Arc of the Muse
Otto Lang: A Portrait
Historical Photography Courtesty Otto Lang
By taking advantage of a string of unlikely opportunities, Lang has led a surprising, richly textured life. Not content to be simply an exemplary skier and ski instructor, he also became an accomplished writer, filmmaker, and photographer. Lang schussed out of Europe into the United States, down the slopes of Mount Baldy into Sun Valley, and—serendipitously—into Hollywood. Restless energy and creative impulses fueled all his endeavors and carried him, through television and film, into the minds and hearts of Americans from coast to coast.
Rising from an Old World childhood in Eastern Europe early in the 20th century, Lang became a leader in the promotion of recreational downhill skiing as a popular sport in the United States. He was born to Austrian parents in Tesanj, near Sarajevo, Bosnia-Herzegovina, in 1908, and spent much of his childhood in Salzburg. Athletic, with an early love of the outdoors, Otto obtained his first ski-instructing job at the Semmerling in the winter of 1928-29. After becoming a government-licensed ski instructor and mountain guide in autumn of 1929, he was hired by Hannes Schneider for his prestigious school at St. Anton, where Schneider had developed the Arlberg technique, the most widely taught approach to skiing at the time.
Several years later, Lang was willingly lured to the United States by Katherine Peckett (whose family owned a country inn in Franconia) to teach skiing at Sugar Hill, New Hampshire. As he recalls, “Skiing was in its infancy in the United States. The longtime luxury resorts in Europe were quite popular with the skiing fraternity, but the U.S. was virgin territory.”
In early spring of 1936, Lang traveled with filmmaker Jerome Hill to Mt. Rainier and Mt. Baker in the Pacific Northwest to assist in the making of their documentary Ski Flight. That same year, Lang became well known through publication of the book in which he explained fundamentals of the Arlberg technique, Downhill Skiing, and through his opening in December of America’s first official Hannes Schneider Ski School, at Mt. Rainer.
At the invitation of Nelson Rockefeller, Lang visited the Sun Valley Resort in February 1937, just two months after it opened. He recalls, “It was a wonderful creation by Averell Harriman—a dream fulfilled, but nobody ever figured that Mt. Baldy would be such an outstanding mountain, for there were few bowls, and trees had not yet been cleared for the trails. Sun Valley is essentially a man-made ski resort: it grew through the years, and improved as more of the mountain was developed.”
Many events in the next few years shaped the direction of Lang’s future. Ski Flight premiered at Radio City Music Hall in January 1938, alongside Walt Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Also that year, he married Sinclair (“Sinnie”) Gannon, whom he had met in southern California while doing a pictorial layout on water skiing for Life magazine. Then, in December, he opened another ski school, at Mt. Baker.
While traveling to Europe to introduce his new bride to his parents, Otto avoided detainment by the Nazis through warnings from his father. He and Sinnie were able to board a ship to New York from France. The Langs settled in Sun Valley for the 1939-40 winter season, and Otto took over direction of the Sun Valley ski school for the 1941-42 season after Director Friedl Pfeifer was jailed undeservedly on suspicion of being a German spy. The couple’s first son, Peter, was born in 1941 during one of Otto’s early forays into Hollywood, and son Mark arrived in 1943 during a film stint in New York.
Otto’s charm, teaching ability, and ease with people from all walks of life began to blossom fully in the fertile environment of notables who stepped off the train in Sun Valley. A hint of his larger appreciation of life had already been expressed poetically in Downhill Skiing: “Skiing is not exercise only, not merely a sport—it is a revelation of body and soul. We should look at it as an art akin to ballet, like dancing to imaginary music . . .”
When Averell Harriman invited Hollywood stars and celebrities to his new resort, Otto was their ski instructor. It was the Golden Age of Hollywood, and Sun Valley—far away from the soundstages and hot, dusty back lots of Los Angeles—became a dazzling winter playground of choice for many in the film industry. Otto was at ease hobnobbing with everyone from prominent socialites and Hollywood notables to political and business figures. He gave encouragement to many other people, such as Warren Miller, who was hired by Otto as one of his early ski instructors, and would later become a world-renowned creator of ski films.
At the outset of U.S. involvement in World War II, Lang shot The Basic Principles of Skiing—A Training Film for Mountain Soldiers, for the Tenth Mountain Division. (Alan Ladd, a then unknown young actor, briefly appears in a scene about waxing skis.)
Like so many fortuitous events in his life, Otto Lang’s training in filmmaking was given a boost with an unprecedented apprenticeship to Darryl Zanuck, head of Twentieth Century Fox. When Zanuck visited Sun Valley as a special guest and friend of Averell Harriman, Otto was the Zanuck family’s private instructor.
All aspects of Twentieth Century Fox films were reviewed and approved by Zanuck, from writing through shooting, and even the editing of final cuts. During the winter months, Zanuck transplanted his Hollywood studio to Sun Valley so that he could continue to exercise his extremely hands-on management style. The Sun Valley Opera House was used for screening dailies, and writers, film editors, and producers from Hollywood were always in attendance. Lang was included in all meetings and screenings, and learned firsthand about Zanuck’s approach to making films. Otto’s evident aptitude and skills led to his being hired as technical director for Sun Valley Serenade (1941).
