First Rung on the Ladder
Having produced three full-length films—on Lapland, Finland, and England and Holland—we were now professionals in the travel-adventure film lecture business. It was a field that, so far as 16mm color motion pictures were concerned, was so newly begotten there was almost no one but us to rock the cradle.
The minute we arrived home, however, helping hands began reaching out to get the cradle in motion. In our own city of Ontario, Dean Charles Booth of Chaffey Junior College requested our first showing, and would pay a fee of twenty-five dollars. The laudatory letter he wrote us afterward told us that our initial effort had been a success.
We had gotten the cradle rocking. To use a more graphic metaphor, we’d taken our first step up the ladder.
In our home area, four or five showings of our various films came in rapid succession. Apparently, favorable word was spreading fast.
Further dates in Southern California had to be put off for a month because I had, by mail, arranged for nineteen showings in my former home state of Michigan, where half a dozen newspapers had carried a series of articles written by me concerning Lapland, Finland, and our other adventures in Europe.
Every presentation went well, but my greatest personal satisfaction came with the November 19th showing of Lapland Adventure in the auditorium of the high school in Howell, Michigan, where I had graduated. Howell’s population was only 2500, but every one of the auditorium’s 1000 seats was taken. Extra chairs were put in. Several dozen persons had to be turned away.
More important, as an opening wedge leading to significant national engagements, were presentations of two of our films, on successive weekends, at my alma mater, University of Michigan, in Ann Arbor.
Most important opening wedge of all, however, was a private showing to less than a dozen persons. The great Finnish architect, Eliel Saarinen, as well as his architect son, Eero Saarinen, had come from Finland and were professors at Cranbrook Institute of Art just north of Detroit. The father had designed some of the fine structures shown in our film; the son would one day win St. Louis, Missouri’s first place award, with his design of the great St. Louis arch. Having written the elder Saarinen about our Finnish film, he had asked if I would want to show it privately in his home.
I wanted very much to do so. Father and son, their wives, and a few close friends were present, including George Booth, of The Detroit News Booths, and a patron of Cranbrook. As a result of that private showing, new friendships were formed, Prof. Saarinen at once booked the film for a public engagement at Cranbrook Institute, and he gave me a personal letter of glowing recommendation. A short while later he did something of far greater importance.
My private showing for the Saarinens had been on November 27, 1939. Just three days later—taking advantage of the fact that all eyes were focused on Germany’s war with England and France—Russia attacked its tiny neighbor of Finland.
Finland was respected and loved in America. She was virtually the only nation still meeting her war debt obligations from World War I. Russia’s armies marching across Finnish borders sent shock waves across the world.
Finland was in desperate need. At once an American Finnish Relief Fund was organized, with former president Herbert Hoover as chairman. Saarinen wrote Hoover about our film and a copy went to the Los Angeles offrsece for Finnish Relief Whenever a spare date was available, from that time on, we showed Finland Waters free of charge, to raise money for the struggling nation which was under attack by Russia.
Our regular business did not suffer. We had probably the only color motion picture in existence on Finland. Bookings were snowballing. But, as a result, there were snow blizzards of paperwork, contracts, and interminable correspondence. We heard about the Mae Norton Agency, and she heard about us. Soon she was handling our Southern California engagements.
Ed Ainsworth came to one of our Lapp lectures and gave us a boost in his LDS Angeles Times column, Along El Camino Real, reaching hundreds of thousands. “Francis (Lapland) Line of Ontario,” he called me.
We gave Lapland Adventure for a dinner meeting of the University Club of Los Angeles—a prestigious engagement, as we later discovered.
In a five week period I had had thirty film programs in Southern California and Michigan. Christmas was an off season. But on January 3, 1940, came a showing of Finland Waters for The Los Angeles Adventurers Club. It was a courtesy presentation; no one ever receives a fee there. But it was one of the most important shows of my new career, with far-reaching and long-lasting effects.
The written letter to me from the president was the first reward:
“It gives me the greatest pleasure to thank you for the privilege of seeing what were undoubtedly the most marvelous and interesting pictures that have ever been shown in our club, which has boasted of seeing the best that has ever been offered. I think that this fact was attested to by the rousing spontaneous ovation given you upon their completion, an ovation such as our club has never before witnessed.”—H.L. Tanner, President, Los Angeles Adventurers Club.
As a second result of that film showing I was asked to join the club, which I did. This eventually led to invitations to show my films before—and become a member of—The New York Adventurers Club, The Circumnavigators Club, and The Explorers Club of New York. I was able to become acquainted with such members as Lowell Thomas, Commander MacMillan, Peter Freuchen, and dozens of the world’s well-known explorers and adventure personalities.
The third spin-off from the Adventurers Club showing was the most far-reaching.
In two short months we had achieved much greater success in our new field than we had dared to hope for. We’d climbed several important steps on the ladder. But our engagements had all been localized in Southern California, or in my former home state of Michigan. The “big time” in this business was in the Midwest and the East—St. Louis, Kansas City, Chicago, Detroit, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, Washington, D.C. , New York.
The large illustrated lecture series in those cities booked their attractions a year—sometimes two or even three years—in advance. No matter how timely our Finland film might be, these large courses could not book it, even if they knew it existed. As yet, most persons outside of Southern California or Michigan, upon hearing the name Francis Raymond Line, would probably confuse
it with a steamship line. That occasionally happened. The large
American lecture courses were not much interested in newcomers.
Just one such course—the most prestigious of all—operated on a different plan.
“There’s one place where you can really get your foot in the door. ” That was the remark, from a Los Angeles Adventurers Club member, after my showing there. He went on to explain.
“The National Geographic Society holds an illustrated lecture series in Constitution Hall. Washington, D.C. , you know. The place seats four thousand. They pack it every time. Their fee is tops.”
“But… , ” I began to interrupt.
“No ‘buts’ about it,” my informant continued. “The Geographic is the only outfit in America that isn’t interested in big names. They want only one thing—quality. Your film has it. It’s a cinch. They’re constantly seeking new talent.”
Off went a letter, special delivery, to Melville Bell Grosvenor, son of the magazine’s editor, and director of the Geographic’s lecture course. And back came an immediate reply. Could we send our Lapland and Finland films to them, at once, for preview and evaluation?
No, we could not do that. But we could do something even better. Already I had booked engagements for the late winter months in Michigan. Helen and I would just continue on to Washington, and give the Geographic previews of our films in person.
The middle echelon of National Geographic employees, we found, was made up of some of the most agreeable and down-to-earth individuals we’d yet discovered in this field. Three of Melville Grosvenor’s top lieutenants viewed both Finland Waters and Lapland Adventure. All three of them were not only generous—but definitely lavish—in their praise of both productions. All three of them sent recommendations to Grosvenor that I be booked for the following season. The choice of film was left open. As a result of their praise, Melville Grosvenor wrote a letter of recommendation to George Pierrot, director of the world’s largest travel and adventure series, in Detroit, Michigan.
We were at least three steps up the ladder.
Barbara’s little red wagon, with which we had started our motion picture career, aided by a twenty-five dollar motion picture camera, was carrying us into a new world of experiences.