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Fifty years of school films from Charlotte-based Walter J. Klein agency

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Not every film innovator has a name one is likely to recognize. In fact, very few do, according to N.C. State film professors Marsha and Devin Orgeron.

The Orgerons, along with A/V Geek Skip Elsheimer, have been telling the story of how educational and advertising films have shaped our national consciousness and broken formal ground that the commercial film industry has hungrily cashed in on. Their educational efforts have taken place through events such as the recent visit of Craig Baldwin and last year's publication of the Orgerons' book, Learning with the Lights Off: Educational Film in the United States (Oxford University Press).

Now they shine the projection beam onto cinematic innovators in our own backyard: the Walter J. Klein advertising agency in Charlotte. Over a half-century, the Klein family shot more than 1,000 sponsored films and adverts for local and international clients such as AT&T, Chevron, IBM, Sony, PepsiCo, Ford Motors, Delta Airlines, Caterpillar and DuPont—as well as federal and state governmental entities. This Saturday, seven of their classic films will be screened at the State Archives Building auditorium in downtown Raleigh.

The films themselves are only half the story. The Klein family's business model foresaw today's media era well before the Betamax versus VHS debate. In his book, The Sponsored Film (1976), Klein wrote that America would become "a screen-oriented society." Pretty prescient words for the bicentennial year.

Klein built what Orgeron calls "a little media empire" by soliciting commercial sponsors for educational films that he wanted to make. The sponsors got exposure and even some product placement, and Klein got to make his film. Plus, because Federal Communications Commission legislation required television stations to air a minimum amount of educational content per week, Klein could guarantee sponsors some pretty good television airtime. Add on a 16mm production stream into the school market and the Kleins had multiple revenue streams from a single reel.

"They were really visionary about the convergence of media and marketing," Orgeron says, "about the way film and television could be used to educate and also to sell things to people."

The sheer variety of Klein films is startling, and that range is represented in the seven films and excerpts to be shown on Saturday. "The Big Yellow Fellow" (1978) is one of the most popular and widely shown educational films in American history. A doglike school bus, complete with smile and headlight eyeballs, follows a boy named Jackie home from school one day. Through their friendship, viewers learn all the safety rules of being a bus rider—"Drop the snowballs and rocks, Jackie"—while the big yellow fellow barks and flips its wipers and a harmonica keeps a homey tune in the background.

A more serious Klein film to be shown is "In His Father's Footsteps" (1982), which was made with the National Conference of Christians and Jews. Set on an American military base in West Germany, a soldier's parents, visiting from the United States, find their son's prejudices disturbing. Having lived through the rise and fall of the Nazis, they wonder where their parenting went wrong. But as the story plays out, we see how Dad's more subtle bigotry helped shape his son's attitudes.

This is an unprecedented opportunity to see these films. Members of the Klein family will attend the screening and answer questions afterward.

This article appeared in print with the headline "Fifty years of school films."

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