June 7, 2013
The many twists and turns of the Pasadena freeway was behind me as I drove up to the front door of the five-star deluxe Huntington Hotel in my high mileage 1950, fire-engine red Chevy panel delivery truck. I already had over an hour of driving in Southern California traffic behind me, and my eyes were burning badly from the dense layer of September smog.
I was picking up six Olympic ski jumpers from the hotel.
Our destination was the Los Angeles County Fair in Pomona, where Sepp Benedicter had built a Nordic ski jump scaffold that was over 150 feet high. His grand plan was to cover the in run and landing hill with ground-up ice and demonstrate skiers flying through the air for 150 or more feet. I was hired to pick up the jumpers every day after lunch from around the swimming pool, haul them to Pomona in my overloaded truck to the site of the jump, be the announcer during the event and then haul them back to the Huntington Hotel at night.
For all of this I was being paid twice as much as I could earn as a carpenter at $16 a day.
When we got to Pomona, I took one look at this 150-foot-high scaffold and I was certainly glad I was not an Olympic ski jumper.
In 1951, no one on a team could get 15 cents in payment for their Olympic ability. Yet all of these jumpers, including Art Devlin, had been flown from their home towns in the Midwest and farther east, received room and board and swim trunks for their morning around the pool during their stay at the Huntington Hotel and all the other first-class amenities.
The six pack of Olympic ski jumpers hunkered down in the back of my delivery truck for the long ride to Pomona in the middle of the dense smog season.
Once we finally got to the jump scaffold, it loomed over the fairgrounds like the Eiffel Tower does in Paris. From the rickety top of the in run where I would do my announcing, you could hear the blue ribbon pigs, donkeys and roosters in the nearby 4H club exhibits.
As I stood at the top clutching the railing, I realized I had never announced anything in my life and they had gotten me for less than the cost of a taxi from Pasadena. I had taken the job to get more experience to do a better job narrating my second feature-length ski film.
About 2 o’clock, several very large ice block-filled trucks appeared at the outrun of the landing hill and the process began of grinding up the ice and spraying it on the landing hill and the in run. I don’t have a clue how many tons of ice got ground up, but it was a lot.
The first ton or so melted on impact with the hot wooden landing hill, but gradually the landing hill looked almost like a normal landing hill in Minnesota, except for the cotton candy and beer Steuben alongside the bottom of the hill where the jumpers could sign autographs if they survived their flight and landing. The fee for the autographs was tax deductable as a donation to the Olympic team.
Sepp Benedicter had a strong reputation for his ability to promote skiing, and it really showed when he pulled this entire thing together.
That first afternoon there were a half a dozen or so volunteers dressed in their best ski outfits waiting to put on their skis and side stepping the ice into a less lumpy and more user-friendly to ski jumpers surface.
The in-run was steep enough and long enough for the jumpers to reach 35 or 40 miles an hour when they started jumping, or flying. If there was a mistake by a jumper on the in-run, or they landed wrong, they could fly off the side of the landing hill and land on lukewarm melted ice in large puddles about an inch or two deep on top of hot asphalt. It would not be a pretty sight.
My announcements ranged from the origin of Nordic ski jumping to a resume of each individual jumper, especially Sepp Benedicter who at one time ran a summer ski resort with a rope tow and on pine needles less than two miles from Hollywood and Vine.
Standing 150 or more feet up in the smog above the hot asphalt on a wobbly scaffold, I hung on tight as the scaffold sometimes rocked a lot more than I felt safe with.
By the end of each set of jumps, I tried to get my announcing station moved to the bottom of the hill, but Sepp said, “No way.”
Between the afternoon jumps and the evening show, more and more s men and women dressed in ski clothes showed up to sidestep the in-run and the landing hill. The smart sidestepping packers made sure they were at the top of the landing hill when the jumps were finished so they could ski down making regular turns on their skis.
Emile Allais and his famous French ski technique was still being taught in California, and a couple of his disciples demonstrated his revolutionary technique on the landing hill. It suddenly became my announcing job to explain the difference between what was making their ski turns work and what was making the Arlberg turns when someone would do a snowplow turn down the same short hill.
One of the ice packers got so excited by having his skis on on this hot September night that when he got to the County Fairgrounds in Pomona, he discovered he had brought two left ski boots.
He could turn much better to the right than the left, and it was up to me to explain to the dwindling crowd why boots worked that way.
As the ski jumping event progressed, I bought three rolls of commercial Kodachrome to film it for my next feature ski film. I didn’t know that this type of film required a special filter, so the footage I shot came out with a blue green caste that I explained away by blaming it on the dense smog.
On the way back to the Huntington Hotel with the Olympic jumpers half asleep in the back of my truck, they all pronounced the off-season event a success. They had gotten free first class airplane tickets to Los Angeles, along with free room and board for two weeks and X dollars per day of spending money for any unanticipated emergencies.
When I started showing the feature films, the ski officials of the amateur status commission of the Olympics told me I couldn’t show the footage of the jumpers because I would ruin their amateur status.
The Olympic jumping tournament at the Los Angeles County Fair was never held the second time. Maybe it is because Olympic freestyle athletes are doing quadruple back flips with triple twists off of the same-sized jump hill.
Filmmaker Warren Miller lived in Vail for 12 years, and his column began in the Vail Daily before being syndicated to over 50 publications. For more of Miller’s stories and stuff log onto Warren Miller.net. For information about his foundation, The Warren Miller Freedom Foundation, go to http://www.warrenmiller.org.