No Place to Be Nobody

updated 03/28/1994 at 01:00 AM EST

originally published 03/28/1994 01:00AM

BEHIND THE POLISHED-BRASS AND-MAHOGANY DOOR ASpen's members-only Caribou Club, Julia Roberts and Lyle Lovett après-schuss over a late-night breakfast of bacon and eggs, Don Johnson sings a cappella at the bar, and George Hamilton deals a hand of blackjack. And if the club is busy, jokes Caribou owner Harley Baldwin, "I can say, 'George, please answer the phone,' and he will."

If Hamilton and company feel at home, maybe it's because on any given night, half of Hollywood is in the room. Since Baldwin opened the Caribou in a restored 1890s building in 1989, the club has become the place for Aspen's ski-and-be-seen crowd, including Sylvester Stallone, Sally Field and Michael Douglas. And Baldwin, 48, is the man who keeps them coming back. "Harley is what Aspen is all about," says Hamilton, who shells out $1,500 a year for one of the club's 775 memberships. "He understands classic good taste and at the same time is irreverent about it."

Baldwin certainly understands what his well-heeled guests want. Located at the end of a downtown Aspen arcade, the Caribou derives at least some of its exclusivity from its hard-to-find location. A brass placard marked "Private" and a small set of antlers over the front door are the only signs of what lies within. And the club's members need no introduction either. "People who say, 'Do you know who I am?' have just said the magic words to not get in," laughs Jimmy Yeager, the club's general manager, who greets guests at the door.

Inside, members mingle in six oak-paneled rooms, surrounded by antler chandeliers and a collection of western paintings by artists including Frederick Remington and Albert Bierstadt. The atmosphere, says Baldwin, varies with the time of day. "Early in the evening it's very restrained—a lot of Aspen society matrons come in and entertain their friends. As the night goes on, café society is showing up; they are kiss-kissing, having fun and sending bottles of champagne back and forth across the room. The whole place starts to take on a different air, the dancing starts, and it's a party."

And a good one. "Harley is the kind of guy who sets out a bottle of cognac for after dinner—a bottle I know costs $5,000—and generously pours, asking nothing in return," says George Santopietro, a former restaurateur who proposed to wife Vanna White in the Caribou dining room three years ago. "That's what I call style."

Baldwin came by his calling almost by accident. The only child of Robert, an Air Force colonel, and Margery, a homemaker, he grew up on a series of military bases, shuttling from Honolulu to Massachusetts until he left home at 17 to attend Syracuse University. He was working as promotions director for an entertainment magazine in New York City in 1968 when he decided to start a new life in Colorado. "1 was a young man trying to set the sails,'' remembers Baldwin. Then 23, he threw a pile of dirty clothes into his 1967 Volvo, look his "family fortune of $1,200" and headed west. "I literally waited until I came to a turn in the road to decide where I was going. I went to Steamboat and Vail and finally drove to the Roaring Fork Valley and found heaven."

From humble beginnings selling 50-cent crepes from a popcorn cart on the streets of Aspen during ski season (he recouped his $76 investment in pans and groceries in four hours), Baldwin moved into silver mining and real estate. He moved back to New York in 1975 to try to create an outdoor gourmet green market but still kept an interest in Aspen, restoring the then-rundown building that now houses the Caribou and the Brand, his exclusive condo-hotel (suites rent for $2,500 a night in ski season), to its 1890s grandeur.

When his New York project didn't get off the ground, Baldwin returned to Colorado and hit on the idea of a nightclub where Aspen's gilded set—many of whom he'd met in New York—could dine and dance after a day on the slopes. He made the Caribou a private establishment so that members' dues could carry it through the off-season. As for the name, "Elks Club was taken," jokes Baldwin, who lives in a luxury apartment above the club, adding, "I wanted it to have this sense of adventure and excitement."

Although some locals initially criticized the club as elitist, it took off almost immediately. Baldwin's empire now encompasses nearly two city blocks of shops in downtown Aspen, as well as other holdings in real estate and mining. Last fall he opened Aspen's first 24-hour gourmet coffee shop, and in December, a boutique to market his own line of silver belt buckles and belt straps. His first customer was Michael Douglas, who selected two silver buckles and bells while browsing through a catalog at the Caribou. But that didn't really surprise Baldwin. He says, "I have an idea who my customer is. It's not the cowboy. It's the guy who owns the ranch."

CYNTHIA SANZ
VICKIE BANE in Aspen

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