As the Trapp Family Singers prepared to embark on a tour of the United States in 1939, an immigration official asked the clan how long they planned to stay in the country. Matriarch Maria von Trapp gave a truthful, if ill-advised, reply.
“She said, ‘I want to stay here for forever,’ ” said her granddaughter, singer Elisabeth von Trapp, whose family’s flight from Nazi-controlled Austria inspired the musical “The Sound of Music.”
Soon the von Trapps were awaiting trial at New York’s Ellis Island to determine whether they’d be forced to return home. Only the swift intervention of a Catholic charity based in Pennsylvania rescued them from deportation.
“They had no money, no visible means of support. They knew no one. They were these strangers in a very strange land,” Elisabeth von Trapp explained. “They were waiting for that hand to reach out to save them, and Catholic Charities did.”
Von Trapp will perform Nov. 14 at Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa as a benefit for Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Monterey. She described the program as “Bach to Broadway, Schubert to Sting, and everything in between.”
The daughter of Werner von Trapp, portrayed in “The Sound of Music” as the “incorrigible” Kurt, Elisabeth von Trapp grew up a mere two miles away from her current home in Waitsfield, Vt.
She spent her childhood immersed in music — the rock records brought home by her siblings, the folk artists she heard on the radio, the traditional Austrian folk tunes, sacred songs and baroque music performed by her relatives.
“Always, after dinner, guitars would come out and we’d start singing,” recalled von Trapp, who began taking piano lessons at age 8. By age 16, she was playing guitar and performing with her siblings at weddings, church meetings and town halls across New England.
“When I was in high school, I’d play my guitar up in my bedroom, stand over by the window looking out at the corn field and pretend I was Joan Baez at Woodstock and all the cornstalks were the people,” she recalled.
Although a teenaged von Trapp spent a year studying voice and guitar in her grandparents’ hometown of Salzburg, Austria, her mother encouraged her to get an education degree.
Von Trapp spent two or three years as a music enrichment coordinator and classroom assistant. She also ran a clothing business for 25 years, relying on the dressmaking skills she learned in Austria.
Around 1995, however, von Trapp decided that she wanted to dedicate herself to music full-time. She officially made the leap in 2002, supported by her criminal prosecutor husband, who became her business manager.
“Eventually we lived our lives so the music would be number one,” she said, acknowledging that the choice has been a challenging one. “You cannot be afraid of having a difficult schedule. You cannot be afraid of hard work.”
As the only one of her siblings who went into music professionally, von Trapp is keenly aware of carrying on her family’s legacy. (Three nieces and a nephew perform as the vocal quartet The Von Trapps.)
While “The Sound of Music” cemented the von Trapps’ fame, she described the musical — based on Maria von Trapp’s memoir “The Story of the Trapp Family Singers” — as a “fairy tale” built around a “kernel of truth.”
For instance, the von Trapps left Austria by boarding a train bound for Italy, not hiking over the Alps as they do in the 1965 movie. Baron von Trapp was a warm, loving man, not a cold-hearted martinet as portrayed by Christopher Plummer, his granddaughter said, while Julia Andrews’s Maria embodied “the sweet, sweet side” of his feisty, fiery-tempered wife.
Also, she added, the von Trapps’ struggles did not cease with the end credits.
“My father often said that where the movie ends, that’s when the challenges really started happening,” Elisabeth von Trapp said. “How would they survive once they left their home and gave up everything?”
“It takes great courage and great skill and a lot of organization (for) people to make a new life,” she added, as well as a great deal of faith.
If you go
Elisabeth von Trapp
7 p.m. Friday
Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa, 751 Palm St., San Luis Obispo
(831) 233-3307 or www.catholiccharitiescentralcoast.org