Warren Miller: My ‘Imagineering’ And Bootlaces
In the fall of 1948, I had all of my building supplies stored in a $5-a-month garage in Ketchum, Idaho. I was going to start building my first house when the snow melted in the spring. I was imagining what my house would look like when I finished it.
I was setting up my business of manufacturing nylon parachute shroud ski bootlaces. The business was based on start-up costs for the company of $14 for a roll of the parachute shroud that was several thousand feet long. I had parlayed my $14 investment in September into over $8,000 in the bank by April.
It was a good business, but when I heard there were going to be tryouts for ski instructor jobs on Dollar Mountain, I was there the first day climbing up the hill before the chairlift even started. I had to review my snowplow turn and make sure they were Austrian and not Swiss. Those were the days when there was a different ski technique championed by each ski school directors.
I got the job when Otto Lang said, “O.K. I will give you a job, but first you will have to get a haircut (I had hair back in 1948), take a shower and I will pay you the apprentice rate of $125 a month and room and board.” I was really excited because before the winter was over, everyone in the ski school got a free pair of Andre gabardine ski pants and matching windbreaker.
Naturally my parka was at the cleaners the day they took the photo of the ski school instructors all lined up on the front steps of the Ram. I was just looking at that photo while compiling the photos for my autobiography. Great memories.
Beginning instructors teach beginning skiers and so I was exiled to the flat by the Dollar Cabin to teach kick turns and walking in the flat to people who never had skis on in their lives. Was I bored doing this? Not at all.
I found each class exciting because I was meeting eight or ten new people every Monday morning and had the power to change their lives forever in five days, if I did my job properly. I must have, because I did not get fired.
However, during Christmas week, the ski school needed someone to do a Tyrolean dance in the Ram every Thursday night. The Austrian dance was supposed to be an Schuhplattler and performed in a funny, satirical manner with another guy who was dressed up as a girl in a full-length dirndl dress and wearing a bandana with his lips painted red and very large.
Wendy Cram got the job as the female stand-in because he was the shortest guy in the ski school and I was chosen when I was happy with the $5 that was offered to do it. Little did I know that the first dance performance would become a Thursday night event for the rest of the winter. The grand finale was in the Lodge dining room the night of the Harriman Cup banquet.
I was given a pair of lederhosen, leather short pants with leather suspenders and a Tyrolean hat. I supplied the logging boots and the long wool socks.
While I was dancing, I had a stoic look staring straight ahead over the guests’ heads and throwing the fake lady around as if she was an adagio dancer. Why it worked as well as it did, I have no idea. Maybe it was because this was the first time I had ever appeared in front of anyone except a couple of people at a time.
Neither one of us were ever introduced before, during, or after the dance because it was the way they wanted it to be. I was being paid top dollar for a few minutes work. What was not to like about that? It added up to a 20 percent pay raise for me per month. My pay for a day of teaching was $4 unless I had a private lesson during my lunch hour.
I had no idea how to do the Austrian small village version of the simple Polka. I didn’t have the slightest idea of how to do it and was given whispered instructions for the next move out of the side of Wendy’s mouth.
Occasionally, I would get a private ski lesson out of this kind of behavior, but most of the guests left on Saturday and we danced on Thursday so it only gave us one day to try and capitalize on our dancing performance and convert it to an hour or more of private lessons during lunch.
As I gaze back onto the crystal ball of time almost forgotten and look for a reason why I did it, I most certainly was not in a competition of dancing with the stars. If I had been, I certainly would not have chosen Wendy Cram dressed as Gretchen as my partner.
This dance happened 65 years ago and I did not have the slightest idea at the time that I would wind up in show business, walking out on the stage night after night in high school auditoriums and 3,000-seat civic auditoriums to introduce my latest ski movie. I did that night after night for over 50 years.
Who cares why I did it. I know I enjoyed every single moment of it and as I often say, “If you love what you do, you will never work a day in your life.”
I was having a great time even though I was scared to death. I think I might have felt that if I didn’t dance, as Otto wanted me to, I might have lost my job. I danced and kept my job the rest of the winter and wound up with my fingers dancing on the keyboard of typewriters and computer keyboards ever since. Those nights in the Ram I was imagining I was in a small Tyrolean village an hour walk up the mountain from the local railroad, and my partner was the local heroine.
I don’t know where I read the word “Imagineering” but I read it somewhere and I think that is what I have been doing for most of my life. Maybe it started that night in the Ram so long ago. It is something you cannot learn in school. You just learn it when there is nothing and you make something out of it anyway. Maybe it was a Walt Disney word, I don’t know and I don’t care, I just like the word.
That’s what the audience was doing that night when they were watching us dancing in the Ram. Imagineering. (Learn more about the Warren Miller Freedom Foundation.)
Photo: Filmmaker Warren Miller