The Vermont Hills Come Alive with the Sound of a Trapp Family Reunion

updated 02/06/1984 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 02/06/1984 AT 01:00 AM EST

Twenty-five years ago Mary Martin made Maria von Trapp famous as the jubilant young novitiate who left her convent to win the hearts of an Austrian baron and his singing children. Maria's onscreen simulacrum, an ageless Julie Andrews, still cavorts periodically on television across the technicolor hills of Hollywood's greatest made-for-megabucks musical. While her public remembers her as an ingenue singing the praises of raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens, the original Maria von Trapp is passing her 79th birthday and beginning to lose her memory of the true story that became The Sound of Music. Last month the Green Mountains of Stowe, Vt. came alive with a sound they have heard on and off for the past 40 years when Maria and her surviving choral brood held a family reunion.

The occasion for the display of family harmony was the opening of a new Trapp Family Lodge, built at a cost of $7.5 million to replace a rambling predecessor that burned to its chimneys in an unexplained fire three years ago. Expanded from 28 to 73 rooms, the pine-sided, cedar-roofed Tyrolean lodge housed friends, relatives and local supporters in a week of revels that included a birthday party for Maria and her youngest son, Johannes, 45, who has managed the lodge since 1969. "You know, the lodge is so new, I haven't seen it all yet," confessed Maria, who was hospitalized with chest pains and loss of breath during the pre-reunion excitement. "But what I have seen I like very much."

The new lodge replaces the home on a 350-acre farm that the Trapps bought in 1941 because the countryside reminded them of the Austrian homeland they had fled in 1938 to escape the Nazis. Baron Georg von Trapp died in 1947, and Johannes, who started singing with the clan when he was 7, said that his mother kept the family together with strict discipline and hardy will. "We got up early, went to Mass, had breakfast, went to work, worked all day," he recalls. Apparently, there really was a problem with Maria. "She's much feistier than portrayed in the movie," says Johannes. "She was a very difficult woman—in every possible way." But he adds, "She loves people and has a need to do things that are helpful to people." Though Maria wanted to keep performing, the Trapp Family Singers broke up in 1956. "We had been singing together for 20 years, and that was about all anyone could stand," says Johannes. "We needed a little rope."

When the rope was reeled in last month, six of eight living sibling singers showed up, ranging in age from 45 to 72 and in profession from missionary to doctor. Also on hand was Franz Wasner, the Austrian priest who served for 20 years as the group's unsung musical director. His absence from The Sound of Music marked one of Hollywood's departures from the original story told by Maria in her book The Story of the Trapp Family Singers. Although the film grossed millions worldwide, Maria (who once admitted she had "very little business sense") received only $500,000, which she divided among her children.

The reunion brought happy memories. As Maria and her children sang some old favorites one afternoon with help from troupe alumni who still sing semiprofessionally, tears rolled down her cheeks. Having suffered a series of "silent strokes," Maria "is nowhere near her old self," says Johannes, "but every once in a while that old spark comes through." Until the 1980 fire Maria was the driving force behind the lodge. Dressed in Austrian outfits, she made daily visits to the dining room and mingled with the guests, aware she was one of the key attractions. "It was more devastating for her than most people realized," says one staff member of the fire.

Never ones to give up, the Trapps have rebuilt their lives once more. Lorli Campbell, 52, the youngest sister, credits their perseverance to religion. "We got everything done with the help of God," she says. In real life as in the movies, the Trapp family's prayers have been answered.

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