Friday, February 22, 2013
Roy Jobbins Pomeroy, Oscar Winner and Early Hollywood Special Effects Technician: The Life of an Artist.
Research by Patricia Cusick Whipple
Story and additional research by Kate Corbett Pollack
Darjeeling, Bengal, India, April 20, 1893. A baby’s cry pierces the serene atmosphere of this mountainous town, located in the Mahabharat Range of the Himalayas. A gentle wind rustles through the lush, verdant tea leaves that line the terraced hills. Mist envelopes the surrounding jungle, home to tigers, elephants, leopards and many other exotic species. On this day, William Henry Jobbins and Jeannette Shepherd Hauser welcomed the birth of their second son, Amos Pomeroy Jobbins. William (1851-1893) and Jeannette (1862-1938), an ambitious couple living in this beautiful area of India, were British subjects. Jeannette was a direct descendent of General Seth Pomeroy, the American Revolutionary war hero, a lineage she was very proud of. Keeping with the family tradition, she included Amos’ fourth generation great-grandfather’s surname as her son’s middle name. His first name was taken from his paternal grandmother, Sarah Amos, who married Thomas Jobbins on January 17, 1847 in Coventry, England.
William and Jeannette’s first son, Arthur, was born in Calcutta in 1891. Little Amos would spend his early childhood in India, playing with his older brother and beholding the rich culture of Darjeeling, at that time still under the control of the British Empire. William, the boys’ father, was the director of the Indian Art School in Calcutta, the capital city of West Bengal. Previously, he had taught art in Nottingham, England, and had spent time in Venice, Italy, where he shared a studio with James McNeill Whistler in a 17th century palazzo on the Grand Canal designed by Venetian Baroque master Baldassare Longhena. The two artists’ personalities clashed, and William did not enjoy working in the same space as the now legendary American artist, whom he felt was a second-rate painter with loose morals.[i] Jobbins’ paintings of Venice are valued among art collectors today. Jeannette was born in India to American Christian missionaries, and had grown up traveling to India from her native Ohio. This colorful locale set the tone for Amos’ life, which would be a kaleidoscopic one full of adventure, mystery, beauty, and scandal.
Sadly, William Henry Jobbins died not long after Amos was born, resulting in Jeannette and the boys moving back to England. Jeannette remarried by 1897 to James Bernard Scale, and the family settled in London. Arthur and Amos were given their stepfather’s last name. Amos Pomeroy Jobbins Scale was enrolled at the Wells House Preparatory School for boys in 1897 at age five. The cold, dreary English weather [ii] and the strict school environment must have been quite a change for him after Darjeeling, and now he had a new father figure in his life.By 1901, when he was nine years old, Amos had begun going by the nickname “Roy”, based on his middle name of Pomeroy.
By 1917, when he was 25, Roy had moved to New York. There he worked as a self-employed artist,continuing to be the sole supporter of Jeannette, who had come with him. They lived at 1131 Broadway in Manhattan, in the heart of the theatre district. It was in this area of New York that Broadway hopefuls of all kinds lived, and Roy had possibly moved there to pursue a career as a scenic artist for theatre. In the meantime, he procured a job painting advertisements for Ivory Soap, one of which included a scene in India. Roy registered for the WWI draft in 1917, and spent about a year in the air force inventing devices used for aerial photography, bomb sites, and aerial navigation. Among these inventions was a camera that could be used to render camouflaged objects detectable.
