From The News

Thursday, October 17, 1985


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


To start this section we must turn the clock back to 1952 when Mike Todd first approached American Optical.

President Walter Stewart, after consulting the AO Board of Directors, came back quickly to Todd with an offer. If Todd could put together a group with theatrical prominence and the necessary financial backing, the American Optical Company would work with him to develop the new motion picture film process he envisioned.

Todd was as good as his word and assembled the following group called initially the “M-O-A-T” (Magna-American-Optical-Todd) Corp. Later this was simplified to “The Magna Corp.”

Leading the group were: Joe Schenck, chairman (20th Century-Fox); George Skowras, president (United Artists); Judge James Landis, attorney, and Professor Charles Seligson, attorney.

Lee Shubert, Edwin Sneall (an independent producer), Richard Rodgers, Oscar Hammerstein, and Arthur Hornblow Jr. (film producer) were also board members.

Todd had already sold Rodgers and Hammerstein on the fantastic success that their “Oklahoma!” would have when presented the Todd-AO way. That made assembling such a knowledgeable and money savvy group much, much easier.

“Oklahoma!” was as American as apple pie but no one in the movie industry had been able to capture the screen rights - Todd did it!

An important part of the AO-Magna agreement was that Magna would keep a line of credit of (about) $100,000 at the AO to pay AO personnel working on Todd’s project. According to Brien O’Brien Jr., they did this for a while and then fell behind. When Brian O’Brien Sr. complained to Stewart, he was told that he was in science and did not understand business.

“They wouldn’t gyp us,” said Stewart.

O’Brien Sr. was subsequently proved right in this matter. Eventually, according to John Rischetelli, then comptroller of AO, all of the direct costs were covered.

“At one time there were $4 million in receivables but we did collect it!” he said.

There were difficulties between the AO and Magna and finally when Weldon Schumacher became president of AO, he completely shut down all AO involvement in this effort. This occurred about 1959.

Both Dr. O’Brien and O’Brien Jr. independently, however, assessed Todd personally as scrupulously honest and very, very loyal. They further noted that while Todd had no formal technical training, he did have an uncanny grasp of technical detail.

The speed with which this whole gigantic effort costing millions and millions of dollars and involving literally thousands of people moved can best be seen in the following timetable:

Sept. 30, 1952 ¾ World premiere of This is Cinerama.

October 1952 ¾ Todd flies to Rochester to meet Dr. O’Brien.

November 1952 ¾ Todd signs with the AO.

August 1953 ¾ A demonstration film - a series of vignettes of a roller coaster ride at Far Rockaway Beach, a picnic at Elicott Park in Buffalo, the canals of Venice, the New York Ballet Co., a bullfight in Spain, etc. is produced.

Oct. 10 1955 ¾ World premiere of Oklahoma! at the Rivoli Theatre in New York City.

Aug. 17, 1957 ¾ World premiere of Around the World in 80 Days at the Rivoli Theatre.

Even in Hollywood, where the word “fantastic” is banal, the progress that this timetable represents is “out-of-this-world.” With make-shift cameras, projectors, and screens O’Brien kept AO’s word and Todd had himself, indeed, a unique motion picture process. Todd, himself, however, had problems with his own kind.

As Todd Jr., says in his book about his father, “He had automatically assumed that as father of the process and the whole deal, he would have control of the opening gambit, Oklahoma!

Ever mindful of Todd’s mercurial ways, however, Rodgers and Hammerstein insisted on maintaining artistic control. Todd could make all the suggestions he wanted but the final word was to be theirs.

The straw that really broke Todd, however, was the board of directors of Magna Corp., “His Board” gently, but firmly, sided with Rodgers and Hammerstein. There was too much at stake to trust to a movie industry outsider.

The fact, however, that his name was now linked with Rodgers and Hammerstein and the Todd-AO process did give Todd new status in the film world - status that Aaron Goldbogen (Todd) wanted badly. He was un-broke again and status-wide on top of the world.

