Walk into the rustic home of Omaha film historian Bruce Crawford, and the TV is tuned to — what else? — a classic movie.
On this day (Wednesday), the TCM channel is showing “The Sandpiper” from 1965, starring Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor, who had married shortly before filming began.
On a wall hangs a framed photo of the cast and crew of the 1959 film “Ben-Hur,” with Charlton Heston, shot in the arena where the epic’s chariot race was filmed. Downstairs there’s a framed copy of the cover of the musical score for the 1925 silent movie “Ben-Hur,” as well as a letter from Heston, signed “Chuck.”
Gen. George Patton sternly commands attention in another large photo, a gift from his family after Crawford showed 1970’s “Patton” to an Omaha audience in the late 1990s.
Parts of the home, near the Millard airport, include artwork by Crawford’s wife, Judi. But the basement den, which he calls “my domain,” includes dozens of framed photos of himself with Hollywood folks as well as a 1959 hi-fi and lots of LPs. Says Bruce: “Vinyl is making a huge comeback.”
It’s not that Crawford is mired in the past. He lives an active, modern life — but it’s rooted firmly in another time.
And if vinyl records can make a comeback, he believes that rich movies based on great literature and great stories can, too.
“Hollywood today caters largely to the 13-to-14-year-old-boy market, with lots of explosions,” Crawford lamented. “But I’m also optimistic that what’s gone before can be here again if we just swing that pendulum more.”
Crawford, who has brought 37 classic movies to Omaha over the past 24 years, is being honored this weekend at the 31st annual Cathedral Flower Festival. Local florists have filled the edifice with color, aroma and artistic flair, this year under the theme “A Night at the Movies.”
Also honored are Dwayne Ibsen and his Ibsen Costume Gallery, recipient of national and international awards; and Rachel Jacobson and her Film Streams art-movie house, which enhances local culture through the presentation and discussion of “film as an art form.”
Honorees and others attended a Friday-night patron party, with Jim Boggess on piano and Camille Metoyer Moten singing songs from the movies.
Today and Sunday, the festival is open to the public, with musical performances to enhance the visual and aromatic feast. In the nearby Cathedral Cultural Center is an art exhibit, “The Golden Age of Film Stars.”
Crawford said he will enjoy mingling with attendees and talking about his favorite subject, classic movies.
Nationally known film critic and historian Leonard Maltin has called Crawford a “film buff supreme” who stages “enchanted evenings” in Omaha.
Bruce grew up in Nebraska City, 44 miles south of Omaha. His parents took him to drive-in movies and to the Pioneer theater, and one of the first was in 1961, “The Mysterious Island.”
The boy loved the special effects and the music, and a love of movies began. Today, he is a nationally known, self-educated film historian.
“I’m a college dropout,” he said with a smile, “but I did get an honorary doctorate from the University of Wisconsin.”
Well before that honor, he and a partner operated a graphic design firm. Bruce got to know movie animator Ray Harryhausen, whose work on “The Mysterious Island” had first inspired his love of films, and quoted him in a 1988 radio documentary.
In 1992, Harryhausen was the special guest at Crawford’s first classic-film screening event in Omaha, at the old Indian Hills theater.
Since then Crawford has brought to town actors from classic movies, or relatives of stars, for such films as “King Kong,” “Gone With the Wind,” “The Searchers,” “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,” “The Godfather, “Casablanca” and many more.
Tippi Hedren of Alfred Hitchcock’s “The Birds” autographed the base of a stuffed raven, which Crawford still owns.
He has traveled the country speaking about movies and receiving honors, and has gone outside the country. In London a few years ago at Harryhausen’s home, he had lunch with director Tim Burton and actor Johnny Depp.
Bruce became friends with writer Ray Bradbury, who wrote in a letter, “Huzzah for Omaha!”
That’s where Crawford stages his big movie events and lectures, now with about 1,000 people each time at the Joslyn Art Museum’s Witherspoon Concert Hall.
The monthly Classic Images once said: “Every city should have a Bruce Crawford. If you live anywhere near Omaha, make sure you don’t miss these spectacular big-screen presentations.”
One is to be announced soon for May, and Bruce said he hopes to continue staging events for years. Each showing partly benefits a charity, and sponsors help foot the bills.
One is Jerry Gress, 74, of Omaha, a TD Ameritrade retiree and, like Crawford, a Nebraska City native. He loves seeing classics on a big screen.
“How can you beat that ambience?” Gress said. “It’s great to hear the old actors talk and to see the reaction of the crowd. And it’s just fun being around Bruce and his enthusiasm.”
Crawford said he enjoys making Omaha a place known for classic-movie events.
“It’s just fun doing something I love,” he said. “I show that we’re not Flyover Country, that we can do things here that are spectacular and that you don’t expect.”
The old tune says, “Hoo-ray for Hollywood!” As Ray Bradbury put it after one of Bruce’s events, “Huzzah for Omaha!”
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