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Alive With Anecdotes : Lake Forest Woman’s Connections to Hollywood Open Doors for Stories About ‘Sound of Music’

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TIMES STAFF WRITER

As a movie, “The Sound of Music” ranks as one of the biggest box office champs of all time.

When it was released in 1965, the blockbuster Rodgers and Hammerstein musical about Austria’s singing Von Trapp family during the Nazi takeover of Europe was an international hit, packing theaters from Paris to Manila. It went on to win five Academy Awards, including Oscars for best picture and director, and displaced “Gone with the Wind” as the No. 1 box office attraction of all time.

Now--28 years after Julie Andrews stood on a grassy Austrian hilltop proclaiming “the hills are alive with the sound of music”--fans are being offered a behind-the-scenes account of the making of one of the most beloved movies of all time.

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“The Sound of Music: The Making of America’s Favorite Movie” (Contemporary Books; $19.95), by Julia Antopol Hirsch, is an illustrated history of the film--from pre-production to updates on cast members.

A movie as popular as “The Sound of Music” would seem a natural for the “Making of . . .” genre of movie books. And indeed, over the years several writers approached 20th Century Fox for authorization to chronicle the movie’s production.

So how did Hirsch, a fledgling Lake Forest screenwriter, succeed where so many before her have failed? Credit that magic ingredient that creates so many breaks in Hollywood: connections.

In the mid-’80s, Hirsch was working as story editor for “The Sound of Music” producer-director Robert Wise.

“The reason this all started,” she said, “was because I noticed he was still getting tons of mail from fans asking various questions: How long did it take to film? Where was such and such (scene) filmed? Bob was very conscientious about trying to answer every letter, and I asked him how come no one has ever written a book about the movie. He didn’t know, so I said, ‘Well, I’ll write the definitive book that will hopefully answer everyone’s questions.’ ”

Hirsch--who remembers seeing “The Sound of Music” when it first came out in a Lakewood theater when she was 11--said that because she knew Wise, she met Ernest Lehman, Saul Chaplin and Maurice Zuberano (the movie’s screenwriter, associate producer and sketch artist).

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And through Wise, who wrote the foreword to the book, “20th Century Fox just opened their doors to me and said ‘you can use whatever you want’--which they hardly ever do,” Hirsch said. “They were very open, and they let me go through their photographs and take whatever I wanted.”

During her research, Hirsch said, “I found out there’s a lot more to the whole thing than I thought. A lot of people think there was just the Broadway musical before the movie, but what they don’t know is that Maria (Von Trapp) wrote her autobiography in 1948, and a German film company bought the rights to her book and made two German films out of the book” in the mid-’50s.

The two films--”Die Trapp Familie,” which dealt with the family before they came to America in 1938--and “Die Trapp Familie in Amerika” about the family’s experiences in the United States, where they toured until 1956--were as popular in Germany as “The Sound of Music” would later be in this country.

Hirsch said a director at Paramount saw the first German film and sent a copy to his friends, Mary Martin and her Broadway producer-husband, Richard Halliday, who bought the rights and made the Broadway musical.

“It was a huge success, and Fox bought the rights to the play and made the movie,” Hirsch said.

Fans also may not be aware that Academy Award-winning director William Wyler was first attached to the film. He went so far as to scout locations in Austria but then dropped out to do another picture. Wyler, it turns out, hated the Broadway musical. And as an Alsatian Jew, Hirsch said, “he wanted to make it into this big anti-Nazi movie with tanks and guns.”

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In writing the book, Hirsch interviewed 40 cast and crew members, “practically everyone connected with the film.” (Among the then-youngsters who auditioned for roles but were rejected: Sharon Tate, Mia Farrow, Lesley Ann Warren, Patty Duke, Kurt Russell and Richard Dreyfuss.)

“What was wonderful and what I think makes the book really unique is that I just didn’t use pictures from 20th Century Fox,” Hirsch said. “When I called people and said I was doing this book, they were so excited they went into their basements and garages and dug out pictures and snapshots they had taken. They said, ‘Take whatever you want and put it in the book.’ ”

The result, she said, is “you have very candid snapshots of Andrews and her (baby) daughter and the kids (in the cast) fooling around and people taking coffee breaks and going sightseeing.”

Hirsch said the best stories in the book came from Andrews, who has “this really great, down-to-earth sense of humor.”

Andrews recalled “shivering in my boots” and continually being knocked down by the downdraft from the jet helicopter during the movie’s famous hilltop opening sequence. Hirsch said Andrews also told her “about the kind of primitive environment they were in on the mountain. She said, ‘You know, they didn’t have any toilets, and we had to go out into the woods. When anybody said, ‘We’re going out in the woods now,’ you knew what they meant.’ ”

“I could just imagine Julie Andrews going out behind a bush,” said Hirsch, laughing.

Then there’s the film’s romantic highlight, the kissing scene between Andrews and co-star Christopher Plummer. Andrews recalled how she and Plummer got into such a laughing jag that a frustrated Wise, after nearly a dozen takes, finally yelled, “Shoot ‘em in the dark! Then no one can see them laughing!”

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And that’s why, Hirsch said, the scene is shot in silhouette.

Despite the instant popularity of “The Sound of Music,” the film was not universally well received.

“East Coast intellectual critics,” in particular, “hated it,” Hirsch said. Pauline Kael, then a critic for McCall’s, gave it such a scathing review that readers flooded the magazine with mail protesting her review--so much so that McCall’s felt Kael was out of touch with its readership and fired her.

“The Sound of Music,” which one Fox executive dubbed “The Sound of Money,” was, as Hirsch says, “a big word-of-mouth movie.”

And over the years, it has developed a considerable cult following.

In a chapter called “Music-Mania,” Hirsch tells of one fan who saw the movie so many times he sent the producers a copy of the script he had written from memory. Another admirer--a Denver truck driver--watched the film in the same seat every Sunday for three years, and when the theater closed down, he bought the seat. A woman in Wales was listed in the “Guinness Book of World Records” for having seen “The Sound of Music” 940 times.

As recently as 1989, a Gallup Poll ranked it among the top three all-time favorite motion pictures, and it has had the longest run of any videotape bestseller, appearing on Billboard’s Top 40 video sales chart for more than 250 weeks.

So just what is the movie’s appeal?

“That was one of things I wanted to find out when I wrote the book,” said Hirsch, who leaves next week for New York, where she and Wise will do book signings. “I think the reason is everyone sees something different in the movie.

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“To some, it’s this romantic movie and to some it’s a highly patriotic movie about love for your country and fighting the Nazis. To some, it’s just a great musical, and to some it’s a religious movie. I think it works on so many different levels that that’s why it’s so popular.”

That’s not to mention, she said, that it features Andrews and the music of Rodgers and Hammerstein.

Asked Hirsch: “I mean, how can you beat that?”

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