In the 1960s, skiing was America’s fastest growing sport, its popularity stoked by the media. Skiers jammed theaters to watch Warren Miller and John Jay movies. Magazines, including Life and the Saturday Evening Post, featured ski stories. The buildup to the 1964 Winter Olympics in Innsbruck, Austria, fueled enthusiasm. Then a media event occurred on the eve of the Games that hit a crescendo. On NBC’s Tonight Show, millions of Americans watched a ski lesson.
Johnny Carson had recently become host of the nightly show, broadcast live from New York City. In the nation’s media capital, television, radio, publishing and movie personalities were often skiers. The nearest big ski area was Hunter Mountain, N.Y. Robert Redford once flew there with friends to ski for the day.
If Paul Newman and Bobby Kennedy didn’t already ski there, the resort retained Paul Pepe—a Broadway press agent—to make sure they did. Pepe regularly gave away lift tickets and lodging to celebrities to publicize the skiing on Hunter’s trails, which had been blasted out of Catskill glacial rock.
Pepe happened to be Bob Hope’s New York press agent, and Hope, as a favor, appeared often on the Tonight Show. “As a result, the show’s producers listened to almost any idea I had,” Pepe recalls. “So I said, how about a ski instructor who’ll teach Johnny to ski—live, on camera? They jumped at it.”
The agent didn’t have to think long about which instructor to put on the show. Hunter’s ski school employed the charming and telegenic Kitty Falger, a blue-eyed Austrian belle who could hold her own with Carson.
To create an indoor slope in the studio, Hunter staff built a 12-foot ramp and covered it with plastic chips left over from a failed summer skiing project. “Carson was a skier,” Pepe says. “What made the sketch outrageously funny was his superb athleticism. Johnny improvised the errors of a hapless beginner better than if we’d put a beginner on the show.”
When Carson crossed his short skis, Falger, playing it straight, corrected him. If Carson was sitting back, she told him to bend his knees. He did, almost falling down. He skidded. He stepped on her skis. She patiently and seriously set him right. After more than a half-hour of pratfalls, Falger retreated to the couch where Carson interviewed her about the sexy and exciting sport of skiing.
As many as 10 million Americans watched the show...perhaps more than watched skiing televised from Innsbruck’s slopes the next month. Never have so many people witnessed a ski lesson.
“Heeere’s Johnny!” shouted Ed McMahon. He might as well have shouted “Heeere’s skiing, America!” It was a defining moment in skiing’s ascent to America’s favorite outdoor winter sport.
John Fry is the author of The Story of Modern Skiing, about the changes to the sport after World War II.