Clothes Make the Man
Packing for an extended lecture journey by train across America is a meticulous and exacting undertaking—two heavy projectors, a cumbersome public address system, often a phonograph (or later a wire recorder; still later a tape recorder), five or six cartons of frselms, a huge suitcase, sometimes a camera and tripod, plus a folder of contracts, a small folding typewriter, with stationery, envelopes, stamps. Helen and I spent days checking and assembling every necessity before each lecture trip which I took.
One season, my first engagement after leaving home was in San Antonio, Texas, where I was to appear before the First Nighter’s Club at the St. Anthony Hotel. Preceding the program there was to be a receiving line, with the mayor of San Antonio and other city and club dignitaries. I was asked to be in the ballroom promptly at 7:00 P.M. to be a part of that line.
Twenty minutes after six. Finishing bathing I started to dress in my hotel room on the seventh floor. 6:30 P.M. Into my tux. 6:35 P.M. Dress shirt on, adjusting of cuff links. 6:40 P.M. Black tie, out of its special box in my suitcase… but where is the box? Where is the tie? 6:45 P.M. Entire contents of the suitcase on the bed and floor. 6:50 P.M. I arrive at the realization that my black tie is still back home in California. We had somehow neglected to pack it.
Within one minute I had the hotel’s social director, Sally Frampton, on the phone.
“No time to explain,” I blurted, “but I have no black tie. What shall I do?”
That social director was sharp—and fast. “Go to the end of the hall,” she told me, without wasting a second in questions or recriminations. “Ring for the freight elevator. Take it down to the main floor. I’ll meet you there, immediately.”
She met me, at the freight elevator’s entrance to a baggage room off the main floor.
“This way,” she motioned, and I followed. In thirty seconds we were at the stage door leading into the ballroom. She opened the door, and our ears were blasted by the din of an orchestra playing on stage. Quickly she darted behind the musicians, over to the drummer, who was at the back, almost concealed by the players in front.
I saw her as she whispered in his ear, then reached up and removed his black tie, so deftly that the drummer did not miss a single beat. In an instant she was back to me.
“He won’t need it. No one will notice,” she explained, as though this was an ordinary procedure.
In fifteen seconds she had helped me put on that tie and adjust it. At exactly 7:00 P.M.—even though I was still a trifle dizzy—I heard her say: “Mr. Mayor, I’d like you to meet tonight’s speaker, Mr. Francis Line. “
Clothes make the man. Or wreck him. The scene was a high school near Schofield Barracks on the Island of Oahu, in Hawaii. Hawaii’s usual climate is so balmy the walls of the auditorium stage had been constructed of bricks, laid with large spaces between them, allowing the cooling breezes to flow through.
On the night of my appearance, Hawaii’s climate, at least in the elevated areas near Schofield Barracks, was less usual than usual. The air flowing between those bricks was not just cool; it was freezing. On stage, making my preparations before the show started, I was freezing also. My teeth actually chattered.
Those in the audience were not affected by the wind whistling onto the stage. Borrowing a topcoat—a couple of sizes too large for me—from a friend in the audience, I arranged it and my hat on a chair backstage. After my introduction, the lights went out and the film began. Quickly, between sentences, I reached for the coat and hat backstage, donned them, and stood in the darkness at the edge of the screen, narrating the scenes as they appeared. With the benefit of coat and hat my teeth were no longer chattering.
Once in a great while, during a lecture, the film breaks. It happened that night. An expert operator would have reloaded it at once while I kept talking. This operator was not an expert. When the film trouble developed, instantly he turned on the lights. There, in what was supposed to be balmy Hawaii, I stood before a thousand spectators, swathed in an oversized overcoat and a hat.
The audience gasped. I gasped.
“You’ll have to forgive me,” I blurted. “I’m still not used to Hawaii’s balmy climate. “
They laughed. I laughed. And the show went on.
Weather plays tricks, with great frequency, on lecturers who tour America at all seasons of the year.
The scene was another high school auditorium—this time in a suburb of Detroit, Michigan, in midwinter. But this time, the stage, rather than being cold, was hot and stifling. All the warm air from the large overheated hall was flowing up and being trapped by the heavy stage curtains behind which the chairman and I were standing.
Making ready to go on stage to introduce me, he wiped his forehead with a handkerchief
“It’s freezing outside, but this place is like a furnace,” he exclaimed.
Behind us was a door leading outside. “Maybe we could prop that open and give us a little breeze,” I suggested.
We did so, and a welcome surge of air, cooled by the winter snows, drifted in.
Stepping onto the stage, the chairman launched into some announcements, leading up to his introduction of the evening program. I was still perspiring. Opening the outside door still wider, I stepped out onto a platform to inhale one good breath of the sharp, crisp air.
