It was 11 below zero and I was standing at the ski school meeting place waiting for my learn-to-ski-week pupils. My job was to teach them how to walk on skis, do a kick turn and get up after falling down. First, however, I had to teach them how to carry their skis, put on and off their rental ski boots and convince them that they were not destined to break their leg while they were in Sun Valley and in my ski school class.
I always had my 8mm Bell and Howell movie camera in a small leather carrying case on my belt after each snowstorm.
It was February 1949 when I started to teach two men from Chicago how to have a good time on skis. One of them was wearing his 13-button, navy bell-bottom pants and the other man was slightly overweight and out of shape.
On Wednesday afternoon of their lesson week, my two pupils invited me out to dinner at the Trail Creek Cabin. This was a half-hour ride away in a horse-drawn hay wagon. That night we had a great time except for watching a terrible ski film made by some guys from Toronto. On the way home, we discussed the movie and I told them, “Someday I’m going to go into the travel lecture business.”
In those days there was no color television and there was a small group of men who traveled the world and made films during the summer and then showed them in the winter. Each year they would go to a different part of the world and make a new film. I imagined myself traveling the world with a camera and sharing what I saw with my audiences and somehow making a living doing it.
One of my pupils, Chuck Percy, asked me, “Why don’t you do that now instead of teaching skiing?”
I replied, “I need to buy a 16mm camera and the one I want is a Bell and Howell model that costs $256 and I’m only being paid $125 a month.” I then launched into a long sales pitch about how great my 8mm Bell and Howell camera was. Chuck replied, “I’m sure glad you like it because I’m the president of the company and your other student, Hal Geneen, is the comptroller.”
Now, I had never met the president of any company before and I didn’t have the slightest idea what a comptroller did. I already had a list of the countries I wanted to film and by the time the sleigh-ride ended, we talked about movie making and every time I had a chance to extol the virtues of my 8mm Bell and Howell camera, they let me babble on about it.
During the lunch break the next day, Hal went to his hotel room to soak in a hot bathtub so he could ski for the afternoon. He was a bit out of shape and our ski school class had not gotten good enough to ride the beginner chairlift yet. In 1949, the ski school directors’ rules were that you couldn’t take your class on the chairlift until they could do at least six good, linked snowplow turns and, of course, I had to make them climb up the hill for each turn they made coming down.
When the class ended, Hal Geneen and Chuck asked me to join them in the warming hut for some hot chocolate. We were halfway through the hot chocolate when Hal said, “Warren, Chuck and I are going to lend you that 16mm camera that you can’t afford to buy now. When you make enough money from your travel lecture films, send us a check for the amount you have long ago memorized.”
I was flabbergasted and thought they were kidding. During the last few days of teaching them in my ski school class, I was skiing on air, three inches above the snow.
Two weeks later a package arrived containing a red-velvet lined leather case with a Bell and Howell 70da inside of it, two rolls of 16mm film and a booklet of instructions on how to operate the camera. I was dumbfounded. No one had ever done such a thing for me. I immediately got to work with the camera so that I could pay them back.
The following winter I taught skiing at Squaw Valley and started to produce my first feature-length ski film, “Deep and Light”’ the first of 55 feature-length ski films and hundreds of other films that all had the same theme, freedom, woven around individual sports that don’t have a score.
It has been a fun ride, these first 60 years of filmmaking, and I’m looking forward to the next 60 years of writing about the ride. And I still have the same Bell and Howell 70da that was loaned to me in 1949.
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