Ski Jumping on a Hot September Night

By Warren Miller

Warren Miller

Sepp Benedikter was a famous Austrian ski instructor who for some reason spent a lot of years in Southern California converting sun worshipers to skiers. My first experience with him was watching him at his ski resort on Cahuenga Pass in Hollywood. It was located right where Universal Studios is today. He had brought half a dozen truckloads of pine needles down from the nearby San Bernardino Mountains and hooked one end of a rope tow to an oak tree and the other around the rear wheels of his truck.

I was on one of my long distance, bicycle rides and watched half a dozen people having a good time carving untracked, pine needle turns in the hot July sun.

My next experience with Sepp was at the gigantic Los Angeles County Fair in Pomona in September of 1951 when he had built a 250 foot high, very rickety scaffold that resembled a standard ski jumping profile. He had sold the county fair people on how exciting it would be to have Olympic ski jumpers hurtling a couple of hundred feet through the smog laden sky on a hot September evening.

At the last minute they decided that they needed an announcer for the event and I already had one year of showing my ski films under my belt so they thought I could narrate the event. Announcing the jumping contest also involved driving all of the jumpers back and forth to the fair. Since the job paid twice as much each day as I was making pounding nails at the time I signed on and risked my life every evening climbing up to the announcing platform at the very top of the shaky in-run.

The process was pretty simple. Half a dozen trucks full of two hundred pounds of ice would show up about four o’clock and grind up these blocks of ice and spray them on the landing hill and the in-run. I have no idea how many tons of ice it took to make the scaffold look like a regular ski jumping hill but it was a lot. Once all of the ice was shredded and in the hot September, sun volunteers from Southern California ski clubs would side step the hill until it did not look like the in-run to death.

This is where I came in. My daily job was to stop by the Huntington Hotel in Pasadena and pick up half a dozen Olympic amateur ski jumpers who had been flown here from all over America to practice their marquee commercial value for a couple of weeks. Their trade seemed to me to be to survive until they could use their free return airplane tickets to get back home with all of their body parts intact. I would round them all up from their assigned spots around the swimming pool, load all of them in my van and drive them the long way to Pomona because it was before the invention of the freeway in that part of greater Los Angeles.

The first day I drove up to the scaffold and got out of the truck I made sure I kept the keys to the truck because none of them felt as though they had signed on for such a dangerous jump hill. If they landed the least bit crooked they would shoot off of the side of the landing hill and land in an asphalt parking lot full of melted ice cold water…and surely want to return to the airport.

I have no idea how old Sepp was at that time but I do know he must have been a lot smarter when he was younger than to try something such as this. The strictly amateur status was enforced in those days so accepting two week’s room and board in what became a very deluxe Four Seasons Hotel a few years later, was dicey. They also got free round trip airplane tickets to Los Angeles for a few ski jumps a day.

The volunteer skiers who came to pack the landing hill showed up in the best ski outfit in their closets and sweated in that hot September sun while doing it. Some wore their best knitted sweaters and Tyrolean hats and yodeled occasionally. A friend of mine was so excited to be on fake snow in the middle of September, he showed up with two left ski boots and still shouldered on. He was a good skier and when the jumpers where through he made good ski turns down the landing hill and from then on everyone did the same thing. Showing off for the half a dozen spectators who were still there and had a face full of cotton candy and mustard from their foot-long hot dogs.

For my part I had a lot of practice trying to keep families with crying kids listening to what I was trying to describe the intricacies of a ski jump and how it is judged. Did anyone care? I don’t think so. All they wanted to see was a jumper landing out in the water soaked asphalt. I got the jumpers back to the Huntington Hotel in time for their midnight swimming parties and repeated this for the next seventeen days or more.