My first introduction to the "shadows on the wall" was in the Elmer church south of Hutchinson, Kansas, in the early 1920's. I was only five or six years old, but I still remember vividly the impression those pictures made on me. They were about being "saved from sin" by the use of a life buoy. Someone in the church sang "Throw out the lifeline, throw out the lifeline, some one is sinking today!" as the scenes were shown. There was a gigantic picture of a ship, apparently out in a large body of water. The captain was standing on the deck throwing out a rope with a life buoy on it. I was sitting very close to the front of the room and to me it was a miraculous sight. The old captain was looking directly at me, I was sure.
Actually what I was seeing was a slide show being projected on a screen in the front of the church. At that time I didn't wonder about the camera placement when the picture was made. However, now I know that there was probably no water, just a backdrop painted to make it appear the ship was sailing along. Then as now audiences were being fooled by Hollywood's special effects.
I suppose that experience started my interest in projected pictures, as it is still a very vivid memory. Later when people began to talk about "moving" pictures, I couldn't believe there could really be such things. Nevertheless, before long there was a movie theater in Hutchinson, and I discovered that "movies" were real.
Grandmother and grandfather Deal were also farmers, and they sometimes invited me to go to Hutchinson with them to do their shopping. One Saturday Grandma took me to the theater with her while Grandfather was taking care of all his "town" business. That was my introduction to a silent motion picture. What a thrill! Since Grandma was hard-of-hearing, silent movies were great for her. She didn't have to depend upon sound to get the gist of the story.
I didn't get to go to the theater very often for several reasons. First, my father and mother didn't feel that they had money for such a luxury as movie tickets. Second, during the day father was always busy with his work and by the end of the day he was tired. He usually wasn't in the mood to change his clothes and drive into town. Third, the movie theater had never been a part of my mother and father's life. Movies were a very new thing. Also, movies were at first suspect by many churches and their members. Today as I survey the movie advertisements, noting all the "loose" sex and the prevalence of violence, I'm beginning to wonder whether they were so far wrong in warning that this new invention could sometimes be "of the devil."
If my older brother ever went to a movie, I didn't know about it. Since
he usually didn't miss anything exciting, I suspect he did go, but, of
course, little brother wouldn't be asked to go with him.
Movies at Sherman High School
While I was attending Sherman Junior High School in Hutchinson I was privileged to see an occasional film. They were silent, of course, but no matter what the subject matter, they were very exciting to me.
I can still remember vividly a documentary made by a man and his wife
in Africa. They had filmed monkeys, gorillas, apes and other scenes of
their trip and they traveled around showing their films to schools. One
scene was of a gorilla and a man he had killed. They had filmed the gorilla
actually eating the man's arm. I had a hard time getting that scene out
of my mind. Now as I think about it, I am surprised they showed such a
scene to schoolchildren.
Then Came Tarzan
That same year, the Fox Theater in town, in glittering, bright, moving lights advertised "Tarzan of the Apes." The admission was twenty-five cents. With my student discount card, it was even less. Somehow I got the price of admission and a way into town. I saw Tarzan, Jane and the little ape. It was the first time I had ever seen such adventures. What excitement! A group of archeologists, with Tarzan's assistance, were searching for the elephant burial grounds.
Tarzan made an indelible impression on me and guided me into actions
I'm almost ashamed to admit. That ape-man with his blood-curdling yell
as he went swinging from tree to tree made my nerves tingle! Not only did
I remember that movie scene by scene, I adopted Tarzan's way of life as
My Own Real Jungle
On our farm, we had many mulberry trees with low overhanging branches. I selected the best ones and mapped out my route so I could swing from limb-to-limb as Tarzan did. How I kept from killing myself, I'll never know. As a matter of fact, I did fall twice. Once when I had guessed wrong about the safety of a limb. It was a dead one and contained a rotten core. It broke as I caught it and down I went! It was not far enough to the ground to hurt me too much, but enough to warn me not to use an untested limb. I developed two rules for selecting the limbs to use in my private jungle--one, use green limbs with very green, living leaves; two, use limbs that I could get my hands around in a good grip. The second time I fell had to be credited to bad judgment. I had swung from one limb and let go, flying through the air expecting to grab the next limb slightly lower down. I hit the limb with the tips of my fingers, but couldn't grab it. I feel flat on my back. Needless to say I was breathless for a time and actually saw stars!
Although I was stunned by the fall, I remained undaunted. I was back swinging from limb to limb with even more determination. After all, Tarzan never fell and I must work at perfecting the task until I could perform as easily as he did.
