On June 26, 1981, Bobby Everson stood before some 35 representatives from North Tahoe resorts, businesses and service organizations. A local boy and a rising star in the ski industry, Everson had just taken a job as the marketing director at Alpine Meadows and was pitching the idea of a winter carnival to boost March business, which, in 1981, was considered off-season. He had drummed up interest around the community earlier that spring and another meeting was scheduled for mid-July. But Everson would never see his idea come to fruition—he died in a boating accident on July 4.
Ruth Schnabel, SnowFest!’s current executive director, had attended that meeting on a whim. “By the time we had the next meeting, everybody’s attitude was, we have to do this for Bobby,” she says. “The town was very close-knit so everybody knew him. That accident motivated us all to really make it happen that year.”
Beverly Bedard, then the executive director for the Chamber of Commerce, remembers clearly that “everyone decided that we would go ahead and see if we could make it work. The first couple of years were just incredibly interesting.”
Volunteers helped the festival thrive despite its lack of funds: Upwards of 100 businesses signed up to host events. Bedard and a colleague sewed the first Queen cape. J.C. Krise spent his own money on an elaborate costume to become Old Man Winter on three days’ notice, and then played the part for 20 years.
Over the years, Schnabel, who also served as SnowFest! executive director from 1984 to 1991, has a collection of tales of those hooked on the ‘Fest: A couple from Indianapolis who stumbled upon it by accident and, as a result, have booked their ski vacation to coincide for the last 15 years. The group of college kids from Wisconsin who asked to be in the Tahoe City parade three years ago and haven’t missed it since. Or the man from Hawaii who read about it in National Geographic Traveler in 1985 and brought gifts of pineapples, leis and macadamia nuts to Schnabel on his first visit. By the third year, he was bringing some 40 people along.
Peaks and valleys
About 100 people attended SnowFest!’s opening ceremonies the first year, peaking in ?? with 20,000 packing the first night’s fun. But onward and upward couldn’t last forever. In 2000, SnowFest! faltered. After two decades of huge success, there was a push to give the event a more global image, so SnowFest! brought in a new president from Los Angeles, who overcommitted the festival and its resources. “Even though we were living within the budget, he was committing us to things that we didn’t know about.” says Kay Williams, then director of the CVB and a SnowFest! board member. “We felt like country bumpkins.”
The festival fell into financial ruin and, in 2002, announced that it was finished, which it may have been, were it not for a group of interested locals and business owners.
One of them, Tom Turner, owner of Gar Woods, recalls, “A bunch of us just got together and said, ‘What can we do to not let this fail?’ It wasn’t so much anything other than just trying to do the right thing.”
“I made the mistake of saying, ‘Who’s going to put together your calendar and publicize it?’” says Schnabel. “They said, ‘You are!’”
Today, between 5,000 and 8,000 people attend SnowFest! opening ceremonies. A 2010 economic impact study stated that the event, on its $54,000 budget, brought $3.5 million to the area and raised $114,000 for local nonprofits.
Favorite events include the Tahoe City parade (“It’s funky, but that’s why I love it,” Schnabel says); the keg pull, where dogs race down snowy streets, size-appropriate items in tow; the polar bear swim, which has graced Gar Woods’ beaches for 21 years (“I’ve done it three times, but no more,” says Turner); and, of course, opening night with its torchlight parade and cast of committed locals.
“I think SnowFest! gave the North Tahoe community an excuse to get out and celebrate,” says Williams. “Winter wasn’t over so the skiing was still good, but people wanted to kick up their heels a little bit. There were many, many people who came forward to help without expecting anything in return. I’m hopeful that we can keep it going another 30 years.”
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