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D'oh! A Deer

Updated: Mar 12, 2018

Salzburg's tour guides are understandably jaded.

"Understandably" to me, anyway, because I'm not really a fan either. I mean, like any red-blooded American, I grew up watching The Sound of Music — or bits and pieces of it — every Easter and Christmas on TV. Some of the songs are catchy. Pretty scenery, and all that. But I never loved it loved it.

The thing is, I only have to deal with the Von Trapp brats twice a year — and at that rate, they're harmless and quaint. But if you're a tour guide in Salzburg, you have no choice: The Sound of Music is your life.

Sound of Music tours are a huge business in Salzburg. I was told they attract 100,000 Von Trapp pilgrims annually. At around $50 a pop, that makes it cool $5 million-per-year industry. Our Rick Steves guidebook recommends two Salzburg-based Sound of Music tours: one with a big bus, and the other with a minibus. Both get an unusual number of reader complaints. To get to the bottom of things, I devoted a little Salzburg research time to trying each one — to re-evaluate them, to better explain them in the book, and (hopefully) to make sure our readers fully understand what they're investing fifty bucks and a half-day in.

(You may be wondering why someone who isn't a fan of the movie would be given this assignment. I would counter that someone who isn't a fan of the movie may just be the perfect person for this assignment. My steely eyed analysis isn't clouded by gauzy memories of whiskers on kittens and schnitzel with noodles. And while we're on the topic, nobody actually eats schnitzel with noodles. Too many carbs.)

And so, here I am, in a minibus with six North American SoM devotees — the only one not singing along to "Doe, a deer..." My travel companions for the day are two fiftysomething Canadian women whose husbands skipped out on the tour to visit Hitler's Eagle's Nest in Berchtesgaden instead (smart guys) and four American college students. It's clear that the movie — 51 years young and still going strong — has a powerful, cross-generational appeal.

Everybody — young and old alike — knows every word to every song. They know when to sing "flibbertigibbet" and when to sing "will-o-the-wisp." They're full-on geeking out on each little morsel of information. And everybody "oohs!" and "aahs!" on cue when our guide shows us, for example, the trees where the kids were hanging from the branches in their curtain clothes, or whatever...I wasn't really paying attention.

We pull up to a mansion on the bank of a beautiful alpine lake. This is not the actual Von Trapp family house. And it's only one-third of the movie Von Trapp family house. (The back of the house, and the interior, were both filmed elsewhere.) But even so, people gobble up the stories of the youngest Von Trapp falling out the wrong side of the canoe and being rescued by Liesl.

Our guide explains that The Gazebo (where Liesl hooks up with a teenaged Nazi) was built just for the movie, next to the mansion. But then, years later, cinephiles were still coming in droves, making a racket, singing and waltzing and taking pictures. So they moved The Gazebo across the lake to a biergarten. But the same thing happened: Tourists would make a ruckus, disturbing the biergarten patrons. Just to be entirely clear on this point: The Sound of Music fans were so rowdy, they were bothering a bunch of Austrian drunks chugging one-liter mugs of beer.

And so, The Gazebo is not anywhere near this lake anymore. They moved it several miles away, to Hellbrunn Palace, where they dumped it outside the wall near the parking lot, between the garbage cans and the toilets. And there, each day, a steady stream of tour buses pull up to let 50 people take turns photographing each other in front of The Gazebo. Then they use the toilets and get back on the bus. Very handy.

All of this fuss is about a movie prop from the 1950s. And it's not even a pretty prop. In my hazy memory of the movie, I pictured some fanciful, lacy, wrought-iron objet d'art with leaded glass that twinkled in the shimmering moonlight. But no. In real life, it's a boxy white frame with clear glass. I've seen nicer prefab ones at the Home Depot.

And what about The Meadow — the one where Julie Andrews spun herself silly? Like Hitler's Bunker in Berlin, its real location is shrouded in mystery: Everyone claims to know where it is, but each one of them will take you to a different place. (Apparently, the actual The Meadow is on private property, and strictly off-limits to the curious public.) But it doesn't really matter anyway. Guides told me that for their American visitors, any alpine meadow will do — so they just pull over wherever it's handy. One of them told me, "Local farmers can't figure out why all of these Americans are always spinning in their fields."

