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The Hills Are Alive!

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

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.

Q. You write that whenever your family hit a difficult patch, God helped. Was there a reason why God took such good care of you?

A. Nobody's ever asked me that before, but it is true. We dedicated our family to the Lord before we even thought of giving concerts, and from then on everything just went [well].

Q. You saw so many horrible things during the Holocaust. Evil things that people did to one another.

A. Terrible. We were all appalled when we heard this was happening, but there was nothing we could do about it.

Q. Did it shake your faith in God?

A. [laughs] God had nothing to do with it! There were very bad people doing these things, not God. So our faith was just the same.

Q. Why did you write the book?

A. I wrote it for the younger generation. Everybody was so busy doing their living that nobody thought to tell the children their family's history. They didn't even know why their parents spoke two languages!

Once I was visiting my sister-in-law, and her son Martin was there. He asked me a few questions, and I started to talk about it. He said, you know, you should write that down. (Because he didn't have the time to listen!) From then on, I had the idea of writing a genealogy for my nephews and nieces.

Q. If somebody reading your book is inspired to do something similar, do you have any advice?

A. They should just start talking with someone else, to see what parts of their own story are the most interesting. And they should write down everything they can remember about their past.

Q. You started writing this book when you were in your 80s! How much research were you able to do?

A. I went to Germany and the town in Austria where my ancestors lived. The mayor there lent me an air-conditioned car and two people to take me anywhere I wanted to go.

Q. Did you discover any surprises?

A. I discovered that my grandfather came back from Germany to Austria because he wanted to go into the military, and they didn't have one in Germany at that time. He went into the navy, and became commander of a big ship. They came into a big storm. My grandfather landed the ship on a sandbank and saved every single person on the ship. He got a big award from the kaiser — we got a beautiful crest, and the addition of "von" in our name, because we were elevated to royalty.

Q. If you could do it all over again, would you have chosen a different career?

A. I would not have wanted to do anything else. That was my life. We sang so well together. It was just a wonderful feeling.

Christie Findlay lives in Virginia.

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