After the War, Roy began a business involvement with the Hippodrome Theatre on Sixth Avenue in Midtown Manhattan. It was the largest theatre in the world at the time, and was created by the same men who founded Coney Island’s Luna Park. Their formula for success was repeated with the Hippodrome, which was built in 1904. Like Coney Island, it was an entertainment spectacle, only an indoor theatre and not an amusement park. Live animals, choruses with hundreds of people, performances by Harry Houdini, dazzling sets, acrobats, clowns and performers of all types could be seen at the Hippodrome, which became New York’s most successful theatre. More research is needed to discern whether or not Roy was employed directly by the Hippodrome, but he did involve them in a lawsuit regarding the use of a contraption in their shows that he claimed to have invented: a bubble machine, which Roy in 1919 alleged the Hippodrome used in their shows and owed him royalties for. The lawsuit alleged that R.H. Burnside, owner of the Hippodrome, had agreed to pay Roy $50 a week (about $660 in 2012 dollars) to use his machine, but had never paid him. Burnside claimed that another company held the actual patent for the device, and he had rescinded the contract with Roy as a result. The total amount Roy was suing for was the equivalent of $3,333.00 today. By 1921, after several court dates, the judgment was reversed, and Roy was ordered to pay the Hippodrome $422 ($5,410 today), which financially ruined him for a time. This would not be the last time Roy attempted, to his own detriment, to stand up to a powerful and famous man whom he felt owed him money, and perhaps respect.[iii]
Despite his issues with the Hippodrome, Roy was continuing to excel in the scenic arts, and by 1921 had partnered with a mysterious, handsome Russian stage lighting innovator and artist who had come to New York in the company of world-famous ballerina Anna Pavlova. His name was Nicholas Vladimir de Lippe Lipsky, and he had ties to English royalty and Russian aristocracy. The two men worked together on inventions for the theatre, and produced a series of photoplays, which were films of stage performances. Newspaper and magazine articles from the early 1920s lauded their accomplishments. The attention Roy received piqued the interest of a man who would change the course of his life: Hollywood producer Jesse L. Lasky.[iv]
Lasky, a San Francisco native and former Vaudeville performer who had worked with Al Jolson, was one of the founders of Paramount Studios along with his best friend Cecil B. DeMille. In 1914, Lasky and DeMille produced “The Squaw Man”, Hollywood’s first feature film, in a rented horse barn which doubled as their production studio. It was such a hit that the team went on to produce a number of early silent films, many written and directed by DeMille. They would eventually form Paramount Pictures. Prior to 1914, films weren’t usually made in California, but New York. Cecil B. DeMille and Jesse L. Lasky put Hollywood on the map as the new capital of the motion-picture studio.
In 1920, when he was 40 years old, Lasky opened Astoria Studios in Queens, which is still in operation today. By the time he met Roy Pomeroy in about 1921, Lasky had produced over 300 films. He had an apartment on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan with his wife Blanche and their son, Jesse Jr., and frequently traveled by ocean liner to do business in Europe when he wasn’t in California, often bringing his family with him. Jesse L. Lasky was known as “the nicest guy in Hollywood”. Lasky recalled of Roy Pomeroy:
We had discovered Pomeroy as a struggling artist with an inventive mind, who had some exceedingly original and useful ideas about the employment of miniature sets and background projection to affect enormous budget savings in picture-making. I hired him and he did some fine creative work on tricks and special effects. He was the first specialist in that field and there has never been a better one… Perhaps it isn’t strange under the circumstances that he came to feel he was God…[v]
After being hired by Lasky for Paramount Studios, Roy packed up and headed for California. There he began work on Cecil B. DeMille’s epic masterpiece, “The Ten Commandments”, where he created the effect of the parting of the Red Sea using Jell-O, which is considered to this day one of the most impressive special effects in Hollywood history. Roy also created the effect of the Ten Commandments, given to Moses by God, lighting up and exploding into the sky as Moses carved them into stone tablets.
“The Ten Commandments” was the most expensive film ever made. Director Cecil B. DeMille had a life-size set built on the sand dunes of Guadalupe, California, where he re-created ancient Egypt (his 1953 version was shot on location). The set included four 20-ton statues of the Pharaoh Ramses, 300 chariots, a 110-foot high and 800 foot wide temple, 21 Sphinxes and a crew of 1,500 construction workers who labored to build it. 2,500 extras and 3,000 animals worked with the cast. It went over budget and caused constant tension between DeMille and Paramount during shooting. The film starred Estelle Taylor, a leading lady of the Silent Film era, Theodore Roberts as Moses, and Charles de Rochefort as Ramses. It premiered at Grauman’s Egyptian Theatre, which was constructed prior to his Chinese Theatre. The result of Roy’s effects was triumphant: audiences loved the film, and it was highly successful, making Paramount a fortune and dissolving any tensions with DeMille. Paramount was impressed with Roy, and he quickly rose to prominence, becoming the head of the Special Effects Department for the studio. Oscars were not yet given in 1923, so he did not win anything for his work at the time.
After the success of “The Ten Commandments”, Roy did effects for “Feet of Clay” in 1924, and that year also worked on “Peter Pan”, making the characters fly using piano wires tied to their costumes. He gained a reputation as a miracle worker; the man who could make any movie effect happen. According to Lasky, Roy was “…something of a sacred oracle… we couldn’t have treated him with more awe and homage if he had been Edison himself.”[vi] Certainly being treated this way by the founders of Hollywood, some of the most important people in the industry was thrilling for Roy. He had finally arrived, and his creativity was given free reign and plenty of funding.
