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Sunday, November 5, 1995 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Northwest People

Warren Miller's Endless Winter -- The Original Ski Bum, He Made His First Ski Movie 46 Years Ago - It's Been Downhill Ever Since

THAT FIRST SKI BUM winter, Warren Miller had no address. These days he has three.

One is in Hawaii, on Maui. Miller has spent little time there of late, but he hangs on to his townhouse with its beach access, because he has been an avid board sailer ever since he made a movie about the sport 15 years ago.

Another address is in Vail, where he spends the ski season. Miller turned 72 last month, but the world's premier ski movie mogul still feels about skiing the way a Cycle 2 dog feels about chasing sticks. From his winter home, Miller can practically walk out the door and onto a chairlift. This suits him. Vail happens to be a ski resort whose population has greatly outpaced its planning; there is a shortage of parking spaces, and no cemetery. This also suits him.

"Tourists can't park," Miller says dryly, as he says almost everything, "and I can't die."

On the matter of his third and newest address, Miller also is in deep denial. Four years ago, Miller and his wife, Laurie, a West Seattle native, slipped into the San Juans, to Orcas Island, as quiet as the tide. They prefer to say they live "eight miles from the Canadian border." For the record, the normally voluble Miller refuses to say anything nice about the place.

"My neighbors made me swear in blood not to make a movie about it," says Miller. "I've screwed up a lot of lives with skiing. I don't want to do the same thing here."

IT'S TRUE. FOR almost 50 years, Warren Miller has screwed with our heads. This time of year is when Milleria fever strikes. True skiers know the warning signs:

Skipping lunch to shop for glove liners. Praying for rain. Hoarding brochures and studying tattered trail maps. Squatting against the wall on an invisible chair and vowing that this year, oh yes, our thighs will be ready.

Some of us even toy with the idea of cashing in our Individual Retirement Account and renting a helicopter to whisk us to the top of several thousand vertical feet of untracked North Cascades powder. We try to forget about it. Cash in the IRA to ski? What a ridiculous idea.

We recall a Warren Miller-ism: "If you don't do it this year, you'll be one year older when you do."

We do the math.

"Snow comes from God," one of Miller's oldest friends said, "but the ski season comes from Warren." It's true: The showing of a Miller ski film is like the ringing of a Pavlovian bell. The current installment, "Endless Winter," includes mouth-watering footage from such places as Alaska, Whistler, B.C., Japan, and Argentina. Also, for comic relief, there are beginners trying to get off a chairlift in the rain, and "dirt skiing." "Endless Winter" is the 46th annual feature-length "ski adventure" film narrated by Miller. By now, the ritual has become as predictable as Greek myth and as cathartic as a bachelor party, with similar amounts of hooting and stomping. The atmosphere, Miller likes to say, is like "showing a porno film on an aircraft carrier six days out of port."

Miller has done more for the sport than "Debbie Does Dallas" ever did for sexual congress. "He has the touch," said the 86-year-old Otto Lang, who in the 1930s directed what is considered the first theatrically released ski documentary. "There isn't a man who has contributed more to the joy of skiing."

Miller started in 1949 with a borrowed 16mm movie camera; he traveled with a movie screen and projector, setting up in living rooms and bars and passing the hat. In 1993, Forbes estimated that Warren Miller Entertainment was generating annual revenues of about $8 million. Miller sold his stake in the company in 1989 to son Kurt and partner Peter Speek, but Miller pere continues to write and narrate each year's ski film.

This country has produced relatively few world-class ski racers: Billy Kidd; the Mahre brothers; Scott McKinney; Tommy Moe; Picabo Street. While the Olympians come and go like cold fronts, Miller - probably the best-known skiing name in the U.S., and certainly the best-known voice - endures.

HIS STYLE IS champagne-powder dry; his voice - slightly nasal, and higher than you'd expect from such a large container - pours out from between semi-locked jaws.

