Gotta get up to Brown-down
Snowdown weathers 40 years in style, even without actual snow
It’s not the first brown winter, as those old-timers from the infamous 1976-77 season keep reminding us. But (if you totally ignore the impact dry weather has on next summer) brown winters aren’t all that bad, for the silver lining of powderless mountain-tops is that humans tend to be at their creative best when times are bleak. One only needs to look at the ingenious creation of Snowdown for inspiration.
It wasn’t just too much sunshine that highlighted Durango’s need for a mid-winter economic generator; mountain towns traditionally experience a business slump between the holidays and spring break. With the dust of ’76-77 still fresh on their minds, a couple of key community organizations decided to do something about it, and the task fell to John Murrah, a local newspaper ad salesman.
One Sunday afternoon in November 1978 over a 12-pack of domestic beer and a Bronco’s game, Murrah had a brainstorm session with his friend, Terry Fiedler, and Fiedler’s wife-at-the-time, Linda Mannix. In the spirit of Aspen’s Wintersko?l and Steamboat’s hundred-year-old Winter Carnival, Murrah proposed that a winter games festival could be just what Durango needed. They cracked another beer and totally concurred.
Fiedler was dubbed the official coordinator, while Mannix and their merry crew of friends served as volunteers to get the ball rolling. The local paper fronted $2,000 and held a contest to find a name. An 8-year-old named Chip Lile remembers his mother suggesting “Snowdeo” (get it? Snow + Rodeo), but, in the end, Snowdown won, and the debut soiree launched the last weekend of January 1979.
The first fete featured about a dozen events of mostly snow sports, like snowmobile races and ski joring, but there were also fringe activities, like a yodeling competition and Kathy Bowser’s canine fashion show. In those days, lost teeth were almost a guarantee at the broomball game and kayak slalom down Chapman Hill – not too hard to imagine if you’ve ever witnessed the Chapman Challenge.
Forty years later, Snowdown has mushroomed to 150 events spanning the gamut from pie throwing to joint rolling competitions. This year’s Snowdown features over 20 new shenanigans involving doughnuts, cat yoga, stilettos and no-pants-dance-offs, to name a few.
“Anyone can put on an event, so long as it is legal, relatively moral and either free or inexpensive so that everyone can be involved,” Snowdown Board Member Peg Ochsenreiter says. “That has been the key: it just encompasses everyone, no matter what ... and promotes fun, commerce and tourism, in that order.”
Chip Lile, that young buck, is cufflinks-deep serving his fifth term as president of the Snowdown Board. “My legacy is not to change it, but to make sure it’s here for the next 40 years,” he says. Of course, he points out that Snowdown’s success is not possible without the all-volunteer board and a host of all-volunteer event coordinators and hundreds of other all-volunteer volunteers.
“The organization is only as strong as the people,” he says.
And so Snowdown barrels through the decades, filling business coffers like a second Christmas and thriving thanks to its mass appeal that supersedes age and gender, political parties and religious beliefs. It’s stayed relevant because it hasn’t taken itself too seriously, a trait captured wholeheartedly in the 25 issues of the Snowdown Sneer and the 33 unapologetic years of the Snowdown Follies.
The first Follies was produced by Fiedler in 1984. Ten years later, he awarded silver-plated MVP Follies champagne flutes to all who had been part of the raucous show for a decade. Twenty years after the inaugural Follies, Fiedler handed out the prestigious and slightly-bigger Double-D Cup, while 2014 welcomed the first round of Triple-D flutes (which conveniently hold a half-bottle of champagne each) for an elite few.
For Ochsenreiter, this honor came in 2016 when she was also voted by her fellow cast members as Best Female Performer. Her Triple-D Cup sits on the fireplace mantel next to her husband’s Triple-D Cup. The Cup represents more than 30 years of service to Snowdown; it’s a trophy emblematic of unbreakable bonds.
“When you’re in the show, you become a family, even if you’re only in it for one year,” says Ochsenreiter. “The crowd loves what they’re going to see, whether they like it or not. They laugh for 21⁄2 hours, but when you’re in the show, you laugh for six weeks.”
Follies isn’t cliquey or exclusive, like some might think, says Ochsenreiter. “You just have to come with something funny that works.”
