From The News

Friday, October 18, 1985


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


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 Linda M. Daniels

News Staff Writer

It’s cold for October and they want to sit near the window at a table dappled by the late afternoon sun.

Walter Siegmund orders ginger ale, Brian O’Brien Jr., a beer. Siegmund’s words tumble, roll, slide, loop from one thought to the next, finally stop when a vivid memory pulls him up short.

Then he clasps O’Brien’s arm.

“Remember?” he says.

O’Brien, a tall man who sits straight in a soft chair, lets his large frame collapse a bit and leans forward. “Remember” he says, “who could forget?”

Siegmund sat separately in a darkened theatre, wearing a dark suit, and significantly darker hair. Siegmund touches his full, white beard and issues a sigh of comic regret.

“Now I’m distinguished. But I really looked quite handsome at age 30.”

O’Brien grins, reaches for a cracker. “And I was thinner.”

On Oct. 10, 1955, the two were dazed from last-minute efforts to print a film the likes of President Harry Truman, Debbie Reynolds and Eddie Fisher were sitting in a fancy New York City theatre to see.

Hollywood’s p.r. people may have tacked on the exclamation point because it looked impressive on marquees, but “Oklahoma!” from a technical viewpoint, deserved the exclamation point, say O’Brien and Siegmund.

This was Todd-AO. Audiences, like never before, could enter the story along with the characters on the wide screen. That realization drove about 100 American Optical researchers, scientists and technicians to work one long day after another for 36 months.

Oct. 10, 1955 was the climax ... sort of. O’Brien, 62, now a private consultant, and Siegmund, 60, a fiber-optics scientist at Reichert, were two background men among a roomful of glitter and glory. The excitement had been in the production, not the final product.

Neither recalls if it rained or was clear, whether they drove themselves or took cabs to the theatre, whether their suits were black or blue. Both sets of eyes were scrutinizing the screen for technical problems and successes.

Siegmund places both elbows on the table, presses his fingertips together. “If we had had more time ... the pressure was unbelievable. We got rushed into the process before we were ready. I hadn’t slept for two nights in a row. the hour had arrived.”

O’Brien drains his glass.

“I was mad as hell at those idiots! The stupid woman who edited the film.”

Brien O’Brien Sr., Todd-AO’s mastermind, was, in his son’s words, “thoroughly disgusted” that October evening. When the house lights went down and the projector illuminated the screen, scratches - deep, wide, hard-to-miss scratches - marred the picture.

Siegmund was sandwiched between Director Fred Zinneman and film editor Arthur Miller. The credits were rolling down the screen. Then the streaks of light appeared. Zinneman leaned over Siegmund and whispered fiercely to Miller, “How could you give me a print like that?”

“I’ll never forget that moment. It was uncomfortable, to say the least,” says Siegmund.

“Idiots,” repeats O’Brien, but more softly this time.

“Quite frankly, it was trusted to a group of amateurs. I had dreams in college of becoming a technical expert in Hollywood. After Todd-AO, I think I came away with a little bit of disillusionment.”

“That cutter,” says O’Brien, his voice loud again.

“The extremes we went to handling the film, gloves and all, and that woman’s carelessness. Damned scratches.”

Siegmund’s words begin tumbling again and now O’Brien’s speech comes faster too. The waitress brings another round but the two leave their drinks untouched for minutes. The sun has traveled past the table, hit the top of Siegmund’s shoes and settled onto the carpet.

“forgive us,” says Siegmund. “We have a lot of catching up to do about this. It was the most exciting time in my life, those three years. You’re taking us a long way back. Is there something else we should be telling you?” O’Brien releases a small smile when asked what O’Brien Sr. thinks of dissecting a long-ago evening. “I talked to my father this morning and he wondered why I was wasting my time.”

“Now, now,” says Siegmund.

“I don’t mean anything by that,” says O’Brien.

The two sit quietly for a moment. It’s not easy, they say, to recall a swirl of emotions now three decades distant.

“It was the most exciting period of my life, the climax, if you will. Everyone involved in that project loved it. But Hollywood was not for me. The optical scientists at American Optical were the best and that attracted me more than Hollywood,” says Siegmund.

“Once Mike (Todd) asked me if I wanted to live in Hollywood,” says O’Brien. ‘Hell, no,’ I said. I’m sick of looking for stars in the rear view mirror.”

The two laugh long and loud. It is a good joke to be recalling extravagant movie budgets, nervous directors and Mike Todd’s girlfriends in an empty restaurant along a quiet Main Street.

“We could use a new project,” says Siegmund.

“Maybe so,” says O’Brien.