"It has been a long uphill climb," the voice is saying. "But most of it has been easy because my life has been downhill all the way."

Miller sits facing a microphone in a small soundproof booth in a Seattle recording studio. He is reading from his 1958 book, "Wine, Women, Warren & Skis," which rests on a carpeted music stand. In an adjoining room, an engineer adjusts a few controls. Miller's wife sits alongside the engineer, a copy of the manuscript at her fingers and a small black dust mop of a dog named Pepper at her feet. Laurie presses a button on the mixing board.

"You sound really good, honey. Don't change anything."

Committing this book to tape is something Miller has wanted to do for a long time - ever since an early business partner suggested Miller find a voice coach. Instead, Miller found a new business partner. As Miller reads, the engineer periodically chuckles. Miller's words were meant to be heard, not seen. It might be worth $5 just to listen to him narrate the liability disclaimer on the back of a lift ticket.

The voice is so well-known on the slopes that, when the couple ski together, Laurie occasionally demands that Miller keep silent while waiting in the lift line.

In the recording studio, Miller's voice is traveling back through time. Back to Miller's first time on skis - 1938 in the San Gabriel, Calif., mountains; bamboo poles; cotton gloves dipped in paraffin. To the winter of '46, when Miller and his buddy Ward Baker camped out in the parking lot at Sun Valley in a trailer the size of a space capsule, eating soup made from hot water, ketchup and oyster crackers. Back to rope tows and edgeless skis and $2 lift tickets.

"Back to when I had hair.".

Laurie, who also makes her husband wear a hat when he skis to conceal his distinctive tanned dome, hits the button. "Remember that flat, cynical way you say your punchline? Why don't you try that." Miller does. Laurie hits the button.

"Perfect."

MILLER SELDOM lets the facts get in the way of a good story. "Poetical license," his wife calls it. However, the unembroidered details of how Miller got his start are remarkable enough.

He grew up in Southern California, an avid surfer in constant pursuit of freedom. He found it in the '40s on the ski slopes, and became an infamous figure at Sun Valley, where he perfected his no-budget ski-bum way of life.

"I knew of his existence, chasing down the mountain without a lift ticket, the lift attendant and the ski patrol in pursuit," recalls Otto Lang, who at the time headed the Sun Valley ski school. "Warren was . . . there's a German word for it: lebenskuenstler - an artist in artful living, like an artful dodger."

Lang hired Miller as an instructor; two of Miller's students happened to be executives with Bell & Howell. They took such a shine to Miller that they lent him a 16mm movie camera and some film. With it, Miller produced his first ski movie, "Deep and Light." Like John Jay, a pioneering ski-film troubadour of the day, Miller narrated his early films in person, and played phonograph records for background music.

"I wanted to share the ski experience with other people," Miller says. "It sounds so esoteric and all that crap, but it's really not."

This year's film, "Endless Winter," cost roughly $1 million to produce. That first movie set Miller back little more than $500.

Miller's mind holds on to figures as tenaciously as a freshly sharpened steel edge grabs ice. He remembers the number of cities he visited in 1960, when he was still narrating the movie in person (103); the largest crowd to attend one of his movies in one sitting (9,300 - including a newlywed couple who postponed their honeymoon so they could attend - in an ice hockey arena in St. Paul, Minn.); the number of chairlifts in the U.S. when he started making ski movies (12); the number of years ago when his movie first included scenes of snowboarders (17); the number of tickets he sold, for $1 apiece, at his first Seattle show (853).

That was November 1950 - the second time Miller rented an arena and sold tickets. "A turning point," he says. "It showed me my first show, in Pasadena, might not have been a fluke."

Today, Warren Miller Entertainment, based in Boulder, Colo., employs a full-time staff of 16 and is involved in everything from women's volleyball to auto racing to magazines to coffee-table books. Though Warren Miller's duty is limited to writing and narrating the annual ski movie, his name is still everywhere, like Walt Disney's, a trademark on everything the company does. To talk to Kurt Miller is to hear a son who, seven years after becoming his father's boss, still feels the chill of being forced to stand in the shadow cast by "the mystique of Warren."

