The atmosphere is electric with anticipation as the lights go down in Grady Gammage Memorial Auditorium in Tempe, Ariz. Nearly 3,000 people edge forward in their seats, waiting to hear a 65-year-old bald guy exhort them to get their skis out of the closet and head for the hills. They have come to see White Magic, the 40th annual ski movie from the snowy oeuvre of Warren Miller, also known as Cecil B. DeHill. As Miller strides to center stage to introduce the 87-minute film, a voice from high up in the balcony bleats, "Warren, baby!" and the rest of the crowd whoops its approval.
If you don't ski—or maybe if you do—you've probably never heard of Miller, but he is a legend in his own time zone. "Warren Miller has turned on more people to skiing than any other person in the history of the sport," says Craig Altschul, who was the vice-president of marketing for Vail, Colo., until 1987. Miller's sway over skiers is so formidable that in each of the 300 U.S. cities in which his film is shown each year, ski shops report increased sales immediately afterward.
Nobody seems to mind that Miller shows up with more or less the same movie year after year, each one with a title so generic as to be as indistinguishable as the films themselves—Steep and Deep, Deep and Light, Winter Fever and White Winter Heat. "A lot of filmmakers assume there is one audience and that they have to keep changing films and march them past that audience," says Don Brolin, the director of Miller's last eight films. "Our audience stays predominantly young, and people who have seen a few Warren Miller films are decanted out the other end. We have a format film and a revolving audience."
Mixing slickness and schmaltz, Miller shifts from breathtaking daredevil action to sequences of novice skiers falling off chair lifts to handicapped skiers overcoming their disabilities. The formula has shortchanged women, who have typically been depicted as decorative onlookers for the real skiers, the men. Among the curiosities Miller has shown are convicts from Clinton Correctional Institute skiing on a hill made of hay bales in the prison yard in the 1986 opus, Beyond the Edge.
Skiers in Miller's films have a tendency to soar off the sides of mountains into free-fall and then float down fields of untracked powder in slow motion, trailed by scalloped white contrails. "I've got people standing in line to jump off cliffs for me," says Miller. One such specimen wrote to Miller claiming to have a revolutionary asbestos ski suit, which he was prepared to use if he could be in one of Miller's movies.
"He wanted to douse himself in gasoline, set himself on fire and ski off a cliff," says Miller. "What he didn't realize was that the heat from the flames would fog up his goggles." That meant, of course, that a blinded guy was skiing off a cliff. On fire. "And hoping when he landed he came to a stop by the two guys with the fire extinguishers," says Miller.
These burlesques are usually the best things in Miller's films, even if they sometimes make you feel guilty for laughing. In White Magic, there is a sentimental segment on the courage of one-legged skiers and another part called "Dummy Downhill," in which makeshift dummies are dressed up like humans, placed on skis and sent rocketing down a ski slope to crash and pulverize themselves. There's something bizarre and unsettling about watching these two scenes in the same movie.
When Miller made his first film, in 1950, there were only 12 chair lifts in all of North America. Today, he commands up to $100,000 from resorts that want him to make promotional films. Often they end up in the feature he is making at the time, which is why he will enthusiastically endorse some Podunk ski area in the Midwest as having "eight great lifts, lots of runs." White Magic is filled with shots of the automobile and the airplanes that sponsor Miller's film tours. For some reason, audiences do not boo this intrusion of commercialism. They should.
"Sure, he's a marketing tool of the ski industry," says Altschul, who now runs a public relations agency that works with Miller. "Where else can the ski resorts reach that committed an audience? I don't believe anyone influences the ski market more than Warren Miller."
Or, if you prefer, Warren Baby.