Kansas City, Missouri has been a host to several elements of the film industry...even Walt Disney at the Kansas City Ad Agency [ca. 1928] and Disney's own studio.
"KC PRODUCTION BEGINNINGS: THE CALVIN COMPANY"
Kansas City's reputation as a filmmaking hub has a strong history to stand on
November 12th, 2010
Kansas City's reputation as a filmmaking hub has a strong history to stand on
November 12th, 2010
As many filmmakers in the Kansas City area ponder how to bring more production from outside sources in — as well as expose more locally produced fare to the world — it might help to put things in a bit of historical perspective. For many years, Kansas City and the surrounding region was one of the most active and robust production and post-production scenes in the country. It was a time that saw the active hiring of cast and crew and an environment in which one could live in Kansas City and actually make a consistent living in filmmaking. We can attribute a good portion of that legendary status to the accomplishments of The Calvin Company.
Fresh out of KU with an advertising degree, Forrest O. Calvin witnessed the agency he worked for occasionally create 16mm advertising films for its clients. This was an almost unheard-of practice at the time, as the 16mm format was then reserved mostly for home movies — but it was also relatively inexpensive and perfect for educational and demonstration purposes, and Forrest saw more possibilities in the medium; he became determined to make a career out of 16mm reversal film.
The ad agency didn't survive the Depression, but Forrest did, and went into business for himself. In 1931, along with his wife Betty, Forrest founded the Calvin Company of Kansas City. This industrial and educational film production company (boasting titles such as Wood for War, The Bright Young Newcomer, and the infamous The Decision Is Yours) started as a one-room office and grew into the largest film producer of its kind. It became one of the most prominent 16mm labs in the world during the 1950s and 1960s. In addition, through a sister company, Movie Mite, Calvin Company perfected and distributed its own brand of projectors. Bill Pryor, who worked for the Calvin Company as a writer-director starting in 1968 noted, "It was like a Hollywood setup, except in the non-theatrical film business."
Wendel Craighead worked for Calvin for 23 years in many fields, including directing, producing, and department management; he had had a number of job offers but chose to join Calvin because it was considered the biggest and best place to work in the country when it came to non-theatrical films.
"Calvin was really the center — the place to be," he says. "They were bigger than anything on either coast because they had the production and a nationally recognized lab."
Indeed, in addition to being a technical innovator and creative force within the non-theatrical film industry, the Calvin Company was also a pioneer of 16mm release printing and sound-on-film technology. They were also prolific producers of always-in-demand content, generating dozens of films a year and winning several hundred film festival awards. The principal reason for locating a film production company in Kansas City was simply because of Forrest, who insisted on making a living in the town he loved, despite many lucrative offers to relocate. Forrest divided most of his time between selling industrial clients the idea that 16mm films would be good for their business and then actually producing the films. By the 1950s, the Calvin Company became the first firm licensed by Eastman-Kodak to process Kodak's color film, and its particular brand was recognized by schools, offices, and other organizations throughout the nation. The company became essentially a "testing center" for Kodak's new emulsions.
Calvin also made promotional and advertising films for some of the largest Fortune 500 companies in the country, including DuPont, Caterpillar, Goodyear, and General Mills. Their impressively large studio and office headquarters was perched at the corner of Truman and Troost roads in Kansas City, and many of the company's productions were filmed in and around the neighborhoods that still exist, immortalizing many familiar streets, local landmarks, and popular events.*
After World War II, Calvin's staff grew from a few dozen to more than 400 employees. Their now seven-story building held a large sound stage, converted from a former movie theater. The Calvin Company was known as a happy and freewheeling place for its employees, who considered themselves a proverbial "big, happy family."
Craighead says that he was impressed from the beginning with the fact that management didn't make anyone come to the office at a certain time.
"They just wanted to make sure you got your job done," he says. "We all enjoyed each other so much that we ended up having company picnics long after the company had closed its doors."
