Ski artifacts: Warren Miller’s Bell & Howell camera, wood prototype Snurfer
Special to the Daily
• The Bell & Howell 70DR was one of the most rugged, well-designed and thoroughly dependable 16-millimeter motion picture cameras ever built. Weighing in at 6 pounds without lenses, it was a solid mass of steel and magnesium, with hardly a plastic part, other than the speed dial and footage indicator.
• Paul Curry, the owner of Jem Corp. gave this early 1970s Jem Corp. raw wood Snurfer prototype to Carl Hamm, who served as a personal pilot for Curry. You can see similar Snurfers on display when the Colorado Snowsports Museum reopens in December.
Editor’s note: The following is part of a series of articles compiled by the Colorado Snowsports Museum and Hall of Fame that will take a closer look at some of the artifacts and stories contained in the museum’s archives. The Colorado Snowsports Museum, located in the Vail Transportation Center, is currently undergoing a $2.4 million privately funded transformation that will refurbish the 24-year-old facility, add new exhibit space and modernize exhibits with interactive technology.
Skiing and the 10th Mountain Division are the cornerstones of Vail’s history and success, which the museum preserves and celebrates year-round. The museum has been a favorite family-friendly visitor attraction in Vail for 41 years and, with these improvements, will become the most comprehensive ski museum in the world.
VAIL — One of the more interesting items that have recently been reassessed by the Colorado Snowsports Museum is legendary filmmaker Warren Miller’s 16 millimeter, three-lens turret Bell & Howell camera. A skier, ski and snowboard filmmaker, artist and, more recently, newspaper columnist and book author, Miller has established himself as a unique American icon, as well as a constant source of inspiration to everyone who meets him, young or old
Miller’s film career started while working as a ski instructor in Sun Valley in the late 1940s. One day, he met two ski students, Chuck Percy, who was then president of Bell & Howell Camera Co., and Hal Geneen, comptroller of the company.
Percy appreciated Miller’s enthusiasm for wanting to create travel and ski films, and the following day, the two men told Miller they wanted to loan him one of the company’s new 16-millimeter cameras. Little did Percy, who went on to become an influential U.S. senator from Illinois, and Geneen, who rose to become chairman of the board of the ITT Corp., know at the time for the significance of its contribution to the world of sports films.
The first few days that Miller had the camera, he slept with it beside him. It would take three years, but he would finally pay off that camera, validating Percy’s faith in him in the process, as his filmmaking career was beginning to take off. Although the museum’s records are unclear as to whether or not the camera in its collection is the one that Percy loaned Miller, it is indeed a 70DR model from the 1940s, quite possibly making it the original camera.
The Bell & Howell 70DR may have had its biggest impact on the beginning of television news. In the mid- to late 1950s and early ’60s, when local stations first began to venture out of the studio and incorporate film into their nightly news programs, it was the well-proven Bell & Howell they chose to acquire black-and-white footage of local events.
Even after stations adopted more sophisticated magnetic sound-on-film cameras, the 70DR remained the workhorse “stringer” camera. Some of the most dramatic close-combat footage from the Vietnam War was shot by both NBC and CBS using the camera.
While Warren Miller’s success started with the Bell & Howell camera that Percy and Geneen loaned to him, it was his personal drive that propelled him to the lofty heights he enjoys today. His adventurous spirit has led him to almost every ski mountain in the world that has a chairlift, not to mention several that are only accessible by helicopter.
He was inducted into the Colorado Ski & Snowboard Hall of Fame in 1995.
Early days of snowboarding
On Christmas Day 1965, Sherman Poppen bound two children’s skis together and, in the process, created a new snowsport that would come to be known as snowboarding. By taking a single-piece board that was shorter and wider than a traditional ski and adding a rope for steering, Poppen invented the Snurfer. The following year, Poppen patented the idea as a “surf-type snow ski.”
Poppen licensed the product to the Brunswick Corp., which in turn, licensed the board to JEM Corp. The Colorado Ski & Snowboard Museum received a generous donation of this early 1970s JEM Corp. raw wood Snurfer prototype this past spring. The board was a gift from Jason Eller and Richard and Carl Hamm.
Then famous for its bowling advances of wooden lanes, pins and bowling balls, Poppen worked with Brunswick to create a board from the same laminated wood they used for bowling lanes. The boards gained in popularity, and Poppen’s original Snurfer became the first commercially available snow surfer.
Brunswick discontinued production in 1972, but JEM Corp. continued manufacturing the boards. In 1978, JEM Corp. sponsored the National Snurfing Championships in Muskegon, Michigan, the first competition to offer prize money.
The company continued its support until going out of business and abandoning the patent in the early 1980s. Ironically, this timing coincided with the period when snowboarding was beginning to experience significant growth.
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