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Warren Miller: Skiing With Aloha
On the big Island of Hawaii there is an observatory at 14,000 feet above sea level. For a short time during the winter there is a fairly good-sized snowfield and considerable lack of oxygen to climb back to the top of that snowfield after you ski down it.
Years ago I was invited to show my ski film in Honolulu and was sponsored by a local ski shop in downtown. Why anyone would own and operate a ski shop in downtown Honolulu escapes my IQ level. It makes as much sense as opening a surfboard shop in Butte, Montana. But I digress.
The showing of the film was not one of my better evenings since it took place in a geometry classroom at the local high school. All 35 customers sat at regular classroom desks watching the flickering 16mm footage and listening to my live narration and music from my portable tape recorder.
Early the next morning most of us got on the all inclusive ski Hawaii tour, flew to the Big Island, and drove from sea level to that 14,000 foot altitude of Mona Kea where with each faltering step up the hill I’ve never walked or climbed slower. I don’t remember how many times I climbed that snowfield, but in the two days I skied there I got more than enough footage for a sequence that I called, “Why do people do this nutso stuff?”
There were surfer dudes in Hawaiian shirts and surfing shorts and mainland transplants in 20-year out of date Norwegian sweaters, baggy stretch pants, and 10- to 15-year-old skis that visitors brought from the mainland and didn’t bother taking home.
At the end of the second day, we bounced around on the dirt road back down to almost sea level where I cleaned my camera gear, took a nap, and again wondered why I was doing what I was doing. Hey, it was a living and I was putting my kids through college. Then, too, I had some negotiating rights from the sponsor for my share of the box office every night I showed the movie. Major incentive.
If my memory serves me correctly that snowfield had about 200 vertical feet from top to bottom. It was good corn snow, loud and crinkly and just one of those things you put in your memory bank and then try and forget all about the experience until 50 years later as I am doing now.
I can write a lot of stories about a lot of places where I skied that I would not recommend putting anywhere except at the bottom of your someday ski list.
I did return one more time to the volcano to produce a film about a new design for a pair of skis that only sold about 30 pairs because they looked so weird and didn’t work at all. I wanted the manufacturers to film the movie in Mammoth but that idea did not work because they were more intent on bragging rights in Hawaii than selling their new design of bad skis.
I used to manage to get myself into all sorts of these nutty schemes and, most often, never got paid for my efforts. My wife has held the reins on me pretty tightly for the last 30 years. She figures since she attached her star to mine, we’d better be a productive operation. And I couldn’t do all I do without her.
I have no idea what ever happened to the ski shop owner in Honolulu, but as I recall I didn’t do a second performance at the local high school geometry class.
However, I do remember a showing in a geometry class in Boise, Idaho. The sponsor of the movie owned a small ranch nearby. We had dinner at his house before going to the show and he had to give some pills to a heifer. I had no idea how one fed pills to a heifer so I ended up with heifer gunk all over my tweed suit and red polka dot necktie and had to try to clean up in the school’s bathroom.
I think there was approximately 25 or less people watching the film at $1 each. After the show I bedded down in my bright red panel truck one more time before driving off to the next venue.
My show sizes varied hugely and I’d never really know what to expect until I made it to the theater…all depending upon the promotional abilities of the ski club putting on the show. I still remember what I was told after the third or fourth one. Thirteen people had shown up in a 350-seat auditorium and after the show the projectionist told me to remember two things. One: entertain the people that show up and feel sorry for the ones that didn’t make it because they didn’t hear about it; and, even more important, you are going to work all your life to be a success overnight.
So far I haven’t worked all my life.
Just as I did the showing in Honolulu by narrating it live, I did that for every show for the first 14 years I was in business. One of the main reasons I did them that way was I had no idea how to put my voice onto the film and put it in the mail and go surfing while it was being shown somewhere else.
I have no idea and I don’t have a record going back to when this whole process of producing a ski film with sound started. I do know that I never had a bad day in all those years of traveling and showing. I had a few bad days traveling from one town to the next, speeding, getting lost and almost every problem that can be connected to an automobile I borrowed or rented, but the showing each night was always new and exciting. I was very lucky to have people actually want to come see and hear the film and me.
Riding down from that snowfield on the Big Island of Hawaii after a day of making turns and seeing the Pacific stretched out below me, I had no idea I would later spend 12 years living on the north/weather shore of nearby Maui and windsurfing all summer and living in Vail, Colorado those same years and skiing all winter.
As we bounced down the dirt road finally reaching an altitude where I could once again breathe freely and since this was an all-inclusive Hawaiian island ski tour, it included a luau in the suburbs of Hilo. The luau was held at the Kon Tiki bar and bowling alley and the less said about the party the better.
The next day I flew to Honolulu and then on to Los Angeles to quickly get seated at the editing bench for yet another sequence for the next year’s film.
It’s been a nutso life!
Photo: Filmmaker Warren Miller (Warren Miller Freedom Foundation)