The phone rang one cold morning in January, 2006. Warren Miller was on the line.
The phone rang one cold morning in January, 2006. Warren Miller was on the line.
“Ron,” he said. “I’m afraid we’ve lost Otto Lang.”
Miller, the voice, and in some ways the heart, of U.S. skiing for longer than I have been alive, could barely get out the words. That trademark voice, normally heard cracking jokes and waxing poetic about snow play, kept breaking.
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He apologized, and finished passing on the news.
Lang had died the day before at the age of 98. The man who literally brought modern ski technique to the U.S. in the 1930s from his native Europe lived out his retirement years in West Seattle. He was a charming, kind man, and, to his last days, as lively a soul as I ever encountered.
Miller, hired by Lang as a ski instructor in Sun Valley in 1946, felt the same affection for Lang. And when he said “we” had lost him, he didn’t mean just their contemporaries. He meant we. Us. Everybody who gets it about skiing and snowboarding. The snow sports community as a whole, which, in spite of its size, remains relatively close knit.
You can’t fake that kind of emotion. Miller felt a big part of him, and all that he enjoyed and believed in, pass on that day. And people on the planet understood the historical import of Otto’s passing the way Miller did.
“It’s the absolute end of an era,” MIller said that day. “He was the last of that generation. No one else is left.”
That’s why in today’s Restless Native column in the Seattle Times, I referred to Miller as “the closest thing the sport has to an oracle.” He is that, not just because he’s made a career in snow sports films, but because he has lived an entire movement, from its roots in the early 40s to present day.
This is particularly true in the Northwest, where Miller got his start as a goofball cameraman at Sun Valley six decades ago, chasing girls and living on ketchup soup in a trailer in the parking lot. America’s original ski bum was there to see, and ski, all of it.
“When I started, there was one chairlift in the state of Washington — Mount Spokane, that was it,” he says. There were three chairlifts in California, only 15 in all of North America.”
It’s no accident that the first showings of his first-ever ski flick, “Deep and Light,” in the winter of 1949-50, were in Port Angeles (where he made a profit of $8), Seattle and Vancouver B.C. And it’s no accident that Miller, one of the world’s most frequent travelers to the world’s greatest natural places, chose to call the Northwest home when he “retired,” or tried to, more than 20 years ago.
A recent visit to Warren at home on Orcas Island provided, as usual, reams of material that just couldn’t fit into a traditional newspaper story. Below are some of the choice leftovers, Warren Miller unfiltered. So without further ado…
A Southern California native, he finally chose to call Orcas Island home because … well, wouldn’t you if you were him?
“I did my live show in Seattle for 20 or 21 years in a row (in November, to show a ski film) before I ever saw a sunny day. And I couldn’t figure out how anybody could live here. The first time I came in the summer, we took a ferry down to Friday Harbor. When we left Anacortes, it was one of those days — cobalt blue skies, Mt. Baker out, and some sailboats cruising back and forth in front of them and I felt that I had died and gone to heaven right at that moment. I had never seen anything so beautiful and peaceful. I don’t like the word karma, but I find I’m using it a lot now. Because there really is a special kind of karma in this part of the world. I can’t define karma, I don’t know what it is, and I don’t care, but it’s a word that kind of fits.”
Seriously: He thinks a lot of you folks figured out what life was about long before he did.
“The lifestyle here (on Puget Sound) is just different. You don’t need to go live in Boulder or Sun Valley or someplace to try to keep up with anything. In the final analysis, just by living here, you are the Johnsons, I think, that everybody else would like to keep up with.”
He owns two identical copies of the same lodge-style house: One on the water at Orcas, one slopeside in Montana.
“When we (he and wife Laurie) built our place in Montana at the Yellowstone Club, we spent a couple days with a checklist, going over the house: What would we change? Then we sat down one night at dinner, got the lists out, and the lists were blankNothing I would change. So if you came to Montana to go skiing with us, you would sit in the exact same furniture, in front of the same fireplace. Same bedroom here, same offices upstairs, same kitchen, same dishwashers. Same everything. Except it’s on the side of a hill.”
(This also prevents, Miller notes, him getting up in the middle of the night in a strange place and peeing in the closet.)
He was a multi-tasker way before multi-tasking was cool: Miller for years lugged around a 10-pound handheld camera, which made his first 25 films, and now resides upstairs in his office.
“It was 14 years before I hired an assistant cameraman, and for those first 14 years I did the photography, the editing, the music, wrote the shows, wrote the scripts. Then I went on the road with my tape recorder and did all the shows personally. And I enjoyed doing it. It’s just what happened.”
(Speaking of his office: He’s also very organized. Miller has shelves filled with three-ring binders containing materials for movies and books and other stuff. One is labeled simply: “ONE LINERS.”)
He still thinks the front steps to heaven are covered with snow.
“I ask people if they can remember the first time they ever turned a pair of skis. First time they got on. If that was past the age of 5, they can remember every single thing that happened that day: who they went to the snow with, what kind of car it was, what you had for lunch, the clothes you wore, which lift you finally got on, how tired you were.
“I really believe in my heart that that first turn you make on a pair of skis is your first taste of total freedom, the first time in your life that you could go anywhere that your adrenaline would let you go. And I show that in my films. I didn’t preach it. But once you experience that freedom — I’d personally narrate that show over 100 times a year — and I came to the conclusion that man’s search for freedom is embedded in our genes. That’s what everybody wants.”
He thinks most modern ski films are fine, but laments how they’ve left out the potentially largest audience — beginners.
