The Sound of Music as historical fiction

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The Trapp Family and the Sound of Music

The recent death of actor Christopher Plummer has renewed interest in the fifty-six-year-old movie, The Sound of Music. Since it is more than fifty years old, it qualifies as historical fiction. I thought I would share my connection to the movie and the real Trapp Family.

The real Trapp Family Singers

Like many others, I first heard of the Trapps through the movie, which released in April 1965. I saw it at the theater as an eleventh birthday present. Two years before, I had taken a children’s course at Texas Tech University in German, and given my German ancestry, it kindled my interest. I was dazzled by the photography. I loved the music. Soon everyone was singing Eidelweiss, and I learned to play it in my school orchestra. Fascinated, I got a copy of Maria Von Trapp’s book, “The Trapp Family Singers.” (the 1954 edition – wish I still had it –now worth $150-$750).  Without even reading the book, I learned that the Von Trapps still lived in Stowe, Vermont. I immediately wrote a letter, asking all sorts of questions, assuming the movie to be true.

I received a polite response from Maria’s secretary – I’m sure they were overwhelmed with mail and a catalog of the recorder music books that the family sold. After reading the book, I could see that the movie’s resemblance to real-life was superficial. But I had the bug, and I wanted to go to Austria and see all the places in the film. I studied German in high school, worked hard, and saved money. I found German fascinating, a way of connecting with my roots (only to discover through DNA testing that I had more Scots than German in me). I traveled by myself to Germany and Austria after high school, spending the summer of 1972 roaming around Europe by train on a Eurail pass. When I returned, I went through college at Rice, obtaining degrees in Mathematical Sciences (Computer Science) and German. And that would be all – except that in 1980, while living in Massachusetts, we watched the evening news, and Maria Von Trapp was on, telling how the Trapp Lodge had caught fire and burned, December 20, 1980. Later, we received an invitation to come and stay at the new Trapp Lodge to consider purchasing a timeshare. Considering my lifelong fascination, I couldn’t pass it up. We saw Maria herself at a distance. We went, we bought, and have returned many times over the years, getting to know Johannes and Rosemarie Von Trapp slightly in the process. We returned to Austria in 1985, taking one of the many “Sound of Music” tours to visit the film sites that are accessible.

On one visit to the Trapp Lodge (2009), in honor of Rosmarie’s birthday, the actors/” children” from the movie visited, and we got to meet them, as well as get their autographs. Surprisingly, they still keep in touch and are good friends. Charmian Carr (Liesl) was not present, and Duane Chase (Curt) was in Australia, unable to attend). Since then, Heather Menzies (Louisa) has died. There are very few actors from the film still living, mostly Julie Andrews and those that played the children. Rosmarie used to do the singalong times at the Lodge but has retired.

The real story

The real story of the Von Trapps is too long to recount in detail, and I encourage you to read both Maria and Agatha’s books (Agatha was the eldest Von Trapp child, she died in 2010). Here’s a summary:

Maria grew up with an absent father, mostly raised by an aunt and uncle. She loved God and nature and was determined to enter Nonnberg Convent in Salzburg in 1924 as a sacrifice to God. She was adventurous. The Von Trapp family needed a caretaker and school teacher for their second oldest daughter, Maria Franziska, who had suffered scarlet fever. They applied to the abbey. Maria came from the abbey and became a part of the family. Georg’s wife (Agathe Whitehead) had died in 1922. Unlike the movie version, Maria came to the Trapp household in 1926, not around the eve of World War 2. Georg was “dating” an Austrian princess (not a baroness). She and the children grew to love each other. Georg was a kind, friendly, lovable man, nothing like the character in the movie. But Maria was not in love with him. One day, when she was on a ladder, cleaning one of the chandeliers in the mansion, Georg came and asked her if she liked him. Maria was preoccupied and didn’t take the question seriously. She replied quickly, “Of course I like you.” Georg waited until she got down and told her the children asked him about them getting married! She was terrified and retreated to the abbey. When she talked to Georg on return, she tearfully reported, “They say I have to marry you!”.  Maria did grow to love Georg very much, but it was not a love match initially. They married on November 26, 1927.

In the worldwide depression, Georg lost his fortune. It was held in a bank in England, which failed. To make ends meet, Maria and Georg began taking in boarders, particularly seminary students. One of these was Father Wasner, who was also an excellent musician. To pass the time, they began singing at dinner, with Father Wasner arranging music and acting as the director. They sang classical music, Bach motets, Mozart, and other German composers and some Austrian folk songs. They were “discovered” not by a money-grubbing friend but by the opera singer Lotte Lehmann in 1936 and began to sing in public. Hitler heard them on the radio. The eldest son, Rupert, was a doctor. On March 12, 1938, Hitler’s troops marched into Austria. Rupert received a summons to report to the German Wehrmacht for service within a short time, Georg was tapped as a U Boat commander. After running into Hitler in a restaurant,  the family was “invited” (command performance) to sing for Hitler’s birthday on April 20.

They could not refuse these commands.  Family councils weren’t secret because their butler denounced them to the Nazis.  The family got in their car with a few possessions and drove over the border into Italy. The frontier closed two hours after they passed through.

Once in Italy, they made do for a while. But money began to run tight, and through their benefactor Lotte Lehman, they arranged a concert tour. They went to England and then the United States. The U.S. tour began as a disaster. They sang only in German, wore what U.S. audiences considered frumpy clothes, and their program was strictly classical at a time when anti-German sentiment was high and big band jazz was popular. Their tour manager had a frank talk with them, and they made changes. They had to return to Italy. When they again found their way to the U.S., they almost weren’t admitted. When the customs officer asked the question, “How long are you staying?” Maria replied impulsively, “I want to stay forever!”.  Maria worried because she didn’t have proper baby clothes, and Johannes was on the way. Their second tour was very successful. They became famous in the United States, traveling on a tour bus around the country. Johannes and one or two of the younger children stayed at a boarding school in New Jersey until they were old enough to join the tour.

