For the past seven decades, no ski season has officially commenced unless you have seen the latest Warren Miller movie. Spectacular visuals punctuated with Miller's trademark witty narration have delighted winter sports audiences all over the globe.
Miller's autobiography, “Freedom Found,” is an insightful look into what made him the “godfather of action-sports film making.”
However, the book is much more than that. It is an inspiring testament to the value of hard work a tribute to the will to succeed. Indeed, the theme of the book is a seemingly simple credo: “If you don't do it this year, you will be one year older when you do.”
The dust jacket of “Freedom Found” hints that the book is more than just a ski book. It's about: “Growing up poor, a stint in the Navy, creating a new business from scratch, overcoming a family embezzlement, three divorces, and staving off bankruptcy.” To be sure, it's all that and more. There's even some Michigan-related episodes.
The opening of the book deals with Miller's early years. His father was always in search of the next big deal (in lieu of actual work). His mother kept the family together by running a “medical clinic” that featured ozone generating machines. “I was the third, completely accidental and unwanted, child in a family that just did not have any emotional of financial support for me. Neglect and silence are the worst form of child abuse. A lot of people have had it a lot worse, but this was the way I had it. Mine was a strange family.”
Luckily, Miller had a grandfather in his life. “Grandfather Walter gave me two simple rules to live by. The first was, ' Never tell a lie, because you don't have a good enough memory.' The second one was , 'Never steal anything because two policemen are smarter than one crook.'”
Through it all, Miller persevered. “My early life did help me grow one talent: It sharpened my sense of finding ways to make money through entrepreneurship. No one can make you feel inferior without your permission.”
After stints as a surfer, service in the Navy, and a string of jobs, Miller discovered skiing. “I bought my first pair of skis for $2. When you come down the mountain from your first time on skis, you are a different person. The weariness in the mind slips away, and there's that wonderful feeling of being powered by that huge force called total freedom. The best place in the world to ski is where you're skiing that day.”
Related to skiing are some anecdotes of interest to skiers and non-skiers alike. One deals with the speed at which a chairlift travels. The chairlift was invented in a railroad yard in Omaha in the middle of July 1936. They built a scaffold in the back of a pickup truck and began scooping up a guy standing on a a pile of straw. The straw was not slippery, so they added train oil to the straw. After multiple attempts to scoop up the skier, they switched the skis for roller skates. “It worked, and the speed that the pickup truck scooped up the roller-skating skier is the same speed that a fixed-grip chairlift runs today.”
A significant bit of Michigan ski history also relates to chairlifts. The first chairlift ever built was moved from Sun Valley to Boyne Mountain. Everett Kircher had bought the land from a farmer for $1 because the hill was too steep to grow potatoes and he paid $4,800 for the lift. “Everett had his sign painter increase the vertical listed on the ski area's billboard every year by 5 or ten feet. Today, Boyne Mountain must be 100 feet higher on the sign than the year it opened!”
Oddly enough, our local ski resort, Caberfae Peaks, is also a part of chairlift history. A chairlift was developed at Mt. Snow, Vermont. Instead of having chairs hung on a cable, it had steel I-beams welded together to form a track, similar to an assembly line. It was a bumpy ride and a lot of grease was needed to keep it working. “They soon learned that grease is subject to gravity and it will fall on the chairs below.”
A look at Caberfae's history reveals that it had one of these chairlifts. “What was to be the resort's first chair lift was purchased from Mt. Snow, Vermont in 1957. Set up along the west side of the Number One run, the 2,000 foot, 104 bench double chair was not a typical cable lift, but instead utilized a series of chain conveyors. In addition to being very slow and incredibly noisy, the overhead chains spewed grease on the skiers riding on the chairs. Making matters worse, a poor design caused many of the metal parts to warp over the off-season. After running for the 1959-60 season, the chair was dismantled and sent back to the manufacturer.” (https://www.michiganskier.com/caberfaehistory/)
The main focus of “Freedom Found” is about Miller's ski film business. In the early years, he not only shot the film, directed and edited it, but also traveled from venue to venue personally providing live narration. There were times he showed the film100 nights in a row in 100 different cities. He called this Guerrilla Marketing. “It's something you learn when you don't have the financial clout to hire an expensive public relations or marketing firm: Hunger drives innovation.”
These showings became big events, like in Detroit in 1959. When the Ford Auditorium opened it was only filled to its 3,000 seat capacity three times during its first three years of operation. The first was for an opening of an epic Hollywood film. The second was for a performance by Jack Benny with the Detroit Symphony. The third was for Warren Miller's film, “Let's Go Skiing.” As Miller often said: “Entertain people who show up, and feel sorry for those who don't.”
Although Miller no longer has a hand in the making of new “Warren Miller” films, his spirit is evident in the ones currently being produced and show world wide. He lives in Montana and still skis. “Why we age is a biological question; how we age is a philosophical one.” As he says, “You've reached maturity when you discover the volume knob also turns to the left.” So, “die living.”