"I'm proud of what I've accomplished on my own," says Kurt, 36, who along with Speek produces and directs the films and runs the company. He points to some aggressive promotional ideas - free lift tickets, ski shop discounts, door prizes - and the triple-digit percentage growth in attendance at the ski movie over the past three years. "I think my father would dream of being back where I am."

When Warren Miller Entertainment was still a one-man show, it was Miller's eye that helped distinguished his ski films from all others.

"Warren is always watching," says Don Brolin, whom Miller hired in '62 as his first cameraman and who now serves as director of photography. "I've been standing at the base of the beginner's hill, talking about the next segment, when some first-time beginner walked by, skis to chest like a sacrificial cross, then - boom! - went pizzle-end up. Warren saw the guy, saw the ice, saw the line he was taking. Like Doc Holliday, up whips this camera. Warren was on it."

Miller began featuring footage of extreme skiers before they had a name other than "fools." "It scared the industry," said Craig Altschul, a former publicist for Vail who now publishes Warren Miller's Ski World magazine. "They thought they were going to have all kinds of kids copying that, jumping off cliffs." Nervous types also took exception to Miller poking fun at the high price of skiing, or including shots of lift lines. Miller's response: "If you don't want pictures of lift lines, then don't have lift lines."

Because even 100-foot cliff jumps eventually begin to look the same, Miller kept the show moving with bits of physical comedy: the harried lift attendant coping, like a pin-setter at a bowling alley, with a never-ending stream of tumbling skiers; oddball exhibitionists who march to their own beat, such as the precision Vail Lawnchair Drill Team; and death-defying downhill races aboard anything that slides - air mattresses, garbage bags, canoes, snow shovels.

"These people," Miller is wont to point out, "are eligible to vote for the president of the United States."

SOMEWHERE ON HIS island, Warren Miller searches for the perfect second-hand window.

For his wife's 50th birthday, Miller built a guest bathhouse. It is a small, shingled affair, lacking no charm but missing one window. For much of the summer, Miller has been meaning to scrounge the local recycle yard rather than pay $100 for a new one.

Miller's neighbors from Vail, Don and Nancy Beyer, are visiting; they bunk in the bathhouse. "Warren treats nickels like manhole covers," Beyer says with a smile.

Miller said he installed the metal roof himself because "the labor's cheap. I pay myself 34 cents an hour." The main house is a converted three-car garage, as compact as a ship's quarters, with much of the carpentry done by Miller. Not all the kitchen cabinet handles line up. Corners are out of square.

Miller wears a Timex, and has been known to drive 50 miles for gas to save a nickel a gallon. On their first date, Miller and his wife spent the day skiing. For lunch, he reached into his parka pocket and offered her a handful of trail mix.

Near the bathhouse is another out-building that contains Miller's office. An empty leaf-blower carton serves as a wastebasket. Alongside the computer is a small TV monitor and VCR, on which Miller screens the edited ski movie segments as they are shipped to him from company headquarters in Colorado. The monitor is portable; Miller sometimes plugs it into his car cigarette lighter and works on the script from the passenger seat, in transit. Framed and hung near the telephone is a jerky black line that resembles a cross-section of the Tetons. It is Miller's EKG, dated March 28, 1994. The inscription reads: "Just Learn to Say No."

"They've finally got me on a pill that suppresses my production of adrenaline," Miller says. "So I don't get as wound up over stuff."

Warren Miller, the perpetual ski bum, tightly wound? A movie screen seldom is big enough to capture an entire person. As Miller's wife learned on their first date, here was "a real person with pains and aches and problems."