The door prop slipped, suddenly the door slammed shut, and automatically locked. I twisted the knob. Useless. I pulled and jerked. A waste of effort. I pounded, but even as I did so I knew that the chairman could not hear me.
The snow was ankle deep and in places had drifted against the building to a depth of two or three feet. All was dark, except for the glow of a distant streetlight.
Inside, on the stage, I had been perspiring greatly. Now, out on the snow, I was sweating heavily. Not from heat, but from something akin to terror. I was locked out of my own lecture. Not once in my professional career had I been late for an engagement. To think that it would happen like this.
Like an enraged polar bear, I began running and plowing through the snow, around the building toward the front entrance. Drenched with slush and perspiration, I burst into the building. A large fellow was taking tickets. I rushed past him.
“Wait,” he accosted me.
“I don’t have any ticket. I’m the speaker,” I yelled. “The you are,” he swore, but by this time I was halfway down the aisle.
Long-winded chairmen are anathema to lecturers. But never could I have been more thankful that this man had pulled out all the stops.
“And now,” I heard him saying, “I want to present to you one of the great adventure personalities on the American lecture circuit today, Mr. Francis Raymond Line. “
I mounted the steps to the stage and took a bow as the audience applauded. As I dusted snow from my tuxedo, I proceeded to relate to them what, for me at least, had been one of the most nerve-wracking adventures of my lecture career.
It made a wonderful beginning. That was one of my most successful showings.
Weather dominates a photographer-lecturer’s life almost as sternly as it once dominated the lives of sailors before the mast.
In the filming portion of our activities, it is sometimes possible to “sit out” poor weather conditions. In America’s Northwest we once waited ten days for storms to pass in order to catch tulip fields, against a Mt Rainier background, bathed in ideal sunlight. Another occasion required a return trip—three thousand miles there and back—to Glacier National Park in order to film its grandeur under suitable conditions.
When lecturing, one is deprived of this luxury of waiting out a storm, or returning later. For a quarter of a century, my motto was more rigid than that of the postal service: “Neither snow, nor rain, nor heat, nor gloom of night, stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds. “
Severest weather conditions of my lecture career swept in upon me during an unseasonable post-Thanksgiving storm which suddenly buried the Ohio River Valley under four feet of snow, with an accompaniment of freezing temperatures which glazed the world in ice.
Cincinnati’s spacious Taft Theater was packed for my annual appearance there, on a Sunday afternoon. Snow had been falling all day but not in quantities to hamper traffic severely. But as the audience (and I) left the auditorium, we were hit with a blinding fury of swirling whiteness. It was a winter cloudburst. Approaching darkness found the city smothered in drifts.
My night train for Huntington, West Virginia—next lecture stop on my route—was to leave at 10:00 P.M. The train was called, and a hundred passengers assembled at the departure gate.
“There will be a short delay, due to the weather,” came the announcer’s voice.
10:30 P.M. 11:00 P.M. No train.
Almost none of us left the gate, since the announcer kept assuring us the delay would probably be brief
Someone in the waiting crowd recognized Senator Robert Taft, for whose family the Taft Theater had been named.
“I’ve got to get back to Washington for the special session,” he explained to some of us. “It starts tomorrow.”
“Seems like a senator could get a little action,” a woman
remarked. Her tone was humorless, her voice as cold as the storm.
“Even congress can’t control the weather,” Taft smiled. Unassuming and patient, the senator waited with the rest of us until half an hour after midnight, when we went aboard.
Next morning, hours late, as the train pulled slowly into Huntington, I saw city scenes of winter that were out of some book of horror stories. From the train windows, and later as a taxi tried to battle the drifts and get me to a hotel, I saw icicles twelve and fifteen feet long, as thick as an elephant’s trunk, extending from second story eaves. Freak conditions of thawing and freezing had created a thousand deadly weapons suspended like dangling swords above the sidewalks. Crews were soon out to start knocking them loose. A passerby, pierced by an icicle, was killed.
A few hundred brave patrons endured real hardships to fill the college auditorium to a third of its capacity for my evening showing. My night train, with a snowplow scattering the drifts, landed me in Pittsburgh the next day.
The snowbound city was paralyzed. This was chapter two of that horror story. Only a handful attended my evening showing at Carnegie Music Hall. No space of any kind was available for parking; every lot, and the sides of every street, were piled deep with drifts. The Institute of Arts rebooked me with the same program later in the season.
They were generous. Another organization, for whom I was scheduled to appear in Pittsburgh the next day, not only cancelled the show, but felt it was not necessary even to pay me expense money.
