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50 Years of Classic Images

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Posted: Wednesday, June 27, 2012 10:07 pm

They call me the Editor and General Manager of Classic Images and Films of the Golden Age. It's the hardest job I ever had. It's the best job I ever had. And it took a miracle of chance to happen. Now that 50 years have rolled by since the founding of Classic Images, I've taken the time to ponder how I came to play a role, such as it is, in CI's long and proud tradition of serving movie buffs around the world. In the following story I've tried to explain the whole thing as accurately as possible. Some parts of the story may seem a bit hard to believe, but this is the way it the way it really happened . . . .

    My story begins in France in 1895 when my first mentor, a young magician’s assistant from Sweden named Alexander Victor, decided to take a look at a new sensation then being demonstrated at a place called the Grand Café in Paris. At that time, you see, there was a fellow by the name of Louis Lumiere who was getting everyone all excited about a new motion picture device called a “Cinematographe”. Now, you might think that there was nothing special about motion pictures in 1895 because people had been creating and showing and watching them for centuries. Big deal. However, Lumiere was doing something new. He wasn't just making crude little drawings showing a guy taking a flying leap at a rolling donut. Oh no, he was taking photographs of people and things and places in the real world. Think of it—the light reflecting off these people, things, and places was captured by Lumiere on a layer of photosensitive chemicals applied to a roll of film, and because Lumiere’s Cinematographe could make hundreds of these images in quick succession, the images seemed to MOVE. And because Lumiere could project the images larger than life onto a screen, it made them seem downright miraculous. It was as if Lumiere had created a real and living thing that could be powered by the imagination to inspire the hearts and minds of millions.

    Our young magician’s assistant, Alexander Victor, simply had to go see these new motion pictures. Spurring Victor’s interest in film was his fascination with magic. Like many young men of his day, Victor was awed by the performances of professional magicians who used their skill and cunning to make an audience believe illusions created on a stage. Motion pictures obviously were another form of illusion, so Victor was deeply interested in what Lumiere was doing. Victor soaked it all in and like others with ambitions to be a great magician, he thought about how he could incorporate motion pictures into a magic act of his own.

    Eventually, Victor became a professional magician and of course his act included motion pictures. He traveled the world and even came to America to perform. One fine day in Toledo, Ohio, however, a fire destroyed the trunks containing his props and costumes. Presto, chango, his act had gone up in smoke, and he needed to find a real job.

    It so happened that a company in the mundane business of making hand-powered washing machines needed a salesman. Victor was used to performing in front of customers, so he was hired. Being of an inventive nature, he immediately took it upon himself to improve the company’s product. In short order Victor designed what is thought to be the first electric washing machine. However, he couldn't stop thinking about those wonderful images he had first seen in Paris and so by 1910 he was working on what he called the Animato-Graph and another device he called the Video-Scope. There was even talk that he was brainstorming a revolutionary concept involving the transmission of images by telephone or telegraph. This new wonder was called “television”. With his fertile mind now running at full speed Victor took a giant step and, in Davenport, Iowa, formed his own company—a company that would be called Victor Animatograph and be known to film users all around the world.

    In Davenport, Victor busied himself creating various motion picture devices and slide projectors, but he never forgot the main business of motion picture film. He was especially interested in promoting a non-theatrical film industry that would allow millions of amateurs to make films and present them in their own homes. Non-theatrical films of all sorts also could be shown at clubs, businesses, churches, schools and other institutions wanting to use film to entertain and enlighten the masses beyond the narrow bounds of the commercial theaters. So in the early 1920s, when Eastman Kodak decided to begin the manufacture of 16mm safety film to serve the non-theatrical market, Victor leaped to respond. He knew that the non-theatrical market could grow tremendously with Kodak's new film stock because its success could eliminate major problems plaguing the non-theatrical market.

