My first real job out of college was with a division of the National Archives called the National Audiovisual Center. The director was a retired naval officer named Jack McLean. I’ve written about Jack before in Bosses.
The Center re-purposed federal audiovisual programming for student education, technical instruction, or entertainment. For example, we took films designed to orient visitors to a particular National Park, say Gettysburg, and marketed them to public schools for classroom education. We sold and rented NASA films to schools and public libraries, U.S. Forest Service fire suppression films to local rural fire departments, and State Department foreign language audiotapes to the general public. You might have seen our “Speak Like a Diplomat” ads in airline in-flight magazines. We offered over 1,500 active titles. The Center was run on a self-supporting basis and required no taxpayer money to operate.
I progressed through the organization in a variety of roles and eventually was promoted to the position of Director of Acquisitions and Disposal. My job was to call on federal agencies, engage with their public affairs or training divisions to locate, appraise, and acquire 16mm films, and audio tapes for our catalog of offerings. The “Disposal” part of the title didn’t mean I took out the trash. I identified those titles no longer active in our collection and supervised their retirement.
While I knew the organization and had proven myself as a reliable worker, the one deficiency in my resume was filmmaking experience. Jack McLean recognized that if I was going to be a credible representative and a decent negotiator, I was going to need to know the difference between 16mm and 35mm film, “A” roll and “B” roll, and good production from bad. So, he put me on the road for some training.
First, I took an adult education course at Georgetown University called, “Movie Making” which covered the art, science, and business of motion pictures. It was taught by Sheldon Tromberg, a Brooklyn guy with a classic accent, bald head, handlebar mustache, and a five-sizes-too-large personality. “Shelly” as he preferred to be called was a freelance screenwriter, talk show host, film critic, and entertainment reporter. He had written, produced, starred in, and distributed motion pictures, so had a working knowledge of every phase of the industry. He was a graduate of Columbia University and Harvard Law, so he stood out as more intellectual and observant than most of his film industry peers.
I learned a lot from Shelly about the motion picture business. Hayden and I were guests in his Bethesda home, fell into his art-collecting orbit, and became good friends over the years. His course at Georgetown University lacked information about government filmmaking so I became an annual guest lecturer at his invitation.
Next, I spent a month at the Naval Photo Center in Anacostia. This was the hub of filmmaking for the US Navy. Recruitment and training films were written and produced from this single building on the outskirts of Washington, DC. Jack McLean had been the Center’s long-time director and so my association with him ensured a warm welcome and full access.
I shadowed screen writers, directors, camera operators, set carpenters, sound techs, and film editors. I was the runner on the studio floor, the guy moving and securing camera cables, and an interested note taker and observer in the film lab. I even got an on-camera role on a Navy safety film as the “clapper loader”, the person who marks the scenes with chalk and announces the take before snapping the clapperboard to sync the sound with the picture...as in “Navy Bell Chamber Safety, Scene 6, Take 2.” (Snap). I was ready for the beret and the megaphone by the time I left.
The Photo Center had a high-quality film lab, and it was there that I received my most useful training. While I had gained a rudimentary understanding of the chemistry of film developing watching my cousin work in his 35mm darkroom, the mechanized world of bulk motion picture developing was all new. Elevators, horses, fixes, wash, stop, and other unusual terminology swirled around in my head, but one thing was clear. When you are working with “dailies”, the raw, unedited film representing 20 or 30 manhours of work product, care is of the essence. The processing equipment needs to be meticulously maintained and each step is taken with precision. The lab guys announced what they were doing, not just for my benefit, but to ensure accountability and safety.
After graduating from my brief Naval Photo Center apprenticeship, Jack literally sent me to Hollywood. He understood the magic of film making and though we were at the industrial end of the industry, he knew a few days at Warner Brothers Studios in Burbank, California would be a real treat.
Jack sent me to Bill Hendricks, a former United States Marine Corps Colonel famous for setting up the Toys for Tots program. He had started as a documentary film producer for the US Army, became a production executive at Warner Brothers and was the final producer of the Looney Tunes cartoon series. He had crossed professional paths with Jack McLean many times over the years, and they had become close friends. Jack’s only instruction to Bill was “show this kid the magic” and that he did.
The studio sent a car to pick me up at my hotel and I’ll never forget driving onto the Burbank Studio lot under the iconic Warner Brothers archway. Bill greeted me in his office like an old friend and sat me down for a chat. He was tall, bald but for a monk’s circle of gray slicked-back hair and had sparkling blue eyes. He was as old school as his wood-stained office. The knotty pine walls were lined with the familiar faces of Porky Pig, Daffy Duck, and Bugs Bunny, accompanied by signed photos from U.S. President’s and movie stars. One of the largest photos was of Mel Blanc, who had given voice to most of the Warner Brothers cartoon characters.
The day was a whirlwind. Bill took me to lunch at the studio canteen where some of the aging icons of the industry still had an occasional meal. Bill pointed some out to me, but sadly their names have leaked from my memory.
We then jumped into Bill’s golfcart and drove to a soundstage where we watched a full Hollywood symphony orchestra lay down the score for Charles Bronson’s film St. Ives. The film was projected on a large screen behind the musicians at the end of the cavernous room. The conductor faced the screen and directed the orchestra as he watched the action unfold. All is being recorded for the sound editors to work their magic.
At one point, the door behind us opened and we were momentarily bathed in sunlight. Someone quietly sat down behind us. After a short interval, Bill looked back to see who had joined us. Then these words.
“Clint, how are you. I’d like you to meet a friend of mine. This is John Constance.” I turned and in the semi-darkness looked into the face of Clint Eastwood. He nodded. We shook hands. Wow. Dressed in a suede leather jacket and a plaid shirt with sunglasses propped up on his head, he seared an indelible memory into my mind.
A few moments later when we said our goodbyes and walked outside, I asked Bill what did Clint Eastwood have to do with the St. Ives production? The simple answer was nothing. But he went on to say that some people not only like acting, but they like the craft of filmmaking. Clint Eastwood is one of those people. While still best known as an actor at that point, with roles stretching all the way back to the late 1950’s (Rowdy Yates on the TV show Rawhide,) his career as a director had already begun.
While the “Eastwood moment” was a highlight of my magical day, there were many. Being chauffeured around the backlot by this studio senior executive who literally knew everyone was very special. He showed me New York, the Old West, a Midwestern Town, the Property Department, and Wardrobe. His cartoon domain was another highlight, and an old-school, pre-computer lesson in the craft of hand-drawn animation cels was worth the trip in and of itself.
Everything was just as I had pictured it, right down to the gorgeous young secretaries. My favorite was the first one I met outside Bill Hendrick’s door. She was platinum blonde, drop dead beautiful, with blue eyes, and eyelashes that could tell you the wind direction.
She: “So where ya from sweetie?” (it was like some screen writer was crafting her lines)
She: “Is that like a state or something?”