I had the pleasure of speaking with Gerald Hirschfeld, ASC, a while back, and he shared some great stories from the old days in New York. Gerry was of course the man behind the camera for more than 50 features including Fail-Safe, Young Frankenstein, Diary of a Mad Housewife, My Favorite Year and Cotton Comes to Harlem. He was an early innovator in the television commercial world, and has been a member of the ASC for 65 years—longer than any current member. And he is the author of “Image Control - Motion Picture and Video Camera Filters and Lab Techniques.”
A native New Yorker, Gerry started out as an assistant to a still photographer in the fashion business. During the war, he made training and short entertainment films at the Signal Corps Photographic Center in Astoria. There, he came under the tutelage of ASC greats Leo Tover and Stanley Cortez. The imperious Cortez working for the U.S. Army sounded like a recipe for comedy. I asked Gerry for his recollections of Stanley from that time.
“Ellsworth Fredericks [ASC] was the assistant head of the camera department, and he felt that with Stanley there, they could learn something from him,” Gerry recalls. “He told Stanley that there were a lot of people there who didn’t know much about photography, and that he would like him to teach a lesson in lighting on one of the stages. Stanley said, ‘I don’t think I can do that. I’m not a teacher.’ Fredericks and his superior replied that Stanley would be teaching a class, and that was an order. What could he do? This is the Army, right?
“But that didn’t stump Stanley,” Gerry continues. “He went downstairs to the stage, and there must have been 50 G.I.’s down there. In the back of the room were the heads of the camera department. Stanley started out by saying, ‘Cinematography is a broad field, and there’s a lot to learn. Maybe the best thing would be for you to ask questions, and I’ll try to give the best answer.’ The first question was, ‘What is the difference between low key and high key lighting?’
“And Stanley replied, ‘That’s a very good question. With low key, you get the light as close to the floor as possible. And with high key, you get the light way up in the air.’ And that was the end of the session.”
Any who knew Mr. Cortez can picture that scene perfectly. Here’s another recollection of Gerry’s:
“Stanley always got choice assignments because of his reputation,” he says. “One day, they were going to make a short for the Army-Navy Screen Magazine with Leopold Stokowski and Marian Anderson. Stanley had had a prelight day, but this was the shoot day. Stokowski and Anderson were there, in make-up, ready to go. Stanley was nowhere to be found. He wasn’t on sick call. They were going crazy looking for him. Finally, they found him in the kitchen, peeling potatoes. They said, ‘Stanley, Leopold Stokowski is out there! You lit the set, you have to shoot this!’ Stanley replied, ‘I’ve been up since 4 a.m. peeling potatoes. If I leave now, they’ll have me back in here again tomorrow at 4 a.m. I’ll shoot it on one condition: I want it in writing that I will get credit for a full day of KP.’ And they gave him credit for a full day! That was Stanley Cortez and the Army in a nutshell.”
Gerry became an ASC member at age 29, in February 1959. Because he worked almost exclusively in New York in the 1950s and 1960s, he rarely showed his face at the Clubhouse in Hollywood. When he attended his first ASC meeting in 1976, acting president Cortez handed him his 25-year bronze card. “I saw jaws dropping,” Gerry recalls. “Many of the regulars thought I must have been a new member. Stanley and I shared a good laugh that night.”
It sounds like that wasn’t the only time they shared a good laugh.