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Unspooling Cleveland’s industrial film and musical history

Cinecraft founder Ray Culley speaks with Richard Nixon in the 1960s
Hagley Museum
Ray Culley (left) founded Cinecraft Productions in 1939. The company made several films for Richard Nixon in the 1960s, along with hundreds of commercials, industrial films and even some filmed musicals. A program of industrial musicals, hosted by former "Late Show with David Letterman" writer Steve Young, is at the Cleveland Cinematheque on November 9.

There’s been a film chain running from Cleveland to Delaware for the past four years.

Cinecraft Productions has been shuttling its archive from an old boiler room tucked in a former Cleveland library building near Lutheran Hospital to the Hagley Museum in Delaware. The reels from the Cleveland studio feature a treasure trove of industrial films dating back to even before the studio’s founding in 1939. It shows everything from then-Vice President Richard Nixon asking Republic Steel workers for their support to a film about the dangers of food-borne bacteria (1970’s “The Spoilers”).

General Tire, Youngstown Sheet & Tube, Terex and many more were once pillars of Northeast Ohio industry, spreading their message with the help of Cinecraft and its founders, Betty and Ray Culley. Their son, Jim, lives in Delaware and arranged for the Hagley to preserve scripts, still photos and about 6,000 cannisters of film.

“Dad - he was born in Norwalk, Ohio – became a jeweler and was quite successful at that until the Depression hit,” he said. “He decided he could make more money going to Hollywood. So, he got into the movies and was there for about eight years: first as an actor, then as an assistant director.”

That’s when Ray began working on a film about General Electric for a Cleveland-based studio. The project led him back home to eventually to set up Cinecraft. The firm specialized in short, sponsored productions intended for conventions, corporate meetings, educational settings and other venues away from movie theaters and television.

Mining the archive

The Cinecraft archive is rich with Cleveland history: Commercials for Fisher Fazio supermarkets, promotional pieces about the city, even a silent film from the 1920s, stored and forgotten in the Cinecraft vault produced by the Illuminating Company. There are also numerous installments of a long-running series of historical re-enactments, titled “The Ohio Story.” Many of them included fledgling actors from the Cleveland Play House, like a pre-fame Alan Alda.

In 1954, the Culleys mounted one of their biggest productions: “Fan Family Album” for Westinghouse, which had a factory in Mansfield.

“Now, how do you get sales people to be excited about fans?” said Jim Culley. “They trucked in tons of sand... got a whole bunch of bathing beauties to each be dressed in a different bathing suit for the era, talking about how fans have evolved over time.”

A recruiting film for the Lake Carriers’ Association required production crews to board ships with heavy cameras during October - the worst time for weather and cooperative lighting.

“It might take a half a day to set up a 30-second shot," said former Cinecraft owner Neil McCormick. "There was no take two. 'Back up, please, ship, and try that again.’”

McCormick started working at Cinecraft in 1976, overseeing the transition from film to videotape. He eventually bought the company and then retired in 2021. Today, his stepson has transitioned the company to e-learning.

“They've moved into… web delivery training content,” he said. “It's a much more specialized niche, and we have the video experts to do e-learning. The company has a whole new life all over again.”

Cinecraft’s first musical, “Milestones of Motoring,” was produced in 1954 for Sohio and featured vaudevillian and Toledo native Joe E. Brown alongside future talk show legend Merv Griffin.

“The idea was to introduce boron gas, which was Standard Oil’s leaded gas, for the first time,” Culley said.

Famous or not, getting actors was sometimes easier than it might be for straightforward entertainment programs thanks to Cinecraft producer Bob Haviland.

“Bob would go and get in the fanciest hotel in Hollywood and look for the actors that are having lunch in the hotel,” he said. “If they're having lunch in the hotel, they're not working and he knows they were available. Many people would do it, just like they do the industrial musicals.”

Industrial musicals vs. films

Industrial musicals were a step beyond industrial films. The latter might show a poor man’s Darth Vader extolling the virtues of plastic containers. The former could be a lavish musical, performed live just a handful of times, about Ford’s new transmission design.

Steve Young discovered this shadow universe of showbiz during a quarter-century of writing for David Letterman. From 1990 until 2015, he curated oddball record albums for both “Late Night” and the “Late Show.” The vinyl led him to films. He’s presenting some of the best - and the bizarre - in industrial musicals at the Cleveland Cinematheque on November 9.

“I mean, how many copies of the JCPenney 1962 musical were pressed?” he said. “It was only given to people in the company. For every film I'm going to show in Cleveland, I believe they're transferred from the only known print in the world. The distance between ‘saved’ and ‘not saved’ is razor thin at this point.”

Why musicals? Young said the advent of long-playing records, the public’s fascination with Broadway and post-WWII consumerism convinced corporate America to shell out big bucks for talent like Kander and Ebb or Sheldon Harnick. It’s difficult to know which ones were filmed by Cinecraft, but several have local connections to companies like Durkee Foods or B.F. Goodrich, sponsor of the 1979 musical, “The Great Life.”

“It has a song about the devil who wants to get a hold of a guy’s Goodrich tire dealership… unless the guy can sell enough tires,” he said. “It seems like all is lost. Spoiler alert: It turns out fine.”

That came near the end of industrial musicals’ heyday as showtunes lost favor and corporate accountants slashed convention budgets.

“There was so much new technology with video and big screens and ‘let's just hire Tony Bennett to come in and sing his hits rather than write a fresh original musical that's going to break the bank,’” Young said.

Industrial musicals still exist, such as one Young recently worked on for an unnamed company after they saw Dava Whisenant's 2018 documentary featuring him, "Bathtubs Over Broadway.” He hopes that with the popularity of “Glee” and “Hamilton” and “Wicked,” the industrial musical could rise again.

“Composers have told me about watching the audience and seeing these hard-bitten middle managers and salesman with tears rolling down their faces like, ‘Somebody gets it. Somebody understands what we're up against out there,” he said.

Kabir Bhatia is a senior reporter for Ideastream Public Media's arts & culture team.