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Film Industry in Kansas

Kanas Emergency Relief Committee filmThomas Edison, credited with developing the motion picture camera, predicted “Books will soon be obsolete in the schools. . . . It is possible to teach every branch of human knowledge with the motion picture.” Although many films made over the past 100 years have been intended to entertain, others were designed to teach, inform, inspire, and persuade.

The Kansas Historical Society’s State Archives has thousands of hours of archival footage on film and videotape. Kansans featured in these films include Senator Arthur Capper, “goat gland doctor” John R. Brinkley, freestater Isaac Goodnow, and actor Reb Russell. Films also depict Ellsworth High School, Fort Hays State Historic Site in Hays, Independent Salt Mine in Kanopolis, the Salina Burial Pit, Washburn University, and the communities Canton, Fairview, Gridley, Lawrence, Medicine Lodge, Topeka, and Tuttle Creek.

Political researchers can find interviews with former governors and Governor John Carlin’s campaign commercials. Films also include Governor William Avery’s Christmas message for 1965 and Governor Alfred Landon’s reflections on his presidential campaign.

Government agencies from the federal down to local levels have used film to document their programs and solicit support for their work. The Kansas Emergency Relief Committee (KERC) used film as a medium to report on its accomplishments. This agency provided assistance to Kansans during the Great Depression and Dust Bowl. KERC projects included emergency education, transient relief, rural rehabilitation, drought relief, and a slew of public works projects including the construction of farm ponds and lakes and the renovation and construction of public buildings, roads, and quarries. These films, made in 1936 now provide an archival record of KERC projects and can be found on kansasmemory.org. One chapter of the KERC film documents transient relief, including a men’s camp that created Lake Wabaunsee. Another chapter features women’s projects, such as a sewing room in Pittsburg that provided clothing for needy Kansans. The KERC’s response to natural threats, such as jackrabbit overruns, dust storms, and floods, are shown in other chapters.

State agencies whose films are in the Historical Society’s collections include the Kansas Department of Health and Environment, Kansas Wheat Commission, Kansas Department of Agriculture, Kansas Fish and Game Commission, Kansas Department of Education, and Kansas Department of Transportation. The Kansas Industrial Development Commission film Star 34 is a look at early 1960s Kansas through the eyes of a couple who have Kansas roots but live elsewhere. They travel the state, discovering Kansas’ landscapes, historic sites, events, industry, and recreational opportunities. By the end of this short film, the couple decides to move to Kansas.

Star 34 and many of the other state agency films were produced by Centron Films, a Lawrence-based company. Centron was also famous for its mental hygiene films. Childhood friends Russell Mosser and Arthur Wolf grew up in Topeka and attended the University of Kansas in the 1940s with ambitions of becoming filmmakers. Their first film, produced in 1947, was called Sewing Simple Seams and was a one-reel lesson on sewing. It was shot on a shoestring budget in a Lawrence home. It was purchased by Young America, an instructional film company. Demand for these kinds of films increased, and Centron became a national competitor in the field of educational and industrial film production.

Centron’s films were intended to correct the perceived evils plaguing American youth and were played in classrooms across the country. Titles included The Bully, Cindy Goes to a Party, and What About Drinking? Centron took advantage of locations and talent. It hired local residents to write scripts, act, and work on the crew. Centron won hundreds of awards for its educational films.

Entry: Film Industry in Kansas

Author: Kansas Historical Society

Author information: The Kansas Historical Society is a state agency charged with actively safeguarding and sharing the state's history.

Date Created: August 2010

Date Modified: February 2013

The author of this article is solely responsible for its content.