A BRIEF HISTORY OF THE SYRACUSE SKI SHOW
Art Zimmer, past-president
Onondaga Ski Club
In 1970-’71, I pushed the purchase of the Vermont Ski Lodge through a reluctant board of directors. As president of the club, I promised the board that the lodge would not become a financial drain on the club.
To provide club members with low cost lodging in Vermont, the lodge would not be able to sustain itself financially and pay off the mortgage as well as pay back the lodge bonds that had been sold to club members to raise the down payment and do initial remodeling of the lodge.
It would be necessary to have an annual fund raising event to keep the lodge afloat.
At that time, there was an annual winter leisure sport show. This show had been held for many years in the Center of Progress building at the (New York State) fairgrounds. The name of the show was a little misleading as it was primarily a snowmobile show. In those days snowmobiling in central NY was a bigger and more popular sport than skiing.
Colonel Bill Hartman was the owner of the show and also manager of the Center of Progress building. Today a big stink would be raised about a conflict of interest, that he rented the building for his own show from himself as building manager. In those days things were a lot more informal.
The lodge committee decided that trying to have a sale of used ski equipment could be a good fundraiser. We would have people donate their used equipment to the lodge. The equipment would be sold, and the lodge would keep 100% of the money. The sale could be conducted right at the regular monthly club meeting as the program for that night.
I thought that to generate enough sales we would need to bring in the general public in addition to club members. I knew Colonel Hartman quite well from my years at the Brown Newspapers (now part of the Eagle newspaper chain). The Colonel agreed to donate an 8’ x 8’ booth in the corner by the men’s bathroom at his winter sport show.
The show was in November, and we would auction off any leftover equipment at the December club meeting. Half the booth was a display promoting the lodge and the club while the rest of the space was for the sale. So was born the 1st ski show and sale.
Its success was way beyond our most optimistic dream. We signed up eight new members and sold out all the equipment making almost $300 profit. In 1971 dollars, that would be equivalent to about $1000 today. In those days a night at the lodge cost $2.00. The profit from the first ski show and sale was a big boost to the lodge budget. The next year the Colonel gave us a double booth, and we more than doubled our profits.
At this time in history, skiing was a fast growing sport while snowmobiling was leveling off. The ski lodge booth and sale was the only ski related booth at the snowmobile show. The Colonel desperately wanted to expand the show into the area of skiing, but had been unsuccessful in that effort.
It is hard to imagine today, but back in the ‘60’s and early ‘70’s, there was a lot of animosity and ill feelings between skiers and snowmobilers. The ski shops and ski areas would have nothing to do with a snowmobile show.
Colonel Hartman decided that the ski lodge committee and its little sale would be his way to draw the rest of the ski community into his show. The Colonel called me to a meeting in his office at the Center of Progress building and proposed that I rent one half of the building from him and in turn rent that space out to all the ski areas, shops and clubs. He would consolidate the snowmobilers into the other half and truly have a winter sport show. He felt that as president of the ski club I could easily pull all the ski businesses into the show and sell the space at a higher price than he was charging, thus creating a profit that I could personally keep or donate to the lodge.
The only catch was that if I did not sell out the space, there would be a financial loss and his full rental must still be paid. I personally or the ski club would have to make up the difference. I felt it would take 2 – 3 years to build booth sales up to the point of filling half the Center of Progress building and neither I nor the club could afford to pay the losses for those years. The Colonel would not compromise. It was all or nothing. If we did not rent half the building, we could not be in his show at all.
During those two years the cross-country ski club had been running a little but very successful cross-country ski fair at Drumlins. There was no sale and not really a show. It was three hours with a movie, fashion show and some demonstrations on waxing.
In those days Drumlins was the winter sports capital of Syracuse. They had downhill skiing, night skiing, cross-country skiing on the golf course, a big skating rink and several bowling alleys plus the grandest ballroom in the area. Drumlins had skiing for many years before Song Mountain, Labrador and all the other areas were ever conceived.
I had a meeting with the cross-country club’s board about joining their ski sale and co-sponsoring a real ski sale. They were not only opposed to the idea, but they voted to drop the ski fair completely as it was getting to be more work then they wanted.
