Vail Valley Voices: Warren Miller monkeying around with skis
Vail, CO, Colorado
In the old days, any hill of any kind that had a rope tow and was within walking distance of a muddy parking lot was called a ski resort.
The rope always broke sometime just after lunch while you were hanging on and riding up the steepest part of the hill. If a rope tow was a ski resort, then in 1936 there was a ski resort at the summit of Cahuenga Pass in North Hollywood where Universal Studios stands today.
I rode my single speed, balloon-tired bicycle from Silver Lake, through Hollywood and up over Cahuenga Pass headed for the San Fernando Valley. I had ridden the six miles or so because of a new tourist attraction that I had heard about called Monkey Island..
Some Depression survivor-visionary had built a 43-foot plaster and cement mountain and surrounded it with a 30-foot-wide and 3-foot-deep pool of stagnant, slimy, green water. You paid your 10 cents and then you got to stand alongside of the fake lagoon/moat and watch about a hundred under-nourished, morose monkeys sitting on the concrete mountain watching you watching them.
For another 5 cents, you could buy a bag of peanuts and throw them to the monkeys. If a peanut fell short and in the water, the more adventuresome of the monkeys would wade part way out into the water and try to retrieve it. Some customers tested the monkeys by throwing their peanuts into the deeper water of the moat to see if they would wade out farther and retrieve them. However the monkeys never got in water over their knees.
The combination ticket seller, ticket taker, peanut salesman, monkey keeper and owner told me later, “My monkeys have been slowly disappearing and I finally figured out that they were learning to swim across the moat at night to escape their concrete island prison.” His suspicions had been confirmed the day before when an alert newspaper photographer had snapped a picture of a monkey in an orange tree about a mile away from his island.
As I gazed across Monkey Island and tried unsuccessfully to understand all of the ramifications of such a potential money-making tourist attraction, I could see something moving on the hill about half a mile away. It looked as though half a dozen bent-over people were sliding up and down the hill below the solitary oak tree.
Eventually I grew tired of the morose monkeys staring at me staring at them and climbed on my bicycle and pedaled over to see what was going on at the green grassy meadow under the lone oak tree.
For the first time in my life I was standing close to a genuine 1936 rope tow and a few skiers having a wonderful but sweaty time. It was so hot that the men were making ski turns with their shirts off.
Austrian ski instructor Sepp Benedikter had mounted an automobile wheel on the trunk of the old oak tree and the power to run the rope came from the jacked up rear wheel of his truck. This all happened on a hill with a great view of Burbank and the San Fernando Valley full of orange trees. In place of snow Sepp and some of his skiing friends had hauled half a dozen truckloads of pine needles down from the nearby San Bernardino Mountains and spread it around with pitchforks and rakes.
I laid my bicycle down and walked up in the tall, green grass to watch those skiers on pine needles and squashed green grass. For the first time in my life I heard German words like stembogen, vorlage, and sitzmark-words that you never hear on a ski hill anymore.
This ski slope could not have been longer than 200 feet. I was awestruck when I got to the top of it and sat in the shade of the oak tree, listening to the rope and the hum of the automobile wheel it turned around. The people on the skis were free to go all the way down to the edge of the pine needles.
As I was absorbing all of these new sights and sounds for a 12-year-old kid, the remains of an acorn landed right in front of me quickly followed by another and another. Looking up I saw two of the escapees from Monkey Island.
They had found an ample supply of acorns to live on and enough crazy skiers to watch and keep them entertained. Not only had they learned to swim, they had learned to throw nuts at people.
The next weekend, I brought a friend along on my bicycle trip to Monkey Island and The Oak Tree Ski resort. There was a closed sign on the entrance to Monkey Island, the water had been drained from the lagoon/moat, the monkeys were all gone and so was the rope tow.
I found out 20 years later that Sepp Benedicter, with his rope tow, his band of skiers and his Ford truck, had moved down to a sand dune between Manhattan Beach and El Segundo to take advantage of the summer sea breezes. I’m not certain where the man and the monkeys went.
But I have been monkeying around on skis ever since that 1937 summer day.
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