I suppose those of us who have spent most of a lifetime loving the sport and lifestyle of skiing do give something back. We buy the clothes and equipment, pay for the lifts, food, instruction and mountain lodging.
In fact, it all adds up to a considerable amount, right? But late January a man died at 93 — a man whose lifetime contribution to skiing over nearly seven decades is incalculable.
Almost all skiers and boarders I have talked to about Warren Miller remember in some detail seeing their first Miller film. In fact beginning in 1950 with his first film, “Light and Deep,” the announcement of the newest Warren Miller film would break like an annual event that kicked off the ski season. It had the same psychological effect as, long before spring comes, Boston baseball fans relish the announcement of the day when pitchers and catchers report to spring training.
From the beginning of his career with an 8 mm camera he bought at age 22 in 1946, Miller’s life and huge popularity within the sport coincided with the growth and early spirit of skiing itself. Miller was a boy during the Depression who considered himself lucky to get a job helping at a fruit market in San Diego for 10 cents per week, considering the huge unemployment rate.
At that time, skiing was such a niche sport only relatively few in the Northeast — most from colleges such as Dartmouth — had ever tried. With a national focus on economic hard times followed by a world war that required personal sacrifices from Americans, skiing was regarded as an expensive frill for the wealthy. After the war and a tremendous release of pent-up energy and an economy starting to roll, Miller’s first films began to connect. They depicted a new world of grand alpine beauty, healthy, youthful fun, a dose of humor and sexiness. It all had a universal appeal even to those who had never set foot in an alpine setting or on a ski slope. After the decades of privation and war horrors, Americans wanted to have fun again, and Miller’s films were right there to sell fun to them.
But at the start of his career, all was not as glamorous as the lifestyle he depicted. He was living in a camper trailer in the parking lot of Sun Valley where he taught skiing and lived largely on wild game he hunted in the surrounding countryside. He also filmed hours of footage of life in this playground that, at first, he showed only to friends. But encouraged by how captivated they were by his films, Miller began showing them at rented halls in Los Angeles and quickly expanded to other cities around the country. Whether this stage of his career coincided with the huge ski boom of the ’50s and ’60s, or helped create it, remains a fairly fascinating question.
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Here’s how Dick Collins, founder of Teton Gravity Research, answered it in Outside Magazine: “Warren Miller is the man who made the snowball that created the whole industry.” This might raise an eyebrow, but I’m not sure you could seriously argue that Miller didn’t inject a whole cultural view about skiing and outdoor life — that, if you were a normal person like him, skiing should take precedence over any school or business activity going on in the flatlands. Such an attitude, of course, created the American icon, the ski bum, of whom Miller might in fact be the original incarnation. When one makes 50 films, some are naturally better than others, and a few of Miller’s films have been criticized as formulaic. Also, some of his deadpan wise-cracking often veered into shots of attractive women, hilarious wipeouts and foibles and hot dogging it down the slope. Among the luminaries to appear were Jean-Claude Killy, Suzy Chaffee and Stein Eriksen.
Sometimes criticized for the tone of his humor, Miller in his autobiography published last year, “Freedom Found,” explained that he considered the No. 1 mission of his films not to instruct or explain anything to viewers, but to entertain them. “What set my films apart,” he wrote, “it was the emphasis on entertaining people, which means making them laugh.”
As the sport of skiing and his career grew through the post-war years, Miller was traveling the U.S. and Europe — in fact all over the world — to bring visions of the ski world to an enthusiastic public. Never trained in formal filmmaking or directing, Miller had learned how to edit, add music and sound track and screen his films. As he neared the height of his career, he rented out halls to screen in up to 100 cities around the U.S., getting the preseason anticipation going.
And he had a sharp eye for changing trends and styles, from clothing to equipment and various fads that popped up. One such fad took hold after Miller’s 1954 film featured Eriksen performing his iconic front flip over his poles. Within the decade a whole movement of “hot dog’ skiing was leading the way to what we now know as freestyle, which included ballet in the early days.
His films included kayaking and surfing — an early love of his while growing up in southern California. But even after he sold the company that kept the trade name, Warren Miller Entertainment, the essential theme stayed the same. With every new twist in all his films, from sailing to snowboarding to big air and extreme skiing, that common theme, as Miller himself said often enough, was “man’s instinctive search for freedom.”