Peter Shelton

It Happened in Sun Valley

Posted in At the Movies, Ski history, Watch columns by pshelton on April 7, 2011

The last time I was in Sun Valley, Arnold Schwarzenegger, who was not yet the governator, broke his femur on the ski hill. The people I was with speculated about it: how big was the fall to have snapped a bone inside all that muscle?

The Ahnold is merely one of the latest in a long list of celebrities who have their pictures hanging in the gracious hallways of the Sun Valley Lodge. This year is Sun Valley’s 75th. It opened in December 1936, the first destination ski resort in America, with the world’s first chairlift. The guest list for that opening party in the middle of Idaho included East Coast moguls and Hollywood icons like Ginger Rogers and Claudette Colbert.

The photos are all handsome black and whites. Maria Bogner in her stretch pants. Gary Cooper and Clark Gable trying not to look uncomfortable traversing ankle-deep power. Cooper and Ernest Hemingway holding shotguns in the fall. Marilyn Monroe filming Bus Stop there in 1956. Louis Armstrong playing the Duchin Room. The Kennedys. Lucille Ball. Sonja Henie and Milton Berle on the set of Sun Valley Serenade. In fact, that 1941 musical, filmed largely on location in Sun Valley, plays on a continuous loop on one of the resort TV channels.

Railroad baron (and future governor of New York) Averell Harriman built Sun Valley to emulate the ski lodges he had visited in Europe. He hired an Austrian count, Felix Schaffgotsch, to ride the Union Pacific rails and find the perfect spot, one that would also increase passenger traffic on his western lines. The count was about to give up – he had deemed Aspen too high, Jackson too cold, Mt. Hood too wet – when he stepped off the coach in sheep-town Ketchum. There was a foot of fresh snow on the ground, and the sun was out. Is it always like this? he asked a local shepherd, looking around at the treeless alabaster hills. Oh, yes, came the answer. Always.

Of course, it wasn’t always like that. Sun Valley doesn’t really receive all that much snow in an average winter. But we’ll come back to that in a minute.

Harriman hurried the elegant, 148-room Lodge to completion in about seven months. He hired the world’s greatest skiers, Austrians Otto Lang and Friedl Pfeifer to come over from Depression Europe to staff his ski school. And he hired a designer of conveyor systems for loading banana boats to build him an overhead-cable single-chair lift.

Maybe most important of all, he hired a New York ad man, Steve Hannigan, to create a promotional poster, and Hannigan’s studio shot of a sweaty, shirtless model up to his boot tops in soap flakes more than did the trick – it created the enduring image of skiing as a healthy, sexy, glamorous endeavor.

Hannigan also came up with the name, Sun Valley. Which is apt. It is sunny there. A little too sunny. Snowfall was thinner than Schaffgotsch was led to believe. Some years were good, others not. Over time, the area suffered a slow decline. Until it was purchased in 1977 by Earl Holding, a Salt Lake City Mormon of humble beginnings who built a Wyoming gas station into the Little America truck stop chain and then took over Sinclair Oil. Earl built the world’s biggest automated snowmaking system on Baldy Mountain at Sun Valley, covering half of its 2,000 acres in man-made base.

He also added high-speed chairs and three huge log-and-stone day lodges, each of which falls on the Donald Trump side of modest. But never mind. Holding is a hero to many in Sun Valley, and he was honored on the final night of my recent visit with induction into the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Hall of Fame.

The Hall planned its annual banquet to coincide with International Skiing History Week and Sun Valley’s 75th. Five hundred sixty people paid $250 a plate to attend.

In addition to Holding, inductees included 1970s Olympian Bobby Cochran, who described himself as a “Vermont hick,” but is anything but. Sun Valley native Muffy Davis is a paralympian who grew up side-by-side with Picabo Street until she severed her spine in a training fall at age 14. Former downhiller, Lake Tahoe speed demon Daron Rhalves was honored. As was freeskiing pioneer and free spirit Shane McConkey, posthumously.

The best acceptance speech of the night came from Glen Plake, he of the multi-hued Mohawk and the infectious, high-pitched cackle. He predicted he would cry, and he did, a couple of times. Once recalling a ski day with a friend who “ain’t supposed to be here” – he had just come out of an avalanche-induced coma. And once when thanking his in-laws: “Imagine, the parents of a Texas beauty queen giving their daughter to me!”

He said, “You know when you have to fill out those customs forms on the airplane coming back into the United States, and it says occupation? I write SKIER (cackle, cackle). And on the IRS forms, occupation: SKIER (cackle, cackle).”

He isn’t elegant or refined. But he is honest and pure of spirit. And he is a movie star.


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