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King Crawford: Omaha’s very own movie mogul

Citizen Kane is often cited as one of the grea...

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I go back with Bruce Crawford 30 years.  We met for the first time when I was a film programmer/publicist at the University of Nebraska at Omaha and he was a wide-eyed film enthusiast. He specifically approached me about wanting to share his passion for the great film composer Bernard Herrmann, whom he had struck up a correspondence with late in the composer’s life.  I had a screening of Taxi Driver scheduled and Bruce asked if he could make a presentation about Herrmann and the composer’s scoring of that film.  We didn’t normally have speakers as part of our campus film program but something about Bruce’s magnificent obsession and tenacity convinced me to agree.  Flash forward about 15 years, when I was a fledgling freelance journalist and Bruce was first making a name for himself with the radio documentaries he did, including one on Herrmann, and with the revival screenings he staged of film classics.

The following is the first of many stories I’ve written about Bruce and his work as a film historian and impresario.  It appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com).  He’s since put on dozens more film events.


King Crawford:  Omaha’s very own movie mogul

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com)


There’s a bit of Elmer Gantry in Bruce Crawford, the dynamic Omaha film historian/promoter whose sold-out screening of the original 1933 classic King Kong unreels Saturday, May 30 at the Indian Hills Theater.

With his boyish good looks, magnetic presence and penchant for hyperbole he exudes the charisma of a consummate huckster and the passion of a confirmed zealot. An evangelist for that old time religion called the movies, he often describes his devotion in missionary terms and pays homage to Hollywood’s Golden Age through gala events and elaborate documentaries full of his characteristic verve and adoration.

And with its rich, delirious mix of mythology and metaphor, Kong is an apt choice for cinephile celebration and reverence. This ultimate escapist film combines still impressive visual effects with an outrageous Beauty and the Beast fable played out in a ripe Freudian landscape. Unlike, say, Godzilla, it taps our deepest fears and desires.

Crawford’s passion began in his native Nebraska City, where he had a born-again experience at the movies. It came when his parents took him as a child to see Mysterious Island, a 1961 Jules Verne-inspired fantasy adventure featuring special effects by Ray Harryhausen.

“I loved the effects and the creatures and the fantastic Jules Verne story. But it was the music that hooked me more than anything else,” Crawford said from the movie memorabilia and art-filled northwest

Omaha apartment he shares with wife Tami. “I remember when the music hit me. It was the opening with the boiling ocean and the Victorian lettering rolling across the seascape. I can’t quite find the words for it, but something connected.  t was almost like a diamond-tip bullet hit me between the eyes.  This music…wow! I was so overwhelmed by its beauty and majesty. I wasn’t old enough to read yet, so I asked my parents where the music came from.”

Bruce Crawford

When he found out it was by legendary composer Bernard Herrmann, he felt “a compulsion” to find out everything he could about the man and his work. He had a similarly dramatic reaction to hearing a cut of the love theme to Ben-Hur. Despite his unfamiliarity with the movie and the composer, Miklos Rozsa, he felt an affinity for each. “The music was sooooo beautiful.  Even without knowing it was a Biblical story I felt the Judaism. I felt the ancient world. Like with Mysterious Island I felt another connecting link in my life. That this was part of my destiny. I said, ‘I’ve got to see what movie this music goes to.’”

He finally did see Ben-Hur Christmas night in 1970, and it proved a revelation. “It changed my life.  I’ve never been so haunted and moved by something as I was by it. It was so profound, so literate, so poetic. I knew I’d seen a masterpiece. And somehow, on some psychic or intuitive or synchronistic level, a little boy in Nebraska City had this connection with these world-renowned musicians and filmmakers. I knew then I was meant to know these people and to do something with them.”

