Vail Daily column: Bob Parker: Vail’s first marketing director
Editor’s note: These are Roger Brown’s memories of the early days in Vail.
I came out West as soon as I could after graduating from Dartmouth College in 1957. I had seen one of John Jay’s ski travel lecture films and naively thought that would be a great way to make a living, shooting ski films all around the world and showing them at ski clubs. My first lecture film, “Out to Ski,” was well enough received, but I didn’t get many bookings, and I was soon broke as a result.
Fortunately, a job opened up with Head Skis. They were looking for a Rocky Mountain rep, and Howard Head liked Ivy League graduates.
I was also trying to sell a still photo stories, and that led me Bob Parker, who at the time was the editor of Skiing magazine. We got talking, and he told me he was about to leave the magazine and go to work for a new ski area that was about to be built west of Vail Pass on U.S. Highway 6 (soon to be Interstate 70).
“We are going to need a promotional film. Are you interested?” Bob asked.
“Wow. You bet!” I replied.
“Trouble is, we don’t have much money. We will pay your expenses, but can we give you a building lot instead of cash for your labor?”
It only took me a second or two to say “Yes.” I knew I would be moonlighting the film while I was working for Head but figured if I got everyone skiing on Heads, the company would be happy. As it turned out, everyone I filmed was already on Head Skis, so that was easy.
The Head sales manager could see where my real interests were and canned me, but by that time, the Vail film was out. Bob showed it to Don Fowler, who was the regional manager for United Airlines. Next thing I knew, I was making a film on Colorado skiing for United.
Don and Bob could see the handwriting on the wall. They were sure they could convince Eastern skiers to ski in Colorado instead of Europe and that meant ticket sales for United. The film was called “Ski Country, U.S.A.” It was the second of several films I made for ski areas, ski companies and other airlines.
Bob didn’t look at other Colorado ski areas as competition. He saw them as partners in promotion, and he was right. It was the critical mass created by all of the Colorado ski areas that first convinced United to make the film.
The ski-area managers and owners in those days were all expert skiers. Many of them had served in the 10th Mountain Division during World War II. They all knew one another and were on friendly terms. To call them colorful characters would be an understatement. It was a very exclusive club, and Bob was right in the middle of it.
If I needed deep powder shots in the Back Bowls, I could call Bob and ask him to close the Bowls for a few hours after a storm while we laid down some fresh tracks.
Bob hired Squaw Valley Olympic Gold Medal winner Roger Staub to be Vail’s ski-school director, but Roger didn’t get that involved in ski-school management. Bob wanted him primarily for public relations. He made him available to us for filming not only in Vail but at other resorts, as well. Roger was poetry in motion.
After creating “Ski Country, U.S.A.,” Bob formed a group called Ski the Rockies. We added resorts in Utah, Idaho, California, Washington, Oregon, New Mexico and Alberta, Canada, to our filming locations. More airlines joined our efforts: Western, Frontier and TWA. We made a moody, sophisticated film for Head Skis, but it was our films with the Hart acrobatic skiers that captured the public’s enthusiasm. We were on a roll.
I think it was everyone’s love of the sport that initially made the resorts successful. The managers knew they had to make money, but if a beautiful, fresh powder day came along, it was hard to find anyone sitting in their offices.
Word got out, and celebrities showed up in Vail. They wanted to be part of the local ski scene. You never knew whom you might meet: entertainers, big businessmen and even a president. Vail was an unpretentious place in those early days. Money was something that wasn’t talked about. Some had it, some didn’t and so what. How you skied mattered more than whom you were.
My wife-to-be Monika was at a cocktail party at Bob and Barbara Parker’s house near us when I noticed the venison roast I was cooking was about done, so I went down to tell her. She was talking to a fellow who looked familiar, but I couldn’t place him. I interrupted their conversation.
“The roast is done.”
“That sounds good. Can I come?”
“Roger, can I introduce you. This is Leonard Bernstein.”
“Well, sure, but I’m short on chairs.”
I had just gone through a divorce, so there wasn’t much furniture in the house, just a big oak dining room table and a Turkish rug I had picked up in Erzurum when I was filming the search for Noah’s Ark on Mount Ararat. I can still see Lenny, lying on his back on the rug, conducting a Turkish folk music record I had picked up in Ankara. He loved that music, but when I put on a Segovia piece he grumbled, “The guitar is not a classical instrument.”
And he asked me to change it.
Bob Parker was an unassuming and modest marketing director, given the excitement permeating the resort in those days. He set a standard for good manners and friendliness for all of us: the ski instructors, the patrolmen, the bartenders, the lift operators — everyone. We all loved him.
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