- Steve Martin
December 1, 2013

Their “Sound of Music” was heard on Main Street long before the Richmond Civic Theatre holiday production, the famous Rodgers and Hammerstein Broadway musical or the 1965 big screen hit with Julie Andrews.

The real von Trapp family singers appeared in Richmond before a packed house at the Tivoli Theater on Jan. 31, 1945.

Seven von Trapp daughters with their mother and father marched onto the darkened stage at 910 E. Main St., carrying lanterns and singing as each took a place in the family circle.

Baron George Johannes von Trapp — a highly decorated World War I Austro-Hungarian naval hero — introduced himself to the local audience. He explained his two older sons were in the Army overseas, and one smaller son was at home on the farm in Vermont where the family spent their free time living the rural life they had to abandon when they refused to live under Hitler’s rule in Austria.

“The Star Spangled Banner” opened the program, and the audience joined in. Hymns and carols were sung, along with lovely old church music, Mozart, songs of Schubert, Brahms madrigals, folk songs, yodels, mountain calls and Austrian dance melodies. A large part of the program consisted of Christmas hymns and carols, as the season was not over in some parts of Europe until Feb. 2, Maria explained.

Like in the movie, George von Trapp, a widowed Austrian aristocrat, had married the children’s governess. When the von Trapps lost their fortune in a bank crash, Maria took over and, with the help of a local priest, took the family hobby — singing — and turned it into a profitable family profession.

In March of 1938 when the Nazis marched into Salzburg, the von Trapps decided it was time to leave. Maria arranged an American concert tour, and the family was able to escape. They left their home behind and never returned. They did not climb any mountains to escape. They left by train and made their way to America without incident.

Once in the United States, they struggled to establish themselves. They sang mostly in German, dressed like refugees and had a repertoire of difficult classical music. Maria hired a top manager and a publicist and, before long, the singing group became a sensation.

Maria wrote a book, “The Trapp Family Singers,” to promote them. The book fell into the hands of a Broadway producer, and in 1959, the world’s best-loved musical, “The Sound of Music,” became the last collaboration between Broadway legends Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein.

In 1965, “The Sound of Music” was adapted as a film directed by Robert Wise from Winchester, Ind., starring Julie Andrews and Christopher Plummer. The movie won five Academy Awards. Songs from the production — “Edelweiss,” “My Favorite Things,” “Climb Ev’ry Mountain,” “Do-Re-Mi,” and the title song “The Sound of Music” — are classics.

The play and the film vaulted the Austrian immigrants to worldwide attention. “The Sound of Music” today continues to captivate audiences and will again this festive season.

Surviving members of the von Trapp family still have their farm in Vermont, and music is a major part of their lives.

The stage production directed by Renee Arnett is the current Richmond Civic Theatre holiday offering — running Friday-Sunday and Dec. 13-15 — when the theater will be alive with the sound of music, just one block from where the original von Trapp family singers appeared decades ago.

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