Bruce Crawford, Film Historian, said his first film event occurred almost by happenstance.
“In 1992, exactly 20 years ago at this time, Ray Harryhausen, the special effects legend, got a Lifetime Achievement Oscar and I was with him for all of that. I’d been a big fan, friend and supporter of his for a long, long time. And I thought, ‘Wow, he’s getting more recognition now than ever. Maybe now is the time to see if I can get him to come back to Omaha and do something,” said Crawford.
After doing some research and figuring out how to get sponsors lined up to cover expenses, Crawford was able to fly Harryhausen from London to Omaha for a double feature of Mysterious Island and Jason and the Argonauts.
“Mysterious Island is the movie that really changed my life as a child, between Harryhausen’s visual effects and Bernard Hermann’s music,” he said.
So how did Jason and the Argonauts end up on the same bill? Crawford said it was Harryhausen’s favorite of all the films he did. Ultimately, the two films were screened together at the Indian Hills Theatre on a giant Cinerama screen.
Crawford was amazed how everything fell together. Even though it wasn’t easy and he had a learning curve, being a novice at putting events like these together, he said it was a wonderful success. And along the way, he began to learn the pitfalls and mistakes to avoid.
“I had been a fan since I was five years old, so this was a culmination of a life goal in a sense,” Crawford said.
Bolstered by the success of the Harryhausen event, Crawford got to thinking about what he wanted to do next. He admits he wasn’t at all sure there would be a next event. But he said if there was to be another event, he knew he wanted to show Ben Hur.
Calling William Wyler’s Ben Hur “the finest film I have ever seen,” Crawford wondered whether he could bring the film to Omaha. With Harryhausen, he had a connection but he had no such affiliation with anyone related to Ben Hur. He knew it would be an uphill battle. But Crawford persevered. He finagled his way to MGM Films, which Turner Entertainment owned.
“And I talked with Dick May, a film restorer, and he said it was possible we could do something with the film. I actually made my way up to Ted Turner after persistently calling his assistant,” said Crawford.
Ted Turner liked Crawford’s audacity and told him to talk with Roger Mayer. This was in the spring of 1993 and the studio was making a brand new print of the film in 70 mm with a Dolby digital soundtrack.
After securing the print, Crawford had to get the Indian Hills Theatre to sign on to show the film not just for one night, but for an entire week. Not long afterward, Crawford contacted star Charlton Heston to garner his support.
“I wanted to honor director William Wyler and his family, so I talked to them about the screening and they said they would come out to Omaha. It was mind boggling,” he said.
The premiere of the restored print got the cover of Entertainment Magazine of the Omaha World Herald and the cover of Parade Magazine. Additionally, Entertainment Tonight’s Leonard Maltin did a spot on national TV about it.
According to Crawford, “The Harryhausen visit made it possible for the Ben Hur event. And the Ben Hur event set the stage and it’s been downhill ever since.”
Crawford has shown a wide assortment of films from King Kong (1933) and American Graffiti (1973) to Titanic (1997) and now Carousel (1956) so one can’t help but wonder how he chooses these films.
“Sometimes it’s movie-driven and sometimes it’s guest-driven. I think of a film I know is popular in film form or a film that has people involved that are considered beloved. Then I see what I can engineer as far as lining up guests and obtaining a print of the film,” Crawford explained.
The types of films that make for good screenings are those that hold up well over time. Crawford said it has more to do with the quality of the movie than it does the actual time period.
“Just because a move is older, doesn’t make it a classic. Hopefully, the majority of films I bring have a timeless quality about them,” he said.
For Crawford, most of the films that have come out in the last decade aren’t worth his time. He said there are few exceptions, but for the most part, current films just don’t have the same staying power or impact that the films he shows possess.
At every film event Crawford does, people suggest movies for him to bring to Omaha. But Crawford admits he actually doesn’t think much past the next event. He looks at his schedule six months in advance and one film at a time. It’s a process that has served him well.
Jerry Gless is a longtime friend of Crawford and avid moviegoer. He said he was thrilled many years ago when he found out someone in Omaha (Crawford) was bringing back the great old films re-mastered in the new digital format.
Gless estimated he and his wife have attended about 20 of Crawford’s film events. And now he not only attends the events, but also has a hand in bringing them to Omaha.
“I had no idea that the person behind the scenes was the one and only Bruce Crawford from my hometown of Nebraska City,” said Gless.
After one of the film events a few years ago Gless told a friend he wanted to meet Crawford. After spending several hours discussing old films and quoting movie lines back and forth, they decided to pool their efforts.
“It was then that I decided to lend whatever financial assistance to Bruce that I could to secure the stars and films we wanted to bring to Omaha,” Gless said.
In deciding which charities will benefit from his events, Crawford said he tends to work with people he has worked with in the past. He has worked with over a dozen charities in the last 20 years.
Crawford’s next film event is Rodgers and Hammerstein’s musical Carousel on Friday, May 24th and it will benefit the Omaha Parks Foundation. He said the foundation is working to restore and build parks to encourage kids to get outside.
Crawford’s film screenings often include lots of extra pizzazz including re-enactors, dancers, artwork and autograph signings.
For Carousel, Crawford said there will be a dance company dressed in period clothing from the 1880’s who will be dancing to “June is Bustin’ Out All Over.”
Star Shirley Jones will be in attendance at the event, speaking before the film and signing autographs for attendees. Gordon MacRae was Jones’ co-star in Carousel. He died in 1986, but his daughter Mandy, who lives in Lincoln, will also be in attendance with some of her father’s memorabilia.
Crawford has done 32 events in 21 years, so what’s his favorite part?
“The best part of any film event is seeing it all come together and having a big crowd fill the theatre. I love seeing people being entertained in a way they could never have imagined in Omaha,” he said.
Carousel runs Friday, May 24th at 7:00 p.m. in Joslyn Art Museum’s Witherspoon Concert Hall. Shirley Jones speaks prior to the screening. Tickets are $20 at Omaha HyVee Food Stores at the customer service counters. Call 402.926.8299.