Friday, August 10, 2012

The dream machine

Endless Conversation

Express Staff Writer

After World War II, a group of anthropologists in the South Pacific found a tribe of islanders performing a mysterious ritual on an abandoned airstrip. The headman wore old navy headphones and repeatedly tweaked the knobs on a broken radio transmitter, all the while chanting the few words of English he had learned during the war.

It turned out these people were trying to reenact the rituals they saw performed by communications officers who talked to the Navy pilots who had brought in cargo planes filled with yummy treats from America.

What these islanders, known as "the cargo cult," could not imagine was that the planes, the radios and the cargo were brought to the island by forces much larger than they could comprehend.

Marketing Sun Valley to the younger generation can seem like a ritual meant to bring back the planes of prosperity, but what the promoters have forgotten is the old magic that first transformed a defunct mining town into Sun Valley, America's original destination ski resort.

Sun Valley sits out here in the middle of nowhere Idaho in a class all its own, just as Averell Harriman planned. It may be harder to get to than some second-rate ski slopes on the front range of Colorado, but this does not mean we are headed toward extinction. Sun Valley has about as much chance of dropping off the map as Rockefeller Plaza. What we need are archeologists to uncover the true gold at the bottom of the Sun Valley mystique.

I'll give you a hint: It isn't about amenities, ski pass prices or laser-light shows for teenagers. It's about the original ancestors of Sun Valley like Errol Flynn, Lucille Ball and Marilyn Monroe—and to a lesser extent, Clint Eastwood, Tom Hanks, Jamie Lee Curtis and the rest. In short, Sun Valley's future lies in her mythical past.

I understand that this will seem quaint to some of you. Like you, I once pretended not to be charmed by the campy, faux-Tyrolian style of the Sun Valley Resort campus, later thanking the doorman as I strolled like a baron into the lobby of the Sun Valley Lodge.

I've been around long enough to know where the photographs of certain VIPs hang on the wall, like the Shah of Iran, questioning the dubious celebrity status of Starsky and Hutch, while bowing before the rangy grandeur of Gary Cooper and Papa Hemingway himself.

Don't be embarrassed. Everyone feels a little bit famous in the lobby of the Sun Valley Lodge, a little touched by the glamour at the heart of the dream machine that made this town. Why else would the shooting stars from Planet Hollywood, and their media-mogul bosses keep coming here? The answer lies in the movie "Sun Valley Serenade," playing for free for much of the year at the Sun Valley Opera House.

"Who the heck is Sonja Henie?" you may ask. Well only by seeing "Sun Valley Serenade" will you plumb the depths of the mysterious appeal of Sun Valley once and for all. You will learn that Sun Valley is not just a ski area. It is a dreamscape of perfection, without which we would still be floating on that old sea of perplexing contingencies known as the post-modern era.

I have seen it again and again, the movie that has become my life. I have gone back to a time when a dame was a dame and a guy was as dumb as a post. The trains don't always run on time, but show business is still serious business. Just ask Milton Berle. If you can't dance, you have no business being on stage.

And "Sun Valley Serenade" always ends well, confirming me on my hero's quest; the lovers unite, skiing across Proctor Mountain leaving a calligraphy of superfluous tracks, away from ambition, chasing one another in that cat-and-mouse way that only movie stars truly understand.

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