    First of all, the establishment of one standard film gauge could put an end the use of different gauges that had channeled the non-theatrical film business into incompatible segments. If all non-theatrical users adopted the use of 16mm, all the films made for churches and schools, and the home could be shown on the same projectors. No one would have to worry about having to show one film on one projector, another film on a different projector, and a third film on a third projector.  Also, the fact that the new 16mm Kodak stock would be safety film was of crucial importance. In the early days of film exhibition, the highly flammable nitrate film stock had caused horrific tragedies with hundreds of people dying in theaters set ablaze when the film caught fire. Victor knew that the use of safety film was absolutely essential to put the minds of users at ease. To top it off, the new Kodak 16mm film stock would be “reversal film” which used a process that turned the camera negative into a positive print, thus eliminating the expense of developing a negative to be used to make positive prints. It was calculated at the time that reversal film would cost the consumer about 1/6 the cost of standard film.

    With the announcement from Kodak, Victor not only grasped its importance, he knew exactly what to do. He set to work designing and building some of the first 16mm cameras and projectors in the world. Others, of course, were doing the same thing at about the same time, but Victor made an important contribution. Soon people around the world would be using the 16mm equipment that he designed and manufactured in Davenport, Iowa.

    My second mentor enters the picture not long after Victor began selling his first cameras and projectors. In 1927 a young man named Kent Eastin from Galesburg, Illinois started his own little company in the basement of his parents’ home. Eastin was fascinated with motion pictures and he decided to shoot 35mm film of local people, events and places and sell these films to theaters wanting to add subjects of local interest to their programs. He would earn even more money by shooting footage touting the goods and services of local businesses and screening their commercials in the Galesburg theaters. In a few years Eastin decided to branch off into a non-theatrical film rental business and do it in a big way. He moved to nearby Davenport because of that city's excellent rail service connections. Shipping films by rail was the standard practice of the time. Also, Davenport was the home of Victor Animatograph and it just seemed like a natural location for another film business. Over the years Eastin’s company would transform itself several times until by the 1960s it would become famous as Blackhawk Films, one of the most respected manufacturers of 8mm and 16mm films for collectors in the world.

     Now, Sam Rubin, my third mentor, takes his cue and walks on stage. Sam was a World War II veteran who doggedly ran his family business, a furniture store located in Indiana, Pennsylvania. The store provided him with a good income, but he wasn’t completely happy with it. In college he had fallen under the spell of the profession of journalism, but like George Bailey, he had to put his college dreams on hold and settle for a career running the family business. He never got the journalism bug out of his system, however, and providentially it would come back to bite him in a big way. You see, he also had this love of film that had been with him since childhood when he saw The Lost World and was blown away by this fantasy of ancient dinosaurs striding across the 20th century. As an avid collector of 8mm film prints he had been stung over and over buying copies of classic films whose defects robbed them of their magic. Bad prints made it impossible for Sam to relive the thrills he first felt in the silent theaters of his youth.

    One day, Sam realized that a mission had been entrusted to him. The fulfillment of this mission would combine his love of journalism and movies in one neat package. Sam decided to put out a newsletter that would be a forum for film collectors, warning them of the inferior prints and steering them to the good ones. Sam's idea was so good and so valuable that an avalanche of interest descended upon him and his brain child that he called the 8mm Collector. Soon film collectors around the world were subscribing and sending him their subscriptions, advertisements, and articles. Sam's family became concerned that he was spending too much time on his hobby, but it seemed to have latched on to him and he didn't even want to let it go.

    About 16 years into publication, when Sam was in his late 50s, he decided to chuck his furniture store and turn his hobby into a full-time job. This was no mere pipe dream, either, because as it turned out, a highly respected newspaper chain named Lee Enterprises, headquartered in Davenport, Iowa, wanted to buy his little publication. Lee had recently bought Blackhawk Films and they thought it would be good to have a specialty newspaper for film buffs to go along with Blackhawk, serving the same people who bought Blackhawk film prints. Sam agreed to sell his newspaper to Lee Enterprises, but under one condition—Lee had to hire him as Editor to run their new property. Lee agreed and by the fall issue of 1978 (CFC #60) Sam was happily ensconced in an office at Blackhawk Films turning out issue after issue of his Classic Film Collector newspaper in good old Davenport, Iowa.

