Most Sundance fans won’t see Park City’s ghosts
Film-fest host town was once a wild, gritty little place, and it was the best era to live and work there.
Published: January 17, 2013 10:47AM
Updated: May 5, 2013 11:32PM
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Francisco Kjolseth | Tribune file photo Ron "Waterbed" Purdom, knicknamed after the product he sold early on, looks out of the restaurant in Park City he started back in 1979, Texas Red's. It closed in 2002.

It wasn’t exactly “My Dinner with Andre,” but I drank wine with Ethan and Joel Coen after the premiere of “Blood Simple” at the Sundance Film Festival.

About a half-dozen of us sipped boxed wine from plastic glasses at a folding table set up in Park City’s Main Street Mall for the “reception.”

At that point, nobody knew the Coen brothers. They seemed like regular guys and wore easy smiles and flannel shirts. Sundance was unheralded then, and you could simply stroll into the Egyptian Theatre — no ticket reservations necessary.

The year was 1985 and the film festival, along with its host, Park City, was still a little wannabe.

For me, that was the best era to live in Park City. Leslie Miller and I inhabited a little miner’s house on Woodside Avenue with two golden retrievers — Kona and Rose. Our place was walking distance to the ski lifts at the Park City resort, but we often took the dogs skiing in Empire Canyon in what would eventually become part of the Deer Valley ski resort. Back then, there were no ski lifts there, no five-star Montage hotel — just trees and mine dumps and lots of untracked powder.

That was then, this is now • Hollywood types and moviegoers will be streaming into Park City this week for this year’s Sundance Film Festival. They’ll hike up Main Street in fur boots and sunglasses, but they won’t see Ryan’s Bar or O.D. McGee, its most notorious customer known for his 20-gallon cowboy hat. And they won’t see Art Durante, the philosophical proprietor of Art’s Hardware. But, for some of us, many friendly ghosts and bygone establishments like them still haunt the town.

The Alamo is still there. But it has changed with the times and is now called the No Name Saloon. Back then it was a no-frills place. Coors was on tap and the floor was littered with peanut shells. Bikers would shoot stick with bankers, and on weekends a local band would rock out. At a certain hour, folks were looking to get lucky. But the proprietor got busted for trafficking cocaine and the rest, as they say, is history.

Those were wild times in Park City. A charismatic young doctor, Bruce Dooley, blew into town and married newspaper editor Tina Moench. Everybody from The Park Record attended the reception on Rossi Hill and passed champagne bottles around the hot tub. There were so many of us squirming around in there that when we slithered out nude under a bright mountain moon, there was no water left in the Jacuzzi.

It was a close-knit place. Sharon at the bank would call you up and say, “Hey, you better get down here and do something or this check will bounce.” And Officer Al Allen would pull you over and say, “Don’t do that anymore,” instead of writing a ticket.

Once, Sgt. Lloyd Evans, who retired as police chief a few years back, helped me prepare a legal defense for my appearance before the Wasatch County justice of the peace. Leslie and I had been cited for skinny dipping at the hot pots in Midway. The state park rangers used to keep a close eye on the place in hopes of busting young Park City lassies in the buff — hands up!

Rearranging the stars • It’s true, we did take advantage of the local amenities, like skiing groomed runs at Deer Valley before the place opened each year. Deer Valley’s lifts cranked up for the first time in December 1981, about the time Blair Feulner launched KPCW radio. The Snow Park Lodge opened then, too, just as the film fest ­— then called the U.S. Film Festival — moved to Park City.

That the mining town had survived the lean years after World War II is a credit to the old-timers. But by the time the festival was lured to Park City, it was already a fledgling ski town and boasted a handful of good restaurants.

Texas Red’s was a barbecue joint operated by a red-bearded Texan who took the handle Waterbed. License plates bearing “W BED” graced his 1960s-era Cadillac hearse. And Waterbed’s pulled pork was to die for. Everything was served on paper plates, and it was so popular that ski bums working the dinner shift could almost make ends meet.

Otto and Carmen, by contrast, were a sophisticated couple and their place, Mileti’s, was a little more upscale. It offered Italian fare and boasted a bar upstairs. Just as important to us, it sat right across Main Street from The Park Record.

After our Wednesday noon deadline, the writers would join the production staff to get the weekly newspaper out. Our man Friday, Dusty Rhoades, would make a beer run and we’d crank up KPCW, where Dr. Bop would be spinning the Byrds and Motown. We’d dance around the page dummies till about midnight, when Dusty would load big negatives into a flat box and roar off in his van to the printer in Salt Lake City.

The Record crew would repair to Mileti’s bar, where we’d toast our great accomplishment and rearrange the stars to suit our future endeavors. Then we’d drift away for some shut-eye before the ski lifts opened at 9 o’clock.

Buried in your heart • Summer, too, had its regular rhythms, although measurably more mellow. Rusty Prudence, who had a taste for Ten High, was a Park City old-timer and had the leathery face and hands to prove it. He’d amble through Old Town with a cigarette dangling from his mouth and greet his fellow Parkites with a familiar salutation: “Why, hello there, friend.” And then he’d settle in for a chat.

One day, he strode up to our gate as Leslie was hanging out the wash, tears streaming down her face. She cried as she relayed the news to Rusty: Kona had somehow gotten old and we had to put him down. Rusty pulled a Pall Mall from his shirt pocket and lit it thoughtfully.

“There’s only one place to bury a dog,” he said, “and that’s in your heart.”

That was right after Steven Soderbergh hit it big with his 1989 film “sex, lies, and videotape.” The director, who had been volunteering as a driver during the festival, suddenly became the prince of Hollywood. And Sundance and independent film were the new “It.”

At the same time, Utah and Park City were gaining notice and support for a Winter Olympic bid.

And if that weren’t enough, developers unveiled plans that would transform the lonely Kimball Junction into a sprawling commercial center.

The world was spinning faster and faster, and something scary was peeking over the horizon.

At first light, it began to rain and the phone rang. It was Hunter S. Thompson devotee Todd Gabler calling for Leslie on one of the very first cellphones. He had chained himself to a backhoe at the Kimball Junction Kmart construction site and needed a sleeping bag and a Thermos of coffee — quick.

His gutsy protest against the future, unfortunately, didn’t hold things back for long. Still, we were lucky to have lived in Park City during that time. We loved that crazy little place. And maybe that’s why we buried it in our hearts.

csmart@sltrib.com

Sundance Film Festival

When • Thursday, Jan. 17 through Sunday, Jan. 27

Where • Multiple locations in Park City, Salt Lake City, Ogden and Sundance Resort

Tickets • http://www.sundance.org/festival/tickets/how/

More • Read complete coverage at sltrib.com/entertainment and sltrib.com/Blogs/sundanceblog