Amazingly, his life has intersected with the very objects of his devotion. As a precocious teen he began corresponding with the imposing Herrmann, the composer for such film classics as Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane and The Magnificent Ambersons and Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo and North By Northwest. Upon Herrmann’s death in ‘75 (after finishing the fever dream score to Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver) Crawford drew close to his family. By ‘88 he’d become an authority on the man and produced an acclaimed documentary on him which has since aired over many National Public Radio affiliate stations and over the BBC in Great Britain.

Crawford struck up a similar acquaintance with Rozsa and shortly before the composer’s death in ‘95 completed a documentary on him and his music that also garnered strong critical praise and wide air play.

Music has always spoken most strongly to Crawford. “My first and foremost love is great music, and for me film scores represent the 20th century’s answer to the great symphonies of the past 300 to 400 years. A film score is like a grand opera in a sense. It can tell what actors can’t say.”

Movie special effects also hold him enthralled. As a high school student he made an award winning short using the same kind of stop-motion animation techniques as Kong. He began networking with FX  artists and those contacts led him to the dean of them all — Harryhausen. In ‘92 Crawford coaxed Harryhausen, fresh from receiving an honorary Oscar, to attend an Omaha tribute in his honor. The men are now close friends.

Ray Harryhausen

The tribute proved a hit and spurred subsequent film events. The biggest to date being the 35th anniversary showing of Ben-Hur, for which Crawford scored a coup by making Omaha the first stop on the restored film’s special reissue tour and by getting family members of the film’s legendary director, William Wyler, to attend.

At a screening of Gone with the Wind he brought co-star Ann Rutherford and added atmosphere with women in period hoop skirts. For the Hitchcock suspense classic Psycho he secured an appearance by star Janet Leigh. Family members of late-great director Frank Capra (Mr. Smith Goes to Washington) and producer Darryl F. Zanuck (The Longest Day) came at Crawford’s invitation to Omaha revivals.

Many wonder how someone so far removed from the movie industry is able to gain entree to rarefied film circles, land interviews with top names (from Charlton Heston to Leonard Maltin), arrange celebrity guest appearances and enlist the aid of corporate sponsors. Crawford’s personal charm and genuine ardor for classic movies, and for the artists who made them, help explain how he does it.

Then too there’s the grand showmanlike way he exhibits old movies.  “The way they’re meant to be, but so rarely, seen,” he said, meaning on the big screen — with all the puffery, ballyhoo and flourish of a Hollywood premiere. For his 65th anniversary showing of Kong, which has been fully restored, he plans searchlights, a 30-foot tall Kong balloon, limousine-driven guests, a pre-show and a post-autograph session.

“What I’m trying to do is recapture the magic of going to the movies I felt as a kid,” he said, “and add to it with the glitz and the glamour. You get your money’s worth at a Crawford show, don’t you think?”

Kong’s special guests will include Harryhausen, who’s flying in from his home in London, renowned science fiction author Ray Bradbury (Fahrenheit 451) and noted film historian Forrest Ackerman. The three grew up together in California and were equally enchanted by Kong.

Harryhausen, who later apprenticed under the film’s effects master, Willis O’Brien, on Mighty Joe Young, credits Kong for inspiring his life’s work. “I was 13 when I saw it, and I haven’t been the same since,” he said by phone from London. “It left me startled and dumbfounded. It started me on my career. That shows you how influential films can be.”

Bernard Herrmann

The Kong pre-show or “live prologue,” as Crawford calls it, will recreate the film’s native ceremonial ritual — complete with dancers in painted faces and grass skirts — performed for Kong’s original run at the Grauman’s Chinese Theater in Los Angeles.

On his Kong Web page Crawford promises an evening “in the Sid Grauman tradition.” Crawford is indeed a Grauman-type impresario with a flair for extravaganza. He also resembles the P.T. Barnum-like Carl Denham character in Kong who charters the ship and leads the expedition in search of the big ape. In an early scene the first mate asks the skipper about the irrepressible Denham, “Do you think he’s crazy?” “No,’ says the captain, “just enthusiastic.” Likewise, Crawford’s undaunted fanaticism is that of the true enthusiast. His fervor largely accounts for the warm reception he’s been accorded by Hollywood insiders.

