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Ski porn pioneer Roger Cotton Brown on fifty years of filming at Vail

Ski porn pioneer Roger Cotton Brown on fifty years of filming at Vail
"Vail: The Rise of America's Iconic Ski Resort" features fifty years of footage shot by Roger Cotton Brown.

"I started filming in Vail before there were any lifts," remembers Gypsum-based filmmaker Roger Cotton Brown, who was the principal cinematographer at Vail from 1962, when the resort opened, until 1989 and has continued filming skiing and snowboarding in the Vail Valley and around Colorado ever since. "I first went up in a little Kristi Kat when they were taking potential investors up, along with pro racers, to show off the potential in the back bowls. I'd been hired by Bob Parker, one of the founders at Vail, to film these sojourns, then stayed on to help promote skiing in the Rockies to people from around the world."

Brown's fiftieth anniversary documentary, Vail: The Rise of America's Iconic Ski Resort, will get a proper premiere on December 14, on the eve of Vail's official fifieth birthday celebration; his 25th anniversary film, Vail: Wilderness to World Class, has been a mainstay at the Colorado Ski & Snowboard Museum in Vail ever since it was first released it 1987.

Since Vail is opening its fiftieth anniversary season tomorrow, with an 8:30 a.m. dedication ceremony for the new, ten-passenger gondola, "One," we caught up with Brown in advance to get some historical perspective.

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Westword: There are a number of Colorado ski areas that pre-date Vail and I'm curious, now that you've been revisiting some of that earliest footage you shot, when you had your first sense that there was something really special there.

Roger Cotton Brown: At that time there was nothing in Colorado or in the United States that compared with the back bowls that was accessible by lift, so you could immediately see the potential. These were very special because they were below timberline and didn't catch a lot of wind, so what you had there was just wonderful, wide open terrain that held a lot of powder. I knew they had a great thing going as soon as I got there and, truth be told, it wasn't all that hard to convince the investors once we had that footage in the can to show them.

For that first film I shot, the original deal was I talked to Bob Parker and he said, 'We don't have a lot of money but we have a lot of land, so we'll give you a lot for your labor and we'll pay for the cost of your film.' The first film we made was made that way and that was how a lot of the early deals got done. Everybody wanted in.

How did that initial deal turn into a 25+ year gig filming at Vail?

Well, the second film I shot at Vail was actually a promo piece for United Airlines. Their competitors were enticing people to fly to Europe for these grand ski destinations, and the idea was that we would show skiing in the Rockies and go after those same skiers, to bring them to Colorado instead. The idea of giving Vail proper "world-class" billing was there from the start. The response to that footage was just so tremendous that we all decided to keep the cameras rolling.

One thing I regret is that at the time we were shooting those first films we were trying to promote skiing, but we weren't really thinking about documenting the real story of what was going on to the degree that we should have. So I've got a lot of great ski action of the best skiers that were around at the time, but not a lot of the kinds of interviews with the founders and the first visitors to Vail that would be great to have when you're going back and trying to tell the story.

The classic ski porn conundrum.

Fortunately we were able to do a whole lot of interviews with a whole lot of those guys while most, if not all of them, were still alive, when we made the 25th anniversary film.

Why was it important to you to tell that story?

I think we're exposing Vail's real soul by telling the story of the people who started the place, by giving people a history and something to look at so they can understand the history and put it in context. That history cuts through any impression of glitz and money people may have when they think of Vail. Yes, there are a lot of big fancy hotels in Vail now, but behind it all are a lot of very ordinary people who were essentially ski bums who saw their dreams realized.

And of course the story of Vail is also the story of these heroic World War II figures, people who had been in the 10th Mountain Division and in other parts of the military and had fallen in love with the mountains. They came home thinking about how they could make lives for themselves in the mountains and said, "Well, the way to do that is we'll build a ski area." And so they did.

 

What's the heart of that story, in your mind?

Earl Eaton was a local boy from the Squaw Creek area in Eagle County, and he heard Pete Seibert making noise about a ski area and said, "I have a place you might like." He first took Pete to the the top of Vail some time around 1958 and showed him the bowls. He'd grown up hunting around there but they're hidden from the road, so it wasn't like everyone knew they were there. The rest is history, and it's a great story.

The teasers I've seen for your film play up a lot of the contrasts over that 50-year span. What has essentially stayed the same, from your perspective?

The appeal of adventure in the mountains is essentially the same. The mountains have stayed the same, and it's just tremendous terrain. It's gotten easier to ski, of course: when Vail started, powder skiing was more difficult. The big heavy wooden racing skis that I had when I came to Vail in 1962 would dive right into the snow, and unless you were absolutely perfect in your form you were gonna go ass over teakettles regularly. Howard Head brought the first metal skis out to Vail and it really opened the whole thing up, because it was very flexible and rode on top of the snow.

The other thing that made skiing at Vail more accessible is they hired this guy Sarge Brown, another 10th Mountain guy, and when he came in he got really serious about grooming and snowmaking and re-shaping the trails to some degree. It really opened the sport up.

After all the time you've spent editing all that old footage together, what are you most looking forward to about getting this film in front of an audience on Vail's birthday weekend?

The event itself is actually a little scary for me because we had to fit this film into a 56-minute version in the hopes of getting it aired on PBS, and trying to squeeze the whole story into 56 minutes is next to impossible. A lot of great stories and great people are left out, so I may lose some friends over it! We're making a longer cut of the film with a lot of other stuff that the locals will appreciate, so hopefully I'll get to keep my head.



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