From The News

Monday, October 14, 1985


TODD -AO Southbridge’s Role in the Movies - First in a Series

On late night television, the viewer may notice at the beginning of the credits of the scratched movie classic, the words TODD-AO. AO, American Optical?

In the mid-50s, Hollywood came to Southbridge in the person of movie entrepreneur Mike Todd. Todd wanted to make his mark on Tinsel Town, and he wanted America’s top optical firm to help him.

Using some 100 of the sprawling Southbridge plant’s scientists, researchers and technicians, Dr. Brian O’Brien, one of America’s foremost optic experts, supervised the creation of a new movie process: TODD-AO.

On Oct. 10, 1955 - 30 years ago - that process premiered with the showing of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “Oklahoma!” This is the story of Southbridge’s role in the movies.

By Roy C. Gunter Jr.

News Science and Health Care Editor

The concept of motion pictures was introduced by Thomas Alva Edison with his invention of the Kinetoscope on April 14, 1894. A coin was placed in a slot and for 15 seconds you could peep at a series of moving pictures that gave a startling impression that objects were truly moving. It was not long before these pictures were projected onto a screen and the first motion picture house built.

In spite of the advances in the art of motion pictures with their plush theatres the presentation was just that - a picture - a flat picture that gave the illusion of motion. About 1950 television began to make its presence known and the motion picture industry was forced to improve its act.

One of the first real advances was made independently by Fred Waller. Waller had developed a gunnery training simulator at Oyster Bay on Long Island during World War II. Three projectors covered a wide spherical screen with images of aircraft. A gunner sitting in a cubicle had a remarkably real feeling of three dimensions as the planes zoomed in to attack him and he fired back.

In the autumn of 1952 Waller came out with Cinerama, a new motion picture process, based on his gunnery simulator. The system started with three cameras - instead one - photographing a scene.

The projection system was similar but the screen was deeply curved.

There were seven stereophonic sound tracks. The sound was synchronized with the cameras and was played back from several different loudspeakers. If there were a train on the right side of the screen, the sound of the train came from this same place. The effect of realism, the effect of being immersed in the action was startlingly real.

A roller coaster scene became famous as the audiences screamed when the car climbed slowly to the top than plunged down. It was Michael Todd, incidentally, who was responsible for this scene and others like it that took Cinerama out of the laboratory and made it the success it later became.

The next attempt at audience immersion came later in the fall of 1952 with Natural Vision, better known as “3D.” While it did not require three cameras or projectors, it did require that the audience wear special glasses with different polarizations for the right and left eye.

For those with only one good eye, there was no three dimensional effect but for those with two good eyes the effects were highly successful.

Audiences, however, did not like to wear the special glasses and the system was never really successful.

Cinerama, however, was accepted by audiences although there were some major technical problems. The principal one was that a straight line, such as a rooftop, might show a disconcerting vertical jump as it passed from one camera to another. It was never really possible to get the projectors aligned horizontally resulting in overlap. This overlap produced a distinctly fuzzy vertical seam.

Cinerama, however, was the jumping off place for a new system - Todd-AO.


The Showman and the Scientist

When Todd returned from a European trip, he heard of the work Fred Waller was doing. Todd went to Waller’s place at Oyster Bay and saw the embryonic Cinerama, becoming ecstatic about its possibilities.




Todd was subsequently hired by Cinerama and turned a simple documentary Lowell Thomas was planning into the fantastically successful “This is Cinerama.” Typically, Todd wanted to take over this new medium. By October 1952 Todd became increasingly irked by the technical difficulties with Cinerama. He was literally forced out of the partnership by financial backers who were wary of Todd’s financial ups and downs.

Todd, however, still believed in the widescreen principle.

Thus Todd asked Todd Jr.’s wife, who had friends at Columbia University, to find out “who was the ‘Einstein’ of optics?”

The answer came back: “Dr. Brian O’Brien, director of the Institute of Optics at the University of Rochester.”

O’Brien had a reputation for inventiveness and had developed special lenses and high-speed cameras for A-bomb testing.

With his own typical speed, Todd immediately called O’Brien and asked him to come to New York. O’Brien, however, said he was tied up but agreed to see Todd if he came to Rochester. Todd said he would fly up and a meeting was set.

O’Brien, cautious as always, brought Walter Siegmund, a recent Ph.D. recipient who was working with him at the institute. The meeting took place in a restaurant near the airport.

Todd explained that he wanted to develop a Cinerama-type motion picture system, but he wanted it to “all come out of one hole” - the three cameras and three projectors caused too much trouble.

Todd wanted O’Brien to take on the job of developing the system on a consulting basis. But O’Brien said it was much too big for that and recommended that any of the three large optical companies - the American Optical Company, Bausch and Lomb, or Eastman Kodak - would be able to do the job.

O’Brien, however, was interested in what Todd said about Cinerama and sent Siegmund to New York to look at the system.

Siegmund went and reported back to O’Brien that while the optical system was not really sophisticated, the audience response to the wide screen was clearly favorable.

When Siegmund was in New York he also took light intensity measurements from different parts of the screen with a Luckeish-Taylor photometer. When interviewed recently, he pulled open a desk drawer, showed the instrument and proudly said, “See - it still works!”

Subsequently, O’Brien did go to New York. He agreed with Siegmund that optically Cinerama was not very sophisticated, but he also was tremendously impressed by the wide screen. His years in physiological optics told him immediately that it was the peripheral vision afforded by the wide deeply curved screen that gave the audience the definite sensation of not only depth but also of being a part of the action.