“I’m delighted he takes it so seriously and takes the initiative to try and present pictures the way they were presented in the early days,” said Harryhausen. “What you need is somebody with enthusiasm for these types of things. Bruce has that, and it’s wonderful.”

Gerry Greeno, Omaha city manager for the Douglas Theater Co., whose Cinema Center hosted past Crawford events, said, “He has that exuberance that generates interest and gets people to go along with him…and he’s not bashful about it. For some it might wear a little thin, but he puts a lot of time and effort into these events. He loves doing it.”

Bob Coate, who co-produced the Herrmann-Rozsa documentaries at KIOS 91.5-FM, where he is program manager, said he fell under the Crawford spell when the promoter pitched him the idea. “I’d never produced anything like that before. He kind of got me excited about doing it. His enthusiasm is definitely infectious.” Coate, now part of the Crawford coterie, added, “He’s a driving force. I know these events are tons of work for him, and wear him out, but I think he gets energy from doing them.”

As Crawford tells it, “I try to get people to do things they might not normally do, which I’m told I do a lot of. It’s being persuasive. You have to have that extravagant enthusiasm…that charisma. Some people keep it subdued and withdrawn. I choose not to.”

Until Coate approved the Herrmann program, Crawford had run into dead-ends trying to get it off the ground. “I went to several public radio stations and they said, ‘It can’t be done.’ Of course that went in one ear and out the other. I was determined to do it come hell or high water. Fortunately, Bob (Coate) was a Herrmann fan.”

The pair collaborated for months. In typical Crawford style he pushed the envelope by making the finished product two and a half hours long.  Upon hearing it, the feature most listeners remark on is the unusually long (often complete) musical passages from Herrmann’s radio, film and concert hall career and rather spare but informative narrative segments. The same approach is used with the Rozsa project.

Miklos Rozsa

“My programs are really audio musical biographies about the subject and his music,” Crawford said. “The thing that makes them stand out is that they’re 60 to 70 percent music and 30 to 40 percent discussion. There was no model I was aware. I didn’t know what the parameters were. And of course the rest is history.”

He refers to the favorable response the programs netted, especially the piece on Herrmann, who’s a cult figure. Crawford has heard from many famous admirers. “It’s considered the most extensive, the most comprehensive, the most successful documentary ever done on any composer of the 20th century,” he said. “That’s just not my opinion. That’s the opinion of Ray Harryhausen, Ray Bradbury, Danny Elfman, Jerry Goldsmith, David Copperfield, Robert Zemeckis…”

Part of his charm is the wide-eyed, gee-whiz glee he takes in his own achievements. In the Wonderful World of Bruce Crawford, there are only “huge” successes; “amazing” feats; movie “masterpieces;” and his own “almost superhuman” energy. When he goes on a riff about the accolades and national media coverage, he punctuates his speech with a rhetorical “Isn’t that something?” or “Isn’t that incredible?”

Well, who can blame him? He’s been brazen enough to develop world-class film connections and visionary enough to use them in meaningful ways. He’s seen himself become a touchstone figure for film buffs who bask in the glow of his and his famous friends’ celebrity. He’s been commissioned to write articles for major film publications. His services as a documentary producer and event promoter are in much demand.

This self-styled movie mogul rules over a niche market in Omaha for the celebration and veneration of classic films. Call him King Crawford. Still, even he can’t believe his dreams have come true.

“My God, who would have ever thought this was attainable? I didn’t see it coming. I did have a desire, which was obviously intense, but I didn’t know where it would lead. And then to have these giants respond to me, and not only respond, but become pretty close friends — that just doesn’t happen, man. Yeah, syncronicity.”

Perhaps it’s no coincidence then he and Tami live in Camelot Village.

“My life is like a strange sort of destiny.“ he added. “I don’t know how or why that is. That’s what serendipity is I guess. Amazing. Isn’t that wild?”

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