I was recently asked, “During the 50-some years that you produced ski movies, how did you choose the resorts and the skiers?”
It was very easy in the first 30 years. The ski school director was usually the best skier on the hill and he was always looking for some more publicity.
Every year, some new and exciting thing was happening to a piece of ski equipment. When Maria Bogner first appeared on the cover of Ski Magazine in her stretch pants, she instantly put romance into the sport. The after-ski scene became something that I always photographed because all those beautiful women would dance in their stretch pants.
New safety bindings were being invented almost on a monthly basis. I had a contract to produce a movie for a new safety binding and I captured images of someone breaking their leg while wearing this revolutionary binding. Luckily, the skier demonstrating it was the only accident victim I ever had while I was filming.
From 1949 until the winter of 1964, I did 100 percent of the photography and so I was a pretty busy skier. I would finish my one-night lecture tours by the middle of February, then spend five or six days in my small office with two employees, climb on an airplane and for six weeks cover the European scene trying to go to different resorts every year.
The changes in the European scene were just as dramatic as they were in America. When I started filming there, most of the resorts were only on south-facing slopes as many had been tuberculosis sanitariums for 75 or more years. It would not be until the mid 1960s before they moved across the valley and put gondolas on their north slopes.
It would be 1969 before I featured helicopter skiing in my movies when Mike Wiegele started his helicopter operation in Blue River, British Columbia. The first year I sent a cameraman up there, Mike didn’t have radios because he didn’t have any employees. He had leased a small helicopter, and Rod Allin filmed Wayne Wong doing his spectacular, freestyle skiing on a glacier high above the clouds of Blue River.
My very early movies featured variations on the rope tow theme. In 1953 Snow Valley only had good skiing on the short, rope tow hill. I somehow made that rope tow hill look as though it was a mile long. I was learning how to use the magic of film by the using of a variety of camera angles.
At the Los Angeles County Fair during the summer of 1953, Sepp Benedict built a ski jumping scaffold almost 200 feet high. He then flew in most of the US Olympic team to perform jumps twice a day. I was hired as the announcer and my job description also called for me to pick them up every afternoon at the Huntington Hotel in Pasadena in my red panel delivery truck and drive them to the county fair. They could only jump about 150 feet and land on several tons of crushed ice that was rapidly melting under the hot summer sun. I was paid $35 a day, which I promptly invested in 16mm film to document this once-in-a-lifetime ski event for my 1953 ski film.
I can’t remember the year that I first found artificial snow, but I do remember that I was showing my movie in Chicago, and the ski club president told me: “Walt Stopa at Wilmot is making artificial snow and if you aren’t busy on Sunday I’ll drive you over so you can film it.” I managed to scrounge up a 16mm camera and film and became the first to document man-made snow for a movie. Wilmot had the only snow east of the Colorado Rockies at the time. Where the snow patch ended and the grass began I filmed a skier as he came down and made turns on the snow and then on the frozen grass and back onto the snow. When I showed Wilmot the next year, the audience went wild. That was sure fun.
One year later, I filmed some entrepreneurs who had put snow guns in Soldier Field in Chicago. This also produced a lot of belly laughs because, in the entire stadium there were only three skiers: the ski school director, a ski patrolman and one pupil.
As soon as they shut the artificial snow machines off every pipe in the stadium froze up and they were in bankruptcy within 24 hours.
The last 15 years or so I made ski movies, I would only accept invitations from resorts that would offer the best photographic opportunities for my audiences. By then I was running the film company with a dozen full-time employees. My ace cameramen, Don Brolin and Brian Sissleman, would be on airplanes all winter flying all over the world.
It was easy to write and deliver the narration, because there was always a good story connected to these places. I got to spend more than 50 years inviting my audience to come join me at the places that my crew and I had visited the winter before. It was fun for me as I changed a lot of people’s lives with my movies and what I said during them.
Thank you, all you loyal friends.
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