He had coached the Austrian woman who held the World Cup record until Lindsey Vonn broke it in 2015, and was soon to be crowned National Freestyle Champion, but it wasn’t skiing that got Stefan Schernthaner his job at Stratton. It was music.
The former racer and OG hot dog skier came to the United States to coach at Pico, and had a friend from home teaching here. He visited one day when the Stratton Mountain Boys happened to be playing. “I already had a band and always had my trumpet in the car,” he recalls. “I jumped on stage, stepped right in. Hubert was playing clarinet, and we could harmonize. Emo offered me a job on the spot. I had to finish my contract but came to Stratton the next season.”
And it was music that launched him, with the band of Stratton Mountain Boys, from a Bear’s Den stage to national acclaim. Emo Henrich had brought the music and dancing of Austria to the mountains of Vermont when Stratton opened in 1961, and Adi Gruber was the leader until Stefan took up the baton, so to speak, in 1974.
From there, Stefan would lead the band best known for Tyrolean Evenings in the Base Lodge to the Olympics, Epcot Center and Octoberfest venues that overflowed with 10,000 exuberant fans, inspiring at least one record-setting chicken dance.
It was the perfect schedule for a man who spent winters coaching freestyle by day and performing six shows a week to entertain generations of Stratton skiers. That left time in spring and early summer at his home in Austria before heading out on tour with 40 or more stops from Milwaukee to Captiva Island.
Nationwide tours during which “the Stratton Mountain Boys are promoting their Austrian heritage and skiing in Vermont to an extent which no other band has been able to do,” states one vintage news article with photos of faces so familiar to Stratton families, including Otto Egger, Gerhard, Hansi …
“We were the No. 1 Octoberfest band,” he says, flipping through photos on his iPhone. There’s the front page shot with Stefan and the Boys in five columns above the fold, and above President George W. Bush. In Texas. Stefan with Maria von Trapp at the opening of Trapp Family Lodge, the Song of Music matriarch in dirndl, a young Stefan in lederhosen. Stratton Mountain Boys on stage in the Warsteiner pavilion at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics. Playing Washington’s Watergate Hotel with a Capitol backdrop, every Boston Ski Show, Disney World, Vegas. “We played them all.”
There was the festival in Birmingham, Alabama, with an 80-piece military band on stage while thousands waited impatiently for the Stratton Mountain Boys “screaming ‘Chicken Dance,’ we never open with Chicken Dance but we had to.”
Stefan’s classical training might have taken his music in a very different direction. At 12, he was the youngest to join his town marching band, performing concerts every Sunday, in parades and for funerals. He went on to study music in Salzburg – playing e-flat trumpet 4, 3 and 2, b-flat second and first, and the flugelhorn — before joining Austria’s military band.
“I was close to being an orchestra musician, but it did not strike me. It was not exciting.”
“I wanted to be where everybody is happy. To look down and see the happiness. And that happiness goes back and forth. My favorite is always what is favorite to my people out there.”
On any given Tyrolean Evening, that favorite might have been the yodeling clarinet, woodchopper dance, ringing cowbells, Edelweiss, Amazing Grace, a quintet of alphorns, the haunting harmony of singing saws. Or that time they played Twist and Shout with Bernie on lead guitar, Ferdinand on Bass and Hans on drums. “There must have been five, six hundred people there. Everybody was so happy. The ceiling (below) was shaking.”
As a 1984 Stratton news release explains, “the ‘Boys’ delight skiers during the winter with some of the most unusual apres-ski entertainment in the ski industry. Playing both modern and hand-made instruments, they play authentic Austrian music which could only be matched by being in Austria itself.”
In addition to playing for a packed house, you could have seen Stefan somersaulting high in the air, in front of the Base Lodge, on skis. Flipping forward, Hermann Gollner backward.
Stefan launched Stratton’s freestyle program, coaching kids who would go on to win national championships. “We would do pole jumps, ballet skiing all day on Tyrolienne. Everybody did moguls – that was my strength. What they do now is incredible – we had no idea where it was going.”
As the Stratton Mountain Boys popularity grew beyond the Base Lodge, he turned the program over to Stevek so he could focus on managing the band and planning tour stops, often invited to play venues owned by fans from Stratton. They traveled across the country in two vans, one he outfitted with racks to carry six alphorns, each about 12 feet long, three on a side. Alphorns he would fly over from Austria in ski bags, including all those for Epcot, where he was offered a lucrative contract that he turned down. “It wasn’t for me, but I did find them musicians and a few are still there. I wanted to spend time at my home in Austria. And to travel.”
Stefan’s tales of mountains, music, and the friends he’s made along the way would make a fascinating book. Or movie.
He pulls up the video from an Italian beer garden where he’s playing “O Solo Mio” — on his singing saw — for the Harley Davidson Club of Sicily, a couple dozen leather-clad revelers joining in spirited song. He always travels with trumpet and saw, trumpet mostly, he explains, because the case is a perfect height for playing the saw.
There are photos of Stefan skiing with TV star Susan Lucci. He met her at the ‘80s Trapp Family Lodge grand opening, brought her and the family to Stratton, and coached her on to compete in celebrity ski races. “She was fearful, I got her over it by taking her out on my motorcycle. Leaning. Fast. In the corners.”
He’s the one who convinced Diana Golden, at Stratton for the 1990 U.S. Disabled Ski Championships, to abandon outriggers in favor of ski poles for speed; she was clocked at a 65 mph in the downhill. He’d drawn from his own experience, having spent the entire winter of 1967 with one leg in a cast, skiing moguls full steam and landing a 30-meter jump. On one ski.
During that same Stratton event, he became friends with Eunice Shriver and Sen. Ted Kennedy. Stefan taught Edward Jr. to ski again after he’d lost a leg to cancer, earned a plaque for his contributions to Special Olympics and an invitation to play Arnold Schwarzenegger and Maria Shriver’s wedding. “It was April 26, and it was complicated with visas and some of them wanted to go home to Austria,” he says about his band of musicians, Stratton ski instructors who had just finished their season.
And now, after nearly six decades in Vermont, with about a hundred former bandmates still on speed dial, and memories that animate his smile, Stefan and Norma – met at Stratton and married for 50 years — are ready to make Austria their full-time home. In that home his father built in the Village of Maria Alm, described in travelogues as “one of the most beautiful places in the world.” In a picture-perfect chalet surrounded by gardens, where over morning coffee you can hear the church bell ringing from the tallest steeple in Salzburg. Where they’re steps from the High King Mountain gondola and only two miles from their two daughters and four grandchildren.
As Stratton Mountain celebrates 60 years, listen closely and you may still hear the sound of their music echoing through Base Lodge beams. Or spin one of three albums the Stratton Mountain Boys recorded, pop in a CD, watch the music video … and hoist a pint to good times we’ve shared. Zicke. Zacke. Zicke. Zacke. Hoi Hoi Hoi!
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Published Jan 1, 2022 by Myra Foster