While the Follies gets busy making fun of anything and anybody and usually attracts locals, the Snowdown Light Parade aims to please people from all over the Four Corners. Fiedler coordinated the debut Torch Light Parade in 1979 when local restaurateur Chuck Norton invited his NOLA buddies, the Good Times Marching Band, to play. These days, Lile coordinates the parade, which seems to be the proudest moment of the whole shebang for longtime Snowdowners. Snowdown has since dropped the “torch” part of the parade after a 1979 article in the Herald told onlookers how to make their own torches with rags dipped in kerosene – a ploy the fire department wasn’t too stoked about. But it’s hard for anyone to stay mad at Snowdown for long, considering the event has helped fund improvements that extend beyond the event itself, such as providing barricades for public gatherings and sound system equipment for theatres around town.
“We’ve tried to give back as much as we can to the community,” says Ochsenreiter.
Perhaps one of Snowdown’s greatest community upgrades is its contribution to our evolved fashion sense, or at least the contents of our costume boxes. Ten years after USA Today lambasted us for being one of the “least fashion-conscious cities in America,” Mannix founded Snowdown’s luncheon launch party, “Fashion Do’s and Don’ts.” For the first event, attendees were given masks so they didn’t have to actually look at the atrocious attire.
Mannix, who was just voted Durango’s Citizen of the Year, has since handed the fashion reigns to the next generation of facilitators – a theme that’s trickling into all aspects of the Snowdown organization. The same Board of Directors ran the show for nearly 20 years, for instance, but nowadays, Ochsenreiter is the only remaining board member from her generation.
This year has been downright tragic for the first generation of Snowdowners. In January last year, Snowdown icon Adele Nielsen died in a fatal fall at the Follies dress rehearsal, while Follies lighting director, Peter Winter, died last summer. In December, Durango native, Purgatory legend and Snowdown original, Charlie Siegele, also passed unexpectedly.
These harsh reminders of impermanence give us all reason to pause and consider that it’s not just about the booze or the buttons. It’s about friendships forged in the name of fun. It’s about creating memories to last a lifetime – or at least for as long as your mind lets you remember.
As for Fiedler, who the original Snowdown gang refers to as “Mr. Snowdown,” the decades of memories he built with the community are mist. Diagnosed with Alzheimer’s Disease, Fiedler left Durango in 2013 to live closer to family on the East Coast.
His care has racked up mountains of bills, so his family is leaning on Durango’s love of Snowdown and holding a silent auction of Snowdown memorabilia. “For the Benefit of Mr. Snowdown, Terry Fiedler” will be at the Durango Welcome Center until Sun., Feb. 4.
Items include a complete set of the Snowdown Sneer, limited-edition Snowdown posters from bygone years and one of four display cases featuring all 40 official Snowdown buttons. Other sentimental relics are Nielsen’s signature top hat and bandana and Siegele’s unopened Snowdown-special-edition Ska beer collection donated by his wife, Deborah Uroda.
There will also be a live auction of another of the four Snowdown button display cases at the intermission during the kickoff Follies (the other two cases were already bought by Oscar’s and Olde Tymers). As well through-out the week, “cigarette girls” will be bouncing around events with trays of carnations, bubble gum cigars and grab bags stuffed with
Snowdown paraphernalia. All proceeds will go to Fiedler’s Alzheimer’s care.
“Look at how Snowdown is taking care of Terry,” says Lile. “If you take care of Durango, it’ll take care of you.”
So shine those shoes, drape those capes and frost yourselves in diamonds. “It’s a Black Tie Affair” should give us plenty of reason to celebrate simply because we can celebrate – even if there is no snow.
“We’ve had brown Snowdowns before and just called them Brown-Downs,” says Ochsenreiter. “On the bright side, the lack of
snow makes it easier for those of us running around town.”
And, as the organizers of Fashion Do’s and Don’ts like to point out, we can wear high heels this year instead of those abysmal Sorels. Or you can just stick with the ole socks-and-sandals look and own our curse to be unfashionable till the end of time.
“It’s a lot of fun, but it takes a lot of work to have fun,” says Ochsenreiter. “I just always think of what Terry would say: ‘If everything goes well, it’ll be fun, and if it doesn’t, it’ll still be fun.’”