The Communications Center on the campus of Marist College is named after Lowell Thomas: a handle that probably won’t mean much to young students before they get there, but is evocative indeed for people old enough to remember the early days of television. Thomas (1892-1981), who long made his home in Pawling, was a pioneer broadcaster, journalist, lecturer, author, globetrotter, raconteur and media technology innovator, known to many Americans in the mid-20th century as the voice of many a travelogue. These recorded journeys to “exotic” parts of the world became staples of black-and-white TV in the 1950s, after having dominated the radio airwaves and appeared as cinema newsreels for decades before that.
During World War I, Thomas was sent to Europe by Woodrow Wilson to film propaganda documentaries bolstering US involvement in the war. Then the British Foreign Office dispatched him to Palestine as a war correspondent covering General Allenby’s campaign against the Ottoman Empire. There Thomas struck up an acquaintance with T. E. Lawrence and began filming his exploits, which became part of a road show of film clips and lectures that eventually made Thomas a millionaire and made Lawrence “of Arabia” a household name. (Lawrence himself wasn’t especially pleased about it.)
In the 1930s, Thomas became the first person to air a simulcast and the voice of Fox Movietone Newsreels. In 1940, he anchored the first live telecast of a political convention: the Republican National Convention in Philadelphia. In 1949, he recorded the last film, photos and audio taken in Tibet before it was invaded by China. In the 1950s, he co-created the multicamera surround-screen technology called Cinerama. Later that decade he founded Capital Cities, a major broadcasting group that is now part of the Walt Disney Company, and created the popular TV travel series High Adventure. His radio news program had been on the air for 46 continuous years when he retired in 1976.
Shortly before his death in 1981, Marist conferred an honorary degree on Thomas, and he left his personal archives to the college’s James A. Cannavino Library. This vast collection of research materials contains more than one million documents, 40,000 images, hundreds of objects and thousands of hours of audio and film footage, and is valued at more than $10 million.
That motherlode of data has enabled the making of a new full-length documentary, titled Voice of America: Lowell Thomas and the Rise of Broadcast News. It will have its premiere screening this Saturday, April 21 in the Nelly Goletti Theater in the Murray Student Center. The event will kick off with a 5:30 p.m. reception and a 6:30 question-and-answer session with the film’s director, Rick Moulton, and producer, Ann Thomas Donaghy, who is the granddaughter of Lowell Thomas. The screening itself will begin at 7 p.m.
Admission is free, but advance registration is required; call (845) 575-3364 or visit www.marist.edu/events/2018/04/21/8764. Parking will be available in the Donnelly Hall parking lot. Marist College is located at 3399 North Road (Route 9) in Poughkeepsie.