Oh, if Johnny Weismuller had only known what an influence he had on me! I'm sure my mother would have been glad for me to have forgotten the entire experience, but I couldn't. Whenever the relatives or friends would come to see us, I would have to demonstrate my accomplishments.
Years later, after we moved to California, I discovered that the city
of Tarzana was named after my hero. The world will never forget the Tarzan
adventure stories of Edgar Rice Burroughs. I never drive through the town
of Tarzana without thinking of that film, "Tarzan of the Apes."
The Elephant Burial Ground
In addition to the limb-to-limb stuff in the Tarzan movie, I have never forgotten the horrible experiences those people had trying to find the elephant burial ground. Everything seemed to get in the way...the jungle itself, wild animals and even pygmies. Why, those pygmies trapped Tarzan as though he were a wild animal. They constructed a lion trap with sharp wooden pegs fastened to a framework in such a manner that if something would spring it, that horrible, heavy framework would fall upon its victim and impale it. How gruesome!
Of course, Tarzan got caught in the trap and only by a miracle avoided being "wiped out" by the contraption. As I watched the movie, it didn't occur to me that the picture would have to end immediately if the pygmies exterminated Tarzan.
There was another scene that has always stayed with me. As the long
line of natives bearing their heavy loads was walking along a narrow cliff,
one of them slipped and fell. I can still hear his cry and remember how
sorry I felt for that poor soul! The explorers came to a clearing soon
after that, and we, notice I said "we," found the legendary elephant burial
ground. How well I recall the sounds of the vultures circling above. Yes,
I lived every moment of that Tarzan movie!
Hanston and Jetmore
When we moved to Hanston in western Kansas, I had even less opportunity
to see movies. The closest theater was at Jetmore about eleven miles away,
and we had little money to buy either gas or movie tickets. I suppose that
not being able to see many movies heightened my desire and interest in
them. I knew that someday I would get into some kind of movie business.
The Mogul Catalog
Some way I got a Mogul catalog. There was an ad that read, "Send for our free catalog of motion picture equipment." I wrote immediately and received a mimeographed catalog showing all kinds of projection equipment--even equipment called "sound-on-disc." This was an early machine that was attached to the movie projector and synchronized with the pictures to provide a kind of "sound" motion picture.
The Mogul Company was apparently disposing of all kinds of surplus motion picture equipment gathered from many places. Their catalog made exciting reading and the images fed my imagination for hours on end.
I dreamed of operating a theater of my own in our little town of Hanston. That way I would get to see lots of movies, and I might even make a little money showing them to the whole town.
I tried every way possible to obtain a 16mm silent projector, but to no avail. I simply couldn't get the money to buy one.
Once in a blue moon, a traveling showman would come to town and set
up his hand-cranked 35mm projector in a vacant store. He had a large sheet
for a screen, but it was adequate for the job at hand. What fun! The room
was jammed the times I was there. Usually they had a slapstick comedy or
western, silent, of course.
Movies at Kinsley
Occasionally, we would go to a theater in Kinsley, Kansas, some 25 miles
away. There we could see movies with sound. I remember two such trips with
the family. One was to see "Car 99" with Fred MacMurray. Because Dad's
name was Fred, we thought it great to talk Dad into going on his birthday.
Another memorable time we went to Kinsley to see "Becky Sharp." It was
billed as the first color film. This movie was particularly exciting because
it showed examples of how color films were printed. Flowers were first
shown in black and white, then the colors were added one at a time until
the entire picture was in color. It was great! Just as sound had taken
over, color was now becoming common.
Movies at Bethel
Willis Rich introduced me to moving pictures at Bethel. He had a silent 16mm camera that he used to make public relation movies. He got a new Victor Animatograph projector that he took everywhere to show his movies in order to interest students in attending Bethel and to raise funds for the college. Willis was a real promoter for Bethel College. . "Bethel College - Building Character" and "Bethel College - Where Good Friends meet in the Heart of the Nation" were two slogans he created.
What a thrill it was when Willis let me use his movie camera.
When his new projector arrived on campus, I was eager to operate it. I also spent time investigating just how it worked. One of the great advantages of the Victor projector was the gadgetry that was designed to protect the film. To my knowledge it was the only machine that could halt immediately when something went wrong. Without this feature, a projector can make confetti of a piece of film in short order. This is not a textbook on projectors, but just in case some reader may be interested, here are a few facts.
