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a little of

JOHANNES
a lot of
VON TRAPPS CATTLE MAN Johannes von Trapp of the famed Von Trapp Family Singers, made famous by “The Sound of Music,”
on his family’s 2,500-acre property in Stowe with his herd of Scottish Highland cattle. The family settled in Stowe in 1941.

©Stowe Guide & Magazine, Summer / Fall 2020 51


Clockwise from top: An ibex watches over the von Trapp Bierhall, which opened in 2016 and serves the family’s
brewing business. Sam von Trapp and his father, Johannes, at an Oktoberfest celebration at Trapp Family Lodge.
Johannes and his son-in-law, Walter Frame, at left, at a Stowe Area Association event at the von Trapp Brewery.
Johannes takes his mother Maria on a tour of new lodge construction, June 1983. The original lodge burned to
the ground just before Christmas, 1980. Inset: Capt. Georg and Maria von trapp

H e is Stowe’s most famous resident. His name is known around the world. He has been
interviewed hundreds—make that thousands—of times. Hollywood has even made a
movie about his family. But who the heck is Johannes von Trapp? And why does he hate
what he calls “that horrible, horrible song,” “Do-Re-Mi,” so much?
Let’s start with the easy stuff. Like that song.
“I may have said I hate ‘Do-Re-Mi’ but you have to understand,” says the 81-year-old
Johannes as I join him for lunch at the von Trapp Brewing Bierhall near his family’s world-famous lodge, “anyone
would come to hate it if they had heard it a million times.”
“And there’s another thing,” he continues as I dig into my medium-rare, 7-ounce, wood-grilled, Vermont beef
Johannesburger. “Our family of singers had been well-known and admired among a small group of people that
liked Baroque music. We performed madrigals, spiritual songs, and some Austrian folk songs. We had a discrimi-
nating, sophisticated following. But ‘The Sound of Music,’ both the 1959 Broadway play and especially the 1965
movie, changed all that. Suddenly, we were known as ‘those “Do-Re-Mi” kids.’
“Speaking of ‘Do-Re-Mi,’ I’ll let you in on a little secret,” says Johannes. “I made a pact with Johnny Cassel, who

FROM TOP: COURTESY PHOTO; GORDON MILLER; MILLER; MICHALE CLARK; ARCHIVES
played the piano in our lodge for a quarter of a century. I’d grown so tired of hearing songs from ‘The Sound of
Music’ that I kiddingly threatened I’d fire him if he ever played them in my presence. He never did. If he was
playing, say ‘Do-Re-Mi’ or ‘Edelweiss’ and saw me coming, he’d immediately—and seamlessly—begin playing
‘Desperado,’ my favorite song.” Johannes lets out a brief sigh and admits with a wry smile, “I miss Johnny.”
“Oh yeah; there’s one other thing the movie did,” he continues. “Its massive success made all of us, literally
overnight, public property.”
Just how public becomes apparent when a lunch guest shyly approaches our table and asks Johannes, “I am so
sorry for interrupting. But would you mind if I took a picture of you with my wife? ‘The Sound of Music’ is our
favorite movie of all time.”
Johannes graciously accepts, rises from the table and puts his arm around the guest’s wife. She beams. It’s obvious
Johannes is a pro at this. His pale blue eyes sparkle as he and the woman smile into the camera. “Just one more?”
asks the man as he turns his iPhone to include himself in a selfie.
“See what I mean?” Johannes asks me as he settles his trim, 6’1” frame back into his chair. “At least they didn’t ask
me to sing.”

STORY : robert kiener O P E N E R : glenn callahan

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and he was working hard to get bankers to
believe in him and his vision.
Clockwise, from top: Johannes and Lynne von Trapp celebrate the 50th anniversary of Trapp Family cross-

“I’ll never forget the way he took the time to


country center in January 2018 with family and friends, including Per Sørlie, center in blue jacket, who
Johannes recruited from Norway when the ski center opened in 1968, the first of its kind in the U.S. Their
children, Kristina and Sam, are kneeling, far left. An early Richardson postcard of the von Trapp home. Lynne teach me how to eat an oyster, a food I’d never
seen before. As several bankers looked on, he
and Johannes at an antique ski race at Trapps, January 2010. Maria von Trapp out for a ski. The cross-coun-
told me, ‘Just squirt a little bit of lemon on it
try center. Inset: A recent shot of Trapp Family Lodge.