Two days later I arrived in Cleveland, in time for the horror story’s conclusion. The world was beginning to dig out of its avalanche of white. A car was uncovered from beneath a drift on a Cleveland street. Inside was an unconscious man. He had been buried in snow for six days. He lived.
The next year, in another Midwestern city, a different sort of storm created a different sort of nightmare. The barnlike auditorium where my program was being presented, and where every sound made an echo, was almost shaking under blasts of thunder. It was impossible to make myself heard when the rolling currents of noise from the outside storm penetrated into the hall.
As we would recover from the thunder shocks, lightning flashes began playing tricks with the electrical system. The motion picture projector would sputter, and sometimes stop. The music of my phonograph records, which I was playing on stage, would sink into a sickening dirge.
As soon as projector and phonograph were functioning again, another bolt of lightning, another blast of thunder.
Somehow, a large bird had been blown by the wind through an open door, along with a paying customer. In fright, it swept around the cavernous hall, swirling down toward the lighted screen, almost striking me with each round it made.
A lightning bolt, a thunder blast drowning out my voice and startling some of the audience into near-panic, a sputtering projector, and wailing phonograph music; then, a swirling bird, causing me to stop speaking altogether as I dodged each onslaught.
The theme of my film-lecture that night concerned adventures in distant places. Both the audience and I had real life adventures—as dramatic as any movie—right there in the auditorium. When the bird almost collided with the lighted screen, at the same instant a crash of thunder shook the hall, one woman screamed in fright.
But the show must go on, weather or no.
On another occasion, in another auditorium, the entire rolled-up stage curtain suddenly fell from the ceiling with a thud, luckily missing me. As the audience started reacting in shock, I quieted them by saying: “For a long time I have suspected I was good, but I didn’t know I would bring the house down. ” Not only did that quiet the audience, but it got the evening program off to an excellent start.
Getting one’s program off to a good start is often the difference between a run-of-the-mill presentation or a really memorable occasion. This has to do with getting the audience with you at the beginning, after which they contribute as much to the evening’s success as the speaker. It helps to use every available contrivance to accomplish this result. Kiel Auditorium in St. Louis provided a good example.
The stage at Kiel is huge and, as I discovered beforehand, it can actually be raised or lowered electrically. On that large stage, in that enormous hall, I seemed not only small, but almost insignificant. I admitted as much to the audience, told them of my short stature, then added: “But I have a remedy for all that.”
As I made a pre-arranged sign to the electrician in the wings, he pulled a lever and that enormous stage very slowly began to rise. Up. Up. Up. The audience burst into applause. It was a memorable evening.
In the breakfast-food city of Battle Creek, Michigan, where my mother had once taught kindergarten, my showing was at the luxurious W. K. Kellogg Auditorium. I started off the program by relating a true story about the Kellogg company’s rival, the C. W. Post company.
“My mother’s brother, my Uncle Albert,” I began, “was once Mr. Post’s only employee. They worked together in a small shed or building behind Post’s home, making what was called `Postum.’ As a final step in the process, Mr. Post would go into a closet and secretly add some special ingredient to the formula. Then C. W. Post and my uncle would go up and down the streets of Battle Creek, selling that product house to house. That was the beginning of the great Post cereal empire.”
Next day a front page story came out in the paper concerning this little-known historical episode. Officials of the Post Company contacted me and invited me out for a tour of their plant. What they most wanted to show me was the tiny structure, preserved and moved to its new location, in which the whole Post industry had begun as C. W Post and my uncle mixed up that formula.
ROSE PARADE FILM PROVIDES
HAPPY SURPRISE IN LINE’S
CIVIC AUDITORIUM LECTURE
That was the headline of a story in a January 4th issue of the Pasadena Star-News.
During World War II Helen and I had moved from Ontario, California to a home which was situated exactly on the Eagle Rock-Pasadena city line, close to the starting point of the annual New Year’s Rose Parade. During war years that spectacular event was cancelled. But, with peace, this most colorful of all American parades became grist for our movie cameras. We covered it from start to finish and rushed the film to Hollywood for special developing. Helen sat up all night to edit it, and a “Rose Parade Special” became part of the program we presented on January 3 to the 2000 people who jammed Pasadena’s Civic Auditorium for one of my adventure films.
That became the first time, ever, that Rose Parade color motion pictures were shown professionally to an American audience. The footage became part of my presentations that winter, across America. Year after year we filmed the parade and I showed it, along with my regularly scheduled films, from Philadelphia to Hawaii. Today, color scenes of the event are broadcast on television worldwide. But until TV arrived, our films took the pageantry of the parade to people all over the United States.