By Miller's account, his father was an alcoholic (Miller himself is a teetotaler); the family - including Miller's two older sisters - moved from apartment to apartment, one step ahead of the bill collector; Miller slept in closets and breakfast nooks until he was 14, when he finally got his own bedroom; he attended seven different grammar schools. He was so knock-kneed and round-shouldered in junior high that in place of regular phys-ed class he was enrolled in "corrective gymnastics."

His first wife died young, of cancer. There were the continual road trips with the movie, absentee fatherhood, another marriage, a divorce. Skiing, though, has never disappointed.

"I had a cameraman with the attitude that he never met a woman he couldn't find something wrong with," Miller says. "I could do the same with every ski area. But I take the approach that I've never been to a ski area that I couldn't find something good about."

Miller calls Crystal Mountain one of his local favorites (although you have the feeling that he says that to all the hills), and once owned property at Alpental (in exchange for producing a promotional film to lure investors). The Northwest "is a hotbed for really hot skiers, especially snowboarders," he says, many of whom wind up in the movies. Miller still exhibits great athleticism on skis himself; however, his ongoing quest for freedom allows few warm feelings for moguls. "I don't like bumps," he says. "They make you turn where someone else did."

THE ONLY GOLF COURSE to be found on the island has nine holes - more than enough for Miller. His friend Don Beyer is a serious player. Beyer tosses bits of turf into the air to judge the wind. He reads the greens. He wears a glove. Miller, on the other hand, wears socks, a pair of faded blue corduroy OP shorts, a polo shirt, sneakers. He might as well be on his boat, hauling up crab pots.

While Beyer hits one sweet shot after another, Miller clubs and swats his way toward the hole. It can break the heart to watch a man so big and burly - Miller stands 6-foot-2 - be bettered by something so puny as a golf ball. Finally, Miller connects solidly and rifles a ball 30 yards into a grove of trees, where it ricochets and comes bouncing back down the fairway, dribbling to a stop near his feet.

"Good shot," says Beyer. "You don't even have to move."

"Now you see why I don't keep score," says Miller. His expression, a relaxed frown, never changes.

"You ever play 18, Warren?" Beyer asks at the third tee.

"No," Miller says. "I can't carry enough balls."

These days Miller writes a weekly newspaper column that touches on golf, boating (his new 40-foot modified sport-fishing boat was the summer's major distraction), New Zealand goats, and whatever else is on his mind. Miller recently published a collection of his columns, "On Film in Print," and has been working the last several years on an autobiography. Several ski resort newspapers run the column; the one in Vail pays him $25 a week. Miller shrugs. "How else you going to learn unless you practice?"

He cannot say for sure how much longer he'll narrate the annual Warren Miller ski movie, but 50 years' worth strikes him as a nice, round number. Plans are afoot to commemorate the golden anniversary; even now, Miller is being inducted here and enshrined there.

"They're putting me in a museum," Miller says. "I'm not old enough to be in a museum."

The ceremony at the Colorado Ski Museum and Hall of Fame was scheduled for the same night as the Portland showing of Miller's movie, where, as he has for the last 45 years, Miller planned to tell a few stories and be buried in an avalanche of whoops and hollers. To the nice folks at the ski museum, he sent a thank-you speech, on video.

Kit Boss is a staff writer for Pacific Magazine. Benjamin Benschneider and Steve Ringman are Seattle Times photographers. ----------------------------------------------------------------- Miller Highlights

Warren Miller will introduce the movie "Endless Winter" tonight at 7 p.m. for its final showing at the 5th Avenue Theatre. Other local Miller-less screenings over the next two weeks will take place in Bellevue (Nov. 14 & 19, Meydenbauer Center), Tacoma (Nov. 11, Pantages Theater), Everett (Nov. 9, Civic Auditorium), Bellingham (Nov. 8, Mount Baker Theatre), Bremerton (Nov. 7, Bremerton High School), and Olympia (Nov. 10, Washington Center for the Performing Arts). Call your local Ticketmaster phone number for dates, locations and times.

Copyright (c) 1995 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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