From filmmaker Rick Moulton’s viewpoint, “If you watch a newscast today, download a news video, listen to the radio or a podcast then you are benefitting from the work of Lowell Thomas.”
With his new documentary “Voice of America: Lowell Thomas,” Moulton aims to introduce new generations to the media world’s original start-up. Dan Rather, Tom Brokaw, the Dalai Lama and David Folkenflik spoke of Thomas’ lasting impression in the 90-minute documentary that is making the rounds at film festivals. Taking a boots-on-the-ground approach to journalism, Thomas traveled the globe many times over, evolving from a Chicago cub reporter into a filmmaker in the Twenties, a radio newsman in the Thirties and a lifelong adventurer. In his expansive career, Thomas penned more than 50 books, started Capital Cities, created “Cinerama” and pioneered broadcast journalism. His start-up efforts included borrowing $50,000 from a Chicago businessman to film the war from the Western Front before moving on to the Middle East in time to record General Allenby’s entry into Jerusalem. For the first nightly radio newscast in 1930, he lined up a sponsor, the Literary Digest, to pay for air time via NBC and CBS.
With an open demeanor and a willingness to listen, the down-to-earth Thomas tried to be engaging with plain English, which appealed to many. Growing up in a gold boom town in Colorado, his physician father gave him elocution lessons every night. Moulton said, “The most salient contribution he made is the down-the-middle form of broadcasting. The idea that you’re going to verify everything, play it down the middle, you’re not going to alienate anyone on the left or on the right — you’re going to give it straight down the middle — here are the facts. That really carried on for maybe 70 years. It may be the only time in our journalistic history where the national news was straight down the middle.”
Jump-starting the work-from-home trend, Thomas created his own wood-paneled recording studio in Midtown, and had remote ones at his 350-acre Quaker Hill estate and ski-friendly ones in Sun Valley and Aspen before the resort was established. “He would pay the line charges to keep that line open for 24 hours or whatever chunk of time was needed. His engineers would hook up his broadcast equipment right into the phone line. So he was broadcasting from Aspen well before the ski resort was there — from Mt. Rainier. He just did that from all over America, always using the locale as a romantic thing — ‘Here I am in Stowe, Vermont.’ It really helped glamorize skiing and popularize the sport.”
Thomas also turned the British officer T.E. Lawrence into “Lawrence of Arabia” with the multimedia show he created in 1919. He led the first live telecast from a political convention — the Republican one in Philadelphia. In 1949, Thomas slipped into Tibet and interviewed the Dalai Lama before China invaded and aired his broadcasts with the first dry cell battery. Cinerama, surround-screen technology was also Thomas, made in the Fifties, as was Capital Cities later that decade. Thomas remained chairman of the broadcasting group until his death in 1981 at the age of 89. (Moulton noted how the company Thomas started with about $1 million was sold to Disney for $19 billion in 1995.) He was also on the first continuous flight between the North and South Poles.
While working on “Legends of American Skiing” and learning that Thomas had helped to pioneer the sport, Moulton approached Thomas, who immediately offered to come to Vermont and even broke out his skis for the shoot. His retirement in 1976 had only meant the end of his nightly broadcast after more than 45 years. The newsman picked up specials for the BBC and PBS, wrote a book about aviation and “always had umpteen projects going on,” Moulton said. And he never stopped traveling. Anywhere he went, he was in demand and people wanted to hear from Lowell Thomas,” Moulton said.
Travel was the bedrock of his career. In Europe during World War I, he photographed presidential-authorized documentaries to try to bolster the public’s perception of the U.S. Involvement. Later dispatched to Palestine as a war correspondent, Thomas chronicled General Allenby’s campaign against the Ottoman Empire. Along the way he befriended and photographed T.E. Lawrence, and over time created Lawrence of Arabia. One million people saw the multimedia performance first at the Royal Opera House and later at the Albert Hall, with about 20,000 turning out two times a day. The projection booth weighed two tons and housed three Carbon Arc Projectors, two for lantern slides and one for film.
“He just always wanted to know what was on the other side of the mountain. He was always curious. As Dan Rather said in the film, if you want to know about something, you’ve got to be there, go there, put your feet on the ground. That was what gave Lowell Thomas such credibility. He had been everywhere,” Moulton said. “He had retraced the Silk Route, flown over the hump into China, Timbuktu. He seemed to have a photographic memory. Even when he was 89 years old, these names and places would just roll off the tip of his tongue.”
Like many of his subjects, Thomas was a troubadour. In Tibet, Thomas broke his hip in eight places after being thrown by a horse. With no wheels allowed to touch the ground in Tibet at that time, Thomas had to be hand-carried by three rotating crews of Tibetans to keep moving 2 mph “all the way across the top of the planet. It took almost three weeks to get him out. There was no morphine or anything like that for him, so he was gritting his teeth and bearing it. He could have died just from internal injuries. This was September so they were racing winter,” Moulton said.
Another former chairman of Capital Cities and ABC, Thomas Murphy, appears in the film as an adult and a youthful softball player. With a family home near Thomas’ Quaker Hill escape, he was part of the annual softball games between teams organized by Thomas and Franklin Delano Roosevelt. While the 32nd President relied on White House press corps members and a few White Sox players for his team, “one year Lowell called up Babe Ruth to get him to come play — and he struck out,” Moulton said.
As for what the filmmaker finds most impressive about Thomas’ life, Moulton said, “He certainly had this ability to recognize and use the latest technology all the time and to be one step ahead,” Moulton said. “What I think is amazing is he had this unquenchable ambition and drive and he was a really gentle, kind guy. I don’t think that’s true of all famous people, or maybe even many famous people.”