The 16mm projector utilizes a mechanism that pulls the film through picture by picture. In order to allow a beam of light to project a picture on the screen, each picture frame is stopped momentarily. However, the pictures change rapidly enough to give the illusion of motion to the viewer. Originally silent pictures were projected at 16 frames per second (fps). With the advent of sound, 24 fps were introduced, and projectors were then equipped to accommodate either speed. Faster running speeds make better sound and sharper pictures. All motion picture projectors are noisy and although manufacturers have tried, over the years, to quiet them, to my knowledge, nothing has really been very successful.
"Here Willis, let me do that!" I said one day. He was trying hard to thread the projector and his fingers would not function right. That was the first time I noticed that something was physically wrong with him. He willingly gave me the job of threading the projector and operating it. Since Willis was one of my idols, and I was so intrigued with anything that even "smelled" of film, I hung around him and his projector every chance I got.
After the day that I threaded that projector, I became known on the campus as the "guy that shows pictures." Audiovisual education, or AV for short, became a familiar phrase. It had a ring to it that pleased the professors, probably because it was more "educational" sounding than moving pictures or films. Whatever it was called, "audio visual education" became my key to learning everything possible about motion pictures.
That projector was in two carrying cases, the projection and amplifier in one, and the loudspeaker in the other. Both cases were very heavy. I don't how many times I carried those two cases down from the top of the Ad tower where they were stored and back up again after a showing. Going up that last flight to the tower was the hardest. I would rather not think about it, and yet that audiovisual job helped pay my way through Bethel. In a way it also was the first stepping-stone on my way to a career in audiovisual education.
Willis was very encouraging to me in all my movie adventures. The fact that I saved this postcard all these years is evidence of how much his support meant to me.
This paragraph will tell you lots about my friend, Willis Rich, his philosophy of life and his aspirations for Bethel College. As I have already explained, he is the man who came to Hanston recruiting students. He offered me scholarships and jobs on campus.
I must digress here in my story to tell the "Willis Rich" story. Willis Rich and his wife, Hulda, were very devout Christians and an inspiration to all who knew them. Not too long after that day when I offered to thread the motion picture machine for Willis, his health problem began to be apparent to everyone. I believe he had some type of multiple sclerosis. At first he used a cane, then came the wheel chair, and finally he became bed-ridden. Everything known to the medical world and also to the mechanical world was tried to bring him back to a reasonable normal existence, but to no avail. His telephone, equipped with a speakerphone, kept Willis abreast of campus life, and the radio and television kept him alert to what was going on around the world. However, when I went to visit them, neither Willis nor Hulda ever complained about their problems.
The family had to move to a smaller home and practice a more austere life-style as their financial situation worsened. Hulda finally had to accept assistance in caring for Willis.
Whenever possible the Bethel campus staff helped. As an example, the doors in their house had to be widened to accept the bed that became his prison. His friends did the necessary work. Everyone who knew of Willis and Hulda's problem was there to assist. It was a 24-hour job. To provide professional nursing services would have been out of the question, financially. The college students, aware of the dire problems, volunteered their time to help. They would schedule their classes and study times to take turns doing various jobs that needed to be done. So many volunteered that even the job of scheduling the helpers became a time- consuming matter.
Even when Willis could move only his head and right forefinger, he never lost his strong Christian faith or his enthusiasm for life. He was always up-beat and carried on very intelligent discussions about world affairs. Those who visited him to cheer him came away feeling blessed by the opportunity of knowing him.
Through the years, I often traveled from coast to coast. Of course, I'd always stop in Hutchinson to visit my parents. Also, whenever time permitted, I'd go to Newton to visit Bennie Bargen and Willis Rich. I always looked forward to these visits, although watching Willis' health deteriorate made me sad.
During Willis' bed-ridden years, Hulda developed cancer, and ironically
she preceded him in death by eight years. Finally, when Willis became so
bad that his every move had to be assisted, he had to enter a hospital.
Darlene and I visited him in his hospital room not long before his death.
He could not speak, but he still managed to smile with his eyes. When we
were leaving his room we could hear a slight sound as he tried to say "Good-bye."
Sometime later we heard of his death. It came at the age of seventy-three
after he had battled his disease valiantly for over forty years. Thank
you, Willis, for all you gave to all who knew you.
This was an ad my photographer friend in Hanston, Johnny Lingenfelder,
made for me. I used it to publicize my movies to the merchants in the little
Kansas towns. When World War II started and Uncle Sam called me, my first
business enterprise came to an end.
Willis Rich introduced me to the man who started me in the roadshow business. That man was Mr. Bangs, the salesman from whom they had purchased the Victor projector. Of course, I told him how much I wanted a projector of my own. He told me about the roadshow business, and persuaded me that if I would just start such a business, I could soon pay for a projector. He offered to give me one to use, and I could just make payments on it from my roadshow profits. There was no way in the world that I could refuse such an offer.
