Documentary explores the original theme park — a ski resort
Many Tahoe ski resorts have a colorful history, but Squaw Valley’s origin story features one character whose cultural reach extends into Fantasia.
Filmmaker David Johnson documented Walt Disney’s influence, alongside Wayne Poulsen and Alex Cushing, in the bid for the 1960 Olympic Games to get the infrastructure still seen today at Palisades Tahoe in a movie released last month called “Magic in the Mountains.”
The film documents how the bid for the 1960 Winter Olympics forever changed the way games were presented, Johnson said.
“The sponsorship, the live television — it made it into this entertainment spectacle,” Johnson said.
The right to televise the games at Squaw was sold for $50,000 to CBS that same year, an unprecedented exchange of revenue at the time.
“Now, the rights to host the Olympics is in the billions,” Johnson said.
The St. Louis-based filmmaker said his production crew thought the story was worth highlight through film after reading Michael Crawford’s book, “Progress City Primer: Stories, Secrets, and Silliness from the Many Worlds of Walt Disney.”
Johnson said Coolfire Studio’s initial interest was stoked by an investigation into Disney’s craft of the games’ opening and closing ceremony.
Disney’s foray into the games’ production conceived the first-ever athlete village, where athletes congregated together and, Johnson added, “Walt looked at Squaw like what a future theme park could look like.”
“The gathering of nations, the commonality — that was something that was always interesting to us,” Johnson said.
Johnson said Disney made the Olympic Games, as well as the athletes, a more palpable experience for viewers at home. The statues, combined with the personas offered by Bing Crosby and Danny Kaye, “had the whole world in stitches” and turned athletes into celebrity superstars.
“It made the Olympics bigger, larger than life,“ Johnson said.
The St. Louis filmmaker said even as a non-skier, the story was exciting in itself as an influential entrepreneurial endeavor that came “on the heels of World War II.”
Johnson said the opportunity to start a ski lodge is nearly impossible to imagine now, and was unheard of then.
“You can’t do what these guys did today,” Johnson said.
Johnson said many locals may know the story of the two families, but recalled Wayne Poulsen was the first to have the land until Alex Cushing arrived from the east with funding for the project.
The two men who first changed the cultural and architectural terrain of the region eventually had a falling out and a fiscal fissure, Johnson said, a separation that inspired Cushing to seek financial support elsewhere.
Johnson said Cushing decided to pursue the bid for the games as a publicity stunt.
The maneuver was pulled “when they didn’t have anything — a chairlift, a couple of chairs,” Johnson said. “(Cushing’s) pitch the to the world was, ‘What we don’t have, we can build,’ so they us started from scratch.”
Johnson said Coolfire Studios also used Tahoma-based civil engineer David Antonucci’s book “Snowball’s Chance — The Story of the 1960 Olympic Winter Games,” which offered some foundation for the filmmakers.
Russell Poulsen, Wayne’s son, also makes a cameo in the film, Johnson said, specifically highlighting his father’s contribution to conservation efforts in the area.
Johnson said “Magic in the Mountains’” target audience is a small core of people already in relationships with Squaw Valley, “or Palisades Tahoe, as they’re now calling it.”
Johnson said screening the film on-site, or at least in the region, has inspired others to share lesser known plot points.
“The people react in ways we never would because they knew the people,” Johnson said. “We never had that kind of perspective. It was super rewarding to watch the audience.”
Rebecca O’Neil is a staff writer with The Union, a sister publication of the Sierra Sun. She can be reached at email@example.com
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