‘Little Skier’s Big Day’ and old-school ski cinema at Aspen Historical Society’s Retro Film Series
IF YOU GO …
What: Retro Film Series: Decades of Skiing Aspen/Snowmass, presented by Aspen Historical Society
Where: Limelight Hotel
When: Friday, Feb. 8, 5:30 p.m.
How much: $10 suggested donation
More info: Friday’s presentation screening includes “Little Skier’s Big Day” (1955) by Fred Iselin and “Ski Time in Aspen (1955) by Dick Durrance; aspenhistory.org
UPCOMING RETRO FILM SERIES SCREENINGS
Friday, Feb. 8: The ‘50s, “Little Skiers Big Day” and “Ski Time in Aspen” Friday, Friday, March 8: The ‘60’s, “Aspen Winter Mood,” “It Happens in Aspen”
Friday, April 12: The ‘70’s, “Snowmass in 1967,” “Grand Opening of Snowmass,” “Highlands Fling”
More than six decades ago, an enterprising Aspen ski instructor took to Ajax with his camera rolling and a plan to share with the world the colorful story of a local girl’s downhill morning commute to school. The film, “Little Skier’s Big Day,” would draw the attention of Walt Disney himself, bring Aspen’s quirky community and burgeoning ski resort into the homes of millions of TV viewers, and set a template for how Aspen tells its story.
The Aspen Historical Society is screening the short film tonight as it takes a winter-long deep dive into skiing’s cinematic past with its four-part Retro Film Series, presenting vintage titles from the digital archives. Friday’s Limelight Hotel presentation focuses on two Aspen classics from the 1950s: “Little Skier’s Big Day,” directed by Aspen ski school legend Fred Iselin, and “Ski Time In Aspen” by the champion ski racer Dick Durrance.
Iselin himself co-stars in “Little Skier’s Big Day” alongside French trick skier Jean Tournier, but the lead star is 6-year-old Susie Wirth, who plays a version of herself. Daughter of the original Sundeck managers, Wirth lived in the mountaintop restaurant beginning in 1955. The film lets viewers tag along as she skis down the mountain in the morning to set off for school.
“Little Skier’s Big Day” opens with a shaky overhead airplane shot of Aspen Mountain and the Sundeck — the original Herbert Bayer-designed, octagon-shaped Sundeck — and a narrator introducing us to Susie: “See that house down there? That’s her father’s restaurant, called the Sundeck. It’s Susie’s home and this is her story.”
From there we see Susie — in a Tyrolean hat and tunic — stepping out of the restaurant to feed her pet rabbit, greet her dog, and ski down the mountain to get to school. She French fry/pizza pies down the hill, meeting a porcupine, waving to skiers on the original Lift One overhead, and proclaiming “Everyday, I’m the first one going down the mountain!”
In Spar Gulch, she meets up with a ski patroller who has just blown dynamite to trigger an avalanche. “They dynamited the snow or it would have slid on top of me,” Susie says. “It’s heavy as a house.”
At a perch farther down the mountain, she stops at a spot overlooking the town.
When she gets down, she finds she is late to school and locked out, so she plays hooky and heads back to Ajax, where she finds herself in the midst of a ski carnival with skiers and dogs in costume, stilt-walkers on skis and Iselin, Tournier and their crew doing ski acrobatics. (Local kids who swarmed the mountains after Wednesday’s big snow dump and school cancellation, no doubt, will relate to this big day.)
Much has changed in ski flicks since these early days before heli drops and cliff hucks, drones and helmet-mounts (or helmets, for that matter). But much has remained the same: the goofy sense of whimsy and fun, for instance, and the cheers that go up in an audience when the crowd sees a hometown hero on screen. And much like today’s ski movies that depend on apparel, energy drink and gear sponsors for funding, “Little Skier’s Big Day” was bankrolled by the H.J. Heinz Co., so it opens with the Heinz 57 logo and includes some comical product placements of Heinz sweet gherkins and tomato soup (“Skiers are the hungriest people!” Susie exclaims as she sees boxes of Heinz goods loaded up on a lift).
Iselin shot the film in the spring of 1956, began screening the 25-minute film locally that fall, and then took it on the road for several winters.
Iselin then sold “Little Skier’s Big Day” to Walt Disney. The children’s entertainment visionary and Iselin adapted the concept into “Fantasy on Skis,” which again starred Wirth and Iselin and was again set in Aspen — filmed here during the winter of 1959-60. But the Disney version takes a fanciful turn, giving Susie a dream sequence where her dolls come alive and start skiing.
The new version aired on Disney’s “Wonderful World of Color” series — with an introduction from Disney himself — in February 1962. The Aspen Times reported that an estimated audience of 40 million watched the premiere on NBC on Feb. 4.
“Fantasy on Skis” then got a theatrical release in 1975, playing before “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” during its re-release.
That kind of wide national exposure for Aspen to family audiences is exactly what Iselin was aiming for with the film.
Like most of the early Aspen ski films — including “Aspen Before Lifts” and “Until We Meet in Aspen” from the 1940s, featured in the Retro Film Series last month — “Little Skier’s Big Day” was a promotional film aimed at bringing the masses to the little-known and remote Aspen, Colorado.
“They were about seeing the fun, the skiing, the powder,” said Aspen Historical Society archivist Anna Scott. “It was about selling the place.”
“Little Skier’s Big Day,” with Susie Wirth as an avatar for would-be kid skiers around the country, was aimed at bringing families to the still-new ski resort.
“We didn’t have Google Maps and the internet then, so to see an area you needed these films,” Scott said.
John Litchfield, co-director of the Aspen Ski School since its founding in 1946, would personally take the locally made films on tour to screenings at ski clubs and schools around Colorado and the mountain west. He’d bring along film reels and ski pros on fall tours to get people excited about ski season, using the model later perfected by the ski auteur Warren Miller.
The creative team behind “Little Skier’s Big Day” is a who’s-who of the Aspen community in the early days of the ski resort. The narration was written by locally based children’s author Garth Williams, whose daughter, Jessica, voices Susie’s character’s narration. It was filmed by a young Bob Murray, who would go on to become an Aspen cultural fixture and who would oversee the Wheeler Opera House’s renovation decades later.
The Retro Film Series continues through April with a total of seven films on the bill. Until recently, these titles were little-seen relics of old Aspen. In 2016, the Historical Society used grant money from the Aspen Thrift Shop, the Iselin Foundation and other sources to have them digitized. It has held regular screenings since then.
“For us to see them today, it’s nostalgic looking at the town,” Scott said, “People see different places or people in the films they recognize — they’ll yell out and laugh. Everyone enjoys seeing the town as it was then.”
In “Little Skier’s Big Day,” for instance, Susie’s romp around town includes a few stops at landmarks that look exactly as they do today. At the Aspen Community Church, she encounters a priest (played, perhaps ironically, by proto-ski bum, racer and Golden Horn nightclub proprietor Steve Knowlton) and Susie gets an odd staredown from a cigarette-smoking sheriff. Viewers will recognize her one-story school as what is now the Red Brick Center.
Scott said her favorite entry in the Retro Film Series may be “Highlands Fling,” a 1975 slapstick comedy by Dick Barrymore starring the hot dogger Groovy McDougal (Jim Stelling) who enrolls in a beginner’s ski class to woo his instructor (played by the Interski racer Betsy Glenn).
“They all have aspects that I love,” Scott said of the movies in the series. “I love seeing the skiing and I love watching them and being surprised by, ‘Oh my god! There’s Klaus Obermeyer!’ They used real people in the community for these and I love seeing those personalities.”
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