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Revisiting the Real von Trapps as The Sound of Music Turns 50

14 minute read
Updated: | Originally published: ;

For LIFE’s new book celebrating the 50th anniversary of the release of the film of The Sound of Music — which premiered Mar. 2, 1965 — Daniel S. Levy traveled to Vermont to visit Johannes von Trapp, the youngest real-life von Trapp child. Here is an extended version of the story that appears in the book.

To get to Johannes von Trapp’s home one has to drive down a narrow path cut through thick Vermont woods. The spot on a ridge of the Green Mountains in Stowe is a refuge for the steward of his family’s tradition. Here in a timber framed home with a soaring cathedral ceiling and an equally impressive fieldstone heath, Johannes and Lynne, his wife of 45 years, can get away from the Trapp Family Lodge and the weight of history. At home he is surrounded by the life he made, items from Papua New Guinea where he served as a missionary in the late 1950s, family memorabilia as well as a large assortment of hunting trophies from zebra and grizzly rugs to a mounted wild boar, a Dall Ram and scattered antlers.

The house possesses the immaculate feel you would expect from a hotelier. But off to the side is Johannes’ office, which tells much about a life lived fully. His desk literally groans under the weight of books and papers, and the shelves equally brim with books that reflect the world he has grown up in, with such titles as Harvesting Timber Crops, The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich and biographies of Jack London and Winston Churchill. “I love this spot,” he says as he looks out the window at the snow-covered land, a pond for swimming and a vast forest for hikes. “It allows me to be completely away from the hotel.”

It is a retreat tailored for an ecologists and businessman who doesn’t just think about the success of the lodge’s current season, but where it will be decades after he is gone. A tall, soft-spoken man with pale blue eyes and a fondness for warm vests, he has dedicated more than half his life to overseeing the place his parents Georg and Maria von Trapp first bought in 1942, being the gracious host, joking with his workers, smiling at guests and planning, planning, planning all while balancing his vision with the legacy of The Sound of Music.

The at times uncomfortable relationship between reality and what the movie has wrought is something that Johannes, his nine brothers and sisters and his parents long grappled with. The youngest of the von Trapp children, he was born soon after the family and Father Franz Wasner landed in America. He is careful when explaining how the Julie Andrews and Christopher Plummer version of their story is an alteration of what happened, and his parents were far different from that Technicolor couple. Johannes clearly misses them—their portraits hang on each side of his equally cluttered, yet more workmanlike desk up near the lodge—and he speaks lovingly of them. He recalls a sweet father who told stories at the dinner table where he might recount his service in the Austrian Navy by arranging cutlery and using a fork to draw a line on the tablecloth and telling his children, “This is the way the French cruiser came and I then intercepted them here.” Georg was a man of faith and principles, and Johannes talks about why they had to leave Austria: “My father really would have stood up to the Nazis, and at two in the morning he would have been taken away.” He remembers his parents as an ideal couple, and how Maria was good for him, and his and their children: “Oh absolutely. There is no question.” He deeply loves her, while acknowledging that his mother possessed an inner strength that “was often positive and at times a negative.” But as he notes, “without her strength we would have quietly disappeared into a concentration camp in Germany or Poland.”

It was Maria’s powerful drive that propelled the family—he calls her “one of the most determined people I know”—a force about whom sister Hedwig once commented, “if it wasn’t for mother we would have all ended up as chambermaids and cooks.” Maria believed they needed to remain united to succeed. “To her, the important thing was that we stay together because together we were a singing group that was pleasant to listen to. Our survival economically depended on staying together.”

The von Trapps arrived in Stowe, Vermont in 1942, settling on Luce Hill, a 660-acre working farm. They continued to sing, and in 1944 started a music camp. With a family so large the farmhouse required expanding, but since brothers Werner and Rupert were off in the War, his sisters had to do much of the hard labor. “One day we were tearing down an old farm structures and my sisters were swinging axes and hammers. My father was talking to an old Vermonter. My father looked around and said, ‘We could use a few more men around here.’ The old Vermonter looked at my sisters and said, ‘Or one more of those girls.’” The original lodge developed into a hodgepodge, and with seven sisters and two brothers along with a gaggle of visiting friends, there were seldom fewer than a dozen at the dinner table. When friends of friends came up they defrayed the cost of their visits, and slowly the spot became a lodge, especially when they rented rooms to skiers during the winter when the family was off singing.

The peripatetic life of this traveling singing troupe made for an atypical childhood. Besides the 28-year span of his siblings, “We had a priest living with us who said mass every morning and we had our private chapel.” From an early age Johannes was mostly home schooled. Father Wasner taught him Latin, his sister Maria handled math, and his mother French. Johannes loved the touring, and he passed long hours on the bus reading “anything I could find.” He graduated high school by correspondence course, and then spent nearly three years as a missionary on Fergusson Island off the coast of Papua New Guinea. Back in the States he attended Dartmouth and then headed to Yale’s forestry school. Afterwards he studied forest resources at Berkeley, but the turmoil gripping that campus in the 1960s didn’t sit well with the then young officer in the National Guard.

By then the von Trapps were world famous. And while as a member of a performing family he was used to the attention of others, Johannes found the sharpening focus of unsought for fame more and more unnerving. “It was something that I struggled with and tried to get away from. I called myself John Trapp. It was a bother. It got in the way of friendships. I wanted to be more normal.” In 1969 he returned to the homestead. The family had stopped touring more than a decade earlier, there were lots of nieces and nephews and he realized that the spot had to be set on a firmer financial base. Johannes’ attempts to straighten out the finances were complicated by the collision of Old and New World views. “My older brothers and sisters were all raised in this sort of Victorian manner. You didn’t talk about sex and you talked about money less than sex. So it was almost impossible to have a business conversation because they had no understanding.” He recalls a discussion with his mother where she complained, “’Johannes you are always talking about money. We are here to make people happy.’ I said mother as long as we are not making any money we will lose this place and we won’t be able to make anybody happy.” In the end he says that she reluctantly accepted what he had to do.

