RED ONION TALES
My family moved to Aspen in 1956, when I was nine, and the Red Onion soon became the hub of many of our family activities. My mother, Rose Crumpacker, worked as the “one woman chamber of commerce” in a tiny cinderblock building next door to the Isis Theater, and every Friday night we had a week’s end ritual of dining at the Onion. I can well remember the delicious salads, dressed with Werner Kuster’s oil and vinegar dressing, that accompanied our steak and baked potato dinners. Werner would greet us and seat us in the dining room, far from the commotion of the bar.
My older siblings, three of whom were in college, preferred “Beer Gulch”, and usually went there directly apres ski. Often, during summer or college breaks, they would never make it home for dinner, worrying my mother.
Everyone loved the nightclub, which featured smoky-voiced singers and jazz combos, on weekends – even I was allowed to enter and sit at one of the small tables, drinking cokes and feeling quite sophisticated.
My great grand uncle, Thomas Latta, had built the Onion in the 1880’s, and a tile with his name still presumably graces the entry to the bar. The building also sports the Latta name on the very top. My sister Marguerite Maddalone’s middle name is Latta…the Latta family was from Greensburg, Pennsylvania, and my grandmother, Rose Latta Turner, was born there and lived there until she moved to Indiana to marry my grandfather. The Latta family was very, very proper – my mother remembered having to present her calling card to a butler with a silver tray, when she traveled to Pennsylvania, at age twelve, to visit her grandmother. Thomas Latta was the uncle, and the black sheep of the family. He came out west, searching for his fortune, and ended up building and running the Red Onion as a dance hall, bar, and brothel.
When I was eleven or twelve, we had a little gang of kids who liked to get into a bit of trouble during our lunch hour from school. Several of our parents had charge accounts at the Delice Bakery, so after grabbing a sandwich or pastry, we would adjourn to eat our lunches on either the fire escape of the Wheeler Opera House, or the fire escape of the rooming house for the Red Onion employees, across the alley from the Onion, in the building that became the Paragon. It was on the latter fire escape that we all witnessed sex for the first time….as we furtively peered in a curtained window of one of the rooms…I think it was the hostess of the Onion, as we all recognized her.
Several years later, there was a terrible knife fight between two Swiss or Austrian Red Onion chefs, beginning in the kitchen and ending in the alley, at night, when we were having a Friday night dinner. The police were called, and both chefs were taken to the hospital. Not too long after that, Werner Kuster sold the Onion. His wife, Rosemarie, moved to Santa Fe and owned the Palace Restauraunt there for many years.
The Red Onion always stayed a little tied to it’s wild west roots. My brother Tom, a recent graduate of the University of Michigan law school, brother-in-law Danny Maddalone, an Aspen ski patrol, and cousin Bob Brown, captain of the U. of Michigan football team, were involved, one spring break, in an awful brawl that began in the nightclub. The brawl moved out onto Cooper Street, and they were all dragged by a car down to Pinnochio’s.
“Beer Gulch”, with its horseshoe-shaped table and bench at the front window, was home to the Aspen ski patrol and packing crew for many years. The wonderful blue caricatures of celebrities and famous visitors graced the booths and hallways. Many, many tales and stories were told in beer gulch, usually skiing stories, and I was an enthusiastic participant while in my twenties, after work at Gretl’s or the Sundeck. Peter Luhn was a habitue, as were Shady Lane, Scott MacDougal, Richard Tapley, Hanuman, Steve Wishart, David Wright, and Defoe Dushane.
In the mid-seventies, when new owners bought the Onion and turned the bar into a more upscale “fern bar”, replacing the gulch and booths and caricatures, there was a big revolution. The habitues all couldn’t take it, and staged a protest by throwing all the new potted ferns out onto Cooper Street, and hundreds of dollars of ferns were ruined There may or may have not been arrests, but a statement of priorities was certainly made.