Reflections on the original ski bum, industry icon
By Dan Egan EBS Contributor
Warren Miller was the most influential person in American winter sports. He was the voice of winter beckoning all of us to participate and explore for decades, and was so popular that an entire industry knew him simply as “Warren.”
Warren, who died Jan. 24 at age 93, was a mentor to me as I learned film production and video distribution, and he taught me the art of narration. I also skied in 12 Warren Miller films, and I still emcee six Warren Miller Entertainment film shows each year.
His 1983 movie, “Ski Time,” opens with extreme skier Scot Schmidt peering over a rock cliff at Squaw Valley. Then you hear Warren’s iconic voice with his deliberate, dramatic and rhythmic pacing, “Time, there is all kinds of it; time is the only thing in life we own. Nobody can give you any, but people can take it away from you. You can waste it, or you can invest it in ‘Ski Time.’”
As Warren is speaking, Schmidt drops in, skis the cliff face and launches over the rocks.
That was the Warren Miller formula: snarky jabs at the mundane and bits of humor mixed together with jaw-dropping footage. He entertained, inspired and educated generations with a simple message of the winter experience.
Here’s another memorable quote he often used during heli-skiing segments: “3000 years ago, nothing roamed on these mountains except for animals as big as the machine that brought us up here today.”
His narrations reminded us of history and the magnitude of the mountains; he had a knack for making the audiences feel significant and insignificant—at the same time they had an existential quality.
“Skiers would do anything to get into the films; once a guy lit himself on fire just to get me to point my camera in his direction!” exclaimed Fletcher Manley, who was a cameraman for Warren in the ‘70s and ‘80s.
In 2009, Olympic gold medalist and skiing icon Stein Eriksen said of Warren, “His films were to me [in the ‘60s and ‘70s], what NBC is to the Olympics today.”
“When you compare what is happening on social media and the likes and the follows that come along with it, Warren did that in the ‘50s, ‘60s, ‘70s, ‘80s, ‘90s, and his company is still doing it today with a movie that comes out once a year and is 90 minutes long,” explained former Warren Miller cameraman Tom Grissom.
Warren was born for this mission of packaging up the mystique of the ski bum life style. One of his early efforts, published in 1947, was a cartoon book titled “Are My Skis on Straight,” which he sold out of the back of his car to raise funds for ski trips to Alta and Sun Valley.
It was with that energy that he launched his production company in 1950.
Warren built his film company hand in hand with a distribution strategy that centered on his personality and perspective. He once told me, “I didn’t care about the size of the audience, whether it was one person or 50, you do a great show and someone was bound to buy you dinner.”
It was that perseverance that created the Warren Miller brand, as we know it today.
“He is the most prolific American filmmaker of all time,” said Patrick Creadon, an award-winning documentary film director and producer. “From 1950 to 1989, when he sold his company to his son Kurt, no other filmmaker [had] ever produced a major release every year. Warren had more films on that top-200 grossing documentary list than filmmakers like Errol Morris and Michael Moore.”
As early as the mid ‘60s, he was boasting of over 100 shows in 100 different cities with crowds peaking at more than 7,000 fans on a given night, to watch the films and hear his live narrations.
For many it’s an annual pilgrimage and right of passage. Even today as I emcee Warren Miller movies, fans reminisce about the their first Warren Miller experience. They describe in detail where and when they saw their first film, who they were with, and many recall seeing Warren himself on the stage.
In the 1990s, when he met my parents for the first time, he said to them, “Your boys remind me that I am never quite sure how many lives I have ruined.” And that was the paradox of Warren Miller—he lived his life bucking the trend to conform to a real job.
“Show me the book that says you have to live here and work there,” he once told me. “There is no book. You can go and do anything you set your mind too.”
These tidbits of wisdom motivated generations of skiing enthusiasts.
“We love sponsoring the Warren Miller films, they engage the consumer with the passion for what we sell,” said John Gallagher, owner of Ski Fanatics ski shop in Campton, New Hampshire. “Each year a young fan will come in and ask if he can have the Warren Miller movie poster from the local showing. That is generational impact.”
Warren would often say in his films, “If everybody skis, there would be no wars,” and he made a point of bringing my brother John and me to areas in turmoil, such as the Berlin Wall in 1989, Russia during the breakup of the USSR, and the former Yugoslavia when it was on the brink of civil war.
The films influenced adventure tourism, advances in ski industry technology, equipment, fashion, ski technique, and evolution in the sport.
Jason Levinthal is the founder of Line Skis, current owner of J-Skis and he acquired 4FRNT Skis last year. He’s credited with developing the twin tip ski and was a pioneer of the X-Games.
“I was from Albany, New York, and went to his films every year. It was in his movies that I saw what was possible on skis in locations around the world,” Levinthal recalls. “Once that became unlocked for me I saw the potential of skiing backwards over jumps and hitting rails, so that is what I developed skis for.”
Tom Day began skiing in Warren’s films with Scot Schmidt in the early ‘80s and is currently a cameraman for Warren Miller Entertainment. “It’s big shoes to fill for sure, we still take great care in every shot, thinking of the audience and how they will be inspired and entertained,” Day said. “We want to keep what Warren built. … He wanted everyone to feel a part of this community.”
Fans around the world will forever echo his words, “If you don’t do it this year, you will be one year older when you do.”
Extreme skiing pioneer Dan Egan has appeared in 12 Warren Miller Ski films and countless others. He was inducted into the U.S Ski and Snowboard Hall of Fame in 2016. To learn more about Dan Egan camps and clinics, visit skiclinics.com.