That is when I proposed to the Onondaga Ski Club that we jump in with both ski booths and do a combined cross-country/downhill ski show and sale. The idea was overwhelmingly voted down.
At the next lodge committee meeting it was decided to do the ski sale on our own and move it to Drumlins as we could not work out any agreement with the Colonel. I resigned as chairman of the lodge committee to become director of the ski sale. In the back of my mind I planned all along to turn it into a full fledged ski sale. In part I wanted to “show” Colonel Hartman we could do it without him, as he told me we would fall flat on our face and come begging back to him. After all he told me, “You are not a professional show promoter like I am.” A few years later Hartman’s winter show was defunct while ours grew bigger and more successful every year, eventually taking over the entire Center of Progress building.
That first year at Drumlins we rented the ballroom, filled half of it with ski sales and half of it with tables for the shops and areas and showed a ski movie. We changed the sale from all donated equipment to selling it for people and the lodge keeping 10% plus a registration fee. We were overwhelmed with people and equipment, packing Drumlins all afternoon. The show and sale was on Saturday from noon to 5 PM only. Our profits shot up to several thousand dollars. With the growth it was decided to split the show off from the lodge committee and run it as a separate program with a separate committee.
The next year we rented all of Drumlins, which consisted of several meeting rooms, a large hallway and the stage area. The sale was in one room, the exhibits in the ballroom, in other rooms were movies and demonstrations as well as a fashion show on the stage. We packed the entire place, sold out all the exhibit space, and for the first time attracted an exhibitor from out of state (Mt. Snow Ski Area in Vermont). The hours were extended into the evening. We made so much money that we did not know what to do with all of it. I remember Gary, who was in charge of all the finances, told me he was so excited when he announced the profits of $8,000.00 (the equivalent of about $25,000.00 today) that he almost wet his pants.
The next year at Drumlins was almost a disaster. We were so jammed with booths, equipment and people that you could not move in the building. The parking lot overflowed, and it really was not a fun show because of such a crowded mass of humanity. We knew we had to move to larger quarters, but where? A search committee was formed right after the show, the most profitable ever at $12,000.00. After six months of extensive searching, nothing could be found. All the alternatives were much too large or way to expensive.
In May, I went to the big annual boat show at the Center of Progress building. As I left, I noticed a little sign that said “Craft Show” with an arrow. I followed the signs to what was called the Women’s building. I took one look around and said this would be the perfect location for the ski show. I spoke with the lady in charge of the show and was informed that the Women’s building was available exclusively for women’s events and women’s clubs.
Early Monday morning I went right to the office of the director of the Women’s building. There I met Mrs. Elizabeth Crowley. We hit it off immediately, almost like a magic chemistry sparked between us. I’m happy to say that to this day Liz is a close friend with whom I stay in contact. Liz loved the idea of hosting the ski show in her building. She was also an avid skier. Over the next several years Liz’s help and cooperation were major factors in the continued growth of the show and sale.
The first year at the Women’s building, now called the Art and Home Center, we rented the entire center section. That doubled our space from Drumlins. Once again the space was filled to capacity.
Each year for the next three years, we rented more and more space until we had the entire building, including the adjoining banquet hall, now called the Empire Restaurant. Every year we filled to overflowing the space we had.
We were now back to the situation we had at Drumlins. We were so packed with people that the show was not as much for the ski club workers or the general public. The search was on for a new home, but nothing bigger was available except the War Memorial and the Center of Progress building. The War Memorial was out because of downtown, parking, and the unions… especially the unions. The Center of Progress was out, not only due to the expense, but it was one big space, four times bigger than where we were with many restrictions that Liz did not hold us to. So, we just stayed where we were and made the most of it. After all, we were making lots of money. After another year of jamming the Women’s building I decided we must move, but the entire committee and the club’s board were opposed.
We had at that time monthly ski show committee meetings all year long in the Women’s building, another advantage of being there with the show. At the May meeting the committee showed up at the door of the Women’s building and the door was locked. Liz always just left it unlocked for us, and we locked it up as we left.