I immediately started making plans to get my new business going. I decided to get Bethel involved in my scheme. That meant that I had to call on Dean Goetz and President Kaufman to convince them that showing feature motion pictures in the Bethel College chapel wouldn't be a sinful act. Up to that time only educational films had been shown. They had to think about it quite a while.
That "quite" was not very long, however. I convinced them to let me present a program of "very safe" shows. I just knew it would NOT be a flop, so I pushed on. I asked Mr. Bangs for advice about how to get suitable films. He showed me his catalog of available titles, and suggested the film "Slalom," which was about skiing. He said he was sure the college officials wouldn't object to it. I had to be careful because in those days most Mennonite brethren believed movies were surely of the devil and not to be trifled with.
A date was set for the showing. I prepared advertising leaflets about the show and printed tickets with the Address-O-Graph machine in the mailing office. The Bethel students must have been ready for such a venture. There was a big crowd and the film proved to be a smashing success. The rest is history. I had broken the barrier. Bethel College had been introduced to the feature film with all of its God-awful and, I was sure, God-wonderful attributes. Before long I was showing the same films at Bethel that I used for my roadshows, and no one objected.
There I was again with another job. Just where were all those jobs leading
me? They were stepping stones to the University of Southern California,
that's where. It took several years, but I got there. I have to admit,
however, I didn't get there on money made from my roadshows. Nevertheless,
the roadshow business was, after all, "motion picture" business, and I
got a kick out of it, most of the time.
On the Road - Some Problems
Summertime was the best time for roadshows. Mom and Dad let me use the family car for my new venture. I packed my equipment in it and away I went. Now I was a real businessman.
There were few theaters in the rural western towns, and people were eager to see a sound motion picture. The plan was to schedule regular weekly showings and get the merchants to sponsor the shows.
"How would you like to have a show in your town?" I would ask, after finding a likely subject who might listen to my sales talk. "I can show a great show right on that big wall over there. The people will come to town for the free movie and that will be good for your business. I can also read your ads before the show and during intermission."
I would have already looked the town over and found a suitable spot where people could park, or bring chairs, blankets or even boxes to sit on while they watched the show.
I tried to get at least $15 from the merchants for each showing, but most of the time I got only $10 to $12. The rental fee for the films was about $17 dollars per week. Sometimes, if I felt I could afford a better film, I might pay a little more. Most of the time I rented westerns, comedies or musicals. People seemed to like them best.
Mr. Bangs, my manager, suggested, "Use that film as many times as possible during the week. As long as the film gets back to the train before midnight the last night, everything will be fine."
I tried to follow his suggestion. I never booked on Sundays, and it was a rare week when I was able to fill each weeknight with a showing no matter how hard I tried. On the last day, usually Saturday, I would have made arrangements with Mr. Porter, the depot manager, to have all the paper work finished early in the afternoon. Then all I had to do was slip the film into its box, and shove it into the depot door slot when I got back to Hanston after my last show.
Most of the arrangements with the merchants were verbal. I would collect from them either before or after the show. Sometimes, one merchant would collect from the other merchants, and that would make my job easier.
Although most of the time I had a good time with my roadshow business, there was one incident that was anything but pleasant. I had been to this town and made an agreement with the town barber. He agreed to collect money from the other merchants and we set a day for the show. When I arrived in town I went to him to ask for my money.
"What are you talking about, young man?" he asked. "I never did promise to pay you anything. In fact, I don't even remember seeing you before."
I was astonished! What was wrong with him? I had advertised the show and people were beginning to gather. Some heard the argument between us. Finally the mayor, or one of the city officials, showed up and asked what was going on. The barber still insisted he hadn't even discussed such a showing with me. Since I was ready to show the film, I finally agreed to take a lower amount. I've forgotten the exact details, but somehow the official gave me some money, and the show went on. You can bet that was the last show for that town. I was so disgusted, I wouldn't have given another show for them for twice the fee...well, maybe, I would have if I needed the money badly and they begged. That never did happen, however. The people liked the show that night, but I went home disgusted.
I went through numerous dust storms with my projector, but it kept running, which sometimes surprised me. There were days when the dust was so thick that I could hardly see the screen. One time I even had to stop the show until the worst part of the dust storm was over. I don't know how that projector held out.