After O’Brien had told Todd of the three optical companies that could do what he needed, he made his own investigation and selected the AO.

Whether Todd knew that O’Brien had already made a commitment to Walter Stewart, then president of the AO, to come to the AO as vice president in charge of research is a moot point. But Todd’s next action was typically Todd.

Todd came to Southbridge to meet Stewart, plunked down a $100,000 certified check, looked Stewart and O’Brien straight in the eye and said, “Let’s talk business!”

Mike Todd Jr. relates in his book that Todd, having already become somewhat acquainted with the 125-year-old spectacle company, fully expected to see a Bob Cratchitt perched on a high stool when he walked in.

The differences in the ways of thinking of a Broadway producer and entrepreneur and the cautious movement of the AO were enormous.

Typical of Todd was what O’Brien called his constant spending rate - whether he had money or not.

Todd himself said, “I may be broke, but I’m never poor.”

AO was just the opposite - steeped in conservatism in its business practice and its scientific outlook, it was, in fact, beginning to have trouble competing with more forward-looking optical companies - even in its own field. It is small wonder that it found dealing with the bullient Todd a different experience - to put it mildly.


The Protagonists

Brian O’Brien was born Dec. 20, 1898. His grandfather was from Killarney, Ireland, and his father was a mining geologist at Queen’s College in Dublin.

The family emigrated to this country in the 1890s and after the high school, O’Brien enrolled in an electrical engineering program at Yale. After graduation from Yale in 1918, he went on for a Ph.D. in pure physics. While he received his degree in 1922 he also took courses at Harvard and M.I.T.


Avrom Goldbogen had a quite different bringing up. He was born on or about June 22, 1907 (the exact date is not known) and was the seventh of eight children of Chaim and Sophia Goldbogen. He was the first of Chaim’s children to be born in the United States, the others having been born in Poland from which his family had emigrated.

Chaim was educated to be a rabbi. As did the O’Brien family, the Goldbogens emigrated to America. Unfortunately, there was no opening for a second rabbi in Minneapolis where they settled and Chaim never did do well financially. He was a gentle studious man who eked out an existence officiating at kosher slaughterings. His son Avrom, however, was something else again.

Because of a childhood friendship with a garbage man called “Toady,” his friends started calling Avrom “Toady.” Later this was shortened to “Todd” and much later because “Avrom” did not have a theatrical ring, Avrom changed his name to “Michael Todd.”

Todd’s formal education was also not exactly that of O’Brien as it ended in the sixth grade when he was kicked out of school for running a crap game in the school year. He did, however, become something (of a sort) in academia that O’Brien never did - a college president.

When he was 15 he saw that bricklayers were making good money, so he and a friend formed the American College of Bricklaying. Naturally, he was president. The school lasted only until the graduates found they were not really eligible for jobs after taking the two-week course.

Todd took his money and went into the remodeling and building industry and by the time he was 18 had assets in excess of $1 million.

Not entirely due to Todd, Todd’s company, the Atlantic and Pacific Construction Co., went broke when his bonding firm folded. Down but not at all out, he started in the construction business again, and again in Chicago and again by his 21st birthday he had assets of nearly $1 million - about the time O’Brien was getting his Ph.D. from Yale.

O’Brien also was showing his creativity early. Just one of the things he did later was to develop a special motion picture camera that would take 10 million frames a second. It was this work, in part, that attracted Todd to O’Brien.

While O’Brien was working his way up the scientific and academic ladder, Todd was doing anything but standing still.

For years Todd had had his eye on show business and in the late 20s he saw his chance. Building on his construction knowledge, he got a contract to soundproof the film stages for Columbia Pictures. Todd was now at last in Hollywood.

On his 28th birthday he was well on his way to making his second million. Unfortunately the business folded and Todd was broke again.

Todd’s checkered but steadily upward career can be seen by the following sampling of his activities.

1934 - “Flame Dance” with Sally Rand at the Chicago World’s Fair. ¾ Success.

1934 - “Harvey” with Frank Fay at Todd’s 48th Street Theatre in New York. ¾

Big Success.

1937 - “Call Me Ziggy” with Joseph Buloff in Chicago. ¾ Big Failure.

1939 - “Hot Mikado” with Bill Robinson (who danced down Broadway to advertise the musical). ¾ Success.

1942 - “Star and Garter” with Gypsy Rose Lee. Louis Kronenberger summed it up best in PM calling it “a leg and laugh show with plenty of filthy fun.”

¾ Success.

1943 - “Naked Genius.” Gypsy Rose Lee was one of the strip tease queens but this musical written by her and produced by Todd was a Failure.

1944 - “Mexican Hayride.” Failure in Boston then rewritten by Todd and a Success

in New York.

1946 - “Up in Central Park” a Success in New York but a Failure when Todd hired the entire Hollywood Bowl. The Bowl was so big performers looked like ants and besides it poured! Todd lost at least $200,000 but not to worry, he lost at least that much gambling in the next two months. But Todd was really down now.

1948 - “As the Girls Go” with Bobby Clark was a Failure in Boston. Todd was now three-quarters of a million dollars in debt. Again Todd showed his skill as he rewrote the musical and it was a Success in New York, but it ran for only five months.

1951 - “Peep Show” with Bobby Clark and the King of Siam was Mixed in Philadelphia.

1952 - “This is Cinerama” was a big Success in its world premiere in New York.




Upset by the technical problems with three projectors and three cameras and the fact he could not have full production control, Todd quite Cinerama. He went looking for a system where “it would all come out of one hole” and with Brian O’Brien found it.

With the Todd-AO process a new era in show business was born.