Ski Slopes for the Southland
From palm trees to Ferraris, Los Angeles has always had more than its share of exotic imports.
But for sheer novelty, few have rivaled Joseph “Sepp” Benedikter, the daredevil Austrian ski racing champion who established a ski school in a town where snowflakes are as rare as waiters without acting aspirations.
Ski fever was just beginning to afflict the American West in June 1939, when Benedikter, encouraged by a group of film celebrities, opened his Pine Needle Ski Slope on the North Hollywood hill where the Universal Sheraton Hotel of the Stars sits today.
On the 800-foot hill between Lankershim and Cahuenga boulevards, Benedikter dumped 6,000 burlap sacks of pine needles, installed two rope tows and built a ski rental shop, where he introduced and promoted the new sport of dry-land skiing.
Under the gaze of grazing cows, Hollywood jet-setters and downtown professionals dressed in fashionable bathing suits and shorts donned long wooden skis and clung to a rope for dear life. Students, including Lori Saunders, Ginger Rogers, Jane Wyman and Joan Bennett, never had to wonder which ski wax to use because the pine needles were slippery enough.
Benedikter began skiing in his native Austria in 1914 at the age of 3, and the next year entered a race for children under 6, winning the first of more than 200 trophies.
He was one of five dashing ski enthusiasts imported from Austria, the country where modern downhill skiing techniques developed, by W. Averill Harriman to make his Union Pacific railroad’s Sun Valley terminus a ski resort.
With an engineering background, Benedikter designed the runs, decided how the slopes were to be groomed and organized the construction of the lodge.
In 1936, when Sun Valley opened, Benedikter was the first person to ride the world’s first chairlift.
The idea was conceived from banana boat conveyors that brought giant stalks ashore on hooks. At Sun Valley, they simply attached chairs instead of hooks to the cables. Before chairlifts, skiers sometimes had to climb six to eight hours with sealskins strapped to the bottom of their skis to keep from sliding back downhill.
As Hollywood stars flocked to the country’s first true ski resort, Benedikter immediately found himself typecast as a ski instructor in “I Met Him in Paris,” starring Claudette Colbert, Robert Young and Melvyn Douglas.
In 1939, for one summer only, he was lured to Los Angeles by the star-studded Wooden Wings Ski Club, which included Gary Cooper, Errol Flynn, Henry Fonda, David Niven, Richard Greene, Tyrone Power, David O. Selznick and Lili Damita, and opened Pine Needle Ski Slope.
A passionate athlete whose constant travels were governed by changing seasons and an irrepressible craving for thrills, he left Los Angeles and returned to Sun Valley, winning the first Diamond Sun medal for downhill racing in 1941.
The same year, Glenn Miller captured the nation’s imagination with a new song, “It Happened in Sun Valley,” as skiers arrived daily through the winter on a train called the City of Los Angeles. Again, Benedikter was pulled away from his lucrative private ski instruction to double for Milton Berle in “Sun Valley Serenade,” starring Sonja Henie and John Payne.
The other immigrants who arrived with Benedikter at Sun Valley also prospered after their own fashion. Hans Hauser married gangland heartthrob Virginia Hill, the former lover and savvy partner-in-crime of natty Bugsy Siegel. Friedl Pfeifer moved to Colorado to create a resort of his own, in a place called Aspen.
During the summers, Benedikter kept in shape by working at an Idaho logging camp, until a loaded truck rolled over on him and ruptured several discs.
Germany’s annexation of Austria made him a citizen of the Third Reich, and even his show business connections couldn’t keep Benedikter out of a World War II internment camp.
After the war, he returned to the Los Angeles area for good, settling in Tarzana and taking charge of ski schools at some of Southern California’s newly opened mountain resorts. He supplied them with certified instructors from his latest business brainchild, the Far West Ski Instructors Assn., while still devoting part of his time to daredevil stunts.
In July 1948, when snow was sparse, he jumped 110 feet across a highway lined with cars at Mt. Lassen in the Sierra Nevada. Later, lawmakers outlawed such antics after a less skilled leaper was killed.
After developing Holiday Hill ski area (now called Mountain High East) near Wrightwood in 1949, where he built Southern California’s longest double chairlift--more than a mile long--he again pushed the limits of sport with stunts.
Defying mother nature, Benedikter built what was called the world’s highest artificial ski jump at the Los Angeles County Fair in Pomona in 1951. Thrilling hundreds of thousands of spectators, he brought in the U.S. Olympic team for exhibition jumping off a 225-foot tower that sloped 500 feet. In the 100-degree weather, as much as 8 million pounds of crushed ice was blown onto the slope. But the biggest surprise came when no one on the team wanted to be the first to take the breathtaking leap. Benedikter stepped in and made the opening jump and, reluctantly, the team followed. Each evening he led the team weaving figure eights down the hill, illuminating their descent with torches. Later, he reconstructed the jump at Dodger Stadium.
In 1956, after rain flooded the Los Angeles Basin, Benedikter put on a pair of water skis and was towed by a car through the neighborhood at 23rd and Main streets. He even starred in a short-lived weekly TV show, “Ski Meisters,” teaching viewers the art of skiing.
A professional slalom and downhill racer and in between an “accidental engineer,” he also designed and built incline chairlifts and funiculars for apartment houses and homes on hillsides from Hawaii to Laguna.
In 1964, he purchased a rundown ski area, Rebel Ridge near Big Bear, and converted it into a successful operation, drawing stars like Eddie Albert and Ann-Margret. He remained king of the mountain for five years, then sold it.
The skier’s journey ended with his death in 1981, four years after he was inducted into the National Ski Hall of Fame.