“You have to understand,” the ebullient old man would say to his grandchildren. “We are show people.”
The old man was Alexander “Buzz” Bainbridge, a trailblazing ski promoter and the son of two of Minneapolis’ most colorful characters of the early 20th century. Bainbridge, who moved west after World War II, died Jan. 11 at his home in Santa Fe, New Mexico, at age 93 — just several years after he hung up his skis for good.
Across much of the mountain West, Bainbridge was renowned for daring work to help transform downhill skiing into a mainstream sport. In the 1950s, long before the days of Internet marketing, Bainbridge traveled across the Southwest in an old Chevrolet station wagon, stopping in towns just long enough to promote skiing in a parade or host a ski “movie night” at a community hall.
Over two decades, Bainbridge helped found and market a dozen ski resorts — from Santa Fe to Telluride, Colo., to Jackson Hole, Wyo. His marketing gimmicks were legendary and included sending famous skiers, including Stein Eriksen, flying down giant man-made ramps at ski shows in Boston, New York and other large cities.
Bainbridge’s love for skiing started early. He was captain of the ski team at West High School in Minneapolis, then Central U.S. Intercollegiate slalom champion at the University of Minnesota, and part-time ski editor of the old Minneapolis Star Journal. As a U.S. Naval officer during World War II, he helped in the Italy landing of the Army’s famous 10th Mountain Division, which consisted of soldiers trained to fight in arctic conditions on skis.
After the war, Bainbridge moved with his wife, Jean, to New Mexico to operate a small ski hill that later became known as the Santa Fe Ski Basin. As a resort operator, Bainbridge would glide up to skiers and give them generous discounts on lift tickets if they formed ski clubs back home, which later became a source for new customers. With giant loudspeakers, Bainbridge would blare Polish polka and Austrian yodeling music over the slopes to entertain customers and give his resorts a European flair.
His son Buzz Bainbridge Jr., 69, a corporate training consultant in Minneapolis, recalls as a child being pulled by his father’s float, on skis attached to roller skates, at a small-town parade somewhere in the Texas Panhandle.
“My husband was a marketing genius,” said Jean Bainbridge, his wife of 71 years. “That’s why we have the big ski areas throughout the Rockies — because of the marketing ploys Buzz helped to create.”
Marketing ran in his family. Bainbridge’s father, former Minneapolis Mayor A.G. “Buzz” Bainbridge, began his career as a traveling promoter and an advance man for Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show and later formed a troupe of theater actors that bore his name. His mother, Marie Gale, was a lead actress at the Shubert Theater in Minneapolis who performed on Broadway in the 1940s in “I Remember Mama” and “Silver Bells.”
Ever the showman, the elder Bainbridge announced his candidacy for mayor on Friday the 13th, while holding an open umbrella under a ladder with his fingers crossed. At his inaugural, he pledged to provide free opera for residents. “My grandfather taught Ronald Reagan everything he needed to know about how to go from showbiz to politics,” said Steve Bainbridge, 65, a retired marketing executive and ski instructor.
Within months after taking office, Mayor Bainbridge was confronted with an escalating labor conflict. In 1934, the militant Teamsters Local 574 decided to take on a powerful body of anti-union employers known as the Citizen’s Alliance. In a violent clash, known as “Bloody Friday,” two union truck drivers died and more than 60 were wounded after police opened fire on the unarmed protesters near downtown Minneapolis.
It was the elder Bainbridge who appointed the police chief, Michael Johannes, who famously instructed the officers, “You have shotguns, and you know how to use them.”
Jean Bainbridge said tensions got so high in 1934 that her late husband had to be escorted by armed guards to his classes at West High. “If you knew my husband, he wasn’t scared of anything,” Jean said. “But if somebody is out to get somebody, they tend to go after their family too.”
After the Teamsters won the strike and gained union recognition, Mayor Bainbridge lashed out at Vincent Dunne, one of the strike leaders, and his fellow Teamster activists, calling them “Communists.”
“Buzz really poured fuel on that fire,” said Minneapolis historian Iric Nathanson, “when cooler heads had hoped the tensions and anger had subsided.”
Bainbridge is survived by his wife and sons Buzz, Steve and daughter Andrea. A memorial reception will be held on April 18 in Santa Fe.