    Now I come into the picture. I am the grandson of a farm boy from a small town in Iowa with the quaint name of "What Cheer". (You Rhode Islanders who know your history can recall this phrase, I'm sure. Your very own Roger Williams after fleeing Massachusetts came upon some Indians who greeted him with the old English salute "What Cheer". Roger, taking this as a good omen, decided that this would be a fine place to settle, and thus Rhode Island came to be. What Cheer, Iowa was christened by a former Rhode Islander, and yes, the natives of this little town on the prairie still remember to pronounce the words correctly, saying them as one, "Wotcheer", with the "t" almost silent.) My grandfather, Ross Stanley King, was not really cut out to be a farmer, so he went to work at the local newspaper. He also was interested in photography and set up his own business with a "photo car" a wooden structure on wheels that looked like a small boxcar and could be pulled by horses as a mobile photography studio to serve the farmers and the people in small hamlets scattered around the county. Soon Ross got married and set up his own business as a job printer in the nearby town of Barnes City. He still loved photography, too, and he kept this interest alive by running a small silent movie theater, showing 35mm films rented from the exchange in Des Moines. His sons, Ross Jr. and Robert, my dad, were thus bitten by the movie bug at an early age.

    In those days of inadequate medical care, my grandfather died young of a kidney ailment after moving to Iowa City. With the onset of the Great Depression things were tough for the family, but Dad and his brother found that delivering papers was a steady way to make spending money and they delivered routes in Iowa City for years. When Dad grew up he jerked sodas at Racines and fell in love with Big Band music. When the War came in 1941, he joined the Army as soon as he could get his mother to sign the papers. After the war ended he went back to the one business he thought he really knew—newspapers. So it was that Lee Enterprises hired him to handle their circulation in the Iowa City area. Because of this, at the tender age of seven, I found myself one fine summer day at the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics with a paper bag over my shoulder. This bag was designed for someone much older, so as I walked along, the bottom of the bag dragged on the ground. As I recall, my small frame had been put into service because the person who delivered the hospital route had taken a powder for the summer and that left my dad scrambling. Part of his solution was to put my 12-year-old sister, Linda, to work selling papers in the hospital wards, and I was to be her little assistant.

    According to my sister, we hauled those heavy bundles of papers to the elevators on an old wheelchair the nurses let us use. On each floor we’d break open the bundles and then carry our papers into the wards. As I recall, each ward had twenty beds, and I couldn't even imagine how many wards there were in the hospital—the place was just too big for me to grasp its size. Patients in those days stayed in hospital for days, weeks, or even months on end, and they were eager to buy the papers. I'd go into the hospital with empty pockets and a heavy burden of papers. I'd come out of the hospital with no papers and my pockets bulging with coins so heavy that it was hard for me to walk without dragging my feet. The newspaper business seemed pretty slick, even though I had a hard time understanding why the patients wanted my papers. The comics page was fun to read but the rest of it didn't mean a thing to me. The paper we sold was called The Daily Times and my sister told me it came from a place they called Davenport. I had no idea what or where Davenport was and this made my job seem even more mysterious. Cedar Rapids, on the other hand, was a place I knew about, so it made sense that people would want to buy a paper from there, but I noticed that even patients from Cedar Rapids would buy this Davenport paper, such was their hunger to read something as they lay in their beds all day.