“It seems to me what they’re really pushing is helicopter skiing on slopes that’re over 45 degrees. Start to finish. There’s none of this, ‘Wow, here’s Steve Stunning and Grace Goodenough, your potential ski school director at Harmony Hill,’ to get people to realize that … you don’t have to leave Bellingham and to to Mt. Baker and climb up and jump over crevasses and off of cornices. You go to Mt. Baker and go on the beginning lift.”
One recent film he saw — “Mount St. Elias” — stood out from all the others.
“An Austrian and two other guys climb Mt. St. Elias which is 18,000 feet above the salt water in Alaska. They climbed that sucker and skied down it. It has more production value than a Hollywood production. Helicopter photography forever. What they accomplished and the way they depicted it and how hard the camera people worked … It’s a film I really wished I had the ablity to say I had something to do with, but I didn’t. Somebody else did the whole thing and they did a fabulous job, because it was not 143 upside-down hoopy-doopy twists through the air over a manmade chasm. I just have a different, if you will, artistic bent.”
He still remembers Mount Baker’s late, great Slush Cup, where skiers wound hit a slushy spring lake at high speeds.
“We filmed the Slush Cup in ’53 for the first time — back when it was just alcohol and not drugs, before they shut it down, which was a shame. A few wreck it for the many.”
In 1988, Seattle-area concert promoters who had bought into Miller’s business five years earlier really did ask him to take voice lessons.
With their arrangement, “All I had to do was come in and write the script, write funny lines and practice and go out and narrate. At the end of nearly five years, it was time to renew. The guy that was quote-unquote the president of the company at that time said, ‘Warren, come in and sit down, I’ve got something I want to talk to you about. I said ‘OK, what is it?’ They said ‘Well, we want to reserve the first week of September, we have a surprise for you. I don’t do surprises. What is the surprise? ‘Well, we’ve rented two hotel rooms in Carmel, and we’ve hired the best voice coach in the state of California to work with you for a week. And I said ‘Well, gee, that’s kind of interesting. Let me think about that and I’ll call you back. And I thought, after five years if they didn’t know a really important integral part of the movies I was making was my voice and my stories and they wanted to turn me into a CBS news analyst, then did I want to renew the contract?”
He didn’t, choosing instead to sell the company to son Kurt. But that’s another story…
He still writes a weekly lifestyle/humor column for a string of small newspapers in the West, with subjects ranging from skiing in Europe, to finding a new home for his imported crepe maker at Sun Valley.
“I write what I want to write about what I want to write, and for 25 bucks a week if the newspaper doesn’t like it, they can skip a week and pick it up the following. I don’t have to sit down and write, if you will, stuff that makes people almost sick with laughter and then have some guy cut it out of a movie because he doesn’t believe there should be jokes in ski movies. “
He believes the world can always use a little humor.
“I try to put a little wrinkle in everything because the world wants to laugh and nobody really helps ’em out.”
He believes the key to success is doing something you feel passionate about.
“I had the longest running film career in the history of Hollywood. (But) I don’t sit here and profess to say I knew what I was doing. Billy Graham — I wonder if he really knows what he’s doing? He really believes in what he preaches. I’m not a religious person. But I really believed in what I was doing.”
It still seems odd to be recognized more for your voice than your face.
“When I was doing the movies and traveling all the time, I never rally had very much time to talk to people, because I was always heading somewhere else. Then in the last few years, it’s almost a daily occurrence, I don’t care where I am. They’ll hear my voice — I guess it’s different, apparently it is. If I’m really in a grumpy mood on an airplane, I say ‘No, I get mistaken for him quite often. I sell used cars, that’s how I get tan.’
“But I usually say yes. And they say ‘I recognize your voice, I just want to tell you how much you’ve changed my life. I was living in hoopy doopy Iowa, your film came to town, the next thing I know my wife and I are in our van driving to Colorado. We went back and sold the farm, and you’re now eating at this restaurant we own in Aspen.'”
Favorite voice-recognition moment:
One time, Miller says, he was on a chairlift in Colorado next to a friend. He began talking and a person on the other end of the bench leaned across — over top of the late Sen. Jack Kemp, who he didn’t recognize, and blurted: “You’re Warren Miller!”
He’s always found it ironic that WME producers believe humor and ski films don’t mix. Because, after all, what do people remember most about his classic films?
“Falling off the chairlift.”
More and more people say they’re staying away from the current film to show their support for him.
“Right and left. Each year, fewer and fewer people, as I understand it, are attending.”
He agrees tickets to the current film are expensive, but it’s all relative.
“I used to how in the Metropolitan Theatre in Seattle, back when there was a Metropolitan Theatre. We charged a dollar. Of course that’s 1950 . But it was ’56 or ’57 before I could get my ski-club sponsors to raise it to a dollar and a quarter. They said, ‘You can’t raise it that much. It’s 25 percent. People won’t come!'”
He’ll localize the content in his upcoming “Evening With Warren Miller” lectures, which are sort of inspired by Bill Cosby’s old easy chair chats, and which will benefit his Warren Miller Freedom Foundation, which promotes entrepreneurship.
“I’ll tell stories. I could talk about 15 charlifts in North America when I got started. I can talk about the meteoric rise in a one-dollar lift ticket to a two-dollar. I can talk about Snoqualmie Pass before Webb Moffett had enough quarters stashed away from his slot machines to build his first chairlift. I can also talk about Benjamin Netanyahu skiing at the Yellowstone Club for three days, and his body guard falling and having the world’s most collosal yard sale. Skis, poles, helmet, goggles, all the armament … “
All he has to do to stay humble is remember selling that first film.
“I took it around to Southern California ski clubs, showed them the film and narrated it. I went to 11 ski clubs before I found a club to sponsor it. They all said the same thing: ‘We really love the photography. The music is sort of, eh, passable. If you get somebody else to narrate it, we’ll do it. ‘ “