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These Hills Are Alive

A member of the von Trapp family reflects on how The Sound
of Music touches not only his life but lives of guests at his lodge.

Movies come and go, but few opening scenes are as immediately familiar as actress Julie Andrews twirling in that green meadow surrounded by a majestic mountain vista as she erupts in song.

palace

Above: The facade of Leopoldskron Palace that faces a lake represented the von Trapp villa in the film. Their actual home was much less grand. Tourism Salzburg photos

In Title: At the Benedictine Convent on Nonnberg, nuns in the film sang “Maria.”

Below: Maria Augusta Kutschera married Georg Johannes von Trapp in 1927. ©Trapp Family Lodge photo

museum

Yes, the hills are alive with The Sound of Music.

This year commemorates the 50th anniversary of the Hollywood musical, which cast Andrews as Maria, the spunky postulant who is dispatched from her convent to be a governess to the seven children of Georg von Trapp, a widowed Austrian naval captain.

You probably know the rest of the story based on the lives of the von Trapps: The captain and Maria fall in love and marry, the children win hearts as a singing group, and the Nazi occupation of Austria at the dawn of World War II persuades the von Trapps to leave their homeland.

There’s the jaunty musical score by Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II, with such durable tunes as “Do-Re-Mi,” “Climb Ev’ry Mountain,” and “Sixteen Going On Seventeen.” The soundtrack album has sold more than 11 million copies around the globe.

There’s the romantic star power of Andrews, who won an Oscar the year before in her film debut (Mary Poppins), and Christopher Plummer. The scenic backdrop of Salzburg, the site of many filming locations as the von Trapp home, is gorgeous to behold.

And the allure of this film that has captured generations of fans stretches from Salzburg, Austria, to Mount Mansfield in Vermont, where some members of the von Trapp family welcome guests from around the world.

“At breakfast this morning,” said Johannes von Trapp, “I chatted with a lady from Indonesia and she told me it was her favorite movie. She’d seen it many times. She was very happy to have a photo taken with me.”

Von Trapp, 76, is president of the Trapp Family Lodge, a highly regarded, 2,500-acre resort in Stowe, Vt., that took root as a family business in 1950 about 11 years after the clan’s arrival in America.

He and two sisters who live in Vermont–Rosmarie, 85, and Eleonore, 83–are the children of Georg and Maria von Trapp, and performed with the Trapp Family Singers. But the seven siblings made famous in The Sound of Music borne by Georg’s first wife, Agathe, who died of scarlet fever in 1922, have passed away. The last daughter, Maria, who was called Louisa in the film, died in February 2014 at age 99.

The von Trapps’ story was widely known when The Sound of Music opened in American movie theaters on March 2, 1965. Six years earlier, the original stage production had debuted on Broadway, earning Tony awards for best musical and best actress (Mary Martin) during its 3 ½-year run.

The three-hour movie was just as celebrated. The Sound of Music won five awards and built its legacy over a half-century of network TV showings, anniversary soundtrack releases, a 1998 Broadway revival, and NBC’s presentation of a live production in December 2013

“The film is a superbly well-made movie,” said Johannes, explaining its timeless appeal. “It is well-photographed, well-directed, well-cast, well-acted. Technically, it’s a beautifully done film. And its themes are universal–the love of a man for a woman, love of country, home, and also overcoming adversity. They are timeless themes that every generation deals with.”

Johannes was born in Philadelphia in January 1939, during a family concert tour, shortly after the von Trapps immigrated here and initially settled in Merion, Pa. Eight years later, he joined the family singing troupe, but his happiness was tempered by the loss of his father, who died of a respiratory illness at age 67 in Stowe where the family had bought a farm in the early 1940s and eventually constructed their inn.

Maria and the children continued their international concert tours for the next decade, charming audiences with their intricate madrigals and folk songs. More than 20 years of harmony ended in 1956; the older von Trapp siblings were in their 40s, and there was the general desire to pursue other interests.

Maria von Trapp was 82 when she died in March 1987. She and her husband are buried in a family cemetery near the Vermont lodge.