There was a light rain, and we all huddled under the small porch. I told Stu Sturman to run over to the nearby end of the Center of Progress building and see if it might be unlocked. It was and by coincidence there were two picnic tables just inside the door.
Several people objected that we might get in trouble, trespassing in this building, and suggested we go to a nearby bar for the meeting. I said “No” and started the meeting. I said “Look around carefully. You are now in the new home of the Syracuse Ski Show. I signed the contract this afternoon”.
After an hour of hysterics and screaming, I ended the meeting. At the next Board of Directors meeting, a motion was made to remove me as director of the ski show, cancel the contract and revoke my membership in Onondaga. When the motion was defeated by only one vote, another big squabble broke out over whether I should have been allowed to vote.
Most of the committee, somewhat reluctantly, continued to work on planning that show which turned out to be the biggest and most successful, as well as most profitable ever up to that time. The biggest surprise to everyone was that we filled the entire building.
The show and sale continued to grow and prosper, becoming more profitable. After a couple more years in the Center of Progress building and sixteen years at the head of the show and sale, I decided it was time to retire and move on to new challenges.
The Syracuse Ski Show had become the largest pure ski show in the United States. Colonel Bill Hartman had passed away, and on that Monday night as I left the Center of Progress building after my last show, I looked up into the sky, smiled and said “Well Colonel, how did I do, not being a professional?”
Over the years there were many near disasters. I look back on them with less than fond memories. There was what I call the Joe Charles fiasco. In Fairmount Fair there was the Joe Charles Sport Shop. It was primarily a golf shop. Joe decided to expand into the ski business and was an exhibitor at several ski shows.
Each year they ran a golf-o-rama. It was a big sale of golf equipment and a little mini golf show to attract people to the sale. The sale grew bigger each year, and it eventually moved to the New York State Fairgrounds. After expanding into selling ski equipment, Joe decided to run a ski-o-rama, a big sale of new equipment with some ski movies designed to attract more people. The ski-o-rama was at the fairgrounds for a couple of years, the week before our ski show, and really didn’t affect us.
Back in those days New York State had what was called Sunday Blue Laws. Religious groups had gotten several laws passed to make Sunday more of a day of rest. The laws outlawed the sale of most merchandise on Sunday. Most stores just closed on Sundays. I can remember many times going into a Fay’s drugstore on Sunday, and most of the aisles were blocked off with signs, “Keep out, Sunday Blue Laws.” They could only sell essential medicines and food.
Well, somebody complained about the soon to be held Joe Charles ski-o-rama on Sunday, to the District Attorney. Joe was told that if he had the sale he would be arrested and put in jail. Of course he was very upset. I don’t know why, but he decided if he could not have his ski-o-rama sale, then we could not have our ski sale on Sunday. Back then the Sunday part of the sale was over 50% of the total sale.
On the Wednesday before the show I was served with a court ordered injunction forbidding the Sunday sale. The police told me if we sold anything on Sunday, all officers and directors of the club would be arrested and put in jail.
In a panic I called Howie Kallash. Howie was a lawyer from DeWitt and a member of the ski club board of directors. He spent the day researching the law and found it did not cover the sale of used items, only new merchandise. In those days, 99% of the ski sale was used equipment. I always resisted the sale of new items. It was after I retired that the club started to sell a lot of new equipment. Friday morning Howie got a court order lifting the injunction and the show and sale went on as planned. A couple of years later Joe Charles Sport Shop went bankrupt and closed.
Then there was the year of the fire marshal. It was the third year we were in the Center of Progress building. About 11 AM Saturday, a new fire marshal came wandering in. He walked around, asked who was in charge, and told me we could not open the show. He said all the booths were set up wrong. The aisles and traffic flow was wrong. It was 45 minutes before show time, and it had taken10 – 12 hours to set the place up. I told him it was set up the exact same as last year, and last year the fire marshal was happy with it. He replied “I don’t care, I don’t like it, and you can’t open.”