By 1927, motion pictures changed from silent to “talkies” with the success of the first talking picture, “The Jazz Singer”, released by Warner Brothers and starring Al Jolson. Competing studios knew that they would need to incorporate sound effects and dialogue into their pictures to stay competitive. Roy Pomeroy was one of the few in Hollywood who was familiar with and good at sound technology, and the only person at Paramount who possessed these skills. In 1927, Paramount released “Wings”. While the film did not have speaking parts, it did have sound effects, and Roy was in charge of creating machine gun fire and airplane engine noises. The film is about two World War I fighter pilots who are in love with the same woman, and stars Clara Bow. The effects involving airplanes were considered especially impressive and exhilarating for audiences obsessed with Charles Lindbergh, and the film was a hit, making money for Paramount. That same year Roy patented a system he invented that made it possible for films to no longer be shot on location if they required a foreign backdrop. The background film could be shot separately, and then run through the camera later. Actors and actresses would perform against a blank backdrop, and the background film added. The concept was similar to a blue-screen, and would save the studio a fortune. Roy assigned half of the patent to Paramount.
After the success of “Wings”, Paramount Studios made Roy their Director of Sound Effects in 1928. He was also head of a committee formed by several different Hollywood studios, including MGM, to study sound effects for motion pictures. It was Roy who made the decision that sound should be a part of the actual film, and not recorded on a disc, as it was for “The Jazz Singer”. It is the industry standard today. Paramount looked to him as the man who would help them enter the new era of talking pictures. Another duty given to Roy was to test the voices of all of Paramount’s stars to see if they could be cast in talking films. This further inflated his ego, as he had been given the power to decide if a star should remain in their contract to Paramount. Even the fate of Paramount’s most famous star, Mary Pickford, was in his hands. He decided to keep her on.
In 1928 Roy was promoted to Director, and began work on a film called “Interference”. Jesse L. Lasky later joked in his autobiography that “No Interference” would have been a better title, as Roy would not allow any studio executives on the set, which was guarded by a policeman. This appeared to be over the top, but a closed set was necessary for Roy to be able to control sound recording. People coming and going on a movie set could disrupt the process. However, Roy would not even allow executives on the set, and his arrogant personality was starting to make him enemies. Roy truly believed that the work he was doing was revolutionary and would change the world. In the August 15, 1928 issue of Sound Waves magazine, Roy expounded on his ideas regarding sound and film:
In a few years I expect to see a central projection plant in theatre areas… and when science has accomplished all these things it will further be on the road to accomplishing that for which religious sects and human welfare agencies have striven for hundreds of years - the universal brotherhood of mankind, for within the limitless possibilities of this scientific art lies an unbounded field for the mutual exchange of art ideals. Ideals such as only the mechanics of the screen can successfully propound. I think two or three common languages (certainly not Esperanto) will become universal because of this…[vii]
If Roy was arrogant and controlling, it may have stemmed from his beliefs that the work he was doing was too important for anyone to interfere with, since it could very well bring about world peace. He also demanded an exorbitant rate of pay, telling Paramount that he should make what would be $46,000 a week in 2012 dollars, after he had already received a significant raise after “Wings”, making over $1 million a year. These demands combined with his personality caused studio executives to become disenchanted with him. By 1929, there were other technicians in Hollywood that knew the sound game, and Roy was becoming less of an Oracle.
William C. deMille, Cecil’s brother, was appointed by Jesse Lasky to assist Roy on “Interference”. Roy was thrilled to have William, a successful director, reporting to him. However, the plan was to usurp Roy: once William learned Roy’s techniques, the studio would have no need for him. Roy may have impressed Jesse Lasky, Cecil B. DeMille, Adolph Zukor and the other Paramount executives for a time, but he wasn’t ever accepted into their inner circle. William C. deMille was part of Hollywood royalty. The founders and builders of Hollywood, including Samuel Goldwyn, who for a time was Lasky’s brother-in-law and managed his first production company, had deep roots and similar backgrounds. Cecil, William and Jesse had known each other since they were kids and Samuel Goldwyn (then Goldfish) was a glove salesman. They had built Paramount and Hollywood together. Roy had only been in town for a few years, and by 1929, his bosses were tired of him. “Interference” was a flop, and not popular with audiences, although technically it was considered a very well-made film.
