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In 1935, at the age of 11, I realized the rich financial rewards offered by the “film business” when I discovered several 400-foot rolls of highly flammable 35-mm film in the dark recesses of my grandfather’s basement. The film was at the bottom of a nail barrel, right next to the wine that was fermenting in a big earthen crock. Grandpa occasionally sipped a bit of the grape, and my Christian Scientist grandmother always pretended not to know.
I secretly cut and rolled short pieces of the nitrate film into tight rolls. A one-inch diameter roll of 35-mm nitrate film, if tightly wound and then lit with a match, will burn very slowly and generate enough foul smelling smoke to empty a school room. For only five cents, my classmates could purchase one roll of flammable film wrapped in plain-white paper. Each roll had a hand lettered label that read, “STINK BOMB.”
It was my first entrepreneurial adventure. It was also my first travel adventure. I got to travel to the superintendent’s office in the back of a police car. But with the profits from this venture, I purchased my first camera for 35 cents, a genuine “Univex Camera with sports viewfinder”. Skip ahead to 1946, when I had just been discharged from the U.S. Navy. I was walking down Market Street in San Francisco when I was attracted by a motion picture camera in a store window. Soon, I had endorsed my $100 mustering-out check to purchase my first movie camera, an 8-mm Bell & Howell with a single lens.
I also bought a homemade 4-by-8-foot trailer with a kitchen in the back and a bedroom that could sleep two. I lived in this trailer with my friend Ward Baker, and together we traveled and skied almost every day that winter. We camped out and lived free in the parking lots of the West’s finest resorts and skied more days than most people get to ski in a lifetime.
We now had 22 rolls of 8-millimeter movies of our season-long ski trip, including cameo shots of celebrities like Gary Cooper, Groucho Marx, Darryl Zanuck, John Wayne, Claudette Colbert and Ernest Hemingway, who had all visited Sun Valley. My plan was to show those films in Sun Valley the following winter.
Soon, total strangers began to invite me to dinner. “Oh, and by the way,” they’d say, “will you bring your projector, your screen and your ski movies with you?”
About the 10th time I showed our ski movies in exchange for a macaroni-and-cheese dinner, I began to realize that I was covering up some of my bad photography with remarks that made people laugh. That was the birth of my “mean-spirited humor.” Destiny and a dash of entrepreneurialism—mixed with unpleasant memories of my poverty-stricken childhood—were already shaping the future direction of my life. I was already 23 years old.
Then came my first promotional coup. During our first winter in Sun Valley, a writer/photographer had taken some photos and written a story about us living in the parking lot while “subsisting on frozen jack rabbits.” The story had appeared in a national magazine. Armed with that article, I visited several trailer manufacturing companies and used a very simple sales pitch: “Here’s what Ward and I did last winter, and here is some of the publicity we got. We’re going to ski again all next winter. We can get this same kind of publicity for YOUR TRAILER COMPANY.”
At the fifth trailer company I visited, I ran into an old friend whom I had surfed with for years. “Hey, why not?” he said. “You can use one of our new models. Just return it in the spring.”
It pays to have friends at the top. Actually, my friend was the assistant inventory control manager, and he got fired when his boss found out he had loaned us the trailer for the winter. But by that time we were already living it up in Sun Valley.