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Reflections on the 60th Anniversary of Todd-AO screening of Oklahoma

The 70mm Newsletter
Written by: Dick Whitney, Southbridge, USA Date: 21.11.2015
Dick Whitney at the Todd-AO display with the new 60th anniversary "Oklahoma!" 1-sheet poster.

A few weeks ago I took my family to see the 60th Anniversary screening of the 1955 Todd-AO production of the movie "Oklahoma!". A restored version of the original film was being shown at a local movie Theater in Worcester, MA. When I emailed Thomas of this event, he asked me to document this for his website. I was glad to do so as I have a long time interest in this film and Todd–AO as I will explain in this article.

My name is Dick Whitney and I am the Executive Director of the Optical Heritage Museum in Southbridge MA, where American Optical developed the Todd-AO process. Before recounting the 60th Anniversary Theater screening, it is appropriate that I give a brief background of my special interest in the film, and my connection with Thomas and his superb website that includes Todd-AO.
More in 70mm reading:

Fred Zinnemann's "Oklahoma!" in Todd-AO

in70mm.com Presents: You are in the Show with Todd-AO

Historical Wide Screen Gathering

Internet link:





Background to this story

"Oklahoma!" playing in New York, October 1955. Image by Donald Whitney

I began working at American Optical 41 years ago, and today I work for Zeiss, which is now sponsoring the Museum. They purchased AO’s eyeglass business 10 years ago. My Father, Donald Whitney, began working at AO in 1947 in ophthalmic lens design. He was hired by John Davis, who later would be involved in Todd–AO. Don was also was an avid photographer. A hobby which he passed on to me. That hobby, and his appreciation of music such as big bands, jazz and Broadway musicals, were interests that he passed on to me.

I was born and still live in Southbridge, MA where AO was headquartered. Growing up it was not uncommon to hear my family and friends discuss Todd–AO, and recount when Hollywood came to Southbridge! My parents and my in-laws both were in the Audience at the Rivoli Theater a few days after the film premiered in NYC in Oct. 1955. The outside shot of the Rivoli marque was taken by my father Don at that time.

The Southbridge / Denmark Connection

Beatrice Hamel greets a visitor at the AO Southbridge R&D building ~1955

In 1997, I began to dabble with posting family photos on the Internet, and also began to collect American Optical memorabilia. At that same time Thomas planned a trip to the area to meet with those involved in Todd–AO and to tour American Optical. As luck would have it, he contacted me and I gave a tour of the complex and also showed them the AO / Optical Heritage Museum.

Founded in 1983 for the 150th Anniversary of the company, the Museum was housed in a small room in the AO main plant building. By then, most of the building had been vacated and in 2000, it would be put in storage when much of the AO Main plant was demolished. By that time I was asked to oversee the collection, but until 3 years ago when my company Zeiss sponsored the re-opening and expansion of the Optical Heritage Museum, I had no place to put it.

When Thomas visited Southbridge in 1997 and met with Walt Siegmund and others involved, I became increasingly interested in the technical aspects behind this unique film process. The excitement by all involved in recounting their experiences was contagious. Thomas’ account of his visit when we met for the first time is on his website:

I continue to be amazed by what he has posted and his work on documenting the history of Todd–AO is amazing! I also have a link on my website in tribute to Todd–AO, but always point people to the ultimate authority – Thomas! This is a Youtube video that I posted of a video taken at the Museum the day of their visit in 1997. Also, this is my website on Todd–AO on my American Optical History portion of my site.

Fast forward to the 60th Anniversary Screening of Oklahoma - Nov 1, 2015

Peg, Chris and Erica outside the cinema

My wife Peg and “children” (Chris and Erica - now grown adults), came with me to the Worcester Showcase Cinema complex to view the movie "Oklahoma!" Chris and Erica were exposed to this movie since they were pre-schoolers, for at that time we had a Betamax recorder and my father had gotten a recording of the movie. They played this movie over and over and acted out many parts of the film, singing and dancing by the TV.

None of us had ever seen this film on a large screen, however, and we all were excited to see it full screen format in the movie theater. While it was not on the curved screen of the Rivoli, the experience of seeing this film restored and projected in the theater was something I will never forgot. I could not resist using my cell phone camera to capture the opening credits, and was especially excited to see the opening credit to American Optical Company.
Preceding the actual film was a segment that included a talk by Ted Chapin (President and Executive Director of Rodgers and Hammerstein org) and Kristine Chenowith (Broadway singer). He discussed the Todd –AO film process and held up examples of the film types. He also credited American Optical for this film process developed 60 years ago.

While I expected to be pleased with seeing the film in full screen, I did not expect to be blown away. The quality of the image, and the whole film production of "Oklahoma!" was outstanding. The opening sequence where “The Corn is as high as an elephants eye” set the tone of movie, but seeing it full screen in the Theatre made it a whole new experience. It was apparent that this restoration and theatre experience brought the viewers in the audience as close to that 1955 production as was possible. The clarity of the image was amazing, and seeing it on the screen rather than my television made me experience this film in a whole new way. I also was reminded of the perfection of the film rendition of this American musical classic.
I could not resist using my cell phone camera to capture the opening credits and was especially excited to see the credit to American Optical Company.

As I left the Showcase North Movie Theater, I was pleased to be presented with the poster to the movie. Prior to the screening I had requested it, as I explained the Optical Heritage Museum / Todd–AO linkage. I subsequently had I framed for display in the Museum. Yesterday it was placed above the case that houses Todd-AO artefacts (as well as early AO Fiber Optics items), both of which were developed by AO Southbridge.

Shown below is closer image of the case, which includes an original reel and the tickets/theatre booklet from the 1955 NYC movie debut.

Optical Heritage Museum

A closer image of the case, which includes an original reel and the tickets/ theatre booklet from the 1955 NYC movie debut. Image by Dick Whitney

Dick Whitney is the Executive Director of The Optical Heritage Museum, which is dedicated to the preservation, education and research in the history, growth, culture and contributions of the optical industries from the 19th Century to the present.

Please visit the Optical Heritage Museum if you are in the area. We are situated one hour west of Boston Mass and only 5 miles from Old Sturbridge Village (founded by AO). The Optical Heritage Museum is open Wednesday - Friday 10.00am to 4.00pm or by appointment. Please phone Dick Whitney to arrange an after hours tour 774-230-8016.

Optical Heritage Museum
12 Crane Street
Southbridge, MA 01550
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Updated 07-01-23