A semi-regular feature on the underappreciated, the promising, and the very cool
My Dinner with… Fred Waller
By Marilyn Ferdinand
I know in this “look at me” world in which we’re living, the lot of those who largely remain in the shadows may not seem to be a very happy one. Certainly some resentment at being overlooked can’t be avoided, but as a person who is very attracted to the world behind the scenes, I can say that, in general, standing a bit below eye level is a wonderful place to be. As part of the Lazy Eye Theatre Meme: My Dinner With…, I’ve chosen to break bread with one of the most fascinating movie persons you’ve never heard of: Fred Waller.
Waller cut his teeth in the film business as cinematographer for five silents by the estimable director Frank Tuttle. He also did visual effects for D.W. Griffith’s The Sorrows of Satan. He turned his hand to directing in the ’30s. He specialized in making short music films featuring America’s great jazz musicians, beginning with Duke Ellington in A Bundle of Blues in 1933. The man had great musical taste, the foresight to see that these great performers needed to be captured on film for future generations, and an uncommon notion that filming African Americans being themselves was nothing out of the ordinary.
But what really sets Waller apart for me—in the immortal words of Henry Graham, “Every science has its fans.”—is that he was an engineering wizard. You’ll see the link for the American Widescreen Museum site on my blogroll, alphabetically first but also one of my very favorite websites, period. Fred Waller is responsible for that site’s very existence because he invented widescreen movie formats. He debuted the first widescreen process, called Vitarama, at the 1939 World’s Fair in New York, where it made a huge sensation. He later extended and refined that process by inventing the most famous widescreen technology of them all—Cinerama. Listen to Waller describe the process.
That’s Clara Bow on the left hawking Waller’s AKWA SKEES.
Waller’s mind was too active to give it just to Hollywood. For example, if you had a relative who was a WWII pilot who returned safely from the war, you both probably can thank Fred Waller for helping to make that safe return possible. He invented the first virtual-reality technology, based on the Vitarama process, and applied it to flight simulation, allowing pilots to gain valuable flight time. Oh, and if you’ve ever water skied, yes, thank Fred Waller for perfecting and patenting the first water skis. In all, Fred Waller held about 1,000 patents. He’s as close to a modern-day Leonardo da Vinci as they get.
I’m a pretty good cook with a brand-new kitchen and a love of entertaining, so naturally, I’d invite Mr. Waller to my home. I’d set out all the good crystal on the formal dining table and set up lots of jazz from the ’30s and ’40s for the CD player. I imagine Mr. Waller would like fine American food, so I’d serve cider-onion soup, homemade rustic bread, herbed lamb chops over orzo, and candied yams—all served with a medium-aged Beaujolais. For dessert—cherries jubilee and cognac.
I’m not one for a list of questions normally—I like to see where the conversation leads—but Piper asked me to, so I’d ask:
1. Mr. Waller, tell me why you decided to film jazz musicians and what the musicians you worked with were like? Any good stories to tell about them?
2. What were the challenges of transitioning to sound, and particularly, recording musicians? Did you invent anything to improve sound recording quality and reliability to help you and others?
3. What do you see as the purpose of movies?
4. As someone who spent a lifetime trying to improve movie images, are you a believer in the primacy of the picture in motion pictures? Why or why not?
5. Tell me more about your favorite inventions, what they do, how they work, and how long it took you to invent them? What drew you to want to solve these particular problems?
And wait for all the answers—for as long as it takes!
The six bloggers I have invited to participate in the meme are:
Joe Valdez of This Distracted Globe
Pat at Doodad Kind of Town
Peter Nellhaus of Coffee, Coffee, and More Coffee
Ed Howard at Only the Cinema
Campaspe at Self-Styled Siren
Kimberly Lindbergs at Cinebeats