Our guide, an elderly Austrian gentleman, has a real knack for doling out Julie Andrews trivia at the appropriate rate. ("Did you know that Audrey Hepburn also auditioned for the role of Maria?" he asks. "Yes, in fact, I did know that!" no fewer than three of my fellow SoM aficionados exclaim.)

But there's a lack of mirth in our guide's delivery. I don't sense a deep-in-his-bones love affair with "The Lonely Goatherd." He seems to get a minor kick out of the story of the Trapp Family Singers...but would he lie down in traffic for Christopher Plummer? As a SoM cynic myself, I can relate. When he asks if we have any questions, I can barely stop myself from asking, "So, how do you solve a problem like Maria?" But I keep quiet. I think my guide and I would be the only ones laughing.

Day two. The big bus tour has a similar itinerary but more people. Lots and lots more people...49 SoM fanatics on a 50-seat bus. A sneezing Fräulein Maria on the side of the bus  (Gesundheit!) seems to guarantee that this will be one heck of a fun day. And our lederhosen-clad guide — even more polished than the minibus guide — recites his tightly crafted spiel with the poise of a seasoned stand-up comic. I imagine he's been regaling his audience with these same quips, puns, and factoids, twice a day, for many years. The bus offers a comfy ride and a higher vantage point. But loading and unloading at each stop is a chore. And, by the trip's end, rather than feeling the warm camaraderie of the minibus, I feel a need to escape.

All told, each type of tour has its pros and its cons, but both were perfectly fine. So what's with all of the complaints? After taking both tours, I think I figured it out: The Austrian local guides never can, and never will, equal their customers' intensity of affection for the movie.

The Sound of Music is an American phenomenon. Yes, the exteriors were filmed in Salzburg. (And after these tours, I'm wondering if there's a square inch of this city that didn't wind up somewhere in the movie.) But fundamentally, it's an American movie, based on an American stage play, by American composers who wrote songs in English that have almost nothing to do with Austria's musical tradition. Most Austrians haven't even seen the movie; those who have, certainly weren't reared on it. Mozart is in their bones. But Sound of Music is this weird thing that just happened to them.

And so, when our readers go on one of these tours, then write us a note complaining that the guide was gruff, or the tour felt rushed...I'm not saying these people are wrong to be disappointed. But it's hard to blame the guide for phoning it in, just a little bit.

OK, look at it this way: Imagine that some obscure-to-you movie was filmed in your hometown. Just for the sake of argument, let's say it was the 1990 Tom Hanks comedy Joe Versus the Volcano. So, Joe Versus the Volcano was filmed in your hometown. That's cool. But it's been decades now, and you've moved on. Everybody in your hometown has gone on to bigger and better things. As it should be.

But here's the thing: People keep showing up, having traveled at great distance and great expense to see everything in your town relating to Joe Versus the Volcano. They want to see the shop where Joe bought his four steamer trunks that he later lashed into a raft. They want all of the tinseltown tales about Meg Ryan's artistic journey in playing three different roles. They are desperate to see the very pier from which Joe set off on his sailboat trip to Waponi Woo.

Now, these people are willing to pay you a lot of money. Like, every day, a dozen of them will hand you fifty bucks apiece to show them this stuff. There are many other things in your town that you are legitimately passionate about. But these people don't want to see those things — and six hundred bucks ain't bad for a half-day's work, am I right? So you take them to see the vacant lot where Abe Vigoda and Lloyd Bridges had their trailers. Because you've got to give the people what they want. But — and this is a big but — that doesn't mean that you actually enjoy it.

My point here is that there's more to Salzburg than just The Sound of Music. But you are really excited about The Sound of Music. And that's great! Just be prepared for an enthusiasm gap between you and your guide. They'll take you to the locations. They'll tell you the stories. And they'll play you the songs on the bus. And they'll do it all with a smile (as much as Austrians ever smile). But cut them a little slack...and don't expect them to sing along.

© 2020 by Cameron Hewitt