Unlike other companies that made industrial films, Calvin's employees voted against unionizing several times because the people were fundamentally satisfied. There was profit-sharing, access to top management, and encouragement of ideas and initiative. There was also good opportunities for mobility within the company.
Joe Mandacina, who spent time in what is affectionately referred to as "Cal Tech" by those who experienced it, started out working in the shipping department in 1961, but was able to move up into production.
"When I first moved into the camera department, I was a low man on the totem pole," he says. "We had about 20 guys in there. I started as a grip, swept sound stages, made sure all the vehicles had gas by morning."
Within about two years, he started shooting, even though there was normally a five-year apprenticeship at Calvin because the company was so busy.
"We had five full crews at any one time, shooting everywhere in the world. We had a standing sound stage. It happened while the rest of the crew was out of town on shoots for Caterpillar and John Deere — I was back at the studio and an apprentice at the time. They wanted to shoot a Wheaties commercial and came through with an unscheduled shoot. I was the only one around at the time, and they asked me to light and shoot it. That was the thing that broke me into it, and about two years later I became a full-fledged DP (director of photography). By the time I left, I was in charge of the department."
Forrest Calvin himself remained active with the company on an almost daily basis and was remembered fondly by those who worked with him.
"Forrest was a pretty neat guy," says Mandacina. "My first run-in with him was when I was in the shipping department, unloading chemicals in the parking structure underground where all the executives parked. I was unloading a truck, and he couldn't turn in to get to his parking space and he got a ticket from a cop! When he finally parked he walked in, handed me the ticket, and said, 'this is for you.' Other than that one incident, we got along quite well!"
"I can't think of a bigger company that did what we were doing at the time," adds Mandacina. "At one time we were the largest company in the world, from script to screen. We had a full blown lab, writers, producers, directors, camera guys … anything you wanted. We'd be working every day. We'd get a job and jump in a station wagon with some camera, lights, and a crew and drive across the country on a drop of a hat and shoot for two weeks."
"Clients would often bring their raw footage in, and since most didn't have editing facilities, and it was a very specialized job — they would hire us to get it into shape," says Bill Pryor, who worked for Calvin during its heyday. "A lot of our clients were religious groups. There was a film called Prepare For The Storm. Much like Battlefield Earth is considered one of the worst feature films, this could be one of the worst non-theatrical film ever made. It was funded by a group of religious survivalists and was a two-hour, over-the-top depiction of the coming apocalypse. It's a hysterical film that's not supposed to be funny. We had a bunch of writers on our staff, and we wanted to pull a prank on one of them, so we went out to lunch and I left a print of this film on his desk, with a note saying 'Please watch this and find a way to add an hour — we're thinking of considering it for a series.' I came back a couple of hours later and there was a resignation letter on my desk saying, 'I'll quit before I work on this film.'"
Craighead didn't quit Calvin, of course. He had arrived as an assistant in 1959 and worked his way up through directing and producing and eventually ended up manager of the services division. He stayed with the company until the time Calvin closed in 1982.
"I probably would have continued to work there to this day," he says. "They were so nice. It was the people and their interesting clients that kept me there so long."
Supporting local talent
For their casts, Calvin Company usually hired local actors and actresses from community theater productions — in fact, it was highly likely that most local young actors at that time were being employed in Kansas City on a regular basis. In addition, Calvin hired scores of film students and local filmmakers from the Kansas City area as directors, writers, cameramen, editors, and other key personnel. Notables like Walter Cronkite, Thomas Hart Benton, Harry Truman, and Hughes Rudd made appearances in Calvin films, as well as stars such as William Frawley, E.G. Marshall, and John Carradine.
