The Movie Man

by Daniel Eagan | February 2019, History

Ken Richter photograph courtesy of the author

Essex filmmaker Ken Richter

Working from a lab
and factory in Essex, Ken Richter invented and built specialized aviation and camera equipment that was used around the world. As a globe-trotting pilot and cinematographer himself—in 1974, The New York Times named him one of the top travel film–lecturers in the country—many of these inventions were born of his own desire for better equipment.

Even as a youth in Randolph, Massachusetts, in the 1930s, Richter was obsessed with the clarity of images. He ground his own telescope lenses, and earned a scholarship to Harvard to study astronomy. It was a short leap to photography, where he experimented with both still and motion-picture cameras. After college, Richter worked as a cameraman in Hollywood, shooting everything from comedy shorts at Columbia Pictures to outdoor scenes used in montages.

Within three years, Richter left to film travelogues, those 15- to 20-minute tours of places like Mozambique or the Yukon that were once part of a typical night at the movies. He wanted the freedom to wait for the right atmospheric moment despite what the weather or budget said, to invent his own equipment when nothing available was good enough. And he wanted to see the world on his own terms, to portray places like the Alps and the Sahara accurately, not as backdrops to imaginary stories. Maybe the idea of shooting slapstick falls and punches on a sound stage felt too confining.

By the early 1940s, the major Hollywood studios had tired of travelogues, but they were still big business for independents like Julien Bryan and Don Cooper, who would rent out auditoriums and civic halls to stage their film-and-lecture tours.

Richter trained with Bryan for a time and continued to contribute to his library over the years, even after going out on his own.

Working on films for Bryan and for the federal Office of the Coordinator of Inter-American Affairs  helped pay off Richter’s college expenses. By 1943, Billboard magazine reported that he was booked far in advance for lectures at $100 each.

“I sell myself first,” he told Billboard. “The professional lecturer must be a celebrity, and once that is achieved, that is all the advertising I need to do.”

Then a chance meeting with Plattsburgh Press-Republican reporter Shirley Perry changed Richter’s life forever. She was interviewing him about his lecture tours, but something more clicked between them. They married in 1947 and settled in Essex, which would remain their base of operations for the rest of their lives.

With its unhurried pace and open vistas, the Champlain Valley gave Richter the time and space to develop ideas independently. After building an airstrip right outside his factory, he was free to shoot and fly as he wished.

He still faced a grueling schedule. For three or four months he and Shirley would tour Europe or Africa or another location, photographing cities, parks, festivals, political leaders, singers, families.

Back in Essex, they would edit their material, cutting thousands of feet of footage into 90-minute films while completing research on the sites they had visited.

Next came the tour.

“He’d start out on the East Coast and then work his way across the country,” his sister-in-law Linda Young said. “Every year he would give a benefit screening at the Whallonsburg Grange Hall, where he would show his latest movie.”

Richter’s films ranged from purely ethnographic, like Iran: Between Two Worlds, which he made for Encyclopedia Britannica in 1953, to the light-hearted tourism of O Canada! or To Austria With Love. He screened them in college classrooms, libraries, community centers, concert halls—wherever he could find an audience.

“Ken used notes, but there were no scripts for narration,” Young recalled. “Everything was extemporaneous for the entire show. Shirley was always in the projection booth, taking care of everything that was not under Ken’s control. She’d splice film if it broke, adjust the projector and cue him if the microphone wasn’t working properly.”

The charm and humor that won over audiences throughout the country worked just as well with advertisers. Richter made a series of educational films for the silversmiths Reed & Barton. While filming those, he also appeared in advertisements for the J. A. Maurer camera company.

“I went to Greece with them for three months,” Young said. “We went first class on a ship from the Greek Line, I believe it was the Arkadia. Ken actually filmed a commercial while we were on the ship, which paid for our first-class tickets.”

Young remembered a tense mo-ment trying to cross the border into Yugoslavia, at that time part of the Soviet empire. “The border guards weren’t going to let us through,” she said. “Ken pulled out this binder of still photographs and showed a picture Shirley had taken of Ken with Tito. When they waved us through, I said to him, ‘I guess it’s a good thing that you know the dictator.’”

“Ken and Shirley knew everybody,” said his nephew Marshall Crowningshield, of Whallonsburg.

Crowningshield and his cousin worked in the Richter shop. “Airplane parts, temperature probes, runway ground scopes for airplanes and helicopters,” Crowningshield said. “There was always something to be built. You would just go over and grab an order and start working on it.”

As Richter told the Press-Republican in a 1965 profile, “One out of every five small civil aircraft flying anywhere in the world has something in it made in this barn.” His companies, Richter Aero and Richter Cine, made a big difference after 110 men lost their jobs with the closing of the Willsboro Georgia Pacific pulp plant that year.

“They had high tea every day at four o’clock,” Young said. “It was a habit he picked up in England. He always wanted to shoot in the best available light, so they wouldn’t break for lunch. They kept the same schedule when they were home in Essex. Shirley would fix a punctual, four-o’clock high tea for all.”

As a testament to Richter’s skill and influence as a cinematographer, members of the American Society of Cinematographers still refer to his 1978 article in American Cinematographer on the factors determining 16mm image quality. In 1984, he won a Technical Oscar for his R-2 Auto-Collimator, a device to check the accuracy of lenses. Today, used equipment from his Richter Cine Equipment goes for thousands of dollars on online auction sites. And there’s the evidence from his films, carefully composed works with vi–brant color and startling clarity.

Richter loved the Adirondacks, so when the Essex County Chamber of Commerce needed a promotional film to attract tourists, the board turned to Ken and Shirley Richter.

Released in 1960, the half-hour Adirondack Holiday quickly became a local favorite. Tasked with covering as much of Essex County as possible, the Richters filmed over four seasons, including attractions that still draw visitors, like the Whiteface Veterans’ Memorial Highway and the Essex County Fair.

Many of the places they filmed are now lost. Footage of Land of Makebelieve, Frontier Town, tow ropes and ski slopes in Lake Placid will make viewers nostalgic for the past.

For a long time, Adirondack Holiday was almost lost as well. All that existed were black-and-white duplicates and poor quality videocassettes. But two years ago, archivist Rick Prelinger discovered Richter’s original color camera rolls in a collection of industrial films.

With the help of the National Film Preservation Foundation, Janice Al–len (a close friend of Richter’s) and Michael Kolvek at Cinema Arts Inc. have been able to restore Adirondack Holiday to its original glory. It’s part of an effort by archivists to collect and preserve all kinds of photographs, moving images, and ephemera related to the Adirondacks. The restored film was screened at the Lake Placid Film Forum in October, and will eventually be available online.

The next step is to secure the remaining thousands of feet of Richter’s footage. What other long-lost Adirondack scenery will be uncovered? Stay tuned. 

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