Route 66, Lucien Ballard and the Coleman

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You are looking at a photo of the original U.S. Route 66. Notice the concrete curbed border that once defined the narrow highway’s edges. This short section (one of very few scattered remnants still extant) is located just outside Miami, Oklahoma, a city of about 13,000—as of the last census. Miami is tucked into the tri-state corner of Kansas, Missouri and Oklahoma. You can’t get much more “heartland” than here.

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Miami is just under “US 66” marker top right corner

Michael Wallis’ wonderful book on Route 66, first published in 1990, is now available in an edition celebrating the highway’s 75th anniversary:

Route 66: The Mother Road 75th Anniversary Edition link

And if you doubt me about the book, here’s what Stanley Marsh says:

"Since the do-gooders abolished public hangings, the only show in town worth watching is the traffic on Highway 66 heading West and Route 66: The Mother Road is the best book we have to tell us what we are seeing." – Stanley Marsh III, Owner, Cadillac Ranch, Amarillo, Texas

Above is a picture of Stanley Marsh in 1981.
Above is a picture of Stanley Marsh in 1981.

Miami, now at the terminus or at the head of (depending on your direction of travel) the Will Rogers Turnpike, is a once prosperous town with a proud history rooted in agrarian liberalism, bible-thumping evangelism and home to several transplanted Native American peoples. It is also the birthplace of Heisman Trophy and Detroit Lions running back Steve Owens who has a major thoroughfare transecting the city named after him.

It is also where you can find the Coleman Theater.

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This description of the Coleman is from the Wikipedia entry:

The Theatre was built by George L. Coleman Sr. and opened on April 18, 1929. The building cost $600,000 to construct. The elegant Louis XV interior includes gold leaf trim, silk damask panels, stained glass panels, a carved mahogany staircase and decorative plaster moldings and railings. In 1983 the Coleman Theater was placed on the National Register of Historical Places.

The Coleman has been the subject of a lengthy and meticulous restoration effort for many years. It was once the major screen for Ottawa County in the era of the “movie palaces”. It also houses a magnificent pipe organ, the playing of which is the high point of a guided tour. One of its ironies is that this great instrument made its debut at the very end of the silent film era.

It was Route 66, the “Mother Road,” that during the Great depression brought audiences to the Coleman. It was also the escape route West for the refugees of the Dust Bowl—of Steinbeck’s and John Ford’s The Grapes of Wrath.  Can you imagine what it must have been like to see this seminal film, photographed by Gregg Toland, in this very theater? I was inside the Coleman recently and a sense of the audiences past was palpable.

The Coleman today hosts more live music than movies. It was a recent stop for a concert of the “Bob Wills Band.” Wills died in May of 1975 but the sound of the “Texas Playboys” (like Glenn Miller) lives on.

The Coleman may be an architectural treasure of cinema past. But there is also a major human treasure from Miami. The great cinematographer Lucien Ballard was born there in 1908. He began working in Hollywood at Paramount Studios the same year the Coleman opened. He had a long and colorful career.

In 1944 he photographed a noiresque film called The Lodger. I saw it for the first time last month on Turner Classic Movies. Ballard has been best known for his spacious “Western” cinematography with action directors Budd Boetticher and Sam “Bloody Sam” Peckinpah.

With Sam he made five pictures from 1972’s Ride the High Country and 1969’s The Wild Bunch to 1972’s Junior Bonner. Like his directors, Ballard was considered to be a “man’s man”. When I was a camera assistant doing freelance commercials in the late 60s, some of the grips and juicers who had worked with him regaled me with stories. One of Ballard’s favored tricks (I was told) was to always carry a walking stick both as a pointer for set lighting and as a prod for lads he felt were not moving about fast enough.

I don’t claim to be a Ballard expert but I was awed by the richness and the dramatic nuance of lighting in The Lodger. Its chiaroscuro light gave a Jack the Ripper story a level of tension and foreboding way beyond the inherent merit of the screenplay. Moreover, it was on this film that he met actress Merle Oberon. Though the star was considered an icon of beauty, a near fatal car crash in 1937 left her face scarred. Unsuccessful remedial cosmetic work a few years later made her continued career problematic by 1944. It was Ballard who came up with the idea in The Lodger of creating a camera mounted fill light that would wash out her blemishes. And, yes of course, this is how the “Obie” light was born.

Here is a photo of Oberon from 1941.
Oberon from 1941.

In the grand tradition of actresses and cinematographers, they were married the next year and did several more films together until their divorce in 1949. A footnote to this history is the irony that Ballard himself was killed in a car crash in 1988, near his home in Rancho Mirage.

A good biographical sketch of Ballard’s life and work is on IMDB.

I never met Ballard; his was a generation before many film school “brats” infiltrated the film business. In fact, when I began to look for any work at all in a still closed union shop environment, the very worst thing you could tell a prospective employer was that you had gone to “film school”. There was a not uncommon kneejerk supposition that “elitism” combined with “educated idiocy” fairly infected the air we upstarts walked through.

The ongoing restoration of the Coleman Theater aside, whenever I am in small town Oklahoma or other rural areas of the Midwest, a sure marker of prosperity, or the lack thereof, is the current state of the historic downtown movie palaces. Some are derelict, boarded up. Others have become thrift shops or appliance stores, often with fragments of the original marquee serving as signage.  But communities that are restoring these American architectural icons may illustrate a renewal of small town life. Especially for young people of dating age, no home theater system can rival the magic of a movie cathedral.

Oh, how does a died-in-the-wool Soouthern California cinematographer come to know about Route 66 fragments and the Coleman Theater? Besides Lucien Ballard, there is one other esteemed filmmaker from Miami, Oklahoma—my wife, the editor Carol Littleton.



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