One night it rained and the film got wet. I had to spool off all 1600 feet of film on our basement floor to let it dry. It took all night and the next day to get it dry. I was lucky as I was able to use that print later that next night and it worked fine. Whew! I thought surely I would be in trouble with the supplier, but I guess he was none the wiser.
Maurice Gephardt came into my life about this time. He thought helping me to get a new roadshow going would be a great way for him to earn money for college financial needs. I don't know who got the idea first, probably I did. With Mr. Bang's assistance, another projector was made available.
Gephardt and I traveled all over the country trying to contract for new shows. I found that there just were not that many towns that wanted merchant shows. I had given him half my route and that proved a disaster for both of us. Neither of us had enough income to pay expenses. At the end of the summer, there was practically nothing to divide save a very few dollars and a few spoils, among which was a small radio Gephardt wanted. That was small pay for all the work he had done that summer. I know he felt bad about the whole deal. He also really needed some money for college expenses.
Dale, a cousin from Greensberg, helped me with the business from time to time. It was more for his pleasure, simple fun and excitement than anything. Again, we didn't make any money attempting to expand the business.
Even my parents and my brother got in on the roadshow deal. Many times while I was at college or teaching at Zook, they would run the roadshow route for me just to keep the business alive! All they had to do was make the projector payments to Mr. Bangs and pay the film rental. Sometimes, however, that was not such an easy job.
Oh, yes, there was one other thing that had to be done. There were always
those infernal report cards to be filled out. Remembering how many times
I showed the film, how many were in the audience, and other such stupid
data always bothered me. Of course, since I wanted to keep my sponsors
happy, I always tried to put something reasonable on the cards.
I don't know who contributed the picture screen for Bethel. It was a
large canvas, about 14 feet square, attached to a long wooden pole. It
had been painted with a chalky substance which when dry made a nice white
surface. Unfortunately, the surface wore off and the screen had to be repainted
from time to time. It was held up by cords attached on the sides of the
organ chamber in the chapel. To hang it, I had to first get those cords
up there. Several tries were needed before success was achieved. I kept
thinking that there surely must be a better way to deal with that screen,
but, unfortunately, I wasn't able to think of one. Then, the screen had
to be rolled up after the showing, and put in its storage place. Obviously
that was part of my job. It was usually stored in a steep stair well to
the right or left of the organ. As no one bothered to replace it with anything
better while I was at Bethel, they must have felt it was quite adequate.
I somehow managed to get a rubber folding screen that I could put in my
car for my roadshows. Although it had its problems, it was a nice screen.
The biggest problem came when a slight breeze would blow it down. Setting
it up was a two-man job. I used it for films I showed at Bethel, also.
Now that was real generous of me, wasn't it?
Reminiscing about my roadshow business reminds me of an experience with frogs. One afternoon while driving to one of the towns for a show, I was caught in a hard rainstorm. Usually I drove about fifty miles per hour, but during such a rain, thirty was a good traveling speed. A few miles west of Stafford, Kansas, I approached a stretch of road bounded on each side by tall cottonwood and catalpa trees. As the rain let up, I could see the highway ahead literally alive with small frogs hopping across the road. They were about the size of a quarter and all hopping from my right to my left. Obviously they were being directed across the road by some unknown force.
Where did those frogs come from? Under the ground? From the rain? From a pond or lake? Surely not! All questions and no answers! Certainly, frogs were there. That was a fact. I saw them! When there are thousands of baby frogs all "going to the other side" in a drove, the four wheels of an automobile are sure to hit quite a number of them. This was long before portable tape recorders, or, for that matter, probably any tape recorders, were in common use. If I had been able to record what I heard that day, I would have audible proof of what happened. A frog, even a baby one, has a rather tough skin. When one is struck by a rolling tire, the resulting "pop" is quite similar to the sound of a very small balloon breaking. With four tires and thousands of frogs colliding that day, the resulting sound was somewhat astounding. The pavement was soon covered with the flattened remains of a great many baby frogs. When I applied the brakes, I found the road surface slick as if covered with ice. So, if you ever find yourself in such a situation, watch out for the "frog attacks" and keep your foot off the brake as you pass through it. And, if you aren't too sensitive to the wholesale slaughter of baby frogs, you might actually enjoy the experience as much as I did!
I have told my frog story often through the years and people have a hard time believing me. However, recently in the Reader's Digest book, "Mysteries of the Unexplained," I found five stories about frogs appearing during heavy rainstorms. The sub-title of the book is "How Ordinary Men and Women Have Experienced the Strange, the Uncanny and the Incredible over the Years." Now I know I was one of those ordinary men who had an incredible experience.
Click Here For More of Chapter 4