"Most the talent — sometimes all — was local," says Pryor. "There were actors and narrators who made a living doing shows for Calvin, as well as several of the other production opportunities in the area at the time. We used a lot of Hollywood talent. One of the most popular shows as the time was Laugh In, starring Goldie Hawn, Artie Johnson, and Judy Karne. We did a parody called Freeze In that starred Artie and Judy, but the client at the time didn't want Goldie Hawn. I bet they would have rethought that if they could have predicted her success. Tom Berenger also made a couple appearances in Calvin films. He started out as an editing assistant, then an editor — and he and some other kids made a little war film out of our short ends. Years later he would go on to make Platoon."
Pryor had been working for an educational film production company in St. Louis and later participated in what would become known as the "Calvin Workshops," an annual offering in which seasoned Calvin professionals would conduct informative workshops on the art and craft of filmmaking. This eventually led him to be hired by the company he had come to respect.
"Educational films were big over a specific period of years," Pryor says. "When I was in college, in film production, the idea was you could graduate and go make money in the film business — in Kansas City. The day after I accepted the offer with Calvin, I got an offer with Encyclopaedia Britannica Films and Coronet Films, which were just two of the many other companies doing the same thing. That tells you how active the production scene was in non-theatrical fare. If you didn't want to go to Hollywood, you went to Calvin."
Pryor remembers not only how Kansas City was a viable production hub but also how film shoots back then were more involved, taking much longer then they do today. "What you might now do in three to four days might have taken two weeks then because of the cumbersome quality to every set-up," he says. "It's a lot different now also with client relationships. Now I can write a script for a client and never even see their face, never see a location — everything is done through email and the phone. But in those days when I was going to do a shoot, they would send me as the writer all over the US and Canada. I'd fly in, take meetings about the script … there was all this personal contact. Now you do a pass on Final Cut and send it to the client on his phone. Those days, from the time you finished a rough-cut you would do an interlock, the client would have to fly to KC to watch the workprint with all the grease pencil marks and suggest changes, then we'd go back in until it was to their liking. It was a longer, tedious process, because you only got a few chances to get it right."
Film school and festivals
Predating film schools by decades, Calvin Company's "The Calvin Workshops" also made their mark. "The workshops were basically three-day seminars, and something of a mini film festival," Pryor reflects. "Back then, people didn't have a lot of film school opportunities, so they came from all over the place to take part in them. Essentially by instructing our clients to be more professional, we actually got more business."
Craighead himself taught a popular editing seminar at the Calvin workshops, which attracted a wide array of participants. "We had people from Hollywood studios, our clients … even our competitors come to learn at these workshops," he says. "As I understand, the workshops started in the '70s as a medical film training seminars and expanded later to include all kinds of productions. We also curated our own film festival, which was very popular."
Calvin's workshops were designed to educate those looking to perfect their craft and the curious public who could afford the three-day seminars. "We would prepare for the workshops for months," says Mandacina. "I shot all kinds of things to make presentations, showed examples. I gave speeches on special effects one year, location photography another, studio lighting another. Everyone in a company would come to the seminars. Anywhere from 1,000 to 1,500 people would show up — from all over the world."
Roots of a film icon
One of the most notable alums from the Calvin Company ranks was Robert Altman, who got his first filmmaking experience as a director with the company during the early 1950s. Altman began his stint with Calvin in the service department but soon moved into Calvin’s production division, becoming one of the half-dozen staff writer/director/editors.
Altman's first completed film, Honeymoon for Harriet, follows a retiring mailman and his young apprentice along country roads, while telling the story of newlyweds whose honeymoon was constantly delayed because an International Harvester dealership was located on the way to the travel agency. In an interview with film critic David Thompson, Altman claimed that Calvin allowed him to make the film, which he also wrote, mostly because no one else could figure out how to record the soundtrack of the open-road conversation. Altman perfected a technique of "dialogue looping," which he would later incorporate many times over in his later Hollywood films.
In 1955, after leaving the company, Altman produced, wrote, and directed his first feature film, a juvenile delinquency heavy-handed drama, The Delinquents, on-location in Kansas City, using local talent and crews (with the exception of lead actor and Hollywood performer Tom Laughlin — who would go on to play the iconic "Billy Jack").
