Ski Slope In Universal City, 1939

Karl Gerber

January 1, 2023

Ski Slope In Universal City, 1939 – Vintage Los Angeles“Ok,” I started as calmly as I could in order to be heard in the open roof Model-T chugging up and down all the hills on the Ventura Highway in route to the Cahuenga Pass. “Last thing I remember was,” I paused and thought. “I can’t violate the attorney client privilege. This all started due to a client matter.”

“Counselor,” O’Grady mumbled, and spat tobacco out the window in the same breath, “Suit yarself. I’ve gotta jab intaview here a Pine Needle Ski Slope a noon.”

From Ventura Highway he turned north onto Lankershim.

“Oh no you don’t,” I spattered out.

While we were still turning north, I grabbed the steering wheel. I turned us around back towards Ventura Highway. O’Grady’s body towered over me, and he slapped a humongous bruise on my arm. I yelped so loud all of the sheep south of Ventura Highway heard, their hair stood up, and they yodeled back at me. By the time the pain passed, O’Grady puttered up the mountain to Pine Needle Ski Slope.

Pine Needle was a crazy place between the edge of the San Fernando Valley and Hollywood. It was up a steep hill overlooking Ventura Highway to the south, a narrow strip of sort of flat land between another set of hills. On the northeast side of Pine Needle Ski Slope were the Burbank Hills and the Verdugo Mountains. To the east was Lake Hollywood. At the end of the slope was Universal.

Some crazy cat had a hellish idea to coat the slope with pine needles and dump manufactured snow. The mercury rises over 100 on Pine Needle Slope during the summer, but that was part of the gag.

The ski slope had been closed for a few months now. Don’t ask me why it was closed in the winter and open during the summer. That’s just the way things were in Los Angeles. As we drove up the hill, I noticed a fountain with slimy water. I guess the fountain was supposed to represent something from the Matterhorn Mountain, but I am not quite sure what. Maybe a set designer in training built the cesspool.

A fit looking man saw O’Grady standing outside the car, and came to greet him. I sloughed down so I would not be seen. The fit man’s accent sounded sort, but not quite, German.

He said to O’Grady, “I am Joseph Benedikter. I can already tell I like you for the job. You’re so big and tough looking.”

The man was a tall fellow, but at 6’3 or maybe 6’5 depending on the mood, and 250 pounds O’Grady was still quite a bit bigger.

“My friends and fans call me ‘Sepp,’” he told O’Grady.

I’d never met Sepp before, but I knew he was the crazy cat behind Pine Needle Ski Slope. According to widespread rumor he was an Austrian ski champion who moved to Hollywood to coach stars like Henry Fonda and Gary Cooper on the makeshift ski slope. Over the summer, movie stars, Valley housewives, and teenagers skied in their bathing suits.

In the world of Los Angeles Vintage bizaro, Pine Needles Slope is a top contender.

The passage you just read, of course, is fiction. It comes from a 2006 literary noir novel called, Legend of the Lizard People by Karl Gerber. The story is set in 1939 and incorporates several Los Angeles myths while paying homage to actual Los Angeles places, things, and people in 1939.  Fictional ex-police detective O’Grady gets Clover Shiner, his former partner who is now a Los Angeles attorney living at the Gaylord on Wilshire and then the Ambassador, to take him for a job interview at Pine Needles Slope where he will perform off season security.

Sepp Benedickter was Austrian. Sources claim he started to ski when he was three. Some sources claim he competed for Austria in the Olympics. One source claims he arrived in the United States at Sun Valley. Other sources claim he built Sun Valley and other ski resorts. It is also claimed he rode the first chairlift at Sun Valley.

June 29, 1939 Benedickter opened a ski slope in Universal City on the present day site of the Sheraton Hotel on the hill immediately underneath present day Universal Studios (I had a groundbreaking sexual harassment appellate case that occurred on the later property). The ski slope operated without snow. Instead, 3,000 pine needles were placed onto of the usual dirt and weeds for smoothness many commented on.

A 1939 news source wrote the following about the slope:

The slope is located at the juncture of two busy boulevards, near Universal Studios, and can be seen plainly for a long distance on Ventura Boulevard. Exceptionally smooth and attractive, the hill commands a view of the entire San Fernando Valley. The slope proper has been fenced off from the surrounding pasture, and an occasional cow; startled out of her cudchewing placidity, moseys curiously along the fence. Most of the skiers agree that this gives the slope the pastoral air of Switzerland.

One wonders if Pine Needles was one big publicity stunt, and perhaps funded by stars looking for attention in the days before OMG/Hoffington Post. Numerous celebrities attended the opening including: Henry Fonda, Gary Cooper, Robert and Elizabeth Taylor, Claudette Colbert, James Cagney, and Hedda Hopper. A multiplicity of pictures of men skiing without shirts, and women wearing armless or backless tops appeared. Pine Needles closed once the summer ended.

Snowless skiing remained popular in the San Fernando Valley. Viking’s Ski shop was located at 13733 Ventura Boulevard during the 1950s and 1960s. Behind the shop the proprietor taught customers how to ski down a wooden slope in back, sometimes with a cigarette hanging out of his mouth. Today a health food store occupies this property a few blocks from my Sherman Oaks office.