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The Author Speaks

The Hills Are Alive!

Interview with Agathe von Trapp, author of "Memories Before and After 'The Sound of Music'"

Hills Alive

A von Trapp family rehearsal in 1946.

Editor's note: Stricken in November with congestive heart failure, Agathe von Trapp died on Dec. 28, 2010.

Few shows are as beloved as The Sound of Music.

It has inspired countless theater productions, tours, revivals, soundtracks, public sing-alongs and "spontaneous" performances — not to mention private concerts with fans belting out "The hills are alive …!" and every lyric of "My Favorite Things" all on their own. So popular is the movie — still — it has inspired a full-cast reunion on Oprah, complete with adoring, screaming fans.

To celebrate the 45th anniversary of the movie, the AARP Bulletin sat down with Agathe von Trapp, the oldest daughter of the famous musical family.

Don't recognize her name? Not surprising, since the movie was quite different from what really happened to the von Trapps in Austria before and during World War II. There was no Liesl, and the children's father was far from a tyrant. A beloved, gentle man, he encouraged Agathe to learn beekeeping and took the children on extended camping trips filled with music. And while actress Julie Andrews made Maria, their movie-version stepmother, famous, the real stepmother wasn't called Maria at all, but Gustl. See what else was purely fiction in the movie.

Agathe, now 97, has a great sense of humor, a peaceful smile and traces of a German accent. She invited us into her Baltimore home to chat about her family, their life together and her book, Memories Before and After The Sound of Music.

Read an excerpt.

Q. How much of The Sound of Music was accurate?

A. The movie is a very nice story, but it is not our story. And it misrepresented my father. He was not a dictator. He was very kind, and did whatever was good for us.

The movie says my stepmother was the first one who taught us music, with the song "Do-Re-Mi." But our father taught us to play musical instruments, and we were always making music with him.

Q. What about Liesl, your fictional counterpart? In real life, did you fall in love with a nice young member of the Hitler Youth who delivered telegrams?

A. It wouldn't have been allowed. In those days, you didn't find your husband by walking out with boys.

Q. How did you feel the first time you saw the movie?

A. I cried. As a movie, it's a very nice movie, and it's a lot of fun. If they hadn't used our name, I would probably have enjoyed it.

Q. How many times have you seen it?

A. Three times, right after it came out, each time because somebody asked me to. I haven't wanted to watch it again.

Q. Have you made peace with the film?

A. I have. So many people love the movie that I thought, let the movie be what it is, and let my own story be what it is. So I wrote my book to tell my own story.

Q. What was your favorite part of performing?

A. I enjoyed singing with my brothers and sisters, because we sounded so good. We also saw the world. We saw so many beautiful places, and we'd find time to take a walk and do some sightseeing.

Q. What was your favorite song that you performed?

A. "Sheep May Safely Graze," by Johann Sebastian Bach. We sang it while my brother and sister played the recorders. It was beautiful.

Q. You have such a close-knit family, and you had such a special gift you could share.

A. We were close because we were always singing. My father wrote to his cousin in America: "My children sing all the time. One does that only as long as one is young." He had seen the terrible war, and a lot of terrible things. He was glad we didn't know about those things yet.

Q. When you were performing, did you and your siblings realize how special you were?

A. Singing was so familiar to us that we didn't realize how special our family was. But we were always very glad to be together.

Q. Why did you stop?

A. We sang in every possible town in the United States. We ran out of towns, so we went to Canada, then South America, Australia, New Zealand and Europe. Finally our manager said, "I don't have any more countries for you." So it was time to stop touring.

Q. Do you miss performing?

A. No. We were completely worn out after 20 years.

Q. Do you still listen to music?

A. I can't, because my hearing aids distort music.

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