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Maria, 'The Sound Of Music' And The Von Trapps In Vermont

The 1965 film The Sound of Music won five academy awards, and along with a popular Broadway musical, made Maria and Georg von Trapp and their children household names. Who hasn't got to bed humming "So long, farewell, auf Wiedersehen, goodbye?"

Last week, Maria Franziska von Trapp, the last surviving sibling of the original singers, died at her home in Stowe. She was 99.

In the film and musical, Maria's character was renamed Louisa. And, if you remember, she was the mischievous one who liked to hide spiders in the governess's bed.

Hollywood and Broadway also took other liberties; in the film, Louisa is about 13 years old when her family flees Nazi Europe, hiking over the Alps. But in real life, Maria, who was the third oldest of the children, was 24 when the family fled – by train.

After they escaped from Austria in the 1940s, the von Trapp family settled in the hills of Vermont. They continued to tour as the Trapp Family Singers, and opened a ski lodge in Stowe. 

Vermont Edition's Nina Keck talks with Elisabeth von Trapp about her aunt’s life and the legacy of the family here in Vermont. William Anderson, author of The World of the Trapp Family, joins the conversation.

On balancing a Hollywood image with reality

Elisabeth von Trapp: "I've been looking at archive pictures of the opening of The Sound of Music. [The Baronness] was very much a part of it, and she was very gracious in the way she offered who she was alongside this new phenomenon that was being born. She was very elegant about it.

"I think that initially, she wanted to be very sure that everybody understood the work they had done and the music they had sung or the musicality they presented over the years was very profoundly rich and exquisite, and it was a different music.

"So, when people would come up singing Rodgers and Hammerstein, I think she always wanted to make it clear to any guest that the true story is beautiful and it needs to be told as well.

"The same thing was how my aunt Maria lived her life. She allowed people to come from where they stood, and the experience they had. She would welcome them, and then she would open up that moment so they would get to know who she really was. And that was the experience that they would take home. I meet people now after concerts that tell me how amazing it was to actually have this encounter with the real von Trapps. Because they were real people with deep souls."

On meeting the real von Trapps

William Anderson: "My family made vacation trips to the original Trapp Family Lodge in Stowe. And at that time, the children were scattered – they weren't around much. But Baroness von Trapp was a delightful hostess, she would circulate through the dining room, and she was available to autograph books and answer questions and tell stories. So I knew her first.

"And 30 years ago, the current lodge was opened – the original had burned. I was a young journalist, and I was invited to the opening of the new lodge and was sent by several magazines to write articles about the new resort … And being around the lodge that week was fascinating for me, because I had read about this family, knew about them, and there they were. They had come from near and far.

"And Maria, the second daughter, had come all the way from New Guinea [where she was a missionary] … I felt like these were people walking out of history books."

On the von Trapps' life in Austria

Elisabeth von Trapp: "They lived in a beautiful mansion. It's the Trapp Villa – it's been restored, and it's now a hotel. I've had the chance, because of it, to walk through the rooms and just get a feel for their life. What I've had to do, as a member of the next generation, is sort of piece together their life.

"When they started to sing, they became so popular. They toured through Europe, to Italy and England, they sang for Mussolini and the Queen … When you see the pictures of that time, they're just in their late teens and early twenties, and they're so exuberant. And my grandmother, Maria, looks as youthful as they do."

On Maria's adopted son, Kikuli Mwanukuzi

William Anderson: "As a missionary, [Maria] told me anyone with a car was in high demand in New Guinea. There were hitchhikers all over, and she finally decided, 'I'm not going to pick up any more hitchhikers.' But Kikuli was standing on the side of the road, and she relented, and met him – he was a native of Tanzania.

"And she developed a friendship with him and they had a wonderful rapport which led to Maria, rather late in her life, adopting Kikuli. He was in college and graduate school in Hawaii while she was in Vermont. She fought for him to obtain a green card, and eventually he came to Vermont. He was a loving and devoted son until her dying day."

Broadcast live on Wednesday, February 26th at noon; rebroadcast at 7 p.m.

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