The Blog Only About Showbiz

Old educational films created by Centron in Lawrence are gaining new popularity

Posted by jahanzaibmemon on December 9, 2007

Near 11th and Massachusetts in downtown Lawrence, customers come and go from a bar and grill called It’s Brother’s!, unaware a successful movie studio once operated there.

These made-in-the-Midwest films weren’t shown in theaters. They didn’t have Hollywood-size budgets. But the movies were profitable and influential, and their subjects ran the gamut:

•In “The Snob,” Sarah spends her Friday evenings studying while her high school peers are out dancing. Is she too stuck up to hang out with the other kids?

•“Innocent Party” looks at the horrors of venereal disease. The jazzy music in the background forbodes doom. If only Betty had been home by 11!

•In “The Bully,” kids in the title character’s class get back at him for stealing their bikes.

•In “Shake Hands With Danger,” a Johnny Cash sound-alike croons about being careless while running heavy equipment. Real Hollywood stuntmen made the accidents seem frighteningly real in this safety film for Caterpillar.

Starting 60 years ago the Centron Corp. made these and many other 10- to 30-minute films typically seen in classrooms and boardrooms.

The studio earned hundreds of awards, including an Oscar nomination, and occasionally beat out big Hollywood players like animation giant Hanna-Barbera (“The Flintstones”) for corporate and government contracts.

“It was an amazing story to me, that they were able to compete and do well financially when they were in the middle of the country in a small town,” says Faye Riley, who wrote her University of Kansas doctoral dissertation on the company’s history.

Chances are good, however, that you’ve never heard of Centron. But thanks in part to the Internet, the studio’s movies and the people who made them are being rediscovered.

One showing, $1 million

The subjects of Centron’s movies varied widely. “We were generalists,” says co-founder Russ Mosser. “Basically we produced for education, we produced for industry, we produced for government.”

Although Centron had at most only about 50 employees, its client list read like a Who’s Who of corporate America: Hallmark, Conoco, Monsanto, Exxon, Eli Lilly.

Some of the movies are comparable to today’s TV infomercials but were shown at churches, civic clubs, sales meetings and conventions. Others were corporate training films.

The late Norm Stuewe, the company’s first employee and later a vice president, remembered an assignment for John Deere. The 1976 film “2000 Miles to the Checkered Flag” promoted a product John Deere no longer makes: snowmobiles.

Stuewe was tasked with shooting a race from St. Paul, Minn., to Winnipeg, Manitoba. At one point, while changing a reel on his camera, he discovered his fingers were frostbitten despite the snowmobile gloves he was wearing.

“We were in North Dakota,” Stuewe recalled. “I looked out the window and could see that a truck had been blown over, and the radio said the wind was blowing 35 miles an hour and it was 30 degrees below zero. I said, ‘They’re not going to take off in these snowmobiles in this kind of weather.’ Wrong!”

Stuewe, who died in October at 83, also went to the Soviet Union in 1958 for the fledgling travel company Maupintour and to gather material for educational films.

Centron’s movies did more than move merchandise. Screenwriter John Clifford remembers a film he worked on for Topeka-based psychologist Karl Menninger, who was trying to expand his Villages program into Philadelphia. The program placed abandoned children in regular homes.

Menninger couldn’t make it to the City of Brotherly Love himself, so instead he sent a film Clifford had written for him.

“A guy from the (Menninger Foundation) called me up two weeks later, and he had just received a check for $1 million to train their people to start these Villages,” Clifford says.

“I thought, not many films can make $1 million showing to one audience. Those are the kind of things I’m proud of.”

‘Mental hygiene’

Most folks, though, are most likely to have seen a Centron film in school, particularly between the late 1940s and the early ’70s. The company’s first movie, “Sewing Simple Seams,” launched a series of educational films that dealt with home economics, science, geography and how to behave as part of society.

That latter type of movie has been dubbed “mental hygiene,” and New Jersey-based author Ken Smith used to re-edit these films for comic effect on the Comedy Channel (now Comedy Central). He wrote the 1999 book Mental Hygiene: Classroom Films 1945-1970.

“There’s a whole genre of film that’s been kind of ignored,” Smith says. “It speaks to the fears that all parents have about teenagers. I made the point several times in the book that if the ’50s had been the way everyone remembers them, there’d be no need for mental hygiene films. There was a lot of darkness in that decade.”

Centron’s most noteworthy series was labeled “Discussion Problems of Group Living,” made for Young America Films during the 1950s.

A larger rival, Chicago-based Coronet Films, produced a series of flicks that modeled proper behavior for teens. But the Centron series — which included “What About Prejudice,” “The Snob,” “The Bully” and “Cheating” — presented stories that were more realistic and forced viewers to reach their own conclusions.

“The great thing about the Centron films is that they tended to be a bit darker,” Smith says. “They weren’t as clean-cut and goody-goody as the Coronet films. There was no clear-cut good guy or bad guy in a Centron film.”

A studio is born

Mosser, who ordered movies for the University of Kansas libraries, and Art Wolf, who’d worked at Kansas City industrial film giant the Calvin Co., opened a camera shop on Massachusetts Street in Lawrence in 1947. That same year they’d incorporate as Centron.

In 1955 the partners built a movie studio on Ninth Street. The building now houses the KU theater and film departments. KU professors Kevin Willmott and Matt Jacobson shot their Sundance hit “CSA: The Confederate States of America” there.

Centron’s small size often required that the staff double up on jobs. Wolf, for example, could shoot, produce, direct and even score his films. Writer Trudy Travis and editor Linda “Sam” Haskins directed films at a time when few women were doing so.

Travis says she practically made her own job. After seeing some sloppy signs written on index cards in the window of the newly opened Mosser-Wolf camera store, Travis made some of her own and presented them to Wolf.

“And then I went into the store,” Travis recalls. “I said, ‘You have such a beautiful new store. Those signs in your window are just awful, and I have made these signs for you as a housewarming present.’ ”

Turned out Wolf had made the signs himself. But instead of being insulted, he offered Travis a job at the store. Later, using calligraphy skills she’d picked up in a class, she’d write the title cards for Centron films.


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