Persons of Interest: Fred Waller

A semi-regular feature on the underappreciated, the promising, and the very cool

My Dinner with… Fred Waller

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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.

fredwaller-r.jpgWaller 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.

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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

  • Piper spoke:
    9th/01/2008 to 4:08 pm

    Damn, this is good stuff. And that’s one hell of a meal. Thanks for participating. Are you not going to pass on the Meme to 6 others?

  • Marilyn spoke:
    9th/01/2008 to 4:16 pm

    Thanks. It’s nice to let my geek flag fly.
    Yes, I’ll name them tomorrow. I just ran out of time today.

  • Rod spoke:
    9th/01/2008 to 11:48 pm

    Lovely sentiment. And article.

  • Ed Howard spoke:
    10th/01/2008 to 9:50 am

    That’s a beautiful post, Marilyn, and a very interesting figure to bring to light — I truly hadn’t heard of him before, and I’m glad to learn more about him. Thanks for the invite to participate, though I’m currently knee-deep in watching and writing about Berlin Alexanderplatz, and I’m not sure when/if I’ll be able to put something together.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    10th/01/2008 to 10:11 am

    Thanks, Ed. It’s a shame you won’t have time because you write so beautifully and with so much insight. I’ve enjoyed your Berlin Alexanderplatz piece so far, so I understand and look forward to the rest of it.

  • Piper spoke:
    11th/01/2008 to 12:49 pm

    Marilyn,
    What I’m encountering as I think about this Meme myself is to make sure I ask questions that are pertinent and thoughtful and you’ve done that wonderfully. As a matter of fact, I don’t know that I could let loose with one of your questions without a bit of shake in the voice. To ask someone about the transition between silent and sound motion pictures is one of the great questions in the history of cinema. It’s like asking Jean Renoir how was it to leave France during the War and to start making pictures in America. It’s such a monumental question and the answers could fill the air for hours.
    And if I may take this moment to pat myself on the back for selecting the bloggers I did to carry out this Meme. Excellent selection, again.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    11th/01/2008 to 12:55 pm

    Thanks, Piper. I’m a journalist, so it’s not really hard for me to ask questions. I interviewed David Brower, a big-time environmentalist and nominee for the Nobel Peace Prize. I had to grab him after a lecture and had just 15 minutes with him. I asked him what it was like to be in Berlin when the wall fell, and he gave a candid and wonderful answer! I love the big questions. And I think Fred Waller would be uniquely equipped to answer the question about sound, being an engineer. We as fans don’t really know as much about the technical aspects–except what we hear ourselves watching these old movies–as about the speculation as to whether certain directors and actors could or would make the switch.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    11th/01/2008 to 3:36 pm

    I just found a clip of A Bundle of Blues! Notice the effects Waller incorporated into his editing. I especially liked the musical note!
    Also linked Symphony in Black. I’m sure YouTube has all Waller’s shorts.

  • Pat spoke:
    11th/01/2008 to 9:21 pm

    What a great post! I admit I had never heard of Mr. Waller before, so I found your information fascinating. Quite a dinner you planned there, too!
    And thanks for the invitation to participate in the meme. I’m going to have to give this one a little thought….

  • Ed Howard spoke:
    28th/01/2008 to 10:41 am

    I finally gave in and did one of these: My dinner with Jean-Luc Godard

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