and swallow it whole. Bottoms up!’ One of the


bankers who was watching was amazed and told
Dad, ‘If you can convince an 11-year-old to eat
t is no secret that Johannes, his mother and his siblings (of the 10 von Trapp children, only an oyster, you won’t have any trouble getting us
Johannes and two of his sisters, Rosmarie and Eleonore, are still living) were not thrilled to give you the money you’re looking for.’ He

I with the movie and the life-changing effects its enduring popularity has had on the family.
Much has been written about their dissatisfaction with the way their father has been por-
trayed. “He was a very loving, charming man,” says Johannes as we walk along manicured
paths at the 2,500-acre Trapp Family Lodge. “He was nothing like the cold, strict discipli-
narian depicted in the film. In fact, my mother was more like that—very determined—and less like
the sugary-sweet character Julie Andrews portrayed.”
got his $11.5 million, in my opinion, thanks in
large part to his personality and charisma.”
Says son Sam, “He has a keen sense of what
will work, what will fit. For example, just look
at the way he opened what was the nation’s first
commercial cross-country ski center in 1968.
There were other inaccuracies, such as the famous ending that showed the family escaping the Nazis There was no precedent but he hoped it would
by climbing through the Alps on their way to Switzerland. Rather, they took a train to Italy. Switzerland is help bring some winter guests to our then 27-
nearly 200 miles from Salzburg and if the family had continued on the path they were shown walking on, room lodge, but he also believed it could grow
they would have sauntered into Berchtesgaden, Germany, close to Hitler’s Eagle’s Nest mountain retreat. into something bigger. He had that vision.”
At the movie’s premiere, Johannes’ mother, Maria, famously said, “Don’t they know geography in Johannes imported 50 hickory skis and hired
Hollywood?” Robert Wise, the film’s director, replied, “In Hollywood, you make your own geography.” 24-year-old Norwegian Per Sørlie to teach cross
“There are a lot of other mistakes in the movie but we real-
STOWE REPORTER ARCHIVES; TOP: GORDON MILLER; SKI RACE: GLENN CALLAHAN. INSET: PAUL ROGERS

ized that was par for the course with a Hollywood produc-
tion,” explains Johannes. “To be more precise, the film is a
Hollywood version of the Broadway version of the German
film version of the book that my mother wrote. So perhaps it’s
not surprising that it was, shall we say, less than accurate.”
Aside from the factual errors, it’s what Johannes describes
as “the disruptive effect on my family” the movie has had
that has long irked him. Although the family stopped singing
and touring in 1956, the Broadway musical and especially
the movie shaped the public’s Hollywood-fantasy idea of
who the family was. “Believe it or not, we still get visitors
who come to the lodge and ask, “ ‘Where are the singing von
Trapp children?’ They really expect to be greeted by the chil-
dren lined up at the front door. I’m 81 and the movie is 55
years old; it’s as if they expect we were frozen in time!”
Perhaps surprisingly, “The Sound of Music” connection has
not been the cash cow for the von Trapp family that many may
believe. Indeed, Maria received only $9,000 for the rights that
she sold to German publishers in the 1950s and the family gets
a small percentage, around $100,000, of royalties annually. country skiing—then little known—to a curious
Johannes admits he has “mellowed” and changed his opinion about the movie over the years. He public. Today, the lodge’s Nordic Center
explains, “I realize ‘The Sound of Music’ means so much to so many people and that it is so loved includes a bustling retail shop, 37 miles of
because it expresses such universal themes as love of country, love of a man and a woman, and love groomed trails and 62 miles of backcountry
of family.” trails. It has been ranked the top cross-country
Johannes began helping run the lodge in 1969. Over the years, many ski resort in North America by USA Today.
have suggested to him that he take fuller advantage of the Lodge’s ties Add 100 timeshare units, villas, a $15 million
to what’s become the world’s most popular musical film, seen by more brewery and beer hall/restaurant to the list of suc-
than one billion people worldwide. But he has resisted. Indeed, there’s a cesses envisioned and set up by Johannes, and it’s
sign that greets visitors as they drive through the lush birch, beech, clear that he’s come a long way from singing
maple, and pine-forested drive on the way to the lodge that hints how madrigals and Austrian folk songs to heading up
he has helped the lodge survive, grow and prosper without adding any extra servings of Hollywood- one of Vermont’s most successful hospitality ven-
flavored kitsch. It reads: “The Trapp Family invites you to share a little of Austria, a lot of Vermont.” tures. (Along the way, he also managed to earn a
As he explains, “I’ve often said that I never wanted to turn the lodge into a Disney-like ‘Sound of degree in history at Dartmouth and a master’s
Music’ theme park.” And he’s kept his word. “It’s not part of our vision.” degree in forestry at Yale.)
Where did all of this business acumen come
ision. It’s a word that pops up often when you ask people how Johannes von Trapp from? “I don’t think I am that good of a business-
managed to turn a modest guest lodge into a multimillion-dollar, 2,500-acre, world- man,” Johannes tells me over a cup of coffee in

