As we prepare for the annual Christmas festivities here in the Valley, there is no better time to reflect on the beginning of the Sun Valley Resort, which included triumphs, toils, and a Christmas extravaganza packed with so many Hollywood celebrities and socialites, it would have made the Golden Globes look like your office Christmas party. So put on some cozy socks, put another log on the fire, and take a trip down memory lane to Christmas of 1936, and the grand opening of the Sun Valley Resort.

In the early days of the 20th century, the sport of skiing hadn’t quite caught on in the Western Hemisphere, as the majority of the skiable terrain in the world was found in the central European Alps. Germany, Switzerland, and Austria boasted what was, at the time, the best conditions for snow sports in the world. Most Americans viewed skiing as a luxurious endeavor that only the affluent could enjoy—one that required you to travel the length of the Atlantic Ocean, camp in extremely remote alpine areas for weeks at a time and then learn how to properly ski, all with very little guidance from the German-speaking locals. For most Americans, it was simply out of the question.

Averell Harriman, though, had foreseen a tremendous boom in snow sports—if only a ski resort in the U.S. were to be built on par with the great resorts of Europe. The chairman of the mighty Union Pacific Railroad Company, Harriman developed plans to build a new, exclusive snow resort; he just had to figure out where to put it. Harriman hired an Austrian nobleman, Count Felix Schaffgotsch, widely regarded as a charming man and a supposed skiing expert, to set out on a journey in 1935 to find an area with conditions that would provide ideal for a steep, powdery, and, most importantly, sunny place to set up a winter paradise in the United States. After searching all over the Northwest, Herr Schaffgotsch had found himself and his entourage in a little town called Ketchum, Idaho. The Count was pleased to find ample sunshine, along with dry, light snow, according to Van Gordon Sauter’s history, “The Sun Valley Story.” He had found his spot. Harriman decided to purchase a chunk of land for the Union Pacific Railroad Co., nearly 4,000 acres. Seven months later, the company had announced that work was under way for a ski resort on a scale never before seen in the U.S., Sauter wrote, with a planned $1,500,000 ($29,847,733 in today’s dollars) lodge that would rival any of the great European chalet.

Seven months of frantic construction followed. The build would culminate in a truly grand opening, with a guest list of the most glamorous of Hollywood celebrities and the most influential of America’s great bankers and industrialists of the time. The enormous lodge at Sun Valley could house 288 guests and over 150 staff members, the Hailey Times reported in 1936. Reservations were made for some of the biggest names of the 1930s: Clark Gable, Joan Bennett, Claudette Colbert, David O. Selznick, Errol Flynn, Samuel Goldwyn and countless others, according to Sauter. The great Harl Smith Orchestra was selected for the festivities, along with world renowned pianist Eddy Duchin. Lowell Thomas, perhaps the most popular radio personality of the time, would be on hand to to broadcast the dazzling star-studded event.

Steve Hannagan, Sun Valley’s publicity director, went on a media blitz. He emphasized the enchanting presence the ranks of Hollywood idols and notable social personalities lent the event. A December 1936 issue of “Life” magazine agreed. “Since Christmas it has been packed, at from eight dollars to twenty-four dollars a day, with as fancy a crew of rich socialites as have ever been assembled under one roof in the U.S,” one story ran.

To put the guests into the proper holiday spirit over the next few days, the new resort held other Christmas festivities. An illuminating firework display and a torchlit run down Dollar Mountain by the resort’s ski instructors would dazzle the guests. The torchlit skiing was a tradition brought over from Schaffgotsch’s homeland of Austria. These holiday traditions are still practiced in Sun Valley to this day.

Not everyone found themselves in the holiday spirit. As the dinner sequence of the grand opening concluded, Chicago investment banker Charles F. Gore had naturally set his eye on the beautiful movie star Claudette Colbert, according to Sauter’s history, and had approached her table uninvited. Her table also included film producer David O. Selznick. Gore requested a dance from the young actress and Selznick had apparently taken great offense to the Chicagoan’s advance. In response to the unbidden request, Selznick swung with a most effective punch straight to Charles Gore’s eye, knocking him flat on his back and blooding his nose, Sauter wrote. An attendee of the party, Lloyd Castagnetto, later recalled to the Hailey Times that “there was blood all over everything that night.” Opening night had featured dinner—and a show.

After hearing about the scuffle, Hannagan received a call from a colleague who was concerned that the tiff would ruin the remainder of the festivities and sully Sun Valley’s reputation, Sauter wrote in “The Sun Valley Story.” Hannigan starkly replied “What do you mean the party is ruined? Not an editor in the country could resist this story!” He designated a rather apropos headline for the event himself: “Sun Valley opens with a ‘bang.’”

The grand opening of this grand resort had everything any partygoer could possibly ask for. Celebrities, socialites, politicians, great food, world renowned music. However, the festivities lacked one crucial element that is integral for any ski resort’s success: snow. From the first night to Christmas Day, the mountain stood bare, local historian John W. Lundin wrote in “Skiing Sun Valley: A History from Union Pacific to the Holdings.” The area hadn’t gone without snow that late in December in more than 45 years, Lundin wrote. The phenomenon led many of the guests to dub the resort “The Ketchum Con.”

A look back at Sun Valley's first Christmas, 1936 skiers

Some of Sun Valley's first skiers and instructors take to the snow in 1936.

Despite the seemingly disastrous weather conditions, Averell Harriman refused to panic. He allowed the guests to stay at the hotel for free until snow arrived. The guests of the resort were pleased by this; there were plenty of games, books, food and other deflections provided by the resort to keep them busy and entertained. Harriman’s gamble worked out, as on Dec. 26 snow finally fell, a somewhat belated Christmas miracle. The snow was only a small flurry, Sauter wrote; real, substantial snowfall wouldn’t fall on the resort until Jan. 9, 1937.

The grand opening and Christmas celebrations of 1936 charted a fitting course for what would become the most glamorous snow resort of its age, granting Sun Valley a lasting reputation as a meeting place for America’s most prominent silver screen stars, socialites and businessmen to go along with it. Because of this reputation, Sun Valley transformed the sport of skiing from a European daredevil’s endeavor to a sport Americans could now be a part of. Sun Valley’s public relations team sold a luxurious and newly-coveted sport that would sweep the nation. Out of all of the eventful happenings of 1936, the greatest Christmas gift may well have been skiing in America. 

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