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The Last Ski Bum

Fall Line

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It should surprise no one that the sublime spirit of the ski bum keeps flickering across the screen as Warren Miller keeps giving us movies. Through the years, we’ve seen these happy wretches grubbing at jobs the most indigent modern resort grunt never would consider. But then we’ve watched them carve first tracks that prosperous tourists might kill for; through their eyes—and skis—we’ve glided to the essence of the ski experience.

Now, in the reflections stirred by the 50th anniversary of Warren Miller filmmaking, the reason behind the primacy of the ski bum in his body of work shines clear: Miller glorified the ski bum because, heart and soul, he is one himself. How this Southern California surfer parlayed a borrowed camera into perhaps the most visible entity in the history of North American skiing is, foremost, the story of a romantic vagabond head over heels in love with snowsport.

“I never figured I’d make any money doing this,” Miller says from his summer home on Orcas Island, north of Seattle. It’s here, at age 76, that he relishes partial retirement. “The first ski movie I saw wasn’t very good, but I realized the guy was making a living. I thought I could do at least as well.”

Whether anyone has ever made ski films as well as Miller and his successors (for more than a decade, Warren’s son, Kurt, and partner Peter Speek have owned and operated the entertainment company) can be a matter of debate. But it’s certain that no one seized the hearts and imaginations of more skiers. For generations, it has been the annual Warren Miller movie screening in November, not the first snowfall, that has signaled the true beginning of ski season. Shown in auditoriums across the country starting in the early Fifties—often with Miller as announcer, projectionist and ticket-taker—the films captured both the adventure and amusement of the experience at a time when most of America barely knew such a sport existed. We can only guess how many people picked up skiing upon seeing these shows.

Billy Kidd, America’s first male Olympic ski medalist, vividly recalls the personal impact. “I still remember the excitement I felt when my parents took me to see Warren Miller movies when I was a young kid in Vermont just starting to race. Through these images, I discovered there was a big ski world out there that I wanted desperately to be a part of.”

Journeys to faraway places became a Miller hallmark that, as much as anything, inspired the notion that traveling to ski destinations was not just for the wealthy. Through his lens, skiers have traveled from Chamonix, France, to Kitzbühel, Austria. Taking the concept a step further, Miller film crews today comb the globe for even more exotic locations, showing up in Bolivia and Argentina, Alaska and Ecuador. “Skiing is the ultimate freedom trip. It’s what I’ve been preaching for 50 years now,” he says.

Certainly, that was a major motivation when, in 1946, with a cohort named Ward Baker, Warren hitched up a trailer and began his germinal tour of Western ski mountains. Ultimately, they grounded in the parking lot at Sun Valley, Idaho, where they sustained themselves chiefly on small game bagged with Baker’s rifle. “The worst thing we ate was porcupine,” Warren remembers. “No matter how we cooked it, it tasted like the bark of the last tree it had eaten.”Sun Valley was not chosen by chance. “At the time, there were 15 chairlifts in North America, and Sun Valley had five,” he reflects. “It also had management that considered us local color instead of a nuisance.”

Miller’s fortunes turned in the winter of 1948 when, working as a ski instructor, he met Chuck Percy, president of Bell and Howell, which manufactured film equipment. Warren earlier had dabbled at filming with an 8-mm camera, but couldn’t afford the 16-mm unit needed to make a real movie. “Percy loaned me that first camera with the proviso that I could pay him back out of earnings. Four years later I finally had the $250 to payy it off.”

His inaugural feature, about California’s new Squaw Valley, used tape-recorded music from a friend who played organ in church. Warren’s trademark repartee evolved “because the films were so bad I had to say crazy things as a cover-up.” Of the dozen or so showings that first year, he received pay for half. “Once I passed a hat and got $7 and a ski patrol button.”

Perpetually underfinanced into the Fifties, Miller flitted from mountains to auditoriums, somehow scraping enough money together to make the next movie. Warren made films about subjects ranging from sailing to winemaking. “What fascinated me was what people did on weekends, without a court or keeping score. Everything was about having fun.”

Warren and skiing ultimately prospered together in an inadvertent symbiosis that swept both from small-time operators into the golden years. He gradually built his distribution base and rode the growing wave of skiers in the Sixties and Seventies. Today, his annual film tour hits 400 cities in the U.S. and puts 350,000 viewers in front of some of the finest ski footage filmed each season. The annual audience hits 750,000 worldwide. But that’s small change compared to the estimated 56 million viewers who tune in annually to see Warren Miller programming on his many cable television offerings. Warren continues to use his distinctive voice and wit to narrate the annual film, while jetting from the San Juans to a second house in Maui and a place at Big Sky for his latest venture as director of skiing for the exclusive Yellowstone Club. He remains a vagabond of sorts, but, like virtually everyone else who now works in the ski business, he’s no longer a bum.

“I remember when you could buy a good house in Aspen for $600, but nobody had that kind of money. In many ways, those were the best times of all,” he says.

In the end, you realize Warren may be the last of a species, the final member of a vanished tribe: the true ski bum. “The more material things you possess, the less freedom you have,” Warren concludes, his thoughts perhaps drifting back to his first ski home in a parking lot. “As I said, freedom is what skiing is all about.”