V class resort. “My father has this amazing skill of not looking backward but looking
forward,” says Kristina von Trapp Frame, who along with her brother Sam and her
husband Walter Frame are slowly taking over the management of the lodge. “He has
been able to combine this vision with a keen business sense, a skill for conflict man-
agement and the ability to get people to produce.”
“He’s naturally shy but can also be a sly charmer,” explains Kristina. She remembers going to a din-
the lodge’s dining room. “I am an entrepreneur.
But I don’t think I am a great businessman.”
“But—,” I say, and then he interrupts me.
“You know, I’ve traveled a lot, seen a lot of
things and have a pretty good idea of what will
work here and what won’t. And I’ve made my
ner with Johannes, her mother, Lynne, and some bankers when she was 11 years old. “The (original) share of mistakes. So I will say I am a better
lodge had burned down and things were desperate. We needed a massive loan to rebuild and expand businessman now at 81 then I was at 41.”
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One thing he has learned, he admits, is to
fight for what he believes in. “I suppose I got
Clockwise, top right: Johannes is flanked by his parents, Maria and Georg von Trapp, in this mid-1940s family

some of that from my mother,” he explains.


photo. Johannes promotes Vermont in a spot produced by the Vermont Agency of Development & Community

“She had a very strong personality and presence


Affairs, 1970s. The singing von Trapp family, led by Capt. von Trapp, with Johannes on his lap. Johannes poses

and it was not easy to fight or argue with her.


with Maria. Inset: A 2013 photo shoot for the Stowe Reporter with Sam, Lynne, Johannes and Kristina (Frame)

But it was easier for me than my siblings. Some


von Trapp, surrounded by the family’s herd of Scottish Highland cattle.

of them thought I was spoiled; the golden boy.