    In less than two years, Davenport no longer would seem so mysterious. In 1959 we moved to that big city on that big river called the Mississippi. The folks at the Times liked the job Dad was doing in Iowa City so they brought him to Davenport. Soon I was delivering a route with my sister that ran parallel to the Rock Island Lines railroad tracks, starting near the Scott County Jail and ending a few blocks from a building that housed a strange business called Blackhawk Films. Since I did not know any film collectors, I did not know anything about this film company until I met a kid at school called Jerry "Peach" Phelan. Peach had a dad who was one of the top guys at Blackhawk Films, and Peach's mom was pretty cool, too, because she wrote children's books. Peach's family was a bit too ritzy for me but I did go to his house a few times and I did finally know something—but still very little—about Blackhawk Films.

    It wasn't until I was in high school that my brother, Stan, and I discovered Blackhawk film prints at the local library. You didn't have to be rich to see these films—all you needed was a library card and a cheap little 8mm projector. Soon we were watching The General, Nosferatu, Intolerance and many other great silent classics in our home. Yes, like my father, uncle, and grandfather, I loved films. While some kids were told to limit their movie going, I could go to practically all the films I wanted to see. In fact, my dad made sure that I did not miss certain films. In particular, he made sure that I saw every Gary Cooper, Frank Sinatra, and Jerry Lewis film playing in town.

    Like Sam Rubin, I was interested in writing, but after college I fell into the old trap of doing what was most familiar. I wanted to be a newspaper reporter but, instead, I took a job where they actually needed me—in the circulation department of the Moline Dispatch, supervising the people who supervised the carriers. I couldn't even seem to get a job in Davenport. The Times, the paper I first delivered in 1957, didn’t want me, and when I applied at Blackhawk, they turned me down, too.

       By a strange twist of fate, however, my Moline job led to my writing career. Through my boss at the Dispatch I met an old gent who once owned a chain of gas stations and had a big farm down by Columbus Junction, Iowa. His life story was all wrapped up in Midwestern history and listening to him spin yarns about life in the late 19th and early 20th century fascinated me. I turned his stories into a book and it was published by the Iowa State University Press. With that, I also began writing newspaper articles for the Dispatch and its Scott County, Iowa spin-off, The Leader, but soon I was beginning to lose interest in becoming a reporter.

       At the same time, my interest in film remained strong and I was helping to run a film society in Davenport that showed classic and foreign films. One evening a person approached me in the theater and asked if she could set out free copies of a newspaper for the reading pleasure of our film society patrons. I agreed and, of course, took a copy home. The paper was called Classic Images and it was published by Lee Enterprises. Since Lee’s Davenport paper, The Times, never has given Classic Images any local publicity over the years, I had never even heard of this newspaper for film buffs. I was especially surprised to see that CI was read by people all around the country, and even around the world.

    Not long after this, I was offered a job at Classic Images. The year was 1991 and I'd been told that since the retirement of Sam Rubin a few years earlier, they had had a tough time finding a replacement. The first editor they hired quit after a few days. In desperation, an employee from Lee's personnel department was given the job and she did it for a few years but did not want to keep at it. I learned that several people had badly wanted the job, but the Publisher of the Muscatine Journal, who was responsible for Classic Images, turned down every one of them. It seems that the publisher did not like their resumes. The applicants tended to be people with writing backgrounds who had little knowledge of the business of publishing. When the publisher saw my circulation experience, she figured I could fill the bill. The fact that I had written a book and knew something about classic films was nice, but it was my business experience that got me the job. So finally, after all these years I found out why the fates had dictated that I skip reporting and settle for circulation.

    As it turned out, the Journal publisher was right to hire a person with circulation experience. Without that background, I might not have made it. CI had begun to fade away after Sam retired. My priority was to get the readers back, and that's what I did. In the 21 years since I took over Classic Images, I have enjoyed a wonderful job. It's been a blast. I love what I do. Meanwhile, so many of the people I once knew who were working in the writing end of newspapers have lost their jobs as the print industry shrinks. I used to envy them, now I pity them. Thank God my Dad sent me into that hospital to sell papers when I was in second grade. It was a hard school and for years it seemed to put me low on the totem pole, but it taught me to serve customers and that's what keeps a publication in business. The guy who hands you his nickel for a paper is the guy who provides you with a living. When you learn a lesson like that at age seven, you never forget it. My fingers have been black with ink ever since I can remember. As I look back on my life now, I wouldn't have it any other way.

