Warren Miller: A red-velvet start to filmmaker’s career
Vail, CO, Colorado
In February of 1949 after two months of teaching snowplow turns on Half Dollar in Sun Valley Idaho, I was still very excited about my job.
I was always given the absolute beginners. They were people who had never had a pair of 7-foot, stiff, wooden skis in their lives.
Otto Lang, who ran the ski school, didn’t let me take my classes on the beginning ski lift until they had learned how to make good snow plow turns, so my pupils had to hike up the hill in order to make turns on the way down. Usually by Tuesday or Wednesday, I was allowed to take my pupils on the very flat beginners chair lift.
One particular week I had eleven “never-befores,” as I called them. One man was so far out of shape that every day during the two-hour lunch break he would go back to his hotel room, order a room service lunch and spend most of the time in a bath tub full of hot water.
On Tuesday night that week, it snowed four inches. The next morning, before I headed out, I hung my 8mm movie camera on my belt so I could get some back-lit shots during my lunch hour.
After class that afternoon, one of my students named Hal asked me, “How do you like your Bell and Howell camera?”
I enthusiastically replied, “I already have two winters of filming skiing and two summers of making surfing movies and my Bell and Howell has never failed me yet.” Then I went on to tell him, “Someday I’m going in the travel film lecture business, but I’m going to make my travel movies about skiing.”
That night we rode the sleigh to Trail Creek Cabin for dinner with his friend Chuck Percy when Hal said, “Warren, tell Chuck what you told me about your Bell and Howell camera.”
I did, and then Chuck said, “I’m glad you like the camera because I’m the president of the company.”
At that time of my life, I had never met the president of anything and thought maybe he made the leather carrying cases or something such as that.
We talked further during dinner, and then Hal asked, “Why are you teaching skiing instead of making your travel adventure ski film?”
I replied, “I want to buy a 16mm Bell and Howell 70 da.” Then I told them why I chose that particular camera. I already knew that it cost $256 and I was only making $125 a month, and the camera was way out of my financial realm of reality. But maybe someday in the distant future, I would be able to save up enough money.
The next day, Friday, the three of us had lunch together. That’s when I found out that my pupil, Hal Geneen, was the comptroller of Bell and Howell. I didn’t know what a comptroller was, but he said, “Chuck and I had a talk at breakfast and we are going to loan you your camera to get your business started and you can pay us out of your future earnings.”
I was still so naive that I didn’t really understand that by them loaning me the camera of my dreams, they would be jump starting my ski movie business by several years.
I gave them my Sun Valley address at lunch on the last day of their vacation and went back to my side business of manufacturing my nylon parachute shroud shoelaces at night. A month or so later, the season was winding down and the snow
was rapidly melting on Dollar.
Within two weeks, skiing was finished as the lifts on Baldy shut down and three days later a package arrived.
The package contained the promised Bell and Howell 16mm 70 da movie camera with a wide-angle lens, a normal lens, a 2-inch telephoto and a set of directions. It arrived in a beautiful leather carrying case lined with red velvet.
Hal Geneen and Chuck Percy had also included two rolls of 100-foot 16mm Kodachrome daylight loads, so I could start my movie making career right away. I spent the next month or so with that camera by my bed where I could reach out and touch it.
Since the ski season was over and I had switched my guaranteed-income job from teaching skiing to washing dishes at night in the Challenger Inn, I spent as much spare time as possible building a waterproof box for my new camera. I did it so that when I left the valley to go surfing, I could take the camera out on my surfboard and take close up movies of surfers, as well as learn to run the camera while I was riding a wave.
Life was full of good luck that spring, despite having to wash several thousand dishes every night at the Challenger Inn for the same pay as when I was teaching. I still made $125 a month, ate three meals a day and I had a place in the barracks to sleep with my wonderful new camera.
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.