But I think it might have been because I was the Johannes sits back, takes a deep breath and continues, “He told me, ‘There is nothing you can do.’
only one in the family born and raised in the I didn’t disagree with him. That taught me another lesson: Don’t waste your time trying to resolve
USA. They came here as adults and had to issues that are irresolvable.”
adapt their lives drastically.”
In 1993, some of his siblings, unhappy with or the last decade or so, Johannes has been telling friends, family, and the press that he’s
Johannes’ running of the family business, voted been ready to retire—or at least drastically cut back—from his duties at the lodge. In
to oust him from his $115,000-a-year job as
president. As Vanity Fair magazine reported,
“Some of his relatives felt that Johannes had
become overbearing and arrogant and that he
wanted to maintain the total control his mother
(who died in 1987) had permitted him.”
F 2008, for example, he told The New York Times, “I’ll get back to Montana. I’ve sort of
done my thing here. Now it’s up to my son to take it from here.” But Johannes is still at it.
“I keep threatening to disappear into the woods, to a ranch in Montana or Arizona,
but I keep putting that off,” he says as he relaxes in the library and office of the expan-
sive post-and-beam home several miles from the lodge that he shares with Lynne, his wife of 51 years.
But he hasn’t.
Less than a year later, Johannes pressured the He did once own a cattle ranch in British Columbia. It was in the late 1970s and he moved to the ranch
shareholders to elect a new board and he was put in an urge to get away from home. “It was fun for a while,” he remembers. “Out there I called myself
back in charge as chairman. As the magazine ‘Von,’ which was my nickname when I was in the army, just as I’d called myself John Trapp, instead of
noted, “Johannes struck back like lightning.” Johannes von Trapp, while I was at Dartmouth. I wanted to be more normal, and that simplified matters.”
The library looks out on the Green Mountains and as he points
GLENN CALLAHAN; ALL OTHERS: ARCHIVES
outside, the former forestry graduate students tells me, “Right
there is one of the best examples of a glacial cirque in New
England. You can just imagine that massive glacier sitting there
and carving out that bowl.”
The library is overflowing with thousands of books—he is an
avid reader—but also the flotsam and jetsam of a live well-lived.
There are artifacts from Papua New Guinea where he spent three
years in his late teens, helping his mother and two sisters work as
missionaries on remote Fergusson Island.
A menagerie of hunting trophies, and shelf after shelf of Gray’s
Sporting Journals, reflect his lifelong interest—his love affair—
with big game hunting. There is a stuffed buffalo he shot in the
North West territories of Australia, a wildebeest from Namibia, an
Alaskan grizzly bear pelt, an Arizona mountain lion, a baboon
skull, wild boars from the Central African Republic, a black bear
from New Hampshire, a zebra rug and more than 40 rifles. “This
is my favorite,” he tells me as he lovingly caresses a custom-
made rifle that boasts a beautiful Circassian walnut gunstock.
Family pictures line the library walls and shelves. There’s a
picture of Sam and Kristina attempting to brand a calf on an
Arizona ranch some 35 years ago. And there are elegant portraits
of his parents, Georg von Trapp and his wife Maria.
He looks briefly at his mother’s portrait and asks me, “You
“I was frustrated that many of my siblings remember when I told you what a strong presence and personality she had? She really was amazing;
just didn’t understand the business,” says so determined. I’ve often said that without her strength we wouldn’t be here today.” He pauses for a
Johannes, as he lowers his voice while we talk second, then continues, “No, we would have disappeared into a concentration camp. No question.”
in the lodge’s now-crowded dining room. “After He extends his right arm as if to straighten his father’s portrait on the wall and says, “There’s a
the fire, when this place was a hole in the story I have told about—” He suddenly stops midsentence, wipes a tear from his eye and explains,
ground with smoke coming out of it, nobody “Every time I tell this story, I tear up a bit. Sorry.”
was interested in it.” He remembers the day he was visiting his mother in her room at the Trapp Family Lodge. It was a
He remembers, during the turbulent times crisp autumn afternoon in the 1970s and the two of them were sitting on her balcony that looked out onto
after his mother died, when he hired a family the property’s rolling hills and mixed forests in the distance and the family’s private cemetery some 200
business psychologist to interview the family feet away.
about the growing troubles. “I was driving him “We had recently fenced off the family cemetery because so many visitors had trampled down the
back to airport after his visit and he asked me, grass and flattened the flowers. Suddenly, I saw a visitor climb over the fence and thought, ‘Not
‘When did these troubles with your family again! What’s he doing?’ ”
start?’ I said after my mother’s death. He said, He pauses once more, blinks back a tear and explains, “Looking at him more closely, I realized he
‘Yes, that’s what I thought.’ was wearing a service dress white uniform. He was a United States Navy officer. He went up to my
“He told me that my siblings had unresolved father’s grave, stood there at attention and saluted. He held his salute for a moment, slowly lowered
issues with our mother and they have carried a his arm and then did an about-face. Then he climbed back over the wall and walked away.”
lot of resentment toward her because of the “I was incredibly moved. In fact, I was speechless,” remembers Johannes. “But I soon realized
inability to resolve these issues. Now that she that, if it had not been for ‘The Sound of Music,’ my father’s story wouldn’t be as well known as it is.
was gone, they transferred that resentment to It also proved to me that there are people who respect my family for what we are and what we’ve
me. I asked him what I could do about that.” done. That means the world to us.” ■

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