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Elaine Kelton
Brenda Himelfarb Crowd Pleaser July 12, 2019
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On February 9, 1964, the Beatles, with their mop-top haircuts, made their first appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show singing five songs – which were immediate hits — including “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” “All My Loving,” “She Loves You,” “I Saw You Standing There” and “Till There Was You.” The Beach Boys topped the charts with “I Get Around,” and Barbra Streisand struck a chord with “Peo- ple.” Mary Poppins won the Oscar for Best Movie. The cost of a new house was $13,050 and the average yearly income was $6,000. A movie ticket was $1.25. And Elizabeth Taylor married Richard Burton for the first time.

Everyday values were much different then what American citizens had ever seen before. The Flower Power movement had just begun and people no longer thought about keeping up with the Joneses. The thought of hors de l’ordinaire was acceptable and, essentially, the norm.

So it wasn’t out of the ordinary when Elaine Kelton and her hus- band, Gary White, who had been living in Jackson Hole, didn’t think twice — well, maybe twice — and “went for it,” by taking a chance, and moving to the valley. “We met two people who were patrolling in Vail,” recalls Elaine, “who suggested that we see the new ski re- sort. We told them that we didn’t ski. And they said, ‘It’s a great way to learn.’

“And so, that summer, we checked it out, liked it and decided to move. We rented in McCollister, (named after a family that owned a lumberyard and grew potatoes) — now called Potato Patch, where Vail Associates (VA) had put in trailers. Basically, that was the only housing available.”

Gary first worked with VA, but soon joined Elaine at the Lodge at Vail, where she was the social director and he was a bellman and also worked in the cafeteria — as did every other employee of the lodge when things got hectic!

“Here you have Gary, who was a Williams College history ma- jor, and then me, who had attended Smith College and who had thoughts about being involved in the the fashion world in New York. And, here we were in Vail. I was prepared for “camping out” mean- ing “no room service,” Elaine quips.

There were no paved roads. No television. No movie theatres. Ba- sically no form of entertainment other than a bar called The Golden Ski. On Sunday nights, when things were slow, 8mm films were rent- ed and shown in the basement of the Lodge. “We kept a Monopoly game going, ad infinitum, in the hallways of the Lodge, and the staff played in teams,” says Elaine.

Because there was no post office, mailbags were dropped off at the Lodge’s front desk and people had to sort through stacks to find their mail. It was that simple. A bit later, a small post office opened in the Plaza Building on Bridge Street.

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“Vail today in no way relates to what was those first few years,” shares Elaine. “It wasn’t the wild west. It was an adventure. Yet, Gary and I were neither adventurers or perceived ourselves as pioneers — we were 23 and 24 years old. Vail was a young community that brought with it a sense of democracy, where it didn’t matter where you came from or what you had done there. Rather it was ‘What can you bring to the table? How can you participate? How do you work? What do you plan on doing?’ Nobody was trained to do what they were doing. Every one of us did the ‘pick up’ kind of thing. You identified what was missing.”

At that time, Vail was essentially a group of people who loved ski- ing, loved the outdoors and saw the magic of the mountains. “We never saw Vail’s evolution and what it is today. Rather it was that each day brought something new, each day brought a need that had to be met,” says Elaine.

In 1967, Elaine and Gary built and opened the Ramshorn Lodge in Vail. At the time, Elaine, who has three daughters, Courtney, Vanessa and Ashley, was pregnant with her second child. “We didn’t have any programs for kids who were ready to begin the reading pro- cess so I started a Montessori school, which we ran for close to 10 years, in our conference room,” relates Elaine. “Judy Gagny, whose husband, Bob, was a ski school supervisor and who had Montessori training, ran the school. She was a genius and got our kids ready to go to Red Sandstone School, which was absolutely terrific.”

As Vail evolved, people saw the many needs. They needed a hos- pital. They needed a school system. They needed a town. “It was probably in 1969, when VA was being faced with its own financial drains, we realized that we needed to become a municipality,” ex- plains, Elaine. “And so, we sat in the cafeteria at the Lodge at Vail, which was clearly the meeting place for everything, and we dis- cussed our alternatives.”

According to Elaine, VA was willing to relinquish the running of the town, which was quickly developing. They realized that in order to survive, a community had to be built that had an infrastructure that went far beyond just being a company-owned town.

“They were fledgling. We were fledgling,” she says. “The most wonderful sense of democracy in the community was that everyone pitched in. Part of it, I would say, was due to the geography, because of the fact that we were totally surrounded with mountains and isolated by a single access and egress into the area. If the passes were closed, we were all stuck. So the success of Vail, in so many ways, was tied to our to- tal interdependence on each other.”

When Vail was a nascent community everyone in every age group came together to help develop the town. People from all walks of life brought their expertise and experience to build a community. Says, Elaine, “Vail Associates told us that they would supply hospital- ity and the greatest skiing experience on a world-class mountain, if we, the residents, would provide all the amenities that were needed. The restaurants, the services, the hotels, the entertainment areas. And this is how it all evolved.”

At the time, however, summer in Vail was almost non-existent. The place was not on a main road and, as Elaine puts it, “You had to deliberately and with intention drive into Vail. And when people did that, we needed to have ways and means to entertain them.”

So the residents started a group called the Vail Institute to bring in music. A budget was created to book entertainment and the con- certs were held on the lawn in front of what is now Gondola One, at the base of Vail Mountain in front of the Gold Peak house. Kids hand- ed out mimeographed programs at 4:30 on a Saturday afternoon and if people didn’t have blankets, they’d sit on dirt, as there was no grass — and no shade. “We had Chuck Mangione.

We had Odetta, Rita Coolidge. We had performers that people still recognize today,” says Elaine. “We had a group called The Blue Jeans Symphony, which ultimately became the Boulder Symphony. We might have been isolated, but we were always interesting.”

Eventually an art camp called SummerVail began, where Elaine learned to blow glass from a young artist named Dale Chihuly. She attended a cocktail party where the pianist was Leonard Bernstein. Guests were invited to guided tours and champagne, Red Check- ered Picnics (like the tablecloth) on the mountain.

“We originally did the picnics to entertain ourselves but, in so do- ing, we all became invested in what made Vail so special. And it cre- ated a passion and love and a system of defending our environment and out-of-doors. And we see that replicated today,” Elaine says, re- calling Vail’s early years.

“The cross-section of the people that were here at the time never had a small-town mindset. They were diverse, educated, independent in their thinking and adventuresome.

“What we experienced in those first few years is mirrored in the experiences of today. The passion is still there and I think that’s what mag keeps Vail a viable, special and unique place to live and to be.”

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