Life beyond the movie

These days, Johannes von Trapp is not overly sentimental about The Sound of Music. It’s a cherished family heirloom, but time marches on. There are Thursday night showings for guests at the Trapp Family Lodge. As for this anniversary year, there are no plans for a special commemoration.

“I don’t do a lot of thinking about the film,” he says. “Life moves forward. What must be done today? As you said, it has been 50 years.

“We don’t focus the resort on the movie. That’s not what we’re about,” added von Trapp, whose administrative staff includes his son, Sam, 42. “It is focused on the real von Trapp family and life in Vermont.”

The roots of The Sound of Music go back to 1949 and The Story of the Trapp Family Singers, a memoir written by Maria von Trapp. The family never profited much from their story. Maria sold the rights to her book to a German film producer for about $9,000, and two films about the von Trapps that followed in the late 1950s ultimately inspired The Sound of Music and a Broadway opening in November 1959.

Johannes was 20 when he attended that big premiere. It’s logical to think it was a pinch-me moment, seeing your family story on the New York stage, but von Trapp doesn’t gush with memories.

“I’d watched our story several times by then,” he says. “The German films already had told the story, so it wasn’t really a big deal.”

Historical accuracy

Overall, the family was pleased with how The Sound of Music elevated their stature in America. They even enjoyed intermittent reunions over the years with the seven actors who portrayed the von Trapp children. But some of the siblings–notably Maria and Agathe, who died in 2010 at 97–expressed dismay in past interviews that the musical and film were more Hollywood than fact, with many changes that made the family story less than accurate.

The Salzburg convent had sent Maria to the von Trapp estate to tutor young Maria during her recovery from scarlet fever, and not to be the children’s governess. The siblings criticized the portrayal of their father, Capt. von Trapp, as an overly stern and cold-hearted autocrat. And that nail-biting escape from Austria to Switzerland never happened; Maria said the family simply boarded a train to Italy, headed for London and eventually made their way to America.

Johannes isn’t as bothered by the Hollywood treatment.

“Neither the play nor the film was meant to be a historical record of our lives. It was meant to be entertainment,” he says. “So I’d have to say that’s not a legitimate criticism.”

The passing years haven’t changed one vital fact: The Sound of Music is still big business in Salzburg. In fact, Tourism Salzburg estimates that 300,000 tourists still visit the Austrian city each year to see the former von Trapp villa and visit the many movie locations.

Salzburg has planned events throughout 2015, from exhibits to theatrical shows and choral concerts, to celebrate the 50th anniversary. The highlight will be The Sound of Music Gala on Oct. 17, a tribute to the film’s importance to tourism.

A number of sightseeing companies in Salzburg have long offered Sound of Music tours. What all this means is that the film’s legacy isn’t likely to fade any time soon.

John Scanlon is a freelance writer from Woodbury, N.J., and a contributor for SJ First magazine, the AAA publication for AAA South Jersey.

May/June 2015 Issue


 

A Touch of Europe in Vermont

Experience a vacation that blends Austrian architecture with American and European furnishings and adds the beauty of forested hills near Stowe, Vt. It’s all here at the Trapp Family Lodge.

The resort has a 96-room hotel, 100 guest chalets, and 18 luxury villas. While popular during ski season, warm weather months offer guests plenty of activities, including mountain biking, disc golf, swimming, tennis, and hiking. You can even bring your dog along on your mountain getaway.

Have a massage or take a yoga class in the fitness center. Dine on European-inspired cuisine at the resort and sample one of Johannes von Trapp’s lagers from the craft brewery on site.

Daily activities including classes in baking, painting, music, and more. Enjoy a showing of The Sound of Music on Thursday evenings or take a family history tour.

Trapp Family Lodge, 700 Trapp Hill Road, Stowe, Vt., (800) 826-7000 or visit www.trappfamily.com.

von Trapp

Johannes von Trapp and his son, Sam, oversee the Trapp Family Lodge in Stowe, Vt. Trapp Family Lodge photo


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