever been done. The festival was co-produced by Pence and TCAH, as agreed, and there were local tickets that were affordable which continues to this day.

Some of my personal favorite memories from the first year include putting up folding chairs in the basement of the Telluride Lodge (now Clark’s Market) with Francis Ford Coppola as people started wandering in for a showing of one of his movies that he made while still a college student.

All of the controversy over Leni Reifenstal being one of our honorees and the response to her presentation in the Opera House, which had sparked worldwide attention, and lots of free publicity, was pure genius. I thought she was beautiful and her cinema was inspirational. Following her presentation, I got with some members of the Jewish community and everyone said that they loved her.

Sitting in some of the better seats in the Opera House during Gloria Swanson’s tribute, Karen and I were tapped on the shoulder and asked to give up our seats. We moved over and sat on the floor wondering what was going on. Pretty soon, a couple was ushered in and I looked up to see Joe Zoline and his wife (owners of the Telluride Ski Resort) just as Joe stepped on my hand as he took our seats.

So, TCAH, the Town of Telluride, and the National Film Preserve have been great partners for 48 years of wonderful film and movies, and interesting and provocative panels and discussions, a festival that has drawn the attention of millions and millions of people who love the movies and the people who make them and love Telluride.