1929 was the year of the first Academy Awards, held at the Hotel Roosevelt in Hollywood. Roy was slated to receive one for his work on “Wings”. He had been one of the 36 people who formed the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, which still exists today. “Oscars”, then called Awards of Merit, were given out to deserving pictures. Roy was awarded an Oscar for “Engineering Effects” for “Wings”,which also won Best Picture, the only silent film to ever win in that category other than the past year’s winner “The Artist”. Another award for special effects would not be given out for the next ten years. However, Roy was not at the Hotel Roosevelt to receive his statuette, he was en route to England with his wife, Sylvia Jewell, whom he had married in 1922. He may have been receiving an award, but Roy had left Paramount and was looking for directing opportunities in England. His troubles with the studio had culminated in their refusing to give him the salary he wanted, and his former position being filled by William deMille. He had been cast out. Roy went from making $32,000 a week to being unemployed.
Unable to make anything happen in England, Roy and Sylvia returned to Hollywood, where Roy attempted to find work as a director with another studio. By 1931, Roy was receiving offers from different studios to finish directing some of their films. He had started working for RKO in 1930, directing pictures and working on effects for that studio, but it appeared to be short-lived. Roy could not continue to make money as a director, and by 1940, he had been unemployed for quite some time, according to the census. He was described as an “inventor-technician” for the motion picture industry, but he did not have any work. Had Roy become blacklisted as a result of his demanding and overdramatic behavior at Paramount? Had a similar scenario happened at RKO?
Whatever the case, it does not appear that any major studio wanted to work with him. Dejected, Roy gave up his dream of being an important director and started his own company, Pomeroy Laboratories, located at 7554 Melrose Avenue. He and Sylvia lived in a bungalow at 1626 Crescent Heights Boulevard in Los Angeles, which was a short drive away from the Laboratory.
On September 3rd, 1947, Roy was found dead in his laboratory at age 55. He had taken an overdose of Seconal, a prescribed sleeping pill. The cause of death was undetermined, but it appeared that the once-famous director and special effects technician had committed suicide.
Sylvia was unable to tell the coroner any information about Roy’s parents, and their names are listed as “unknown” on Roy’s death certificate. Was she simply too distraught to remember, or was that part of Roy’s life a mystery to her? How much did Sylvia know about Roy’s past, and why didn’t she know his mother’s name - a person Roy had lived with and supported almost up to the year he had married his wife? It is possible that there was quite a bit about Roy’s past that she, nor any of his Hollywood acquaintances were aware of.
There is also the question of what has happened to Roy’s Oscar. In 2008, the APHGA was contacted by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences regarding Roy’s Oscar statuette, which they wanted for an exhibit, and could not locate. They were hoping that perhaps we could find out where it was, or if someone in Roy’s family had it. Roy and Sylvia had no children, and as far as we can tell, there are no living descendants. After over 5 years of work, APGHA researcher Patricia Cusick Whipple did uncover the details of Roy’s fascinating life. The location of Roy Pomeroy’s Oscar, however, the first ever given for special effects, remains a mystery.
Perhaps there are answers to some of above questions in part two of this story, coming next month: did Roy really commit suicide? Who was the mysterious Russian prince whom Roy met right before he left for Hollywood? Learn about Roy’s eccentric mother and father, and his adventuresome life leading up to his Hollywood years!
The Jazz Singer:
Jesse L. Lasky:
More on Adolph Zukor:
Cecil B. DeMilles’ 1923 “The Ten Commandments” set: ruins still visible in California desert:
[i]The Correspondence of James McNeill Whistler, University of Glasgow G12 8QQ, UK
[ii] Variety. New York City, New York County, New York, 15 Jul 1921
[iii]Dramatic Mirror and Theatre World. New York City, New York County, New York, 14 May 1921
[iv]Pawlak, Debra Ann. Bringing up Oscar: The Story of the Men and Women Who Founded the Academy. New York: Pegasus, 2011. Print.
[v]Slide, Anthony. Silent Topics: Essays on Undocumented Areas of Silent Film. Lanham, MD: Scarecrow, 2005. 79.
[vi]"Roy J. Pomeroy, Lasky's Famed Wizard, Tells Sound Possibilities." Sound Waves 15 Aug. 1928: 4.