There were 1000 people lined up at the door waiting to get in. I called over Roger Mayer, who was in charge of the Center of Progress building for the State Fair. He argued with the fire marshal on our behalf, but to no avail. Then Roger said “I’m sorry, Art. The fire marshal has the final word.”
A group of ski sale workers had gathered around and I thought they were ready to lynch the marshal. Some started a very nasty argument with him. I asked the marshal “What don’t you like?” He sketched out on a piece of paper a whole new configuration that would require a complete disassemble and reassemble of the show, probably a 3 – 5 hour job at best. It was now 11:15.
I got on the loud speaker system and told every ski show worker and every exhibitor to report to the fashion show stage. I stood on the stage, held up the sketch and said we were going to rip apart and reassemble the show in 45 minutes. Everyone flew into the task with vigor the likes of which I’ve never seen before, but it was too big a job to do in 45 minutes. When the show opened at 12:06, the general public never knew what happened.
Then there was the snow making year. I thought it would be great publicity to actually make snow at the ski show. I got Greek Peak to bring up a snow gun, and we hooked it up to a fire hydrant. Fortunately the fire marshal was not around.
We got all three TV stations there plus a newspaper photographer and several radio stations. It was part of the Friday night press party, the night before the show opened. About 3 PM a warm front moved in and no snow could be made.
About midnight it got cold. Unbeknownst to me the two Greek Peak snowmaker guys who were now home in Cortland got up, came back and started to make snow, a big pile of it right in front of the ski show entrance, the first snow of the season that year.
When I arrived about 7 A.M., I got on telephone and called all the news media. Then it started to warm up fast. By 11 A.M. when most of the media showed up, almost all the snow had melted. As people lined up for the show, they were standing in puddles of water. All the snow was gone, and no one believed that three hours earlier it was all snow.
Long ago there was a chain of ski shops in Rochester called Muxworthy’s. They decided to take over the Syracuse ski market and quickly opened up four ski shops around Syracuse as well as taking over the ski shops at several ski areas. They wanted all the biggest and best locations at the ski show and had money to spend.
I met them at the Center of Progress building. They wanted the first booth space right by the door. They would buy six booths and pay a premium price. That space, from day one, had been the Liverpool Sport’s location. Liverpool had been an original and always strong supporter of the show.
The owner of Liverpool Sports was Ernie Hirschoff, one of the original founders of Onondaga Ski Club. The very early meetings of the club were held at his Liverpool Sports in the mid fifties.
I told Muxworthy’s “No”. All of last year’s exhibitors would have first choice on keeping their spots. Muxworthy’s went to a couple of board members and told them I was turning down several thousand dollars of extra profit for the club. At the next board meeting a motion was made to accept the money and give Muxworthy’s the spots they wanted. I told the board they had no authority in the matter. I ran the ski show. My decision was final and it did not matter what they voted. After a long, hot debate, the motion was tabled and never did come up again. Within a couple of years all of Muxworthy’s shops were closed and out of business.
Over the years we had to deal with some very extreme weather problems. The Syracuse Ski Show was the last weekend of October for over 18 years. One year, at the end of October, we had a heat wave that set all time record highs, almost 90 degrees and bright sun for three days. I kept thinking who is ever going to come to a ski show in this weather like this, but come they did for another record show attendance.
The there was the year we caught the tail end of a hurricane. Torrential rains, flooding, high winds, trees down, and power outs. The radio and TV kept telling everyone to stay home except for emergencies. It was yet another record year.
Twice the first snow of the season fell on opening day of the ski show.
The biggest weather mess was the third or fourth year. We had a major blizzard the day after the show, the day everyone was to come and pickup their equipment that did not sell. Almost no one came, most of the roads being closed. We had to have all the skis moved out as the place was rented for a big event the next day. I had a four wheel drive truck with a plow, so I took arm loads of skis to the truck, about five truck loads, and put them in a garage I owned on the north side. It took over a month of sorting and calling to finally get most of the equipment back to its owner.