In a biography of Altman, Patrick McGilligan writes, "Alfred Hitchcock himself was reportedly enamored of the film and instructed the producer of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, Joan Harrison, to give Altman a directing slot."
The Delinquents both established Altman as a Hollywood-level director and made money for the distributor, United Artists. The film also showed off the natural art direction of Kansas City and inspired local movie theater exhibitor Elmer Rhoden Jr. to produce another film about juvenile delinquency, The Cool and the Crazy, in 1958. Waving a banner emblazoned with a clear anti-marijuana message and over-the-top performances by scenery-chewing actors, the film has become something of a cult favorite over the years.
Pryor remembers a story about how, when Altman had become successful, he returned to Kansas City with the idea of putting together a deal between some of his West Coast contacts and the then-owners of Calvin (Edna and Cash). Altman wanted essentially to turn Calvin into something of a remote studio and 35mm lab, the story goes, but they didn't want to do it.
"They protected their lab business over everything and were scared it would be compromised", says Pryor. "That was their big cash cow, and that was essentially what did them in. Then, Altman was the first Hollywood director to go to Vancouver to shoot his film. So, had they not turned him down, there is an off-chance that Kansas City could have been another Vancouver, and everyone would be coming here to shoot their films! One of those alternate universe possibilities that never quite happened."
Mandacina joined Calvin Company after Altman's time, but he did meet up with him later. "I was hired as a B-camera operator on his big feature film, Kansas City," he says. "I hadn't met Bob, and he didn't know who I was. So I came up to him on the first day of the shoot and said, 'Bob — we have something in common. We both worked for Calvin.' He said, 'No shit? Ol' Cal-Tech?' We hit it off pretty good after that."
The other center of production in the region at the time was driven by filmmaker Herk Harvey, who had made many industrial and educational films for Lawrence,Kansas-based production company, Centron — a formidable competitor of Calvin's. Harvey would later create and market the cult classic horror film Carnival of Souls.
Eventually, the advent of video and lessening interest (as well as rumors of managerial shakeup) saw the Calvin Company close its doors in the early 1980s, having produced in total, about 3,000 (mostly short) films. Pryor says that because the 16mm lab business was so substantial for Calvin — they were the biggest lab in the country — they resisted transitioning to video.
"John Deere was one of their main clients, and they encouraged Calvin to get into video production, essentially offering their business on a silver platter. But Calvin didn't want anything to do with video at the time. They were convinced that 16mm film was here to stay. I always thought that Calvin's end was the end of a Golden Age."
The legacy of the Calvin Company has a chance to survive beyond memories of its former employees. In 2002, industrial film archivist Rick Prelinger moved 150 of the Calvin Company's surviving film prints and approximately 25,000 cans of film master materials and other unclaimed Calvin laboratory items from Kansas City to the Library of Congress; about 3,000 Calvin films now await accession and cataloging. The reels contain footage from many different Calvin productions dating from 1940 through the 1960s. So far, the award-winning safety film, The Perfect Crime (1954, directed by Robert Altman), as well as films like The Color of Danger (1968) and Your School Safety Patrol (1958), can be purchased as part of VHS or DVD compilations through Something Weird Video .
The author would like to acknowledge the gracious help of John Altman and Anthony Ladesich in providing details and materials for this article.
* Fifteenth Street was renamed Truman Road in 1949. "Truman Road Has Importance for Traffic and Business," The Kansas City Star, August 30, 1953 as referenced in Missouri Valley Special Collection of the Kansas City Public Library. The Calvin Company's building was demolished in the 1991, according to some sources; Calvin Company news references are rare.
An editor at the Calvin Company in Kansas City during the 1960s.
The MovieMite projector was a part of The Calvin Company's "empire," helping to make 16mm films popular for homes, offices, and educational use.
A Calvin Company film technician at work.