Historic Sugar Bowl once a favorite of Hollywood crowd

By: Jeffrey Weidel, Special to Gold Country News Service
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This aging ski resort oozes with charm and history, serving as a museum of sorts. Long before the arrival of quad chairs, shaped skis and terrain parks, Hollywood celebrities and average folks often mingled together on the slopes at Sugar Bowl. The cozy resort, which celebrated its 70th birthday this year, is located three miles off Interstate 80 near the Donner Summit and features steep chutes, open bowls and four striking peaks. The winter playground for many actors when it first opened, Sugar Bowl frequently welcomed Errol Flynn, who liked to sit on the porch of the popular lodge. He reportedly soaked up the sun while also keeping a close eye on the ladies. Girl watching might have been his favorite pastime, but the rumor mill indicates the swashbuckling actor was a fairly gifted skier as well. Walt Disney took a more wholesome approach to his Sugar Bowl visits. An original investor when the resort opened in 1939, Disney often arrived on a ski vacation with his family. Legend has it that one evening he filled in as bartender for several hours on a busy night, pouring drinks in anonymity at The Lodge at Sugar Bowl. The amiable Disney was so well liked around Sugar Bowl that the resort named its first lift in his honor. Apparently Disney’s wisdom wasn’t limited to children’s theme parks. He became an investor at the urging of Austrian Hannes Schroll, a friend who wanted to tailor Sugar Bowl after the famed resorts in Europe. Disney and some of San Francisco’s most affluent people placed their trust in Schroll’s vision. There’s so much history concerning Sugar Bowl that a decade ago local Tahoe ski writer Robert Frohlich produced a book – “Skiing with Style.” It makes for interesting reading, detailing much of the resort’s colorful past. Frohlich recalls that story telling at the lodge was a favorite evening pastime. So was dancing on the resort’s spacious deck, done in the crisp night air. If a hardy dinner was on the agenda, men had to show up in a suit jacket and women were required to wear a dress. A colorful Italian, named Mariano, enforced the rules during the dinner hour. For many years Sugar Bowl was also home of the Silver Belt, a precursor to the World Cup. The annual race would often attract the top European and American skiers, who would vie for the title while San Francisco and Hollywood high-rollers watched and often bet on the event. Few people probably realize that Sugar Bowl erected California’s first chairlift in 1939 and in 1953 Jerome Hill built the first gondola in the United States. Rebuilt 30 years later, the gondola still incorporates its original wooden building and provides a pleasant, scenic passage into a European-type village that features the friendly ambiance of The Lodge at Sugar Bowl, a historic building that has 27 rooms. “When people are on the gondola I think they really get a sense of the history here, it’s a definite slice of the past, a 1940-style entry into the village,” said John Monson, Sugar Bowl’s director for marketing and sales. “Taking that gondola ride and experiencing the village literally stops people in their tracks.” But progress has arrived at Sugar Bowl as well. In 1998, a 20,000 square-foot main lodge at the base of Mt. Judah was added, an addition that came with much-needed slopeside parking. In recent years the all-purpose Jerome Creek Lodge was built, giving Sugar Bowl a modernized facility that includes condominiums for rent, which provides ski-in, ski-out lodging at the base of Mt. Judah. More overnight stays are possible, but where Sugar Bowl gets much of its business is still the commuter skier/rider who simply arrives for the day. The closest resort on the I-80 corridor, Sugar Bowl features 11 lifts, 84 trails, 1,500 skiable acres, 1,500 vertical feet on a summit that rises to 8,383 feet. And its fortunate location in the Sierra range annually gives Sugar Bowl among the highest snow totals in the Tahoe region. Sugar Bowl features terrain for all abilities, including some extremely challenging chutes, two terrain parks that will please snowboarders of all levels, plenty of groomed cruiser runs for intermediates, and offers good learning areas for beginners. “The classic charm is still here,” said the resort’s ski team foundation executive director Bill Hudson, who frequently skied Sugar Bowl in his youth. “I don’t think it’s lost that feeling. We’ve updated things, but our resort still has that same style people have always loved.” Jeffrey Weidel is a Sacramento-area free-lance writer with more than 25 years of skiing experience. *********** FYI Resort Profile: Rich in history and known for its high snow totals, the resort has expanded over the past decade and remains a popular destination. It doesn’t hurt that Sugar Bowl is the first Tahoe resort off the I-80 corridor Terrain: 1,500 skiable acres; 1,500 vertical feet; 11 lifts; 84 trails, two terrain parks Elevation: Base 6,883; Summit: 8,383 Location: From I-80, take the Soda Springs exit and follow Highway 40 for three miles to village access point. For the Mt. Judah base, continue another half mile on Highway 40. Adult lift ticket: $66 (plenty of available discounts) Phone: (530) 426-9000 Web site: