Film documents bar's place in valley history.
By Katy Niner, Jackson Hole, Wyo.
June 20, 2012
Who: Filmmaker Jennifer Tennican
What: Premiere of ‘The Stagecoach Bar:
An American Crossroads’
When: 6:30 to 10:30 p.m. June 27
Where: Center for the Arts
How much: $10
Derrik Hufsmith is a quintessential Stagecoach Bar character: He grew up in Jackson, tried to be a hippie but failed, moved to Teton Valley, Idaho, bought a farm, now “raises lentils, ” and every Sunday he crosses Teton Pass to play electric guitar in the Stagecoach Band.
Hufsmith is the band’s closest thing to a true local, fellow bandmate Christine Langdon said. Fittingly, he cues the opening of Jackson filmmaker Jennifer Tennican’s documentary, “The Stagecoach Bar: An American Crossroads.”
Two years in the making, the hourlong film premieres June 27 with the community that made it possible. Befitting the subject, a party will follow the screening.
More than story that solely focuses on a saloon, the documentary traces the valley’s defining historic and contemporary currents through the prism of the personalities found at the Stagecoach. Cowboys, dudes, old-timers, dancers, hippies, hipsters, second-home owners — Tennican features them all. She hopes the film seeds discussions on the sweep of topics covered, from identity to inequity and sobriety.
“The West has never been a place for churchgoers,” historian Andrew Gulliford says on camera. “The Episcopalian priests in Wyoming did everything they could, and it sort of took, but the West is an unchurched place. So, where do you go to connect? You go to the bar.”
To chronicle the Coach, Tennican wove archival footage and photography with new interviews she conducted and fresh film she took.
The narrative unfolds with people’s memories — in saddles, on barstools, on the dancing floor. Rob Cheek recalls sidling up to the bar as a young teenager and ordering a whiskey and water on his way to the rodeo chutes. To his surprise, the bartender accepted his 50 cents.
In the early days, the Stagecoach serviced the adjacent rodeo arena, the site where dudes, cowboys and genders converged. Come winter, it was an antidote to long episodes of isolation.
The band began playing in February 1969, several years after the rodeo left. In the film, as in life, music is a river running through it all. Tunes eased tensions between old-timers and the 1960s hatch of hippies.
“We were all dancing together, so somehow, we all made up,” says one of the newcomers, Dail Barbour, though it did take a while for the hippies to become accepted as part of the valley tapestry.
“A place like the Stagecoach offers the opportunity, every Sunday night, to put aside our differences and find those commonalities,” historian Sherry Smith says in the film. “If we lose those places, we lose that opportunity to find community.”
While many aspects of the Coach have remained constant, change, too, shapes the storied saloon. From Disco Night to the new dawn of downhill biking, the Stagecoach has adapted to new clientele.
The bar has weathered economic game-changers, like the construction of the first golf course in 1964, the year-round economy created by the Jackson Hole Ski Area and the blossoming of the second-home market in the mid-1980s.
The film telescopes between stories from the Coach and histories of Jackson Hole. Several characters bridge the two, like Bill Briggs, banjo fixture and ski mountaineering pioneer.
Tennican uses art, music and humor to lace segments together. She commissioned Anika Youcha to paint her colorful impression of the Coach and also make a drawing of its development over the decades. For musical interludes, Tennican set up a recording session with Stagecoach Band members in Ben Winship’s Henhouse Studio.
She delights in the magical moments — like centenarian George Green closing down the place by dancing on the bar to “Keep on the Sunny Side of Life” — as well as bigger themes like surviving as a musician by way of affordable housing. Or trying to stay sober when a bar serves as community hub.
Patiently, the film paints the Coach as an enduring symbol — and site —of the Teton melting pot.
“The best friends we have in the world, we met most of them at the coach,” said Bill Nash, who had never stepped foot inside a bar before moving to the valley 30 years ago. Now, he is a Sunday service stalwart.
Now, as then, the Coach welcomes all to roost.
“I always tell people to go to the Coach when they move here,” Barbour said. “All those good vibes are just holding it up.”