In the 1960s and ’70s, the baby boom generation was just discovering the excitement of skiing, and what helped push its popularity was the glamour associated with the sport. Film, music, political and sports stars were spotted regularly on the slopes, not just in the Rockies, but in our area too, especially at Hunter Mountain in the Catskills.
Hunter's role in growing the sport in our region comes primarily from two things: its focus on the then new technology of snowmaking, and attention created by the stream of celebrities who came to the mountain and to the Karl Plattner Ski School.
Plattner is 89 years old now and, while he hasn't run the Ski School since the mid-1990s, the stories of his time still live around Hunter, carried on by a multitude of former instructors and students who still ski at the area. Karl doesn't ski any more, sidelined by a car accident a couple of years ago. But with wife Margo, he still lives in the same house just off the access road he moved to when he came to the Catskills in 1959.
It all started with locals who wanted a ski area to be built at Hunter Mountain. After New York State, which had opened Belleayre Mountain in the late 1940s, passed on the idea, a group of investors that included actors Paul Newman, Joanne Woodward, and Kim Novak, started the Hunter Mountain Development Corporation with Jimmy Hammerstein, son of the famed Broadway lyricist Oscar Hammerstein, in charge.
Hunter opened in January 1960. Hammerstein had spent holidays in the Hunter area, so he knew the neighborhood. And he had a lot of friends in New York City, less than two hours from the hill. What he didn't have, it turned out, was good luck with the weather and great financial resources. The development corporation declared bankruptcy after three seasons.
Enter the Slutzky Brothers, Izzy and Orville, local contractors and long-time ski area advocates, whose construction company had done much of the excavation and trail clearing at Hunter. They took over Hunter for bills owed. But they were contractors, not ski experts. They needed help. Fortunately, Hammerstein two years earlier had recruited Plattner to run his ski school in return for stock in the area and a room for his family in the house on the hill.
A former racer on the Austrian Ski Team, Plattner had come from Europe to Canada in the mid-1950s to teach skiing. Hammerstein was able to recruit him for Hunter, in part, because Karl liked the idea of being near New York City, and wife Margo liked the idea of being near her family in Montreal. When Hammerstein lost the ski area, Plattner was set to move to a new area being built in Colorado. When he went to tell the Slutzky brothers of his decision, they countered with an offer to have Karl stay on, own the ski school, and help grow the resort. And, as an add on, he could buy the house where he was living for $4,000.
Hunter's gain was Vail's loss.
The big break came in 1964, when Plattner Ski School instructor, an attractive Austrian woman named Kitty Falger appeared on the popular “Tonight Show” with Johnny Carson and gave the host a half hour of ski instruction. It was the doing of Broadway promoter and Hunter PR director Paul Pepe, who used his long-time connections with Bob Hope and the “Tonight Show” (then airing from New York) to arrange the appearance.
Pepe knew that celebrities created excitement. And Plattner, with his carefully selected cadre of VIP instructors, knew how to treat special guests when they were at the mountain.
The list of those who came regularly included popular band leader Mitch Miller, opera star Patrice Munsel and legendary conductor Leonard Bernstein. Even pop music star Boy George took a lesson at Hunter. A regular in the 1970s was Robert Redford, who when in New York City would helicopter up to Hunter to ski with Plattner. (Redford starred in the 1969 ski drama “Downhill Racer.”) There were sports stars too, like hockey great Anders Hedberg and tennis hall of famer Ivan Lendl. Arnold Schwarzenegger was known mainly as a bodybuilder when he skied with Karl. Members of the Kennedy family were there often.
There was serious skiing also. Karl had kept in touch with Austrian ski officials, and many ski team members trained at Hunter when in North America. Three-time world pro tour champion Hugo Nindl lived at the Plattner house when in the U.S. Today, the celebrity part of skiing is much more spread out and low key, at least in the East. But that wasn't always the case and, at that time, Hunter Mountain was the place to be.
LAKE PLACID LOPPET
The 33rd annual Lake Placid Loppet is set for next Saturday. This 50 KM race and its companion 25K Kort Loppet are open for both classic and freestyle skiers. For details, including registration, check www.lakeplacidloppet.com
PRO TOUR RETURNS
The alpine World Pro Tour will make a comeback March 10-12 at Sunday River in Maine. The competition, last run in 1999, features a dual racing giant slalom format, with 60 racers expected to compete. A full six-race schedule is planned for next winter.
An earlier version of this story misspelled the last name of Izzy and Orville Slutzky.
Phil Johnson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.