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Von Trapp lodge a bit of a curse and a blessing

Johannes von Trapp, left, has run the Trapp Family Lodge, and now son Sam, right, will. “The Sound of Music . . . wasn’t what we were,” Johannes says.

New York Times

Johannes von Trapp, left, has run the Trapp Family Lodge, and now son Sam, right, will. “The Sound of Music . . . wasn’t what we were,” Johannes says.

STOWE, Vt.

When Sam von Trapp, the grandson of Maria, the singing governess made famous by The Sound of Music, graduated from college, his father offered him a deal: Sam could do whatever he wanted for 10 years before he had to return home to run the family's ski lodge.

When Sam finally returned to take over from his father, Johannes, he had had quite a decade: teaching skiing in Aspen, modeling for Ralph Lauren, surfing in Chile and even making People magazine's America's Top 50 Bachelors list in 2001. Recently, he sat in a dark office at the Trapp Family Lodge, the inn his grandmother started, trying to decide what to do with some old curtains.

It is hard for anyone to untangle family history and allegiances. When your last name is von Trapp, and Americans claim you as part of their own legacy, that task is just that much harder.

That legacy weighs on Sam even as he considers something as mundane as curtains.

In The Sound of Music, the beloved 1965 movie, Maria, the governess played by Julie Andrews, turned old curtains into play clothes for the seven von Trapp children, just as the real Maria had done. Von Trapp figured that if he sold von Trapp draperies on eBay, he might turn a nice profit.

"Nobody has the level of commitment I do," said von Trapp, now 36. "Nobody has as much to gain."

Despite the nostalgic mist around The Sound of Music, von Trapp is taking over a business for a family that has had its share of ups and downs and disagreements.

When the von Trapps arrived in the United States in 1938, they settled in Pennsylvania and made money by singing baroque and folk music. By 1942, the family had bought a farm in Stowe. Maria rented out rooms in the house when the von Trapps were on tour.

Johannes von Trapp, the 10th and youngest child, remembers growing up relatively anonymously in a quiet, strict home. That began to shift after the 1959 Broadway production The Sound of Music, and when the movie opened, everything changed.

"You could no longer give your name anywhere without people saying 'Oh, are you . . .?' " said the elder von Trapp, now 69. "The film, for better or for worse, made us a mass market commodity."

The von Trapps have never directly profited from the film or Broadway musical: Maria, whose husband died in 1947, sold the rights to the family story to a German film company in the mid 1950s for just $9,000. Johannes and now his son run the cross-country skiing lodge that trades on the family's fame with Austrian food, servers wearing dirndls and pictures of the family, but not a single poster from the movie.

"The Sound of Music was great, but it was an American version of my family's life," said Johannes. "It wasn't what we were."

The family legacy has been particularly onerous for him.

People would ask about Liesl, and Johannes would have to point out that his eldest sibling was not 16 going on 17, but 54 in 1965 — and male. They would ask whether he was Kurt or Friedrich, and he would have to explain that his father and mother had three children together who were not portrayed in the movie, and he was the youngest. His mother was presented as a near-saint in the movie; in real life, she was difficult and domineering, people who knew her said.

By 1969, he had graduated from Dartmouth and completed a master's degree from the Yale school of forestry. He returned to Stowe to put the inn's finances in order and ended up running the place. He tried to leave, moving to a ranch in British Columbia in 1977 and staying a few years, then moving to a ranch in Montana. But the professional management in Stowe kept quitting.

As long as Maria was alive, the von Trapp siblings grudgingly got along.

"She ruled the family," said Marshall Faye, a baker who has worked at the lodge for more than 30 years. "Anything they did had to have her blessing."

But after she died in 1987, the family members — 32 of whom owned stock in the lodge — started to fracture. Johannes engineered a buyout in 1994.

"I honestly resented the fact that none of my older siblings could've took over the business," he said. "I could've run off and done whatever I wanted to do."

If he had to run a lodge, he wanted a dignified one. He enjoys events like the Friday night wine tastings, where he can sip Gruner Veltliners and greet guests in the patrician fashion he learned as a boy.

In the off-season, Sound of Music bus tours arrive, full of seniors who line their purses with cellophane so they can stuff them with Austrian pastries at the breakfast buffet. He recently discovered that his gift shop had been selling a stuffed goat that sings The Lonely Goatherd.

"Isn't that awful?" he said, sighing. "My staff hid it from me for months. But it does sell."

The lodge provides well for his family — his wife, Lynne, whom he met when she was a singing waiter at the lodge, and his children, Sam and Kristina, 38, who recently moved back to Stowe and built a house on the 2,400-acre property.

For Sam, a generation removed from The Sound of Music, the burden of being a von Trapp is lighter. He is the child of a Vermonter, not the son of an Austrian baron. And he has seen the movie only a couple of times.

Early on a Friday night, Johannes slips into the bar and orders an Austrian red wine, and a hamburger without a bun. The piano player plays a different song for each regular visitor. He plays Scott Joplin's Solace for Sam, and pieces by the Cuban singer Silvio Rodriguez for Sam's fiancee, Elisa. Johannes' song is the Eagles ballad, Desperado.

Sean Silcoff contributed reporting from Montreal.

Von Trapp lodge a bit of a curse and a blessing 01/03/09 [Last modified: Saturday, January 3, 2009 3:31am]

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