Lang, who doubled for Henie’s skiing scenes in Serenade, would do one thing differently if he could. Laughing, he remembers “barely squeezing into her tight uniform.” He confesses in his memoir, “I had volunteered to do this stunt,” he recalls, “with the strict understanding that no still photographs were to be taken of me ‘in drag.’ So none were taken—to my subsequent, lasting regret for having been such an old-fashioned prude. Today, I would treasure having even one photograph of this brief intermezzo.”
One day, as Lang and Zanuck rode up Baldy on the ski lift together, Otto told him about an interesting story that he thought could be made into a film. Zanuck found it an intriguing proposition and, after reviewing all the material, made Otto the producer of Call Northside 777 (1948), starring Jimmy Stewart. (One of the lines in this movie reveals the fondness of both Zanuck and Lang for film. Stewart, playing a reporter trying to prove the innocence of an unjustly accused man, runs into court and shouts, “I have something better than the facts! I have a photograph!”) Years later, a similar ski-lift scenario resulted in Otto’s producing Five Fingers (1952), based on a true World War II spy story and starring James Mason.
Eventually, Lang was brought under contract as a producer and director at Twentieth Century Fox. As the Hollywood phase of his career expanded, he was assigned to make documentaries that would supplement feature films and fill out the two-hour time slots scheduled at theaters (most features ran about ninety minutes). Lang received four Academy Award nominations for his documentaries, including Jet Carrier, First Piano Quartette, and Vesuvius Express (1953).
His involvement as a director and producer of Hollywood films spanned thirty years, culminating as associate producer on Tora! Tora! Tora! in 1970. In 1955, concurrently with his work on feature films, he also began working in television, most prominently with the Twentieth Century Fox Hour on CBS, which was sponsored by General Electric. Subsequently, he directed many episodic television programs in series such as Cheyenne, The Rifleman, The Dick Powell Show, The Man from U.N.C.L.E., Sea Hunt, and Lancer.
After retiring from Hollywood, Otto felt he “needed a project to do.” He says, “My sons and grandsons loved all the wonderful stories about my childhood and life, and wanted me to write them down. ‘Who will read it?’ I asked. ‘We will!’ they said. My first manuscript was done in longhand, and ended up being 1,200 typed pages. It was reduced to 450 pages after editing.”
Lang was no stranger to writing, having already penned two books on skiing and a regular sports column for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer and various magazines. His memoir, A Bird of Passage, was published in 1994. It is infused with colorful personal observations on places he has visited and people he has encountered—including friends, family, and amours.
Recalling the day of his marriage to Sinnie, and an unexpected reunion with his old friend Sigi Engl, Lang writes in A Bird of Passage, “An agitated voice blasted in my ear, ‘This is Sigi. Sigi Engl from Kitzbuhel, in Austria. I am here in San Diego. Remember me?’ Of course I did. Sigi and I had raced together as youngsters. He became a top instructor at the local ski school and also made a name for himself as a world-class downhill and slalom competitor. ‘I’m in San Diego visiting with friends who were in my class in Kitzbuhel. I have a job teaching at Yosemite National Park next winter. My friends told me that they read in the paper you are getting married this afternoon. Can I come?’
‘Of course you can,’ I answered. ‘I would be delighted to see you. Let your friends explain to you how to get here. If there was more time I would pick you up.’
‘Don’t worry,’ he said, ‘I’ll make it. I always carry my compass.'
That will be a great help,’ I said. ‘Oh, before I forget, get out of your lederhosen and put on a dark suit.’”
A Bird of Passage opens with a description of Otto’s “travels” before the age of ten to exotic locations around the world—the Gobi Desert in Mongolia, the North Pole, the Straits of Magellan—regions he explored through the love of reading instilled in him by his father. Later in life, he traveled extensively via actual physical transport, as he worked on films in Paris, London, Japan, Turkey, Katmandu, and Pakistan.
Lang is also an accomplished still photographer. His photograph “Blind Beggar,” taken at a Buddhist monastery in Ceylon before the filming of the Indus River Rapids for the 1957 Lowell Thomas-produced film Search for Paradise, won Grand Prize in the 1958 Saturday Review World Photography Contest. A selection of Otto’s images was published in his second book, Around the World in 90 Years (2000).
In October 2005, Topics Entertainment released an 8-DVD set of classic ski films from legendary filmmakers. Three of Otto’s films—Ski Flight (1938), Skifully Yours (late 1930s and early 1940s, at Sun Valley), and The Basic Principles of Skiing (1942)—are included, along with works from John Jay and Dick Barrymore.
Long after having left Idaho, Otto holds Sun Valley near to his heart. (He has lived in Seattle, Washington since 1987.) He confesses to “pushing behind the scenes for the Holdings to improve Dollar Mountain,” and goes on to say, “Bill Janss worked very hard to build a real sense of village community with permanent residents in Sun Valley, and Earl and Carol Holding added to that effort by returning the resort to its original roots, making it even better. A great deal of credit goes to the Holdings for what Sun Valley is today: a premier winter destination resort, and a classic for both winter and summer activities.”
In the cast of characters who are inextricably bound into the history of Sun Valley, Otto Lang must certainly receive star billing. He also ranks among the many of us—famous or otherwise—who never are able (or willing) to completely leave.
Mark Johnstone is a Hailey-based writer,
photographer, and Photo Editor for International Documentary magazine. All unattributed quotes from Mr. Lang were part of a telephone interview conducted on July 27, 2005.