Kansas Snapshots by Gloria Freeland - March 23, 2012

From Salzburg to Stowe!

Monday evening after supper, we did some "research" for the adventure planned for the next day. Watching "The Sound of Music" DVD we had brought along on our trip to Vermont was about as easy as studying gets. Daughters Mariya and Katie and I had seen the movie several times and it is among our favorites. Husband Art, daughter-in-law Lacey and Venezuelan friend and house guest Liza joined us.

The movie is set in Austria between the two world wars. Maria Kutschera, a young woman orphaned when she was young, thinks God has chosen her to become a nun. She is selected by the abbess of the nunnery to serve as a governess at the home near Salzburg of widower Georg von Trapp, a WWI submarine captain and national hero. Maria (Julie Andrews) brings such delight to the household by teaching his seven children to sing that Georg (Christopher Plummer) falls in love with her. As the second world war looms, Hitler wants him back in uniform, but Georg loathes the Nazis, and he knows that opposing them would be dangerous. The movie ends with the couple's marriage and the family's narrow escape by walking to freedom over the nearby mountain border.

The movie was indirectly based on the book, "The Story of the Trapp Family Singers," written by the real Maria and published in 1949, two years after her husband's death. The movie version gives no clue of what became of the family, but I knew they had come to the United States virtually broke and supported themselves by touring.

So why did we watch the movie? In January, Art read an article that mentioned the family had built a home and later a lodge near Stowe, Vermont. We thought it might be fun to visit it, but before we did, we wanted to review the von Trapp story - both the real one and the cinematic version.

Maria admitted the book was not a completely accurate account of their experiences. And with each adaptation - first into a couple of German movies, then a highly successful Rodgers and Hammerstein stage show and finally the Hollywood movie - the story moved a bit further from the truth. An obvious example is the dramatic movie ending. Austria's mountain border near Salzburg is with Germany - not a good crossing choice for anyone fleeing the Nazi regime. In truth, the family took the train to Italy and, from there, set sail for America.

Other differences between the movie and what actually took place include:

- The children's names were changed.
- Maria had been hired as a tutor for one of the children who was recovering from scarlet fever, rather than as a governess for all the children.
- The children had been trained in classical music, but Maria was only familiar with more common folk songs and so they struggled to find common musical ground.
- In the movie, Maria provides the children's musical training and a promoter moves the family into the public eye. In reality, Catholic priest Franz Wasner, who was trained in music, served to mold the family into an entertaining group.
- The couple married in 1927 and had two children by the time they left in 1938 just before Austria's annexation by Germany.

When the family arrived in the United States, Maria was pregnant. Johannes, her last child, was born in Philadelphia in early 1939.

In the early 1940s, the von Trapps took a break from touring for a vacation near Stowe, Vermont. They enjoyed themselves so much - in no small part due to the area resembling their home near Salzburg - that in 1942 they bought a nearby run-down dairy farm. While on tour, the winter snows collapsed the ceiling on the home, so a new home was built. Because the family was on the road so much, they arranged to have it rented in their absence.

By the mid-1950s, touring was becoming wearing and the family decided to settle down on their land and devote their energies into making it into a lodge.

When we arrived at the 2,500-acre property, Katie said, "Let's go back to Austria." Mariya and Lacey concurred. The cool air, the sun on the mountains, the smell of pines and the lodge's Alpine architecture reminded us of our vacations in that beautiful country.

Charlie Yerrick, sports director and almost four-decade employee, was our tour guide. He explained the main part of the business is the resort, but it also includes a maple sugar operation, a microbrewery that produces Austrian-style lagers, an orchard, the raising of Scottish Highland cattle for their meat, and a gift shop filled with books, CDs, DVDs and other items related to the von Trapp family and Austria. Guests can participate in activities such as cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, hiking, mountain biking, tennis and yoga.

After reviewing the von Trapp's story as well as contrasting it with the movie version, Yerrick led us to the small family cemetery where Maria, Georg and other family members are buried. From there, we went into a small meeting room where he showed us a BBC documentary of Maria's 1983 visit to Salzburg.

In the film, Maria reminisced about her life in the abbey, her subsequent work with the von Trapp family and her marriage to Georg.

She described herself as "un-nun-like," saying she was quite a tomboy and didn't fit in with the other nuns, matching Julie Andrews' portrayal of her pretty well.

She said her engagement to Georg wasn't as romantic as in the movie. She said the children told Georg that he had to marry her to keep her with them. His comment to them was that he didn't know if she even liked him. So the children went looking for her and found her cleaning. They asked whether she liked their father.

"So what was I going to say to the children about their father," she said. "I told them 'of course I do.'"

When the children reported her response to their father, he asked if that meant they were engaged. Maria was not at all convinced that marriage to Georg was God's will, so she ran to the abbey to ask what the nuns thought. After conferring and praying with other nuns, the abbess told Maria it was God's will for her to marry Georg.

And so she did.

Although Maria pointed out a few other differences between her real life and the "Sound of Music" movie, she said she was relieved when she saw the film. She described it as "almost completely correct."

After the documentary's conclusion, Johannes von Trapp arrived to answer questions.

Asked about what language he spoke as a youngster, he said it was German. But when he started school, he couldn't talk with the other youngsters, so he had to learn English quickly. Oddly, later in life when he and his mother conversed about family matters, art or music, they always spoke in German, but when they talked about economics, business or scientific things, they spoke in English.

When asked what his mother was like, he paused a long time before answering. He said she was bright, energetic, strict, generous. But he also said she was complex, adding that some had suggested she had multiple personalities. So while she was much like Julie Andrews' portrayal of her with the children, she was also the one who kept the family musical tours going so long. He said it was not unusual that in the same day they did a concert with an audiences of 2,000-3,000 people, Maria would also "drag" them to a nearby convent to perform. He said she felt that since the nuns didn't normally go out into the world, the family should take their music to them.

In 1960, the Trapp Family Lodge became a family-owned corporation. After Maria's death in 1987, Johannes bought out his siblings' interests.

We finished our visit by stopping at the bakery to sample the food and the various beers and to reflect a bit on the von Trapp story. Yes, there are numerous differences between the movie and the life the family lived. Yet somehow they don't seem very important. Despite the differences, the film seems to echo something Maria once said: "I feel like I'm in a beautiful story - a beautiful story that happens to be true."

Left-to-right: Liza, Johannes, Mariya, Katie and Lacey.

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