When pianist and songwriter Allen Toussaint came to Crested Butte, it was a show that longtime local Les Choy wasn't going to miss. In fact, Choy was the first person in line for a ticket.
Famous for his homegrown New Orleans jazz, Toussaint took to the stage of the Crested Butte Center for the Arts in 2008. Five years later, former President Barack Obama presented Toussaint with the National Medal of Arts for dedicating his lifetime of musical talents “to lifting up and building up a city.”
“He’s gone now, so that was a very special program,” said Choy of Toussaint, who died in 2015.
Yet, Toussaint is just one among a long list of both upcoming and established artists who have found their way to the valley since the community arts center was created. The upcoming winter season of concerts will be the last on the center’s current stage, with a new facility — and larger theater — in the midst of construction. Following the construction of the new Center for the Arts, a decision will be made for the existing structure — whether they will raze the building or repurpose it for future use.
The existing Crested Butte Center for the Arts has played host to an array of events — including Tour de Forks, the Wine and Food Festival, Alpenglow and the Crested Butte Music Festival.
The Center for the Arts isn't much at first glance. The building itself formerly served as a county shop before it was converted to the creative hub we know now.
Local Sue Navy remembers a much different mountain town in decades past, and prior to 1986, there was no Center for the Arts.
“There was a big pile of coal out there and it was called Mt. Black, and that was the entrance to town — a big pile of coal,” chuckled Navy. “Now and then people would go up and try to ski the thing.”
Right next to the coal was the old county road maintenance garage — and it was that garage that got residents thinking.
“There was discussion in the community for several years about the need for a performing arts center,” explained Center for the Arts Executive Director Jenny Birnie.
Coincidentally, the year Choy began working at radio station KBUT in Crested Butte was the same year residents began campaigning for the arts center. Choy even helped host fundraising events with KBUT in an effort to aid the construction project.
“I donated back then. Back then it was a big deal for me because that was a long time ago,” laughed Choy. “I didn't have a lot of extra money back then but I believed in it.”
Choy was among the local talent to grace the stage too. Good luck trying to name an instrument that he can’t play.
In 1990, Choy recalled opening for renowned banjo player Bela Fleck, who was on tour promoting Bela Fleck and the Flecktones’ first album.
“Just prior to that he was playing with Sam Bush in New Grass Revival,” added Choy. “The Flecktones brought a whole different ball game with jazz fusion.”
Two of the main drivers behind the creation of the community arts center were Crested Butte Mountain Theater and the Crested Butte School of Dance, said Birnie.
Two years later, in 1987, the current 6,000-square-foot Center for the Arts facility was built. The center houses a 215-seat auditorium and stage, lobby, art gallery, set shop and two dressing rooms.
It’s fitting that the center’s beginnings go back to dance, said Birnie. The element of dance that is fostered within the arts center is one thing that hits close to home for Birnie, whose daughter loves the art form.
“My daughter is in dance and watching her grow up on that stage and just watching all the kids get so excited to show off their new skills and dance,” said Birnie.
But the Center for the Arts has also hosted the Crested Butte Film Festival, one of Navy’s favorite events.
One of her fondest memories on the intimate stage was during the Reel Film Fest — which showcased her film, “The Gunnison Sage Grouse: A Dance for Survival,” a flick that won the audience choice award.
“It was really a wonderful moment to have that recognized and something really special,” said Navy. “It mattered to the people, and it mattered to the birds, so I was really thrilled with that.”
Navy has volunteered for the Crested Butte Film Festival ever since.
“The Center for the Arts has done an incredible job with what has been for 32 years, an extremely bare bones facility,” said Choy.
WINTER SCHEDULE OF EVENTS
Dec. 21 — The Muppet Christmas Carol Holiday Movie & Pajama Party
Jan. 3 — Circles Around the Sun
Jan. 12 — Shane Smith & The Saints:
Jan. 22 — Sam Bush
Jan. 31 and Feb. 1 — An Evening with Chris Robinson Brotherhood
Feb. 21 — Pat Green
March 3 — Donavon Frankenreiter
March 7 — Lizzy Plotkin
March 14 — Asleep at the Wheel
March 28 — Ghost Light
April 5 — Front Country
(Kate Gienapp can be reached at 970.641.1414 or firstname.lastname@example.org .)