Remembering Chris Condon

I was manning the Super 8 Sound booth at a tradeshow (the name of which escapes me) in the mid-70s in Los Angeles. Set up in one corner of the booth were two Super 8 projectors mechanically interlocked showing 3-D movies on a small screen.  As people came by they put on cardboard glasses to have a look. The movies had been shot with a Super 8 rig of my devising.

Chris Condon came by and he began to talk to me as if we were old friends. He told me about his involvement with the 3-D movie The Stewardesses. He liked what I was showing and was encouraging which struck me as generous since there I was squirreled away in a little booth with Super 8 projectors and he had been making theatrical features.  He showed me a card that he had in his wallet that said that he was a vice president of Sierra Pacific airlines. Chris told me that the airline had gone under and that he had lost the $12 million he had earned from the stewardesses.

We talked about stereoscopic technology for a while but what I remember the most was how forthcoming he was to me, a stranger.  I stayed in touch with Chris in the days before and after I founded StereoGraphics Corporation. Chris and I created a venture called Future Visions. I ran across the logo recently. FUTURE DIMENSIONS was in drop shadow type with the shadows trailing off to infinity.

Chris was good at building stereoscopic camera and projector lenses but he needed somebody to represent the system and to act as a stereographer. He literally took me into his home and I stayed with him and Marge, his wife, and worked in his shop with him. We shot demo film behind the Stereovision International brick building on Burbank Boulevard. I pass that building on my trips to the hardware store, Burbank airport, or the studios. Every time I passed the building I think of Chris and bits of memory come to mind.

I learned more about Chris as he told me that he had been a bombardier in the Second World War and become fascinated with optics and airplanes. When he returned to Hollywood after the war he saw that there was a need for long focal length lenses for the film industry and he founded Century Precision Optics to fill that need. Later he got involved with the production of the Stewardesses by providing stereoscopic optics and by investing in the picture. It was an unusual film in that while it was in theaters it was still being shot, or more properly reshot. Chris told me that the film had originally been shot on dual 16mm film before he came up with optics that would allow it to be shot on a single 35mm roll of film. He used a side-by-side format with an anamorphic squeeze in the horizontal direction and it is the direct precursor of the format used in today’s stereoscopic television systems.

The Stewardesses, Chris told me, earned $26 million on a small investment. That convinced Chris that a lot of money could be made from the stereoscopic cinema and he began to devote more and more of his efforts researching stereoscopic optics. He sold Century Precision Optics to devote himself to Stereovision International.

He had a broad interest in stereoscopic optics and he built both 35mm and 70mm systems and became interested in the above and below 35mm format that others such as Robert Bernier had been developing. Chris had become convinced that above and below was the best way to go. It provided a Scope aspect ratio and an effective utilization of the 35mm  frame’s area. He pooh-poohed any criticism of the format, but there were some genuine technical shortcomings which he did attempt to overcome. He patented a projection lens for the format using a heat sink to overcome one of its problems. He produced a line of three focal lengths of above and below lenses that mounted on a reflex camera like an Arri so the camera operator could see through the lens. This was an improvement over Bernier’s Spacevison lens which worked only on non-reflex Mitchells.

In 1981 I worked on two films as part of the Future Dimensions venture. The first one was called Oldsmobile Dimensions of Quality that was shot in Detroit where I spent a week or so with a crew making a film that was to be shown only once at a tradeshow. Immediately after that shoot I headed to Shelby North Carolina to work with Earl Owensby on his 3-D film, Rottweilers, Dogs from Hell.

Although Rottweilers is a bad film the stereoscopic cinematography is good. Chris and I used the film as a calling card to try to get onto the Universal picture Jaws 3D. I remember us carrying the metal cans of 35mm film into the Black Tower on the lot. We did a screening for Pete Comendini, who ran Universal Optical, and the director of the show, Joe Alves. After screening about two reels they stopped the projector and told us that they couldn’t show the film to the executives who would make the final decision about who would get the job notwithstanding the excellent quality of the image.  “The 3-D is great but the picture is crap,” they said. They felt that the executives upstairs couldn’t separate the content from the image quality. So we didn’t get the job but Chris did wind up doing some B role photography for the show.

I continued to stay in contact with them Chris over the years. I bought some lenses from him and I would visit from time to time. I liked going to his shop on Burbank Boulevard. For one thing I had become part of his family and over the years they were proud of what I had accomplished. He was encouraging and helpful in a field that’s notorious for vile rivalries. The lens grinding area and the place where the lenses were assembled was always off-limits at Stereovison but people hung out there and the place was fun. It was an odd setup not the least of which because his son-in-law’s motorcycle repair was shop in the middle of it all.

The last time I had a real conversation with Chris was just a few months ago when we met at Pete’s coffee in Encino to discuss his attempt to sell me 400 lenses that he had made for India. He failed to get an upfront payment and after a bizarre disaster he was unable to ship the lenses. The Indians were producing their own 3-D movies and they were using his projection lens in theaters.  In one theater the audience took exception to the quality of the film and a riot ensued with people getting hurt and the theater being demolished. As a result of this the Indian customer canceled the deal and Chris was left with 400 warehoused lenses.

Chris also pitched another idea which might be considered to be odd coming from the man who produced the soft core movie The Stewardesses.  He was seeking financing for a travelogue about the Holy Land.

Recently I visited Chris several times in the hospital and care facility.  He was unable to recognize me or to speak.  And then I heard that Chris had died.  Goodbye Chris.

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