The original structure burnt down in 1980 and a new and improved one opened in 1983. By 1994 Johannes bought out the other family shares to the lodge, and has made the place prosper. He is profoundly proud to have preserved and expanded on what his parents started, while striking a balance between history and myth and nodding with a hint of resignation when asked if there are determined fans who show up: “I have to tread carefully. I love the reality of my family’s story, but The Sound of Music representation is such a change to the reality. The most rabid of fans are fans of the film, and they would like reality to be twisted around to conform to the film. I have always taken pains to try to prevent this place from becoming a Sound of Music theme park and have it continue to be an expression of my family’s values, tastes, while at the same time acknowledging and recognizing The Sound of Music.”

And this is what he has succeeded in doing, buying an additional 2,000 acres of land and laying out skiing, hiking and biking trails. The land melds Johannes’ interest in being a lodge keeper and an environmentalist along with his guests’ interest in the film. American, Vermont and Austrian flags flutter from the dark stained wooden lodge with its chockablock of dormers, a bell tower and traditional carved Austrian motifs. On a busy weekend the lodge, guest houses and villas nestled between the Green and Worcester Mountains can welcome close to 1,000 guests who arrive for skiing, tours of the maple sugarhouse and assorted activities. There are sing-a-longs with a harpist who tells a group of gathered guests, “You guys can be the children and I will be Maria,” as she leads them in such numbers as “Edelweiss” but also “You Are My Sunshine” and “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.” They screen films, from The Sound of Music to The Lorax, and the halls are alive with family photos, along with stills from the German film, Playbills, pictures from the American movie and even foreign language posters. As Johannes walks through the lodge he nods at guests and chats with employees arranging decorations as well as the restaurant’s staff who offer beef, vegetables and fruit dishes harvested from the land. During breakfast Johannes proudly points to the Trapp Farm eggs.

Outside he shows off the field where in the warmer weather picnickers can hear the Vermont Symphony Orchestra and other musical groups. There are gardens here with vegetable and berry patches, a fenced in meadow with shaggy Scottish Highland Cattle, a wedding tent for large celebrations, a shrine to Mary as well as Our Lady of Peace, a stone chapel up the hill that brother Werner built after he and Rupert fought the fascism which drove the family away from Europe. And in the shadow of the lodge lays a small tree-line family plot where Maria, Georg and many of Johannes’ brothers and sisters rest.

Appropriately for a man who studied forest ecology there are now conservation easements on 1,600 acres to preserve the land, and he is further sowing what is needed for the future. At 76 he is in the midst of a transition. His daughter Kristina runs history tours and handles special events. His son-in-law Walter Frame is the lodge’s administrator. And his son Sam is the senior executive and will be taking over when he steps down. Snow whips around the ground as Johannes drives down the hill past groves of birch, beech, maple, pine and scattered fruit trees. He has gotten into the microbrewery business, and currently produces 2,000 barrels a year of Golden Helles, Trösten Bier and other Austrian and South German brews. This spring a new $15 million facility will start producing at least 50,000 barrels a year, and he shows off the building containing towering 6,000 gallon German-made stainless steel vats. There are even plans for an adjacent restaurant that should open in the fall.

As Johannes looks back on his life and his family he has made peace with the real vs. the mythic celluloid Von Trapps and is comfortable juggling traditions: Family. The Old Country. The New Found Land. The Film. It helps that Stowe with its forested hills, valley floors with meadows, cows, farms and villages with church steeples is wholly New England while being reminiscent of Austria. He admits, though, to being tired of people saying that it is just like that nation, and there is a sign at the bottom of the hill inviting guests to a little of Austria and a lot of Vermont. “That sort of encapsulates what I am trying to do here, combing the Austrian taste and the concern for aesthetics with the Vermont traditions.” Stowe is definitely not Salzburg, and it has long been for the von Trapps the place they sought to return to. “My family did feel at home here.” In America the von Trapps were freer, and he recalls that while his mother loved visiting her homeland—“My mother would love the food, love the culture. But the weight of tradition and custom is so strong in Austria.”—yet when he picked her up at the airport she would stretch her arms out wide and say, “Oh Johannes, I am so glad to be back here because I can breathe again.”

And as he makes his plans, there is another new von Trapp tradition developing—which is sort of like the old ones—with Werner’s grandchildren carrying on the singing heritage as The von Trapps. And as a new generation takes to the stage, many guests filling the rooms are those who have taken over their elder parents’ timeshares. When they visit they tell Johannes how they enjoyed the place when they were young and still look forward to visiting. “It is nice to know that you have been part of bringing some happiness to people over so many years. That is exactly what my mother wanted. That is what The Sound of Music did, too. It provided inspiration to so many people.”

He then recalls one evening in the early 1970s sitting on the balcony with his mother in sight of the family plot. As they talked he saw someone climbing the fence and in exasperation said, “Oh, not again. He will sue me because he got splinters in his hand.” But Johannes then noticed that the man was a naval officer wearing his formal dress white uniform. “He stood in front of my father’s grave for a few minutes,” Johannes says as his eyes mist up. “He then saluted, did an about face and climbed back over the fence. I was tremendously moved by that. I still am. And he probably would not have known about my father unless for The Sound of Music.” Without that film we all would not have known of Georg and Maria von Trapp and their children, and been poorer for it.

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