Over the years there was a lot of discussion at the ski show committee as to whether major conflicting events would affect attendance at the ski show. Just about every other year a home S.U. football game would be on the ski show weekend. It never seemed to affect attendance. I always felt that people had three opportunities to attend the show, Saturday afternoon, Saturday evening or Sunday. If they had a conflict on one of those time slots, they would just come to one of the other two opportunities. If people wanted to come, they would find a time slot and attend. It was our job to give them a quality, interesting and fun show so they would want to come.
A couple of years the World Series finals fell on ski show weekend. We set up one booth with a large screen TV and put in our ads and publicity that you could watch during the Series at the ski show. A lot of people did, and the attendance was not affected.
There was always a lot of controversy over the date of the show. All winter long, when I was skiing, the ski area owners and managers would harangue me about making the date later. They wanted the show at the end of November, as they were hopefully opening for the season by that time.
Every time I went into a ski shop, the owners would get on me to have the show earlier, around mid to late September. They felt that skiers held off buying equipment and getting “fired up” for the new season until the ski show and sale weekend.
I had set the date on the last weekend of October as a compromise and kept it there for continuity for 18 years. People everywhere, even out of state exhibitors, just automatically knew that the Syracuse Ski Show was always the last weekend of October and would plan accordingly.
One of the reasons for the growth and success of the ski show was a very extensive public relations campaign each year during the ten days just before the show. By the third year, a separate and very active PR committee conducted a wide variety of marketing events, thus publicizing the event and allowing us to keep the actual paid advertising budget low.
One year a fairly new member came “charging in” with her stories of her marvelous PR/marketing skills and experiences. She took over the committee and seemed to want to do everything herself. At PR committee meetings in August and September, a very ambitious marketing plan was designed, and she kept saying “I’ll do that.”
About twp weeks before the ski show, I went up to the lodge for a little R&R and to do a remodeling project in one of the rooms. When I returned, I called each ski show committee chairperson for a report. In those days there were about 8 – 10 separate ski show committees, each with 6 – 10 members.
I started to get nervous when after three days and six messages on her answering machine I had not heard from the PR chairperson. So, I called her at work and in a very few sharp words, she told me to never call her at work, that she was very busy and had not had any time to do anything at all on the ski show. She hung up with the words “’after all I have a life beyond your dumb ski show.”
It was only a few days before the ski show, and no time to resurrect the marketing plan. I was not about to let attendance drop because of this. I called the media and ordered a lot of extra paid advertisements.
The show went off with another record attendance and all was fine until the next month’s board meeting when the board discovered that the advertising was about $10,000.00 over budget. I explained what had happened. Up until then I kept quiet about it as I did not want to embarrass the PR chairperson.
A couple of close personal friends of the PR chairperson who were on the board made a motion that I be required to pay the advertising bills out of my own pocket. After a hot debate and a lot of criticism heaped on me, the motion was narrowly defeated. No, I was not the one that did the vote count this time.
For many, many years, Liz Crowley gave us free storage all year long for all the ski sale equipment in the basement of her building even after we moved to the Center of Progress building. Then the State Fair front office heard about it and demanded we pay a very substantial rental fee for the storage space. Ever since then, I’ve stored all the ski racks and other equipment in my barn for free.
The ski show for many, many years became the biggest ski event of the year in Central New York. It was the “official” opening for the ski season. More importantly, it was a major good will community service gift from the Onondaga Ski Club to the skiing community of CNY.
The ski show was a project all were proud to be a part of and happy to work long hours all year long to help make it a success. Regularly over 300 people would toil each year to bring about another successful ski show.
Over the past 25 years, the ski show became the financial anchor of the club. In the early years the ski show profits paid off the mortgage on the lodge several years early. It paid off the lodge bondholders early too. It provided money for many major improvements to the lodge. The ski show provided thousands and thousands of dollars each year to many non-profit ski programs such as the US Olympic Team, CNY junior racing programs, handicapped skier activities, and many others.
For the past years eight years, ski show profits have funded most club activities, allowing committees to overspend and not cut programs or raise dues.
There are many more stories I could tell about my 16 years with the ski show and 35 years as an Onondaga Ski Club member, but enough for now.
Retyped by Michael P. McCabe
Historian, Onondaga Ski Club