While they were touring, Hitler took over the Trapp Family villa in Austria. It became a headquarters for Himmler, and Hitler personally murdered someone in the house. After the war, the family decided not to return. They managed to have a few heirlooms shipped to the U.S. but otherwise abandoned everything. The Missionaries of the Precious Blood religious order bought the villa in 1947, and in 2008 it became a hotel, open to the public. It was not used in filming the Sound of Music.

The Trapps quit touring and came to Stowe, Vt. They purchased an old farm on Luce Hill and began taking in skiers. As this prospered, they built the first Trapp Family Lodge and acquired an old Conservation Corps camp adjacent to the farm, giving them about two thousand acres. They ran summer music camps, teaching singing and recorder, and hosting the skiers in the winter, gradually expanding to a full-time resort. Johannes, the youngest Von Trapp child, ran the resort for many years. His forester’s eye helped develop the extensive network of hiking and cross-country ski trails on the property. At 82, he has passed the reins to his son, Sam. The Lodge is often booked a year in advance. It has a beautiful Mozart concert every summer and its own brewery. Maria and Georg are buried there.

The Movie

Maria was a strong woman with definite ideas. She was not, however, a great businesswoman. Maria wrote her autobiography and sold the rights cheaply to a German company, who then sold the rights to the stage play and the movie. The family made nothing directly from The Sound Of Music. Maria appears in the film as a cameo performance during the song “I Have Confidence,” but never met during the filming with any of the actors. The director, Robert Wise, reportedly knew her nature and tendency to try and run things. He wanted to keep her far away from the production. The Lodge runs a movie called “The Real Maria” that tells the actual Trapp story, with commentary from Maria.

Several books have been written about the filming of The Sound of Music, notably “Forever Liesl” by Charmian Carr. Briefly, Charmian’s mother was a minor show business personality and heard about the auditions for The Sound of Music from a friend, encouraging Charmian to try out. They tried her with several “families” of children and ultimately settled on the group in the movie. (I’ll call it “Music,” as Julie Andrews does in her writings). The first scene filmed in Music was Liesl climbing through Maria’s window in the rainstorm. They had difficulty timing Liesl’s entrance because the sound effects were so loud that Charmian couldn’t hear her queue from Julie. After several takes and a thoroughly drenched Charmian, Julie decided to raise her voice dramatically, which you hear in the film, to allow Charmian to enter at the right moment.  At the time of the film’s release, Julie was thirty, now eighty-five. Charmian was just seven years younger, twenty-three at the time of the movie.

The cast filmed the scenes of the interior of the Trapp Family villa on a sound stage in Los Angeles. The actors recounted how they had to practice the scene they later filmed in Vienna jumping up and down the steps at a high school gymnasium on the bleachers.

The movie’s opening scene was filmed from a helicopter in a mountain meadow almost twenty miles from Salzburg. It would have been ludicrous to imagine Maria running from there to Nonnberg Abbey. Julie was struggling to stay on her feet due to the winds from the helicopter blades.

The filmmakers asked permission to use the Abby for the film but were turned down. Maria’s wedding takes place in a country church several miles outside Salzburg – it’s very dark, and photography is almost impossible.

During the filming process, when on location, Julie and Chris stayed separated from the children. Christopher Plummer was largely a stage actor, a great one, but did not enjoy working with children. He wanted to do his own singing in the movie, but it wasn’t good enough. They dubbed in another voice, Bill Lee.  

Inclement weather delayed the production for many dull days. The weather was unpredictable. One of those times was when Julie and the children were in the mountain meadow, just before the Do Re Mi song. There was an old house there, just off-camera, where they sheltered in the rain. Waiting for a break in the weather, Julie was drinking schnapps. When there was suddenly a clear spot, they had to seize it to film while they could. As a result, Julie did the scene half smashed.

During the scene where the children are hanging from trees while the Captain and the Baroness drive underneath, Nicholas Hammond (Friedrich), the great jokester of the group, pelted the passing car with nuts. He says he was afraid Bob Wise would fire him. He still has a great sense of humor, and runs a software company in Seattle area.

Right to left, Elenor Parker, Christopher Plummer, Julie Andrews, Debbie Turner, Nicholas Hammond, Heather Menzies, Duane Chase, Angela Cartwright

The movie almost had a great tragedy. In the scene where the children and Maria arrive back at the “villa” (actually Frohnburg castle), the boat tips over sending Julie and the children into the lake. The plan was to have Kym Karath (Gretl) fall in the same direction as Julie Andrews since Kym couldn’t swim. Julie was to catch her. But Julie lost her balance and fell in the opposite direction. Kym, near drowning, was saved by Heather Menzies (Louisa), and trundled off to the hospital. Kym credits Heather with saving her life.

As a final note on the movie, Charmian Carr slipped when rehearsing the “Sixteen going on Seventeen” song, sending her foot through the glass of the gazebo. After some doctoring and deliberation, she decided to go through with the filming. If you look very closely, you can see a flesh colored bandage covering the lacerations. She dances the entire scene, leaping benches, with an injured ankle.

Today, Angela Cartwright (Brigitta) runs a home décor business. Kym (Gretl) and Duane (Curt) still act. Debbie Turner (Marta) runs an upscale floral design business.

And The Sound of Music endures.

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