    

    When I started to work at CI, I thought I knew a lot about films because I’d been watching so many of them for so many years. "Nobody around here knows as much as me," I imagined smugly. After talking to some of my writers, however, I started to realize that I was strictly bush league. Even more humbling was my experience with some of the readers. "There must be at least a thousand CI readers out there who know more than I do" I realized to my dismay. On the other hand, it was a joy to talk to these unheralded experts because they taught me so much.

    It took a while, but finally I started accumulating a film-viewing resume that only a serious life-long film buff has. I've seen so many films in the past 21 years that the total, by now, runs into the thousands. Interestingly, the more I see, the more I want to see. Prolonged exposure hasn’t bored me. On the contrary, each film seems to become more meaningful to me as I know more about films in general.

       The actors are especially interesting. When I watch a classic film it seems as if I’m being reunited with old friends. The other day I got a photo from Cry 'Havoc' (1943) showing twelve of the film’s principal players. In an instant I identified nine of these old friends (Ann Sothern, Margaret Sullavan, Marsha Hunt, Fay Bainter, Joan Blondell, Diana Lewis, Frances Gifford, Dorothy Morris, and Ella Raines). After a little research I looked at the photo again and named the other three (Gloria Grafton, Fely Franquelli, and Heather Angel). My desire for this sort of knowledge is no mere star worship. When you know the people, the film comes alive in a new way and you can appreciate its story and significance as never before. Maybe only another film buff can understand this, but when you get to really know the films well, they start to reverberate in you mind. Every film you see begins to reflect light on every other film, and soon you feel as if you are in clouds looking down on the plain, and every tree, rock, hill and valley is clear to you. A veil has been lifted and the secrets have been revealed. Those who belittle the Hollywood film and watch only the "best" films will never understand what we understand because their perspective is so narrow. They are like the haughty sophisticate from Portland who flies to Cape Cod, walks onto the beach, sticks his toe in the water, and then flies back home to write a book about the Atlantic Ocean.

    Something mysterious seems to happen when you become immersed in the hobby. Because you’ve seen the big picture—films by the thousands—you begin to notice the little things in the smallest films. You become acutely aware of the smallest gesture, and the most subtle inflection of an actor’s voice. Recently, I've become a big fan of Constance Bennett. The other night I was watching her in Bed of Roses and while it was great good fun to see Pert Kelton swinging her hips with reckless abandon as that dead pan of hers plays devastating counterpoint, the more subtle moves of Constance Bennett impressed me even more. Connie has a way of owning the space around her, and the whole scene comes alive as she moves within it. In the scene where she is on the cotton barge with Joel McCrea, in his cabin at bed time, we see her use her body in a myriad of ways to show her growing suspicion of his intentions as she warily calculates her defense. Every move she makes and every word she speaks is was done to perfection so that the drab little cabin becomes a scene of engrossing drama.

       After watching Constance Bennett in so many scenes like this, the very sight of her face and the sound of her voice give me pleasure. The average person today doesn’t know who she is, but film buffs do, and helping to keep alive an appreciation of her art, and the art of others like her, is one of the joys of my job.

    Without the Classic Images readers, advertisers and contributors, the 50th anniversary never would have been possible. We thank each and every one of you. Classic film appreciation is important and every time you watch a classic film you are contributing to our understanding of the past. Keep up the good work!

    In the months ahead we plan to devote more pages to our celebration of CI’s 50th anniversary. If you want to contribute the story of your film buff life, please write us, or email us at: classicimages@classicimages.com

 

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