On Oct. 10, 1955, Oklahoma! opened at the Rivoli Theatre in New York City. It was not the fantastic success Todd had envisioned. In large part this was due to serious scratches on the film that had been made when the normal method of editing the original negative was used. These scratches are not serious when the film is contact printed but when it was projection printed as in the Todd-AO system, very disconcerting streaks of light were produced.

It is interesting to note that there were actually two projection booths at the Rivoli. The upper was the one normally used and the one for which the projection printer corrections were designed. A special booth had been built underneath the balcony so that film that had been contact printed directly from the original negative, and without the corrections required for use in the upper booth, could be used.

The scratches were essentially removed later by a special lacquering process.

George Skowras wanted to use the uncorrected film from the lower booth as the corrected film was not yet up to its potential. Unfortunately, the contact print film was not ready so they were forced to use the projection printed film for a few days.

When the contact printed film was ready, the lower booth was used and the performance was markedly better - but the damage had been done.

Oklahoma! in the Todd-AO process was a success but not as much of a success as had been hoped.

Fred Hynes, now senior vice present of the present Todd-AO Corp. which does only post-shooting sound production, was one of the first sound men hired by Todd. When interviewed by phone, he was adamant that the difficulty with the early Todd-AO system was the poor quality of the AO lenses.

In fact, Hynes stated categorically, “The 128 degree lens was worthless!”

Todd Jr. also pointed out shortcomings of the lenses.

There is some question of the correctness and/or objectivity of these criticisms by Hynes and Todd Jr.

Interviews of the same Robert Surtees in the prestigious American Cinematographer (Oct. 1954 and April 1955) give the following quotations from Surtees: “The combination of the wide angle of coverage of Todd-AO lenses combined with the great screen area produces high on the screen. As a result, Todd-AO pictures are clearer and sharper.”

Earlier Surtees had said “from the standpoint of optics alone, Todd-AO is a superior picture process.”

Todd, however, while dismayed was not defeated. He believed in the process and now had a double reason for looking for another property. For some time Todd had been having a running battle with Henry Woodbridge, president of the Todd-AO Corp.

Woodbridge wanted to mass market the Todd-AO system.

Todd, on the other hand, wanted to select one theatre in each of the major markets, revamp it and make seeing a Todd-AO movie an event - an event people would drive many miles to see. Todd sold his stock in Todd-AO, resigned from the board of Magna and set about with determination to find a successor - an even more successful property than “Oklahoma!”

It was on a trip to England that he visited a long-time friend and fellow entrepreneur Alexander Karda. Karda thought a bit and then suggested Jules Verne’s “Around the World in Eighty Days.”

Todd realized instantly that this was the property he had been looking for. Further he already owned $40,000 worth of an Orson Welles version that had not panned out. Todd was off again!

While there might have been some questions about the success of “Oklahoma!,” there were none about “80 Days.” As Inez Robb, a columnist with the New York World Telegram said, “Whoever thought we’d live to see the day when tickets to a movie would be as difficult to scrounge as those to ‘My Fair Lady?’”

On Oct. 17, 1956, “80 Days” premiered at the same Rivoli Theatre in New York City and was instantly a world success. Todd was acclaimed by all of the same movie moguls who he earlier felt he was an outsider, given rave reviews in the New York Times, the Herald Tribune, Daily Variety, Hollywood report, Time Magazine, etc. but the best was yet to come. Todd announced that he was to be married to Elizabeth Taylor, and they were the following year.

Todd now had everything. Success. He had showed Hollywood he could meet and beat them; “80 Days” was named the picture of the year by the Academy of Motion Pictures, and he had married the person many considered to be the most beautiful woman in the world.

And then suddenly it was all over - all, all over. On a flight in his own outdated Lockheed Lodestar that Todd Jr. had urged him to get rid of as a needless extravagance and unsafe to boot - Mike’s plane flew into a mountain in New Mexico as it tried to go through a storm.

His death was as turbulent as his life but Mike Todd with all his bravado, with all his mercurial manners will long be remembered - is still remembered in Southbridge as the man who caused the AO to fly - if even but for a few short years.